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Monday, April 07, 2008

Praying for Gil Hodges: A Memoir of the 1955 World Series and One Family's Love of the Brooklyn Dodgers

Thomas Oliphant’s Praying for Gil Hodges is his very personal account of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers and, in particular, of Game 7 of that year’s World Series in which the Dodgers finally beat the hated New York Yankees to become baseball world champions. But this book is about much more than baseball; it is about how a child can form a bond with a sports team that will last him a lifetime and how a team can often bring whole families closer together by giving them a common love upon which to focus their energies for half a year at a time. And if that team is an underdog, and if it finally wins the big one after years of coming close, there is nothing sweeter on the face of the earth, something that all baseball fans understand deep in their hearts.

The Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s were unique to baseball in the sense that, in addition to breaking the color barrier by adding Jackie Robinson to their infield in 1947, they went on to become baseball’s first truly integrated team by adding additional minority players on a regular basis. By 1955 Robinson had been joined by Roy Campanella, Sandy Amoros, Jim Gilliam and Don Newcombe, all major contributors to the Dodger’s success on the field. Interestingly enough, these players were part of the team that finally beat the more conservative New York Yankees to bring the championship to Brooklyn.

Thomas Oliphant, son of a World War II veteran who found it difficult to work because of the illnesses he suffered as a result of his service years, was an only child whose mother worked as a legal secretary to support the family. His parents were originally from the Midwest, home of several of the Dodger players, so it was natural that they would become Dodgers fans. Oliphant’s early childhood was spent in the years in which the Dodgers were repeatedly beaten by the Yankees just when it seemed that they might finally win a Series. It happened to them in 1949, 1952, and 1953, and most Brooklyn fans had grown so used to losing the big game to the Yankees by 1955 that very few of them were ready to believe that they had any kind of chance of winning the best-of-seven series that year, even nine-year old Thomas.

Baseball fans, especially those who live and die with their teams each day for six months of the year, will see themselves clearly in the scenes described by Oliphant as he and his father watch the Dodgers shut out the Yankees 2-0 in game seven on a little black and white television set. They will recognize the nerve-wracking anguish of watching the other team put runners on base with no one out and their heavy hitters coming up. They will understand how difficult it is to forget that feeling of impending doom even when their team has a small lead going into the late innings. And they will certainly understand the agony of watching their team maintain that lead when it comes time to count the remaining outs they need to get on just two hands.

Oliphant has written a book about a team’s relationship to its fans and to its city and neighborhood. The book is not perfect by any means. Even avid baseball fans are likely to grow weary of some of the game-by-game detail that Oliphant includes in his section on the World Series leading up to the 1955 season, for instance. But those same readers will be so much in sync with Oliphant, his parents and everyone who celebrated on the streets of Brooklyn after the final out was finally collected that day that they will remember this book for a long time.

Rated at: 4.0

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