‘1921: The Yankees, the Giants, & the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York’
In 1970, a journeyman pitcher published a memoir with an innocuous subtitle: “My Life and Hard Times Throwing the Knuckleball in the Big Leagues.” Written by Jim Bouton (with help from sportswriter Leonard Shecter), “Ball Four” took readers to a heretofore verboten place, offering a controversial, inside-the-bullpen glimpse of drinking, womanizing and drug use in the major leagues.
Bouton was just one of a murderer’s row of authors who were simultaneously establishing a brand new territory of contemporary baseball lit. Consider: Robert Coover’s “The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.” (1968), the first “Baseball Encyclopedia” (1969), Robert Peterson’s “Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams” (1970), Roger Kahn’s “The Boys of Summer” (1971), Roger Angell’s “The Summer Game” (1972).
Today, 40 years after “Ball Four,” the genre is in historical retreat. With the exception of several recent works about the game’s steroids scandals and a glut in numerology for stat geeks (a trend started by Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball”), spring’s annual parade of baseball books has become a backward-looking stroll into the past.
This isn’t about nostalgia, but an almost obsessive desire to parse every nuance of the game’s history. The most pervasive trend is to chronicle a single season. According to Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg, authors of “1921: The Yankees, the Giants, & the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York,” “Books have been devoted to nearly two dozen seasons between 1901 and 1966 and to virtually every season of the last four decades.”
This did not faze them. “1921" recalls the season that ended with the first all-New York World Series, between the Yankees and the Giants. Using newspapers as source material, the authors give a blow-by-blow account of Babe Ruth’s outrageousness and Giants’ manager John McGraw’s feistiness.
The year 1921 was a transitional one. The nation had only recently emerged from the horrors of World War I. Prohibition was in place, although that didn’t stop Ruth and company from indulging.
And why not? Ruth was widely regarded as baseball’s savior for restoring the credibility and allure of the national pastime in the aftermath of the 1919 Black Sox gambling scandal, in which members of the Chicago White Sox took money to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. By 1921, he was the game’s pre-eminent superstar, acquiring an agent -- the ubiquitous Christy Walsh -- and igniting the first home-run boom.
Still, the inning-by-inning minutiae of “21" ultimately borders on the excessive. Thankfully, the luminous portraits by pioneering photographer Charles Conlon and the evocative prose from the era -- to legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice, Ruth’s injured shoulder “looked like a veal cutlet, breaded” -- enliven the narrative.
Since the publication of “Only the Ball Was White,” writers have combed through nearly every epoch of the Negro Leagues. In “Satch, Dizzy & Rapid Robert: The Wild Saga of Interracial Baseball Before Jackie Robinson,” Timothy M. Gay shows how offseason exhibition games between major leaguers and Negro leaguers paved the way for Robinson to break the color barrier in 1947.
Many of these games were headlined by established big-league stars such as Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller. But their intentions weren’t altruistic. These superstar pitchers were paid a pittance for their services and had no free-agent rights. Offseason barnstorming offered an opportunity to make decent cash.
Although baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis concocted rules to curtail such encounters, the exhibitions proved that black players were as good as their white counterparts. They also helped make the pastime truly national, with teams performing in cities that the majors didn’t reach.
One such place was Los Angeles. The Pacific Coast League, which included the Hollywood Stars and the original Los Angeles Angels, banned African Americans. But after the regular season, when local promoter Joe Pirrone organized the California Winter League, fans could watch “the only professional circuit back then that sanctioned the participation of black teams,” according to Gay.
Satchel Paige and the underappreciated Chet Brewer hurled epic games at White Sox Park in Boyle Heights and, later, at South Central’s Wrigley Field. Local hero Robinson, a three-sport star at Pasadena’s Muir High School and UCLA, appeared in the CWL before he signed with the Dodgers in October 1945.
Around that time, Gay notes, Times sportswriter Paul Zimmerman quoted Feller as saying that “if [Robinson] were a white man, I doubt that they would consider him big-league material.” Feller would be proved wrong, and Robinson’s success led to the demise of the Negro leagues and interracial barnstorming. On this, Gay’s research is impressive; only William McNeil’s 2002 book “The California Winter League” has explored the topic as thoroughly.
Feller, now 91, also appears in Tim Wendel’s “High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time.” During his Hall of Fame career, Feller’s “cheese” clocked in at more than 100 miles an hour.
“High Heat” hums when Wendel profiles the fastest of the fastball pitchers, tracing the lineage of the pitch from Amos Rusie in the 19th century to Walter Johnson in the 1920s to Sandy Koufax in the 1960s and, finally, to the Washington Nationals’ 100-mile-an-hour prospect Stephen Strasburg.
Wendel interviews many of the fastball’s finest practitioners, including Feller and Nolan Ryan. “Throwing a baseball hard -- really, really hard -- remains a God-given gift,” he writes. Unfortunately, the book never moves beyond this obvious conclusion, which Wendel reaches, in any case, in the first dozen pages. Indeed, the notion that there is something “secret” about the fastball, or that the author’s search is “improbable,” just seems contrived.
By contrast, Robert Elias’ “The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad” is as sobering as its title suggests. In this ambitious work, Elias, a University of San Francisco professor, reframes baseball history to show how the sport has abetted America’s quest for global power.
Certainly, the national pastime has long wrapped itself in the flag. In 1907, pitcher-turned-sporting-goods-magnate Albert Spalding financed a committee to determine the origin of baseball. His handpicked team found that it had emerged sui generis, in 1839, created by Abner Doubleday at his farm in upstate New York. That Doubleday was a Civil War general added a patina of patriotism.
All this was laughable myth. But Spalding was able to sell it anyway. To paraphrase President Theodore Roosevelt: Walk softly and carry a Louisville Slugger.
When the United States began to push beyond its borders, the sport spread. In this, America was aping its former master, Great Britain. At its imperial apex in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mighty Britannia did more than just control a quarter of the planet. It exported cricket to India, soccer to Brazil, rugby to Australia. After all, wasn’t the Battle of Waterloo won on the playing fields of Eton?
Elias excels when he examines the connection between baseball and America’s tumultuous relationships with its beisbol-loving neighbors. Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Venezuela have embraced the sport, but this passion has not transcended political differences.
At times, Elias notes, baseball has been an imperialistic force. In Haiti, workers manufacturing the balls used in the majors logged “ten hour days, six or seven days a week, for a dollar a day.”
The book’s sprawling approach leads to occasional misfires. Elias’ claim that “baseball is Canada’s national pastime” would surprise the millions of Canadians who watched their hockey team triumph at the Vancouver Olympics. And after likening “The Bad News Bears” to the Vietnam War, he incongruously asks, “Was it a coincidence that the film came out the same week U.S. Lieutenant William Calley was finalizing his appeals against charges of war crimes in the My Lai massacre?”
Still, this contrarian book may come closest in spirit to “Ball Four.” Although if Bouton has anything to teach us, it’s that sometimes a fastball is just a fastball.
Davis is writing a book about the 1908 Olympics.
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