CLEVELAND, Ohio – Luke Epplin is not a Clevelander. That’s fitting, in a way, considering that neither are the four iconic figures in his book, “Our Team: The Epic Story of Four Men and the World Series that Changed Baseball.”
Epplin captures the essence of the four – Larry Doby, Bob Feller, Satchel Paige and Bill Veeck – in his 2021 book. Wednesday, I have addressed more than 150 people at a City Club event.
Their lives intertwine in the 1940s, at a time when the city was thriving, the ballclub had been a bit aimless, and the mere thought of civil rights existed in nascent form, not even an afterthought.
They remain catalysts, different men who propelled the Indians to the 1948 championship – the last for a Cleveland baseball team.
It was Veeck the promoter, Doby the pioneer, Feller the businessman, Paige the legend.
The common thread, other than being four cogs that fueled the World Series run, is that all were ahead of their time.
“If you give the fans nothing else except a ballgame, they’ll come out in certain numbers,” he quotes Veeck as saying. “But arouse their curiosity and they’ll come out in droves.”
When Veeck took over, the maverick owner opened things up – literally. He took off the door to his office, answered phones himself, sauntered through bars and restaurants, glad-handed fans and patrolled the speaking circuit – anything to get the word out about the team.
“I think a lot of people take him as the PT Barnum of baseball. I don’t take him that way,” Epplin said.
“Veeck had this sort of idea at the time, which was radical, that baseball was a form of theater, that had room for competitive play on the field and amusing sideshows on the side.”
Those sides, Epplin said, could co-exist.
They still do. We’re reminded of it anytime t-shirts are shot out of a cannon at a Cavs game, inflatable sumo wrestlers battle it out on a minor-league ballfield, when fireworks light the sky.
Veeck had “an incredible baseball mind,” Epplin said.
He also was someone who valued relationships for altruistic reasons. He and Paige grew to be friends, a mutual respect forming their bond.
And Epplin writes, “as deeply as Bob Feller’s story was beginning to resonate with white Americans during the Depression, so too had Satchel Paige’s fed the imagination of millions of Black Americans.”
Paige carried with him, and fostered, an ageless mystique. He was never afraid of making it to the big leagues, despite the fact he was in his 40s. He had a person, a relentless pursuit of staying in the game.
Signing Paige was akin “to signing Paul Bunyan,” Epplin told the crowd.
A lifetime had almost passed him when he made it to the Major Leagues. It was Veeck, not a clubhouse attendant, who personally handed him his jersey – and apologized that the moment did not come sooner.
Feller’s moment came soon in his career. He was a fresh-faced Iowa farm boy who had not even graduated high school when he joined the Indians and took the league’s hitters by storm and speed.
Time has been good to Feller’s image. He has been deified in Cleveland, and deservedly so. His 266 wins come with the proverbial asterisk; in all likelihood, without the war he volunteered for, Rapid Robert would have won 300 games. That milestone, with the evolution of middle-relief pitchers, pitch counts and closers – is looking like it will be a thing of the past in the not-too-distant future.
But Feller’s inward attention to his personal business – literally, he incorporated himself as “a one-man franchise” – sourced fans and his teammates for a time. Those same fans warmed to Paige.
The paths of the two had crossed on the diamond multiple times: Feller’s financial ambition, along with his competitive drive, led him to pit black and white players in barnstorming tours.
On race relations, though, Feller was an enigma: Blacks deserved respect and were worthy opponents and teammates, but he was nowhere near Veeck’s league when it came to taking a proactive progressive stand.
His story, career and background are very different from Larry Doby’s, but just as unlikely, Epplin said.
For Doby, the introverted Negro Leagues star, baseball might very well have been his third
best sport, Epplin said. And in the book’s pages, especially through Doby, comes a latent theme: Sadness. Doby is constantly shunned, Paige makes it too late, Feller becomes an outcast, and Veeck’s career overshadows his family of him.
The Indians won the Series in four games against the Boston Braves, but the culmination is when Steve Gromek, a journeyman pitcher who went 9-3 in 1948, embraces Doby effusively.
Doby’s story is incredible, Epplin said, “but also isolated.” He is a lonely character, the team’s sole Black player who spends much of his time “dealing with burdens and slights and abuses that are unknown to his peers on the team. He suffers them in silence.”
Moderator Felton Thomas Jr., Cleveland Public Library executive director, summed it well: “They’re all lonely. Loneliness is a big part of it.”
Epplin, who grew up near St. Louis, moved to Cleveland for a few months to research the book, which began focusing solely on Veeck, who owned the St. Louis Browns after his stint with the Indians. But Veeck’s segregating the American League, and Epplin’s extensive research, led the author to expand its parameters.
“I think of this book as four individuals,” Epplin said, and not about the 1948 team. Their lives and careers overlapped as “they were swirling about one another before they came to Cleveland.”
But the cutting-room floor absorbed a tough hit: Effa Manley remains a rich figure in baseball history, a rare female owner in the Negro Leagues, an extraverted force fighting for her place and her league. She was outspoken for compensation for her players and “tremendously important,” said Epplin, who said she almost became the book’s fifth subject.
Another peripheral but important figure is Lou Boudreau who, as player-manager, is a conduit between owner Veeck and his players.
With more than 100 pages of end notes and bibliographic references, Epplin could have fallen into the trap of losing sight of applying the brakes, but he economically presents the four lives wonderfully – in his voice, with a slight impression from the writing of the day .
Also helping to shape the book is the nation’s post-World War II climate. Doby served in a segregated Navy. In fact, Epplin said, Doby and Feller served in the exact same part of the war, Feller volunteering the day after Pearl Harbor and sacrificing his first years of it. Veeck gave more. He was seriously injured and, upon returning to a workaholic’s regimen, he would endure multiple surgeries that wall his leg.
“You can’t tell this story unless you start with them in World War II, and really you can’t tell the story of postwar America without seeing the horrors and formative experiences that all of these people are going though,” Epplin said.
The four men, in varying ways, also were on display to the world: The 1948 Series was a nascent television phenomenon. Different generations, different races had converged in Cleveland.
By putting the four together “you can represent all the sorts of aspects of integration that were happening at the time from progressive to the traditional. So that’s why I centered it on those four individuals, and I wanted their stories not to be separate … but to interweave because these men were overlapping.”
In “Our Team,” Epplin has accomplished just that.
Related coverage: Epplin has 2 more appearances planned in Cleveland
I am on cleveland.com‘s life and culture team and cover food, beer, wine and sports-related topics. If you want to see my stories, here’s a directory on cleveland.com. Bill Wills of WTAM-1100 and I talk food and drink usually at 8:20 am Thursday morning. Twitter: @mbona30.
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