The Last Good Season
by Michael Shapiro 

Nineteen fifty-six was a classic year in baseball.  In the American League, the pennant-winning Yankees, led by Mickey Mantle’s triple crown performance, were probably the best team from Casey Stengel’s middle period.  A young fireballer named Herb Score was the dominant pitcher in the AL.  Meanwhile, in the National League, there was a classic three-team pennant race among the defending champion Dodgers – aging but still potent – the up-and-coming Milwaukee Braves – led by Joe Adcock, Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron at the plate, and Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette and Bob Buhl on the mound, and the surprising Cincinnati Reds, with a potent attack featuring a 20-year old slugger named Frank Robinson.  This was all topped off by a thrilling seven-game World Series that included Don Larsen’s perfect game.  A great season – maybe someday Replay will release it. (Pete?) 

Michael Shapiro’s new book, The Last Good Season, focuses on one element of this season – the Brooklyn Dodgers.  While the Dodgers won the pennant, they would – after one more season – leave Brooklyn for Los Angeles in what is still probably the most controversial franchise shift in major league baseball history. 

The Last Good Season is not only about the pennant race, but also about the developments that led up to the move to California.  As Shapiro tells it, Walter O’Malley’s strong preference was to remain in Brooklyn, but in a new park, which would replace Ebbets Field.  O’Malley, however, ran into the strong opposition of Robert Moses, head of New York City’s powerful Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.  Moses’ plans for urban renewal in Brooklyn did not include a new ballpark.  It was only after failing to make progress in New York that O’Malley decided to respond to the overtures from Los Angeles.  (To be fair to Moses – the villain of the book – his main objection was to condemning land for the benefit of a baseball club, which he considered to be private enterprise, rather than for a public purpose.  While one could disagree, his position was not obviously incorrect.)

The Last Good Season intersperses the story of the pennant race and the ’56 Dodgers with the story of whether the Dodgers would remain in Brooklyn or move to California.  Shapiro also writes more generally about the neighborhoods of Brooklyn, and the changes taking place there in the 1950’s.

As a result of covering so much ground, however, the pennant race does not get the treatment it deserves.  The Reds are hardly mentioned at all, and the Braves don’t really get any attention until the last week of the season. 

The Dodgers and their players are Shapiro’s main on-the-field focus, and those parts of the book are its strongest.  Shapiro paints especially vivid portraits of such players as Don Newcombe (including his slide into alcoholism), Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Sal Maglie, Carl Erskine, Clem Labine, Roy Campanella and Carl Furillo.  I would have enjoyed a little more on the greatest of them all, Jackie Robinson, playing in his last season.

All in all, The Last Good Season is a good book for someone who wants to read about the Boys of Summer in the autumn of their baseball years and about changes in urban life in the years after World War II.  Someone who is more interested in the 1956 baseball season in general will be a little disappointed.
--Craig Tyle

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