I used to cut class in high school – but only when there was a substitute teacher of course. What I used to do is go to the back corner of the library and read the sports books during this unexpectedly free period. One of the books that I remembered even after all of these years was Peter Golenbock’s Bums.
The oral history format is a difficult one to do well. Oral histories often sound campy and rehearsed, or they are all hyperbole and serve as platforms for stating the obvious (Jackie Robinson was great, Duke Snider swatted lots of homers). Bums is different and wonderful because it shows, in the words of the people involved, what happened in the Dodger years from about 1900 to their last season in Brooklyn, 1957.
Golenbock has the players words interspersed with commentary on the information presented. It is a good mix of prose and interview material on a topic any serious baseball fan would find appealing. Bums originally came out in 1984, when many of the players on the 40’s and 50’s Dodgers were still alive. He also includes the men who wrote for the local papers as well as a few people who were around the team – executives, employees and fans.
Naturally one of the most interesting parts of the book is the section on the breaking of the color barrier spurred by Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. The behind the scenes information told by Jackie Robinson’s widow Rachel Robinson, and Happy Chandler (former MLB commissioner – whose actions supporting Rickey cost him his job) is unique and not widely known. Jackie Robinson’s first season was the one with the ‘no fighting back’ policy and the pressure to conform to this Rickey rule had to have been astronomical. The back office pressure provided by the other owners on Commissioner Chandler was intense. They voted to not allow Robinson to break the barrier, and when Chandler gave Rickey the green light to allow Robinson to play, the owners didn’t renew Chandler’s contract and he was out. The owners never had more than a puppet commissioner after that.
Jackie aslo had a prickly personality, and was not loved by the other players. Apparently he was aloof and difficult to get along with. Later on he became intensely political, supporting Republican Richard Nixon, and this turned off many of his former teammates – not because of his allegiance, but because he was unwilling to talk about anything else. It is this type of non mainstream information that is the gold that is sprinkled throughout the book. Also lost in the Robinson mystique is how fantastic and athlete Jackie was, and how skilled a second baseman he was. Bill James gives him due credit in his Historical Baseball Abstract, but rarely does one see in print quality analysis of Robison’s skill as a player. Even the players who were not Robinson fans per se recognized his hall of fame ability on the field. Bums provides much of the heretofore unseen backstory.
The Dodgers have had a rich history. Their tenure in Brooklyn sounds like it was one of the aspects of an older, non corporate New York City that was even more rabid for baseball. Bums covers a lot of ground: What happened to Karl Spooner – comes up as a left handed 23 year old and pitches two games, both complete game shutouts with 27 strikeouts in 18 innings? What did Sandy Koufax do in Brooklyn – and why was he so invisible during his time there? Who were the Daffiness Boys and Uncle Robbie? Why is Walter O’Malley vilified when his actions are justifiably those of a smart businessman? Why are they called the Dodgers in the first place?
These questions get answers, the history gets an honest look (this is not hagiography) and the prose is smooth and detailed. I understand, 23 years later, why Bums stayed in my memory.