I was there that mild April evening in 1956 when master showman Bill Veeck brought his circus to town. Having recently turned seven, I was attending my first baseball game, which just happened to be opening night for the newest members of the International League, the Miami Marlins. Veeck, who served as the team's executive vice president, had promised the public a real spectacle. And what a show it was: fireworks, baseball clown Max Patkin, an aerialist walking a tightrope strung across the outfield light stanchions, spotlighted players introduced at their playing positions. I recall nothing of the game itself. What I do remember with complete clarity is what occurred shortly after the game began. I sat transfixed as a helicopter descended from the darkening Miami skies to land in the middle of the infield, dust and debris flying everywhere. I recall the crowd cheering wildly as a tall, lanky African American man in a Marlins uniform stepped out of the passenger side of the now-stilled copter and strode nonchalantly toward an easy chair located in the team's bullpen, where he sat as if this occurrence was an everyday affair. I, of course, did not know who he was, but my father explained to me that I was seeing one of the greatest pitchers of all time, the incomparable Satchel Paige. Thus began my lifelong love of baseball.
Sam Zygner's The Forgotten Marlins brings the all-too-brief existence of these minor-league Marlins vividly to life. It's difficult to write an interesting team history. Many such works resort to giving exhaustive game-by-game accounts, which are boring to even the most avid fan. Zygner has found a nice balance between detailing the important games and providing the much more interesting story occurring outside the white lines. The author interviewed dozens of former players, adding real zest to his account.
Some interesting characters donned the Marlins uniform during those five years: Mickey McDermott, Virgil "Fire Trucks, Yo-Yo Davalillo, Tom Qual-ters, Woody Smith, Chuck Essegian, and manager Pepper Martin, to name just a few. And then there was Satchel Paige.
The story of the Marlins from 1956 through 1958 is really that of Satchel Paige, as Zygner makes abundantly clear. The aging pitcher was one of those larger-than-life characters who dwarfed all those around him. One cannot tell the tale of the team during those three years without talking about Paige's impact on management, his teammates, and the public at large. Although forty-nine when he came to the Marlins, Paige still had a lot to offer. He was one of the most dominant pitchers in the league the first two years, fading somewhat in 1958. His teammates loved him, the fans adored him, and management tolerated him. The Marlins made the league playoffs the first two years in large part because of Paige. When things turned completely sour between the pitcher and the front office in 1958, the negative impact on the team was pronounced.
The Marlins seemed to be a doomed franchise from the beginning. Even on that opening night, the stands were not filled. Turnout decreased from one year to the next, making it an unprofitable venture. After the inaugural season ended, owner Sid Salomon Jr. sold the team at a loss to local broadcast magnate George Storer, who, also failing to make money, sold it to Bill MacDonald, a self-made millionaire. Sadly, he was no more successful than his prede-cessors in turning a profit. As Zygner explains it, part of the problem was that the team competed for the public's entertainment dollar against a plethora of other fun activities found in South Florida. The fact that the open-air playing venue was subject to the heat, humidity, and inclement weather common during the summer months in the subtropics was also an issue. And because ownership of the stadium and the leasing of it was an ongoing problem, it was unclear where the team would be playing from one year to the next.
If there is any quibble with the book at all, it is the author's tendency to use paragraph-long quotes, many times back-to-back. As a case in point, Zygner tells the oft-told story of Paige using a chewing gum wrapper or other such small object when he warmed up to pitch, providing six consecutive lengthy player quotes to do so (22-23). The flow of the book would have been better served paring down many of the longer quotes and incorporating others into the body of the text itself. The other distraction is his use of odd metaphors and similes, some of which read as if lifted straight from a 1930s Black Mask detective story. For example, we find "as fresh as bread baked in the morning" to end one paragraph, followed by "flat as day old beer" to begin the next (164). Perhaps the strangest is a game account that begins, "A Canadian goose can lay as many as ten eggs in one nest, but that's nothing compared to the goose eggs that the Bisons and Marlins laid over the next eleven innings" (124). But these are minor criticisms of an otherwise solid work, one which even the most casual fan would enjoy. It should be a welcomed addition to any minor-league history collection.
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|Title Annotation:||BOOK REVIEWS|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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