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A Season for All Time : OCTOBER 1964, <i> By David Halberstam (Villard Books: $24; 376 pp.)</i>

<i> Allen Barra is a free-lance writer</i>

The 1964 baseball season didn’t happen just so David Halberstam could come along and write about it, but it certainly seems that way, especially 30 years later.

At the time, the 1964 baseball season, which culminated in a memorable seven-game series between the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals, was considered a good one, but over the years the series and the season have taken on greater stature. Some World Series may have featured more great players--though two Cardinals and three Yankees from the ’64 teams eventually made it into the Hall of Fame--but not one has featured a more fascinating collection of vivid personalities, individualists who left lasting imprints on the game and who go right on being an important part of it today.

Perhaps a book on the players who shared the ’64 season was inevitable considering how many books the players themselves wrote. Jim Bouton, the iconoclastic Yankees’ right-hander, went on to write “Ball Four,” perhaps the most influential baseball book of the modern era; Curt Flood, the Cardinals’ center fielder, wrote an autobiography that detailed his heroic and doomed assault on the “reserve clause,” which bound players to one team for life; and even Mickey Mantle, who didn’t seem to have even one book in him back when he expressed himself by slamming bats into water coolers, has nearly a dozen volumes with his name on them. The Yankees’ Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra and the Cardinals’ Bob Gibson and Lou Brock have all produced books; even Bob Uecker, St. Louis’ second-string catcher, was able to parlay the season into two books (and a movie career). These two teams may have written more books than any other two teams have read.

This is the big advantage Halberstam has here over his previous baseball book, “Summer of ’49.” Virtually all the principals are so articulate that “October 1964" requires little explanation from the author about their importance: Bouton, Flood and Cards’ first baseman Bill White (the first black president of a major league) are all very well aware of their place in baseball history. Indeed, many of them seemed to be aware of it while they were making it.

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What were they putting in the water in 1964 to produce players of this kind? Halberstam answers the question with what was in the air: questions of race in the wake of civil rights victories, the anxiety following the death of J.F.K., the increased liberalism of American society, the escalating war in Vietnam. Halberstam doesn’t belabor any of these points but shows how the changes in baseball reflected changes in America.

For this there is no better symbol than the fact that 1964 marking the last pennant won under the old Yankee regime of Del Webb and George Weiss. In the 1950s and early ‘60s it was common to hear people say that “rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for U.S. Steel,” but by 1964 the famous Yankee farm system had dried up, the scouts had been released, and the minor-league franchises sold of or dismantled. The team was sold to CBS, which presaged the coming dominance of the TV tail that would wag the baseball dog.

What Halberstam brings into focus, however, is that the Yankee decline really set in when the ultraconservative front office found reasons to avoid signing the great young black prospects who poured in the National League after the demise of the Negro Leagues. Nothing points up the contrast between the fading dynasty of the Yankees and the upstart Cardinals (who were to win three pennants from 1964 to 1968) better than this: The Cards, generally regarded in the Enos Slaughter postwar era as the worst team a black player could wind up on, was, by 1964, powered by Bill White, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Curt Flood at a time when the only black Yankee regular was catcher Elston Howard, the first black player the Yankees signed.

“October 1964" is the best example of a new kind of baseball book--Mark Ribowsky’s recent “Don’t Look Back: Satchel Paige in the Shadows of Baseball” and Roger Kahn’s 1993 effort, “The Era,” are others--that covers familiar territory but makes it new by including the essential information left out the first time around. In Halberstam’s narrative, Branch Rickey, the executive who broke the color barrier in baseball by signing Jackie Robinson, is slightly less heroic than he’s usually painted. For instance, in response to criticisms that the white major leagues were destroying Negro League ball, Rickey replied that black ball was “a booking agent’s paradise . . . they are not leagues, and have no right to expect organized baseball to respect them.” Casey Stengel, possibly the most popular manager in baseball history, is a little less like the wise, funny old elf he appeared to be in the press: “The writers worshiped him, but the players came to look upon him as a rather cold-blooded albeit wealthy grandfather who still controlled the family will.” It would be unfair to label Halberstam’s point of view “revisionist”; it was the saintly picture of men like Rickey and Stengel in the ‘50s that was the revision.

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As a historian, Halberstam has the delightful quality of writing like a fan, but sometimes as a baseball writer he sounds too much like a historian. It’s doubtful we’d be reading this book if we didn’t know that George Steinbrenner was “the owner of the Yankees who went about furiously hiring and firing managers.” We would know that the Waldorf in New York City is “both literally and figuratively a long way from (Clete Boyer’s home of) Willard, Kansas"--even if we had never heard of Clete Boyer. And Halberstam is mistaken if he thinks Sandy Koufax’s 1963 season when he won 25 games for the Dodgers was a “career year”; Koufax won more games in 1965 and 1966.

But the overview afforded by “October 1964" is splendid. Given the cookie-cutter approach to marketing in modern sports, it’s doubtful that anyone will be able to pick up a book in 30 years time and read about so many angry, intelligent, and interesting athletes as the ones who came together to play for the championship that fall.


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