In Luke Epplin’s new book, the full story of Cleveland’s 1948 World Series winning campaign is fully and wonderfully told.
No team in Major League Baseball has a longer World Series drought than Cleveland, having last won it 73 years ago, in 1948. That year, Cleveland won their first pennant in nearly three decades while also becoming the first integrated team to win the Fall Classic.
Luke Epplin’s new book, Our Team, tells the story of that team and its magical season through the lens of four men crucial to its success: Bill Veeck, the team’s renegade owner who did everything he could to draw bigger crowds to Cleveland’s lakefront stadium; Larry Doby, the first Black man to play in the American League; Satchel Paige, the iconic pitcher who established himself as a legend in the Negro Leagues long before his Major League debut; and Bob Feller, the superstar pitcher who captured the nation’s imagination.
As Epplin shows in his terrific debut, each of these men, apart from being crucial parts of Cleveland’s success that year, helped inaugurate the world of professional sports as we know them today.
Our Team is a must-read for baseball fans
Bill Veeck, the man who brought Doby and Paige to Cleveland, purchased the team and immediately devoted himself to not only making the franchise a winner, but also transforming the massive Cleveland Municipal Stadium into a destination for Northeast Ohioans. According to Veeck, “if you give the fans nothing else except a ball game, they’ll come out in certain numbers. But arouse their curiosity and they’ll come out in droves.” And he certainly worked to arouse curiosity by featuring bands and fireworks shows while tearing “down the walls between fans and the front office.”
Veeck is not singlehandedly responsible for transforming sports into mass entertainment though he played a vital role in doing so in his multiple tenures as a Major League owner.
While Jackie Robinson is a man rightly admired, even by those who have never watched a baseball game, Larry Doby is much less renowned for the role he played in desegregating Major League Baseball. Doby, the first Black man to ever play in the American League, made his Cleveland debut less than three months after Robinson first suited up for the Dodgers.
Though Robinson found immediate success, winning Rookie of the Year and helping lead Brooklyn to the pennant, Doby’s first season was a rockier affair. He did not play consistently and was not a regular starter until his second year in Cleveland. However, as he grew more comfortable, he became a vital part of Cleveland’s World Series squad. Eventually, he was eventually named to the Hall of Fame following a career in which he earned seven All-Star selections.
Satchel Paige was, unlike Doby, a veteran closer to middle age than his athletic prime. While Doby and Jackie Robinson were young and had their best years ahead of them, Paige was a man who had spent two decades barnstorming and playing in the Negro Leagues. He had established himself as one of the greatest pitchers ever and as one of the sport’s biggest, most distinctive personalities. Yet these same qualities that made him such a draw to fans made Major League owners hesitant to sign him. As Epplin writes, “If Feller stood for rootedness, stability, and comfort, Paige resonated as a representation of mobility, self-determination, and defiance.”
Veeck though, never afraid to make a splash, needed greater depth at pitcher and decided Paige, independent as he may be, would help the team which overrode any other concerns.
Paige’s new teammate, Bob Feller, was not only one of the best pitchers of his era, but someone whose story resonated with many across the country. As Epplin writes, Feller’s “instant success reaffirmed myths that white American liked — perhaps — needed to tell about itself.”
As important as his pitching abilities was his life story. As a rural boy from the Heartlands who found success in the Majors, his biography functioned as “a narrative tailor-made for a nation whose faith in its core principles had been shaken” following the first World War. Feller also was one of the first athletes to attempt to establish himself as a brand, organizing and leading barnstorming tours in an attempt to find a measure of independence in the years prior to free agency. These attempts were often met with hostility from fans, but it established a precedent that innumerable athletes have followed in the subsequent decades.
While the book is ostensibly about the 1948 team, less than a third of the book is devoted to that season. Instead, the majority of the book interweaves the biographies of Veeck, Doby, Paige and Feller, showing the disparate circumstances that shaped them and brought them together for that triumphant campaign. By telling the stories of these unique men, all of whom have since been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, Epplin is able to show not only how they contributed to Cleveland’s World Series victory, but to the transformation of the sports world as a whole. Full volumes could be (and have been) written about each of these men, and Epplin does a good job at capturing each of their personalities while showing the general arc of their lives in limited space. And the blending of these narratives casts each of them in a new light that may not be evident if their stories were told independently.
Together, the four men written about here symbolized the evolution of baseball and professional sports as a whole: Veeck by transforming sports into a spectator event catered to fans as never before, Feller by taking control of his own career and earnings in a way that set the stage for greater athlete empowerment in future generations, and Doby and Paige by showing that Black athletes could be a part of a championship squad, helping to shine “a light forward for a country on the verge of a civil rights revolution.”
While Cleveland’s 1948 team is not often remembered as one of the greatest of all time, Epplin shows that they were one of the most important. His well-researched and engaging book places readers alongside these men, making Our Team a must read for all baseball fans as well as for anyone interested in the intersection of sports, popular culture, and American history.