A Tale of Two Cities

Posted: Oct 29, 2013 12:01 AM
A Tale of Two Cities

Cardinals Meet Red Sox in World Series. It was headline news in 1946, too. Which wasn't the only similarity between now and then. Because it was the best of times, the worst of times, like a lot of other years in always bubbling and simmering and broiling history, especially the American kind. We didn't come to this New World to stand still.

By the post-war year 1946, triumph was already giving way to tragedy. Our Fighting Russian Allies were morphing into the International Communist Conspiracy as an Iron Curtain descended over Europe, a phrase Winston Churchill would use in a speech at a small liberal-arts college at Fulton, Mo., that momentous year.

Whether prime minister or not at the time, the Rt. Hon. Winston Spencer Churchill could not help making and writing and prefiguring history. Half of America was shocked by his warning, the other half remembered the brief period when Herr Hitler's partner in aggression had been Comrade Stalin and girded for the long struggle ahead, which would be called the Cold War.

As usual after a world war, normalcy had begun to stir. A revived and recast "Show Boat," the 1927 hit, would open at the Ziegfeld on the glittering night of January 5th, 1946, for the first of 417 performances. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly. And, yes, Americans gotta adjust till we die, and, who knows, maybe afterward.

The U.S. Army, still up to its new tricks after those blinding flashes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki had ushered in an uneasy peace, made its first radar contact with the moon in 1946. The astronomy texts were right after all. Our moon proved solid enough to bounce radar back to Earth. It wasn't just a painting up there after all. How about that?

Buck Rogers was leaving the funny papers for Page 1 in '46, and Jules Verne was becoming the stuff of current events. ("From the Earth to the Moon," 1865.)

Those dreaded V-2 rockets Wernher von Braun had designed during the war would lead the way to space travel. The race to the moon between Russia and America was on, little as either may have realized it. And the inventor of the V-2 was on his way to this country, where he would demonstrate that our German scientists were better than their German scientists. Stars were about to fall on Alabama.

The sky wasn't the limit any more -- not for the American economy, either. Wartime price controls were still holding on, but the natives had grown restive and nostalgic for open competition, the free market, and meat you didn't need ration stamps to buy. In the fall, the Democratic majority in the House became a Republican one, and the old economy, like one of van Braun's rockets, began to shudder into life.

American labor unions, having traded their right to strike for the closed shop during the war years, were unleashed. Strike after strike paralyzed the country. Things were definitely back to normal, aka Creative Destruction. All was a jumble. Welcome to the United States of Change.

In the midst of all this, the Red Sox would meet the Cards in the 1946 World Series. That was also the year Tinker to Evers to Chance made baseball's Hall of Fame and the game was dominated by two sluggers: DiMaggio and Williams, art and science.

Ted Williams was offered half a million -- in dollars, not pesos -- to switch to the Mexican League, but The Kid chose to stay at Fenway. It would take another year for a black ballplayer to break the color line in the majors with Branch Rickey's old Brooklyn Dodgers -- the same year the sound barrier would be broken. It would be another five years before Ted Williams was flying jet fighters in Korea.

In the showdown that made headlines in 1946, the Cards introduced their own secret weapon -- the Williams Shift -- in which the whole infield shifted to the right, much like the country's electorate. Third baseman Whitey Kurowski would play just to the right of shortstop Marty Marion. All four infielders would be bunched between first and a few feet beyond second. The Cards' outfielders mirrored the shift against the left-handed slugger who always hit to the right. Left field looked like an empty pasture, reminding spectators of baseball's pastoral origins.

It wouldn't have worked against a less stubborn hitter and American. Ty Cobb offered to teach The Kid to place-hit to the great vacancy on his left, but Williams wouldn't hear of it. He would do this his same old way. ("Gosh, I hated to go to left field because I felt it would be a mark of weakness.") As always, pride goeth before. The great Ted Williams hit only .200 in the Series, the Sox lost deciding Game 7, and the Pride of Boston cried himself to sleep in his Pullman compartment as he headed home humiliated. ("I just broke down and started crying, and I looked up and there was a whole crowd of people watching me through the window.") And life and baseball -- but I repeat myself -- went on.

So did 1946. That was the year, my friend, that was the year, we thought it would never end. But like all good things, and bad, it did.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way -- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

That was Charles Dickens in "A Tale of Two Cities,"1859. How could he have known he was writing about Boston and St. Louis in 1946? And in 2013.

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