‘Our Team’ author Luke Epplin’s book weaves together 4 stories behind the 1948 Cleveland Indians world champion

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Luke Epplin is not a Clevelander. That’s fitting in a way, since the four iconic figures in his book “Our Team: The Epic Story of Four Men and the World Series That Changed Baseball” aren’t either.

Epplin captures the essence of the four — Larry Doby, Bob Feller, Satchel Paige and Bill Veeck — in his 2021 book. On Wednesday, he addressed more than 150 people at a City Club event.

Their lives intertwined in the 1940s, a time when the city was thriving, the ball club was a bit aimless, and the thought of civil rights was in nascent form, not even an afterthought.

They remain catalysts, several men who propelled the Indians to the 1948 championship—the last for a Cleveland baseball team.

It was Veeck the promoter, Doby the pioneer, Feller the businessman, Paige the legend.

The common thread, other than it being four sprockets fueling the World Series run, is that they were all ahead of their time.

“If you give the fans nothing but a ball game, they will come out in certain numbers,” he quotes Veeck. “But arouse their curiosity and they will come out in droves.”

When Veeck took over, the maverick owner opened the business – literally. He opened the door to his office, answered the phone himself, strolled through bars and restaurants, cheered fans and patrolled the talking circuit – anything to make the team known.

“I think a lot of people think of him as the PT Barnum of baseball. I don’t see him that way,” Epplin said.

“Veeck had this idea at the time, which was radical, that baseball was a form of theater, that there was room for competitive play on the field and funny sideshows next to it.”

Those parties, Epplin said, could coexist.

They still do. We’re reminded every time t-shirts are shot from a cannon at a Cavs game, inflatable sumo wrestlers battle it out on a minor league baseball field, when fireworks light up the sky.

Veeck had “an incredible baseball spirit,” Epplin said.

He was also someone who valued relationships for altruistic reasons. He and Paige became friends, a mutual respect that formed their bond.

And Epplin writes, “As deeply as Bob Feller’s story began to resonate with white Americans during the Depression, so had Paige’s Satchel fueled the imaginations of millions of black Americans.”

Paige carried with him and harbored a timeless mystique. He was never afraid to make it to the big leagues, despite being in his forties. He had a persona, a relentless pursuit to stay in the game.

Signing Paige was akin to signing Paul Bunyan, Epplin told the crowd.

Almost a lifetime had passed him by when he reached the Major Leagues. It was Veeck, not a clubhouse attendant, who personally handed him his jersey – and apologized that the moment didn’t come sooner.

Feller’s moment came soon in his career. He was a fresh-faced farm boy from Iowa who hadn’t even graduated high school when he joined the Indians and took the league’s batters by storm.

The time has been good for Feller’s image. He’s deified in Cleveland, and rightly so. His 266 wins come with the proverbial asterisk; without the war to which he volunteered, Rapid Robert would in all probability have won 300 matches. That milestone, with the evolution of mid-relief pitchers, pitch counts and closers, looks set to be a thing of the past in the not-too-distant future.

But Feller’s inner focus on his personal affairs — literally, he took himself out as “a one-man franchise” — soured fans and his teammates for a time. Those same fans got hot for Paige.

The two’s paths had crossed several times on the diamond: Feller’s financial ambition, along with his competitive drive, led him to deploy black and white players on barnstorming tours.

As far as race relations were concerned, however, Feller was a mystery: Blacks deserved respect and were worthy opponents and teammates, but he was nowhere near Veeck’s competition when it came to taking a proactive progressive stance.

His story, career and background are very different from Larry Doby’s, but just as improbable, Epplin said.

For Doby, the introverted star of the Negro Leagues, baseball could very well be his third

best sport, Epplin said. And in the pages of the book, especially through Doby, a latent theme emerges: Grief. Doby is constantly shunned, Paige shows up late, Feller becomes an outcast, and Veeck’s career overshadows his family.

The Indians won the Series in four games against the Boston Braves, but the highlight is when Steve Gromek, a journeyman pitcher who scored 9-3 in 1948, lavishly hugs Doby.

Doby’s story is incredible, Epplin said, “but also isolated.” He is a solitary character, the only black player on the team who spends much of his time dealing with “burdens and scorns and abuses unknown to his colleagues on the team. He endures them in silence.”

Moderator Felton Thomas Jr., executive director of the Cleveland Public Library, summed it up well: “They’re all lonely. Loneliness is an important part of that.”

Epplin, who grew up near St. Louis, moved to Cleveland for a few months to research the book, which began to focus solely on Veeck, who owned the St. Louis Browns after his stay with the Indians. But Veeck’s segregation from the American League and Epplin’s extensive research prompted the author to expand his parameters.

“I think of this book as four individuals,” Epplin said, and not about the 1948 team. Their lives and careers overlap as “they whirled around each other before coming to Cleveland.”

But the cutting room floor took a heavy blow: Effa Manley remains a rich figure in baseball history, a rare female owner in the Negro Leagues, an outgoing force fighting for her place and her league. She was outspoken for compensating her players and “hugely important,” said Epplin, who said she nearly became the book’s fifth subject.

Another peripheral but important figure is Lou Boudreau who, as a player manager, is a conduit between owner Veeck and his players.

With over 100 pages of endnotes and bibliographic references, Epplin could have fallen into the trap of losing sight of the brakes, but economically he presents the four lives beautifully—in his voice, with a slight impression of the writing of the day.

The post-World War II climate in the nation also helps shape the book. Doby served in a segregated navy. In fact, Epplin said, Doby and Feller served in the exact same part of the war, Feller volunteering the day after Pearl Harbor and sacrificing his early years. Veeck gave more. He was seriously injured and, upon returning to a workaholic’s regime, would undergo multiple surgeries to cut his leg.

“You can’t tell this story unless you start with them in World War II, and you can’t tell the story of post-war America without seeing the horrors and formative experiences that all these people are going through,” Epplin said.

The four men were also visible to the world in different ways: the 1948 series was a burgeoning television phenomenon. Different generations, different races had gathered in Cleveland.

Putting the four together “you can represent all kinds of aspects of integration that took place at the time, from progressive to traditional. So that’s why I centered it on those four individuals, and I wanted their stories to not be separate…but intertwined because these men overlap.”

In “Our Team”, Epplin has achieved just that.

Related Coverage: Epplin has 2 more performances scheduled in Cleveland

i’m on cleveland.com‘s life and culture team and cover food, beer, wine and sports related topics. If you want to see my stories, here is a directory on cleveland.com† Bill Wills of WTAM-1100 and I talk about food and drink, usually Thursday mornings at 8:20 AM. Twitter: @ mbona30

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