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Sunday, November 15, 2009

One Worth Remembering

Still, for all the tumult, it was a hell of a life, being a baseball player and a hell of a time to be a baseball player, and for the rest of their lives, they understood what a privilege it had been.
- Mike Vaccaro from The First Fall Classic

Baseball’s 2009 postseason was certainly one to remember. Over the course of 28 days and through 30 games fans were treated to some excellent baseball (the Angels dominating the Red Sox), thrilling finishes (the two extra inning games of the Yankees/Angels series), heroic efforts (Alex Rodriguez, Chase Utley), and more than a little controversy (a handful of miscues by the men in blue). And in the increasingly crowded and competitive entertainment market, baseball did as well as it has in any recent season with television ratings higher than any since 2004, in no small part due to the presence of two teams from Los Angeles and one from New York among the final four left standing.

But as good as this most recent version was, Mike Vaccaro in his new book, The First Fall Classic: The Red Sox, The Giants, and the Cast of Players, Pugs, and Politicos Who Reinvented the World Series in 1912, reminds us of two central facts of baseball history while providing an antidote to a still too common, but preciously incorrect, sentiment regarding baseball’s past.

Regarding the former, Vaccaro’s tome aptly reminds us that thrilling finishes and controversy in October (and now November) are more than a century old, and through much of the 20th century baseball held the preeminent place in the nation’s professional sporting life.

As for the remedy, for those who still hang on to the picture of baseball’s early history as simple and even innocent as compared to dim view of modern “baseball as a business” in a world of free agency, arbitration, PEDs, and the intense media spotlight, Vaccaro provides an education in how thoroughly professionalized the game was in every sense of the word. From the intense controversy over the size and source of the player’s share of the gate, to the newspaper columns that players (some of whom were involved in the series such as Christy Mathewson) penned to monetize their position, to the large sums of money that exchanged hands in bets both outside and inside the ballpark by fans, managers including John McGraw who wagered $500 on his team (to win of course), and players alike, and even extending to the interference of an owner in an attempt to extend the series thereby increasing his profits, there is very little innocence and simplicity to be found. Perhaps Fred Snodgrass, Giants center fielder in the series and the man who would be bludgeoned with the business end of the sport for the rest of his life, would say fifty years later, “We were professionals. And professionals get paid”.

For those who aren’t familiar with the details of the series I’ll leave you to discover just how the elements of civic pride and rivalry, religion and the rift it caused in one of the clubhouses, and yes, the monetary interests of everyone involved all coalesce to make those nine days (that’s right, nine days in which eight games were played with a mostly alternating schedule – and you think modern travel is tough?) in October 1912 so interesting in Vaccaro’s retelling. One mark of the greatness of the series, as Vaccaro points out in the introduction is simply this: prior to 1912 baseball's postseason was known as the "world series" while after it was the "World Series".

While the book focuses on the series itself, similar to Cait Murphy’s excellent Crazy ’08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnets Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History, the author does a good job of setting the scene of the times by primarily following two concurrent events; the attempted assassination of “Bull Moose” presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt in Milwaukee on the day of game six, and the murder trial of New York City police officer Charles Becker in which Becker stood accused of ordering the murder of the gambler Herman Rosenthal. Suffice it to say the story ends well for one and not the other. Although Murphy’s book is a little broader in its social and historical context (not to mention its main subject matter as it deals with the entire season and not just the World Series) Vaccaro adds enough of the back stories of the players and coaches (particularly Mathewson, McGraw, Tris Speaker, Snodgrass, and “Smokey” Joe Wood), as well as the owners and “politicos” (Boston Mayor John “Honey Fritz” Fitzgerald, grandfather of JFK) to paint a picture of what it was like to live in that time. In addition, he focuses on the crowds gathered at the many sites, particularly throughout New York, where the rabid throngs could assemble and “watch” the progress of the game with as little as a six second delay through a mechanical version of MLBAM’s GameDay - a recreation sometimes complete with high tech lights and buzzers and moving figures. During the series baseball crazy fans in the tens of thousands without tickets to the Polo Grounds or the gleaming new Fenway Park would make their way to sites hosted by ten daily newspapers in New York and four in Boston to take in the action. Short vignettes of a few of those regular folks serve to complete the picture.

The book is structured chronologically leading off with a recap of 1912 regular season where the Red Sox, led by Wood’s 34-5 record and 344 IP, dominated the American League with a record of 102-50 and outpacing the Senators by 14 games. The “Speed Boys” as they were known despite stealing “only” 185 bases (the Senators led with 274) and leading the league in homeruns with 29, led the league in runs scored and fewest runs allowed. In the National League the Giants, while not as dominant, won 103 games and finally shook off both the Pirates and Cubs in the final months of the season. For the Giants it was their second consecutive appearance in the series having lost to Connie Mack’s Athletics in six games in 1911 while the Red Sox were returning for the first time since the inaugural series played in 1903. From there the book offers a chapter for each of the eight games and an extra for the final day of the series along with a well done epilogue that wraps up the few loose ends that remain and provides a platform for a poignant commentary on how we remember our heroes. Perhaps the only nitpick with the presentation is the lack of an index, a feature most readers with baseball libraries would I’m sure find useful.

If The First Fall Classic isn’t quite as comprehensive in its historical context as Murphy’s or certainly Josh Prager’s The Echoing Green, in terms of the style Vaccaro hits a homerun in his descriptions of the action on the field. He notes in the introduction that the bulk of his research was in reading contemporary news accounts and so given the colorful language and detailed play by play that newspapers of that time produced, perhaps some of that rubbed off as I found that the sense of drama and reality he portrayed was simply first rate. While prior to reading I had a summary knowledge of the series, although not all the particulars to be sure, several chapters had that “page-turner” quality that are inherent in well written books. If for no other reason than its readability and drama I'd recommend this book. Of course when coupled with the other reasons noted at the beginning of this review, picking up this book is simply a no-brainer for anyone with an interest in a truer picture of the game's past.

As a quick aside, as always books like this interest me because of their ability to contrast, knowingly or unknowingly, how the game was played in the past with its modern version. And of course those that describe play in the dead ball era, when the art of playing for one run was king and defenses weren't particularly efficient in turning batted balls into outs, are even more appealing. To that end, a crucial baserunning gaffe, or should I say base coaching gaffe, by one of the teams in game three grabbed my attention since it came at an interesting time in the evolution of the practice of employing full-time coaches. While the first fill time coach, Arlie Latham, was hired by the Reds in 1900, it would be 20 years before the practice was widely accepted. Not surprisingly it was McGraw who hired both Latham and Duke Farrell as full-time coaches in 1909 while other teams used either their manager or a rotating set of players. Although the gaffe from game three might have occurred if there were a full-time coach there or not, it illustrates how far specialization in the game has come and with it a higher overall level of play.