Monday, July 03, 2006

The Old Ball Game

In addition to my other distractions and hobbies, I enjoy baseball. There is nothing like baseball, it is a one of a kind sport that is uniquely American. In fact, I believe the two are so interlinked that stages in American history parallel stages in baseball history. For example, the Roaring Twenties correspond with the ‘Live Ball Era’ or ‘Babe Ruth Era’ in baseball. Baseball went from a hard-nosed game to a rollicking good time, just as the rest of America. But, that is for another discussion.

I just finished a great baseball book, The Old Ball Game by Frank Deford. This book is really a dual biography of John McGraw and Christy Mathewson. In fact the sub-title is: How John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, and the New York Giants Created Modern Baseball. If you do not know who John McGraw and Christy Mathewson are first, Shame on You! Second, Christy Mathewson is arguably the greatest pitcher ever. He is one of the first class of Hall-of-Fame inductees along with Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, and Honus Wagner. Not even the all time leader in wins, Cy Young, made the Hall-of-Fame on the first ballot. John McGraw is arguably the greatest manager of all time, and he made the Hall-of-Fame on the second ballot. He was also a great player in his own right before the major leagues were really set in stone back in the 1890s.

The book is a good read with lots of good stories and quotes. It is an easy read that can be done quickly. Deford gets you not only a good look a baseball life, but gets you involved with the two men he highlights throughout his books. This book is a great look into the personal life of two different men. Mathewson is described as a ‘muscular Christian’. He was a rare honest man in a time when most baseball players were ruffians. McGraw for example was a great ruffian. Deford actually contrasts the old time ‘muscular Christian’ of Christy Mathewson with the modern ‘born again’ Christians, and comes down on the side of Mathewson. Aside from that theological point, it is a good baseball book. You can also learn disturbing facts about history of which I was unaware. For example, the United States used chemical weapons on its own soldiers during WWI. Mathewson and Ty Cobb were officers in a Chemical Weapon unit and their job was to train men how to get their gas masks on. The US government trained men by releasing the ‘real McCoy’ gas on their own troops. Officers had to put their masks on last. Of course one time young troops panicked and Cobb and Mathewson got a real deep lung full of poison gas. Cobb had a cough for a month, returned to baseball the next year and hit .385. Mathewson never shook his cough, had damaged lungs, caught tuberculosis, and never had a chance.

My one criticism of this book is that it never really answers the sub-titles claim. How did McGraw and Mathewson create modern baseball? Was it because Mathewson was the game’s first larger then life star? Was it because McGraw and Mathewson built baseball in nations largest city, New York? Was it because during their time frame the game became a national pastime? These are possible answers, but noting is put forward as the answer. In fact, neither Mathewson nor McGraw really appear modern after reading the book. Mathewson was not a strike out pitcher, and his best pitch was the ‘fadeaway’ which was a ball that broke the opposite direction than the normal ‘curveball’. No one in modern baseball throw that pitch. No one can. McGraw was always a successful manager, but he was one that was quite resistant to change. After the first unofficial World Series was started by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1903, McGraw refused to participate in 1904. The American League and the National League signed papers to make the World Series official and mandatory in 1905, but McGraw’s team showed up to play with World Champions already stitched into their jerseys. McGraw also hated the changes that came with Babe Ruth, and spent the rest of his life extolling the virtues of people before Ruth as better hitters and better ballplayers. This leaves the question in a desperate need of an answer. How did McGraw and Mathewson create modern baseball? I personally suspect they did not, and maybe publishers who had never read the book made up the sub-title. In the end, despite the unanswered questions, the book is a good read.