Editor’s note: To go with our name change, Let’s Go Read is now Dog-Eared Corner. Same great book content, new great name.
Nineteen forty-eight. I think more Cleveland fans know the significance of that number than 455 or any of the other numbers lining the upper deck. In fact, many baseball fans could probably tell you about what the year 1948 means to Cleveland history thanks to a million infographics that remind us how long our misery has gone on.
But 1948 was not miserable, far from it. It was one of the most exciting pennant chases in history, with one of the best cast of characters, culminating in the ultimate prize: a World Series championship for the city of Cleveland. But how much do we really know about it? As a lifelong fan, I know scads about Bob Feller, I know Satchel Paige was an ageless wonder, I know Larry Doby was the undercard to Jackie Robinson and has forever been diminished in history because of that, and I know that it took all of them coming together under Bill Veeck’s ownership to give the team it’s most recent championship. But the stories behind those men and how they came together, well those had not been fully elucidated.
Enter Our Team.
Any time a new piece of writing comes out about the Cleveland baseball team, I’m excited; so it’s fair to say I was always eager to read Luke Epplin’s new history of the 1948 championship club. But even with my expectations sky high, this book soared to meet them. Our Team begins in media res, with flamboyant owner Veeck entertaining one of the largest crowds ever assembled to watch a baseball game. He does so with characteristic bombast, creating a carnival-like atmosphere around his baseball team. But his team, including Paige, whose age might have made him something of a sideshow, was never anything but a serious endeavor, eagerly hunting the highest honors in the sport.
From this moment, in the middle of a wild scene, Epplin takes us back to discover the origins of Veeck’s showmanship and why he valued entertainment and winning so highly. He puts the characters first and delivers a remarkable study of who these men were and how they all, improbably given the time, came together to create a legend in Cleveland the resonates to this day.
In our conversation, Epplin explained that he set out just to chronicle Veeck, who has always been one of the most fascinating and engaging owners in baseball history. And in his detail of Veeck’s life, a loving portrait is created of a complex man who struggled to keep his ambition, his morals, his business, and his personal life all together during a turbulent period in the country and the world’s history. But focusing on Veeck alone was never an option once Epplin began learning more about the 1948 Cleveland team.
In his research, Epplin was taken by Feller’s meteoric rise from a literal field of dreams in Iowa to League Park in Cleveland as a high school junior. He was struck by Paige’s odyssey around the United States, seeking audiences and someone to give him a fair shot, and how he struck partnerships with major leaguers like Feller but still remained on the periphery of the “organized” game. And of course, the tale of Doby’s rise from Newark to Cleveland—and how different it was from the way Jackie Robinson integrated Brooklyn—fascinated the author and demanded his attention.
All the threads to these stories obviously come together in 1948 in Cleveland, but the way that Epplin weaves them in Our Team is a triumph. In addition to real affection for the multitudes contained within Veeck’s personality, Epplin presents each man he focuses on with real sincerity, careful to explain their role in the legendary ‘48 season without straying from who those men really were.
I’ve never read an account of Feller’s life, for instance, that grapples so honestly with race. Feller’s barnstorming tours featured many Negro League stars and surely helped ready white audiences for integration, but Feller himself often said some backward things about Black players and perhaps delayed integration because of his personal attitude. Epplin never shies away from presenting these facts in Our Team and the portrait of Feller is better for it. Likewise, Paige was known for his larger-than-life personality, his tall-tale exploits on the mound, and his ability to draw crowds that rivaled what the white game could draw, but Epplin also shows the man who longed for a shot in the major leagues and who felt the sting of the many years of rejection.
There may be no character better treated than Doby in Our Team, however. Despite being the second Black man in MLB and the first in the American League, Doby still feels like something of a mystery. Perhaps because he was not iconoclastic like Robinson or cocksure like Paige, Doby has been a harder read. Epplin carefully sculpts a picture of Doby as no less driven than any other player, as no less stung by the barbs of racist fans despite his quiet nature. The result is a fully formed vision of Doby that emphasizes his incredible skill and strength of personality, how he overcame and became integral to the triumph of 1948 in a way perhaps no other member of the team can claim.
Overall, Our Team is nothing less than a success. Cleveland fans may know plenty about the ‘48 team already, but the way the story is put together by Epplin is fresh and riveting. The story of the last World Series championship in Cleveland has never been told like this but, it is so much better for this delivery.
The author was gracious enough to spend some time with me to talk about his research and the work that went into the book. Our conversation is linked in this post and, in my humble opinion, is very much worth your time; I easily could have talked to Epplin for another hour if our schedules had permitted.
To make sure that more people read Our Team (and to thank the author for his time), I want to buy a copy of the book for one of our readers. You can win by following us on Twitter, retweeting the linked post below, and tagging one friend who might also like Our Team in the replies. A winner will be chosen at random on April 13 and I’ll purchase a copy from their local independent bookstore.
If you don’t win or can’t wait until the 13th, Our Team is out now via Flatiron Press. You can buy a copy or find your local independent retailer via Bookshop.org.