Reading in the Deadball Era
On Opening Day (the one, non-holiday, event of the year deemed worthy of capitalization) my beloved New York Mets pulled a win from their magic blue ballcaps. Johan Santana, recently oft-injured franchise ace, mowed down five innings worth of Atlanta Braves on 84 pitches, outpacing the expectations of many after sitting out all of last year. Yet the season is still young. There are many game days left, stripped of capital letters, whose importance cannot be determined for some time. April and May are lovely months to be a baseball fan—hope springs and all that. To paraphrase Mad Men: “You only love the beginnings of things.” Let us relish in this hope. Let us talk about baseball before our heros let us down.
These two books from Charles C. Alexander, a former Distinguished Professor of History at Ohio University, illustrate how the game was played in its earliest days. His biography of John McGraw, long-time manager of the New York Giants (and second all-time in wins behind Connie Mack), is a lively portrait of the deadball era, a time when fielders didn’t use gloves, the Baltimore Orioles perfected the hit and run, and when fighting, cursing and dirty plays were accepted as part of the game. Academically speaking, the history of the game often mirrors that of the nation. Breaking the Slump, which chronicles baseball during the Great Depression, recalls the first games to be played at night, the effect of radio broadcasts on attendance, and the amazing baseball being played in the Negro leagues that went unnoticed by white baseball fans.
Eight Men Out - Eliot Asinof
The Natural - Bernard Malamud
Here’s another pair of deadball era books, the true story of the 1919 Chicago White Sox throwing the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, and Malamud’s classic novel that merges the Black Sox scandal with the life of Eddie Waitkus. Please don’t skip out on this assignment and simply rent the movies. Robert Redford may look good in The Natural, but that ending, blurgh. And the John Sayles adaptation of Eight Men Out is fine, but just read the book. It’s diabolical, sacrilegious, and flat out astounding. If you’re going to throw the World Series you better wise up first (The gamblers did it, FREE JOE JACKSON!).
There are lots of other great books out there (The Bronx is Burning, Ball Four, Moneyball, The Boys of Summer) but there’s something about the far flung history of these four books that I love. They remind me how human and weirdly normal our ancestors and idols could be. The next time someone tells you they don’t watch baseball because its “boring” or “its lost its integrity” just point them here. The history of baseball is strewn with heroes and villains. It’s not an innocent game played by children and its not an entertainment industrial complex that is run and played by millionaires (though it is both of those things). It’s life for some of us, just like everything else.