Working on a post about instrumentation, but in the meantime, Jackie complained that the previous post was too gloomy, so a followup: the Red Sox won their division for the first time in, what, seventeen years? Something like that? Even their World Series victory a few years back came after getting into the playoffs in the wild card spot. My guys pulled through for me. Matt was not so fortunate--his Mets, having been first in their division throughout most of the season, aren't even -in- the playoffs, having very quickly blown through a seven-game lead just in the last few weeks. (I think their performance in the final game of the season might earn them the "least clutch team ever" designation, but I'm neither a baseball historian nor a Mets fan, so I don't really have the authority to say that.)
Just this past week, I read The Summer of '49 by David Halberstam, which tracks the pennant race between the Yankees and the Red Sox in 1949. It's an excellent book, and I'd recommend it to anyone who likes either baseball or American history, since it draws in a lot of material and tells a great story. Halberstam uses the pennant race as his focus, but the book is really about this turning point in the culture of baseball, and possibly in American culture in general. Baseball is just starting to come into an age of real money and serious commercial concerns, the nation is making a transition from radio to television as the dominant broadcast medium, and in this book you can see the outline of our current sports culture starting to emerge out of the old culture. Some of my favorite moments in the book revolve around the DiMaggio family--not only the way their internal family dynamics recapitulate the larger story of cultural assimilation in immigrant families, but the ways the DiMaggio brothers came into the major league system, and what it meant once they were there. Dom DiMaggio, for instance, played baseball in high school in San Francisco, but not seriously. After graduating high school, he played for the Monterey-Presidio Army team, and then later for the Simmons Mattress semipro club, which was where he was noticed by a scout for the San Francisco Seals, who were part of the farm system for the Red Sox. The whole history of the semipro baseball clubs is new to me, and I find it kind of fascinating--the impression I get from the Halberstam book is that they were kind of a cross between intramurals and the minor leagues. I'm thinking of the softball league we had organized when I was a staff member at Harvard, way back when (I worked in Computer Services, and as you might expect, we were not softball stars), except that in these semipro teams you might get recruited to a team (and thus a job at that company) and you might also expect to be a local celebrity if you were good enough. It's a type of small local baseball culture that has, as far as I know, no modern equivalent.
Another thing I got from The Summer of '49 was a stronger understanding of the historical justice served by the World Series-winning 2004 team having so many prominent Hispanic players. The book is all about these two teams, and baseball as a whole, at a kind of historical turning point. One aspect of that turning point was racial politics. Both the Yankees and the Red Sox had embraced Italian players, but that was as far as they were willing to go in terms of ethnic or racial minorities. 1949 is the dawn of the era of racial integration in baseball, just two years after Jackie Robinson started playing for the Dodgers, and the Yankees and the Red Sox both were extremely slow to integrate. One result of that is that both teams gradually found themselves at a disadvantage, compared to teams with less blatantly racist management. That's a bit oversimplified, as historical analysis goes, but if you look at the history, it's not an undeserved bluntness.
I think the book is worth reading even if you're not a baseball fan, since Halberstam was such a talented writer. If you -are- a baseball fan, it's even better, and if you have strong feelings about either the Red Sox or the Yankees, I'd say it's almost a must-read. If nothing else, it's given me a kind of comforting sense of being part of a larger history. I may have only been a Red Sox fan for ten or twelve years now, but that near-constant feeling of impending doom, the feeling that they can screw this up at any moment, that's been a part of the Red Sox fan experience for three-quarters of a century or more. Loving the Red Sox has always meant half-expecting them to disappoint you.