[22 March 2007]
Like high fly balls to the outfield, the most compelling baseball stories occasionally are lost in the lights. Historians and fans alike have the tendency to focus on the brightest stars and miss the sports stories like those Thomas Oliphant tells. In his latest book, Praying for Gil Hodges, the journalist and political commentator journeys back to 1955, a time when baseball was truly the national pastime and a “subway series” between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers was a metaphor for America’s political and social tension. A tender and personal memoir, Oliphant’s work places the 1955 World Series in its larger cultural context, but it ultimately succeeds because of the author’s ability to describe baseball’s significance to his family’s life.
Oliphant opens the book in the town of Princeton, Indiana, where the Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge sparks his memory. Hodges was born in this small Midwestern town, but his life’s journey took him to New York as a first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Hodge’s unique combination of heartland heritage and big-city success endeared him to millions nationwide, including the young Thomas Oliphant and his parents.
Cheering for the Dodgers was one of the Oliphants’ true, unadulterated pleasures. Life for the Oliphants was far from easy: after illness forced the father to stay at home and work as a freelance writer, the mother was forced to work as a secretary to support the family. Despite their struggles, the Oliphants managed to provide a rich life for their son, whose many activities included studying at an elite school in New York, performing with the Metropolitan Opera, and, of course, attending baseball games at the home of the Dodgers, Ebbetts Field.
Praying for Gil Hodges is a special book because it is equally powerful as a baseball narrative and a family memoir. In his acknowledgements, Oliphant talks about trying to tell a baseball story in a visual way. He succeeded admirably in this task. He describes the climactic Game Seven of the 1955 World Series in stunning detail, yet his writing is crisp and clear throughout, and he manages to imbue the game’s events with an almost cinematic drama. At the same time, he never fails to describe the significance of these events to his family. He invites readers into his tiny apartment and introduces them to his politically progressive parents, who were drawn to the racially inclusive policy of the Dodgers. Throughout much of the book, readers will be sitting on the couch watching a black and white television set with the young Oliphant and his father, who are both too nervous to break the room’s silence with speech.
Of course, Oliphant discusses the social undercurrents of the 1955 World Series. One of the most significant of these is racism. When Jackie Robinson made the big leagues in 1947, the Dodgers became the first baseball team to include an African-American on its roster. By the time of the 1955 World Series, several of the best Dodgers, including catcher Roy Campanella and pitcher Don Newcombe, were black. The 1955 Series also embodied economic tensions in America. The Dodgers were known as a blue-collar team while the Yankees were the favorites of white-collar New Yorkers. Oliphant describes this conflict by telling how his mother was outnumbered by the Yankee-supporting attorneys at her firm. Finally, Oliphant shows how the Dodgers were “America’s team”. He details Brooklyn’s history of immigration and ethnic diversity, and he shows how these characteristics endeared an underdog team to the entire country.
If Praying for Gil Hodges has a flaw, it is that Oliphant shares a great deal of background information in the middle of his story. He tells the Game Seven story up to the time when the Dodgers go up 1-0, and then he devotes several chapters to explaining why, even with their team in the lead, most Dodger fans were skeptical of success. After profiling the announcers who broadcasted the final game, Oliphant traces the history of the Dodger organization and shows how the team always managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. All this information is fascinating, but it comes at the expense of the narrative tension that the author has tried so hard to build. Readers, like the father and son in the tiny New York apartment, will be breathlessly anticipating the conclusion of the World Series, but Oliphant insists on a history lesson before the end of the game.
Any complaints about Praying for Gil Hodges are minor. The writing is lively, the research is thorough, and Oliphant is consistently thoughtful. The conclusion, which is touching without being trite, is totally satisfying. In his book, Oliphant has really staked his own claim on the proper way to tell a sports story. Some writers describe athletics solely in terms of events on the field. Others prefer to use the game as a way to understand deeper cultural concepts. Oliphant’s approach is neither as straightforward as the former nor as lofty as the latter, but it is ultimately more rewarding than both. For Oliphant, sports work their most potent magic when they intersect with the hopes and dreams of everyday people. As the author was growing up, baseball was a way to connect with family and collectively hope for something greater. As an adult, baseball provides him with a filter to understand the events of his childhood, and general readers will be all the richer for Oliphant’s experience and insight.