Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Team that Changed Baseball

I just finished reading The Team that Changed Baseball by Bruce Markusen. It is about the 1971 Pirates and argues that they finished the job of integration started by Jackie Robinson. The book is a nice review of the World Championship run, and taught me quite a few things that I did not know.

However, the book suffers a little from lack of constant focus on his theme. The beginning of the book is great as it shows the unity of the team and its racial mix of blacks, latinos, and whites. It shows how Bill Mazaroski helped teach defense to Dave Cash, which actually costs Maz his job at second base. But as the description of the season wears on Markusen loses sight of trying to prove that the 71 Pirates changed baseball. He does a nice job of discussing the season, and does occassionally mention the outbursts of Clemente or Doc Ellis, and how everyone got along anyway, but if you are reading the book to find out how this team changed baseball you are over two thirds of the way through before Markusen really proves his case. It is in the chapter on September where you see that on September 1, 1971 the Pirates fielded the first all minority line-up in MLB history. All 9 positions were a minority. Here is where the heart of his thesis lies and he discusses how each player reacted and even tries to figure you if the coach, Danny Murtaugh, did it on purpose or not, and whether or not that improves the theory of the book. He talks of the quota system in baseball, and the sterotyping of Latinos as good defensive players and blacks as big hitters being shattered by the Pirates. It is an interesting case and one that probably ought to be discussed more when integration is discussed in baseball.

The book is still good if you are reading to learn more about the Pirates run to the Pennant and World title. One of my favorite little stories in the book is about catcher Manny Sanguillen and pitcher of crucial Game 5 Nellie Briles. Game 5 was the swing game as the series was tied 2-2. Briles was a surprise starter, and had pitched 6 shut out innings when he had a disagreement with Sanguillen. Sanguillen wanted to throw mostly sliders and change ups in the inning to keep Baltimore off balance. Briles wanted to throw fast balls and shorten the game since the Pirates had a 4 run lead. Sanguillen took offense, since Sanguillen called the game to that point and thought they were doing well. He went back to home plate and refused to put down any signs. The two met on the mound again and Sanguillen said, “I no need signs to catch your junk.” And continued to refuse to put down signs. They played the whole inning without the catcher knowing what was coming. The shut out was intact and Sanguillen was able to catch all of Briles’s “junk”. What a remarkable athlete Sanguillen really was.

I recommend the book, but read it for the drama of the 1971 year and series. I think the argument could be made that the 71 Pirates changed baseball, but this book only makes that argument a couple of times and if you are looking for a book to make that argument then this is not the book for you.