24
Sep
13

How the Game Got Modern: Three Baseball Books

I’ve been trying to have new reviews here each week, but sometimes things run short and this is one of those times. I’m still reading about a book a week, but when I have other priorities – ie: writing reviews for places that pay me – sometimes those reviews end up there instead.

Generally speaking, that’s why you don’t see too many sports book reviews here; they end up at The Good Point, where I’ve been a writer for the better part of four years. Over the course of this year, I’ve written about three baseball books for the site, each of varying quality. If you want a more detailed look at each, check out the links at the bottom. What I found interesting about them is how as a whole, they show the game becoming modern and something recognizable.

Organized baseball has it’s roots in 19th century America with a history as colourful as it is hazy. It was a strange, sparely documented sport with interesting people who sometimes seem more apocryphal than real. Who was Ol’ Hoss Radbourn? Did he really win 60 games in one season? And did he literally pitch a complete game while drunk and still drinking between inning)? We’ll probably never know.

As the 20th century came, baseball increased in popularity and became one of the biggest sports in the US. With this added popularity came more colour and more reliable histories. It’s right at this intersection of truth and hyperbole that Cait Murphy’s Crazy ’08 exists. That year had one of baseball’s best pennant races, with teams right in it the thick of it until the last day in both league, and some of it’s most hard-to-explain moments: riots on the field, people dying in the stands and Fred Merkle running to the clubhouse instead of touching second (allegedly!).

I’m a sucker for breezy, hard-to-verify baseball histories (one of my favourite reads ever is Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times) and this was a book that should’ve been right up my alley. The problem was Murphy’s prose, written like the purple sportswriting of the day. It was a hard block to get past; I often wondered if she was quoting Grantland Rice or some other sportswriter of yore.

Still, it’s a nice portrait of the game growing up before your eyes: recognizable stars emerging into the public consciousness, mass media building a fandom for the game (it was the first time giant scoreboards brought live action outside the stadiums) and rule changes which brought the game more stability (more uniform use of umpires, for example). In only a few years, the game had grown into something you’d recognize today.

But the game was still very much different in other ways. Even a few years after Murphy’s narrative leaves off, baseball was played in a more active yet less exciting way: get a single, steal a base or two, sacrifice bunt the runner home. Home runs were rare enough that hitting twelve in a season was enough to give you a name like Home Run Baker. And mind you: most of those were of the inside-the-park variety; hitting for power wasn’t in vogue.

Babe Ruth changed all that. But as Robert Creamer’s biography shows, it didn’t seem that way even after he’d been in the league for a few years. Everyone remembers how Ruth was a pitcher for the Red Sox. What’s maybe less remembered is his batting lines from those years: .272/.322/.419 in 1916, .325/.385/.472 the next. He was a pitcher first and foremost, batting ninth in the lineup and not playing when he wasn’t on the mound. But this gave him time to experiment with his swing: when he hit an American League-leading 11 home runs in 1918, he also led the AL in strikeouts. Still, Ruth soon re-invented himself as a power hitter, refusing to pitch and focusing on mashing dingers at a pace nobody had ever seen before.

And as he hit more and more home runs, his popularity blew through the roof. There’d been stars in baseball before – Honus Wager, Ty Cobb, etc. – but nobody was like Ruth before. He drew people to the ballpark only to see his home runs and signed endorsement deals for nearly anything he could. In just a few years, Ruth was hitting more home runs than entire teams.

He was making more money than anyone in baseball ever had, too. In 1920, he made $20,000 a season. Just a few years later, it was $52,000. Even today, nearly 100 years later, that’s enough to (barely) live off of. By the US Bureau of Labor’s calculator, that’s over $700,000 per season. And that’s just the money he made from his teams, too. Creamer does a good job of pointing out a less obvious truth about Ruth: he wasn’t just the first person to hit like today’s players, but the first to get paid like one, too.

One other thing Ruth did was more or less make the Yankees. Back in the earlier part of the century – the era Murphy covered – the Yankees/Highlanders were generally an also-ran. Between 1903, their first year in New York, and 1919 they finished fourth or lower 13 times and with a .500 or better record just seven times. Within two years of signing Ruth, they became one of baseball’s biggest dynasties: six World Series appearances in eight years, no mean feat in the days when only one team from each league made the postseason.

Ruth was the big part of the dynasty, but not the only one. Pitchers like Carl Mays and Waite Hoyt were important and there were role players like Wally Pipp or Wally Schang. But a few years after Ruth joined the Yankees he got one of his most important teammates: Lou Gehrig.

His first year as a Yankee was 1923, but Gehrig didn’t see regular playing time until a couple of seasons later. In his first full year in the league, Gehrig hit .295/.365/.531 with 20 home runs. He’d combine with Ruth to form the core what New York sportswriters called Murderers’ Row, the powerful hitting lineup of the Yankees.

The peak of these teams was 1927, when New York ripped through the competition. They won 110 games, 19 more than the second-place Athletics, and ripped through Pittsburgh in the World Series. That year, Ruth destroyed pitchers with a .356/.486/.772 line (and 60 home runs to boot), but Gehrig wasn’t far behind: .373/.474/.765 and 47 homers. Indeed, that season Gehrig won the first of his two MVP trophies.

As Ruth’s career (and fitness level) began to decline, Gehrig’s play took over. In 1934, Ruth’s last season as Yankee, Gehrig turned in one of his best seasons as a Yankee: .363/.465/.706. This year, Baseball-Reference credits him with a 10.8 WAR, his second-best total.

The difference between Gehrig and Ruth was a matter of confidence around the media. Whereas Ruth loved the spotlight, Gehrig shied away. As Jonathan Eig points out in a great biography of Gehrig, this was a man who lived with his parents well into his adulthood and was uncomfortable in social settings. At parties, he was known to slip away early and unnoticed. He wasn’t just a star, but the kind of star modern sportswriters would’ve loved to write about: moody and complex, a much fuller personality than the media of his day would’ve appreciated.

Eig’s biography does a remarkable job of giving Gehrig his dues, no mean feat considering how long ago his wife and family died; he had no children. It’s easy to reduce Gehrig to a famous speech, some powerful hitting and a tragic disease, but Eig goes deeper, showing his complicated background, his attitude to period media and reluctance to be turned into a superstar. More than anyone before him, Gehrig seems like a modern star, someone who’s flaws make him more compelling and harder to understand. By the time he left baseball in 1939, baseball was recognizably modern: played the way it’s done today by people fleshed out in three dimensions, who don’t quite transcend the sport like Ruth but seem more like you and I.

Related:

Jonathan Eig – Luckiest Man

Robert Creamer – Babe: The Legend Comes to Life

Cait Murphy – Crazy ’08

 

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