Tales of intrigue, subterfuge, and outright corruption are not readily associated with baseball. However, in detailing three critical years in baseball's history, Michael Shapiro deftly illustrates the undermining of baseball's future by a handful of greedy and short-sighted individuals. In his book, Bottom of the Ninth: Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball From Itself, Shapiro describes how two iconic individuals took completely different paths in an attempt to preserve baseball's status of America's Pastime.
The book focuses specifically on the years 1958 through 1960, when several key events had rocked the baseball world from its complacency: the movement of the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers to the West Coast (which, was prompted by the Boston Braves' successful move to Milwaukee), rapidly growing cities began calling for major league teams, and Congress was threatening to pull baseball's coveted antitrust exemption in order to force baseball to expand. At the same time, in the well established baseball city of New York, attendance and excitement for the sport was flagging as the Yankees continued their dominance of the American League.
In steps two iconic figures, both with fundamentally different views on how the game could be changed to inspire Americans to return once again to the stands: the legendary Branch Rickey, and the fiery and feisty Casey Stengel. Rickey believes that the creation of a third major league is the remedy to baseball's many ills, and thus begins his quest to create the Continental League. Stengel, on the other hand woos the press for better or worse by keeping the fans and the players guessing at the starting lineup and pitching rotation.
This is a highly informative book that covers much of baseball's history within the context of these three years, touching, for example, on Ban Johnson's creation of the first 'outlaw' American League, and the brief existence of the Federal League. Shapiro cleverly inserts the creation of the American Football League who took a page from Rickey's playbook and created for football the very success and changes that Rickey had hoped would come to baseball. Some may criticize the book for not going into enough detail about these topics, but as they are peripheral to the story, Shapiro's coverage is more than adequate.
Another strength of this book is the colorful portrayals of the men involved in the many stories that unfold throughout the book. Shapiro's extensive research (including many one-on-one interviews with surviving participants), allows the reader insight into men such as Walter O'Malley, Dan Topping, Del Webb, "Big Ed" Johnson, Bob Howsam, and Bill Shea. Also captured is the excitement and tension of the three World Series contests that occurred during this time period. I am impressed with all the fascinating information and anecdotes woven within this immensely enjoyable read.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Bottom of the Ninth. It will be a book I will return to many times and find something different each time. My only criticism is that there are places where the flow of the narrative is disjointed. Otherwise, it is a well crafted chapter of baseball's history that reads more like a mystery novel. I highly recommend this book for those short, gloomy off season days when you need a baseball fix.