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"Our Team" Travels Back to Cleveland's Watershed Moment in Baseball History

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The Cover for Luke Epplin's book "Our Team" is displayed. It is now on sale.
Luke Epplin
The Cover for Luke Epplin's book "Our Team" is displayed. It is now on sale.

In the post-World War II era, big changes were coming to Major League Baseball. Cleveland was at the center of those changes that would have a lasting impact.

This story is captured in the new book, "Our Team" by Luke Epplin. He spoke with WKSU about the book and the four men at the heart of it: Larry Doby, Bill Veeck, Bob Feller and Satchel Paige.

The four forces
Doby, Feller Paige and Veeck each had a crucial part in the post-war period of baseball and why they were part of the driving force behind Epplin's book.

"These four men all came together in the post-war period and were sort of the driving heart of the first integrated team in Major League Baseball to win the World Series," Epplin said.

Veeck bought the team in 1946 and was forward thinking in terms of race relations, a mindset that would help him build a winner two years later.

"He recognized the talent in the Negro Leagues then and that was the sort of talent that was going to be necessary to drive the Indians to the playoffs," says Epplin.

Larry Doby became the first player Veeck chose to integrate into the American League. He joined a team that included Feller, a superstar known across the baseball landscape.

Feller would go barnstorming during the offseason, playing with the likes of an older Satchel Paige, and likely the best pitcher in the country according to Epplin.

Paige "was quite old by the time Major League Baseball integrated, in his 40s, seemingly beyond the range of when someone could integrate. But Bill Veeck recognized that he still had something left, so they all came together."

The father of the modern baseball experience
As an owner, Bill Veeck was an excellent baseball mind, with a knack of identifying talent.

"He was an expert at trading and an expert at building teams," Epplin said.

While Veeck had great baseball acumen, it's his idea of the fan experience that made for the modern ballpark experience

"He also was expert at making sure fans had comfort at the stadium, could have fun while there. Even if their team lost, he wanted them to go away happy thinking 'Well, at least we were entertained for a while'," he said.

A few of the things Veeck incorporated into the game experience included shooting off fireworks and absurd promotional giveaways, something we see in one form or another today.

"Let's not forget he intergrated the Indians, so he was a pioneer. In these sorts of respects, he was someone who was well ahead of his time in many ways.

Larry Doby's transition
Doby integrated the Cleveland Indians and the American League 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the latter more of a nationally known figure having played halfback at UCLA.

"Doby was only 23 when he integrated the Indians. Robinson played an entire minor league season, he had time to acclimate the all-white clubhouse and get his bearings there," said Epplin.

Doby played for the Newark Eagles in the Negro Leagues. When Veeck bought his contract, Doby only had two games to prepare for playing in Cleveland, playing one game with Newark before catching a train and in uniform with the Indians the next day.

"It was a rough landing. He was shunned by certain teammates, he faced racial abuse that was severe and it did affect him," says Epplin, noting Doby's reserved nature.

A photo of author Luke Epplin.
Beth Parker
A photo of author Luke Epplin.

Doby and Veeck 'In this together'
Player and owner relationships aren't often seen in professional sports. In the case of Larry Doby and Bill Veeck, their relationship was a close life-long friendship.

"Bill Veeck, when he signed Doby, made a promise to him that they were in this together. Doby would often say in interview later in his life that whenever he was feeling particularly down after he'd been through a particularly rough stretch or something, Veeck would always be able to sense it," Epplin said.

When Veeck caught wind, he'd take Doby out to dinner and often they would end up at a Jazz club.

"They would sit there listening to music. It was his way of showing support for Doby. And this friendship lasted throughout their entire lives." says Epplin, before Veeck passed away in 1986.

The pitching legends
Paige and Feller have a history together that dates back before the second World War

Earlier in Feller's life, as his baseball talent dazzled, his father made him a baseball diamond on their own farmland.

"Through happenstance, Feller joins the Indians at the age of 17 and in his first start, he ties the American League record for strikeouts," Epplin said.

Feller's feats were so great that his high school graduation was broadcasted live over the radio coast to coast. Around the same time, ballplayers would go barnstorming during the offseason and playing in exhibition games around the country and according to Epplin, would often would play against rosters of black players.

"And Satchel Paige was highly sought after, not only because he was the best pitcher but also because he could draw a crowd wherever he went."

"So Bob Feller and Satchel Paige started barnstorming as early as 1936 and would do that on and off for the next dozen years," says Epplin, describing them as "almost like business partners," to team up and draw people in, creating a rivalry.

When Paige came into the majors, it was fortuitous timing when Feller was struggling. As Paige did well, Feller was down and when Feller regained his stuff, Paige fell off the pace.

Doby and Paige
Doby and Paige were two men at the opposite ends of their respective careers, causing some friction between the two teammates seperated by a "generation gap."

"By the time Satchel Paige came into Major League Baseball in 1948, he was 42 years old. He'd been in the Negro Leagues for over two decades. He had to pitch through segregation, Jim Crow laws, all the sort of things and he developed sort of ways of deflecting that racism," Epplin said.

He says Paige developed a persona "that certain white people thought of as being a 'stepin fetchit' stereotype." But Epplin says when Paige was on the mound, he bore down.

"He always would say 'I am not a clown, I'm a baseball pitcher and pitching baseball games is a serious business," he said.

When Doby arrived at only 23 years of age, the perception people had of Paige was something he thought was outdated, and not wanting that stereotype attached to him. Compared to Paige, who was serious and quiet, Epplin says the two men didn't necessarily get along.

Telling the story
Epplin has over 80 pages of notes and a lengthy bibliography on a subject that had been covered extensively. So what was the story he wanted to tell?

"I think that the framing of this story through these four indiviuals- Bill Veeck, Bob Feller, Satchel Paige, Larry Doby and the ways these men resonate off each other or in tension with each other- I think of these four men as sort of representing a different facet of the integration experience," Epplin said.

"I wanted to sort of reframe it through these four individuals and I also thought that this season, 1948 whenever the Indians were in the World Series, was so exciting! It was so meaningful, it was so interesting that I wanted to sort of recreate the drama that was in this season to really show how exciting it was."

Read the Introduction to "Our Team"

Andrew Meyer is the deputy editor of news at Ideastream Public Media.
Sean Fitzgerald is an announcer/board operator at Ideastream Public Media.