In 1962, I was 5 and getting ready for kindergarten in Brooklyn, New York. At that age I was probably oblivious to what was going on in the world (although I could name every president of the United States), but there was a great deal to absorb.
The Cold War was ramping up to a possible confrontation over missiles in Cuba, and the U.S. was cutting into the Russians’ lead in the space race. Musically, listeners were caught between the Elvis phenomenon of the late 1950s and the British invasion that would be spearheaded by The Beatles in 1964. Television was coming into its own with new and inventive programs, and movies and books were beginning to push the boundaries of staid, traditional fare.
Baseball completed its first round of expansion with new National League franchises in Houston and New York, capped by a memorable playoff between ancient rivals and a riveting World Series.
That is the backdrop for David Krell’s latest book, 1962: Baseball and America in the Time of JFK (University of Nebraska Press; $34.95; hardback; 335 pages).
Krell has a natural love for baseball, and it shows. Meshing the national pastime with popular culture has been a strength; in 2019 he edited “The New York Yankees in Popular Culture: Critical Essays,” and last year he edited “The New York Mets in Popular Culture.” In 2015, Krell wrote “Our Bums: The Brooklyn Dodgers in History, Memory and Popular Culture.”
Krell’s writing philosophy is summarized neatly on his website: “Writing is a demanding process. At times, terrifying. And I love it!”
The process is made easier by an extensive bibliography in 1962, with more than 145 books, comic books, movies and television stations referenced.
The notes are meticulous and exhaustive, too. Krell not only pulls materials from newspapers, magazines, television episodes, movies, and archives. He also makes extensive use of contacting sources via telephone, email and even snail mail (that was big in 1962, by the way) from Mary Frances Early, the first Black graduate at the University of Georgia. The telephone interviews include primary sources — Sherri Chessen, the “Romper Room” hostess whose “private choice to terminate a pregnancy became a public story,” is one example — along with relatives such as Sara Karloff, the daughter of actor Boris Karloff; Jayne Barbera, the daughter of the Joseph Barbera (of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon animation team); and Dinn Mann, the grandson of former Houston Colt .45s (and Astros) owner Judge Roy Hofheinz.
There is plenty for the reader to chew on in 1962, particularly Krell’s exploration of popular culture. But he throws a curve in the first paragraph of the first chapter, noting that Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World” was “music to the ears of Brooklynites.” Unless Krell meant a sad trombone sound or a Chopin’s “Funeral March” funeral dirge. I cannot conceive of any Dodgers fan who found that musically magical unless I am misreading it.
After that shaky start, Krell settles into a smoother pattern. He concentrates on five key teams during the 1962 season. The expansion teams are awarded plenty of attention, along with the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and the New York Yankees. Krell gives brief capsules about each team’s players. There is a great deal of detail about the birth of the Houston franchise, which tends to be overlooked because the Mets grabbed the spotlight because of their lovable ineptitude.
However, bringing baseball to the Lone Star State was a big deal, and Krell touches all the bases.
While Krell does not delve too deeply into the nuts and bolts of baseball in 1962 — there is no need for play-by-play or minutiae, since that can be read elsewhere — there is enough narration to keep baseball fans interested. Krell takes a broader view, focusing his attention on the political, social and cultural shifts that were taking place.
There are good baseball stories, too. Krell revisits Bo Belinsky, who threw a no-hitter in 1962 and married actress Mamie Van Doren. The statuesque Van Doren posed for Playboy and admitted that life with Belinsky was “a circus” but also “a wild ride and a lot of fun.” As for Belinsky, Krell writes that “the more (Belinsky) pushed aside his conscience, the more fun he had.”
Book plots are also discussed. “Seven Days in May” (one of the great Burt Lancaster-Kirk Douglas pairings when it was adapted to the silver screen in 1964) and “Fail-Safe,” are novels that played on the paranoia of power grabs, nuclear disarmament and nuclear weapons.
“Hollywood’s output in 1962 is staggering,” Krell writes about the movies that were prominent in 1962: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “Lolita,” “The Longest Day,” “How the West Was Won,” “Cape Fear,” “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” and the Oscar-winning “Lawrence of Arabia.” The star power was big, too, with John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Cary Grant, Doris Day, Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen landing prominent roles. The Oscars for best actor and actress would go to Gregory Peck (“To Kill a Mockingbird”) and Anne Bancroft (“The Miracle Worker”).
For all of its plusses, 1962 does contain some errors, particularly on the baseball side. Powel Crosley, the former owner of the Cincinnati Reds, is spelled as “Powell.” That’s a common mistake, something I would liken to the Bidwill family that owned the Cardinals football team (often misspelled as Bidwell, for example).
Krell notes that Lou Gehrig made his “Luckiest Man” speech in July 1939, “three years before his death.” Gehrig actually died in June 1941, nearly two years after his emotional farewell speech.
In a capsule about Tommy Davis, Krell writes that the Dodgers’ slugger was 18 when Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947. Davis, who was born in 1939, was actually 8 years old at the time.
Krell notes that Jim Gilliam’s “body of work” resulted in five pennants and three World Series titles while he was a player for the Dodgers. Gilliam actually played for seven pennant winners in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, and four World Series champions (1955, 1959, 1963 and 1965).
Elvis Presley made his first television appearance in 1955, Krell writes; if so, it must have been on a local station. The King’s first national appearance occurred on Jan. 28, 1956, on “The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show” in New York. The Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, meanwhile, is referred to as the “Fountainbleu” during an interview with Carla Kirkeby. That just might be poor transcription; the hotel has been misspelled hundreds of times through the years.
Krell also writes that Ralph Houk “helmed” the Yankees from 1961 to 1973. I guess “helmed” could be taken to mean Houk’s tenure as the team’s general manager (1964 to 1966), because he did not manage then. Yogi Berra (1964) and Johnny Keane (1965 and part of 1966) did; Houk returned to the dugout when Keane was dismissed 20 games into the 1966 season.
And while the telephone interviews were instructive and fascinating, some of them covered several pages. Krell’s phone interview with Chessen, while fascinating, was spread across five pages. I am not sure whether some paraphrasing might have worked better, particularly since the interview does not reference the questions asked. Or did Krell just ask one question and Chessen took off on a long explanation? It’s possible, I suppose.
I did not find the long interview distracting — this was stuff I didn’t know about, so I was hanging on every word — but perhaps others might have.
Overall, 1962 is the type of book Krell excels at — a cultural deep dive that examines what was trending in a particular year, and how it impacted how we saw the world. The book was slanted more toward politics and popular culture instead of baseball, and John F. Kennedy was not the central figure of the book. Politically he was prominent, especially with the Cuban Missile Crisis in October and his determined goal of winning the space race. Jackie Kennedy’s tour of the White House with CBS correspondent Charles Collingwood was unprecedented and gave Americans a glimpse into the country’s most famous address.
The 1962 baseball season ended with a rocket of a line drive off the bat of Willie McCovey, snared by Bobby Richardson to preserve the Yankees’ 1-0 win in Game 7 of the World Series. Later that month, civilization teetered on the brink of a nuclear holocaust because of rockets based only 90 miles away from the Florida mainland.
It’s an interesting parallel.
Krell’s book is a nice, well-rounded view of a year that was promising and turbulent, sometimes at the same time. He goes beyond nuts-and-bolts baseball in 1962, presenting the United States as it looked midway through Camelot.