Monday, April 17, 2023

Part 3: New Baseball Books To Usher In The Season


Photo by Jason Schott.

The baseball season is in full swing, making it a good time to settle in and check out three wonderful books on baseball's rich history: Leo Durocher: Baseball's Prodigal Son, by Paul Dickson, Tales from the Deadball Era: Ty Cobb, Home Run Baker, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and the Wildest Times in Baseball History, by Mark S. Halfon; and Tris Speaker: The Rough-and-Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend,  by Timothy M. Gay.

Leo Durocher: Baseball's Prodigal Son

By Paul Dickson

University of Nebraska Press; paperback, 384 pages; $24.95

Paul Dickson is the author of more than sixty-five nonfiction books, including more than a dozen on baseball, among them the Dickson Baseball Dictionary, which was named by the Wall Street Journal as one of the five best baseball books ever written.

Leo Durocher is one of baseball's biggest characters, who was a top shortstop, winning World Series with the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals, and then he went on to manage the New York Giants, Chicago Cubs, and Houston Astros.

You name the major event from baseball's Golden Age, from the Murderer's Row Yankees in 1928 to the Giants' epic comeback over the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951, to being on the other side of the Amazin' Mets run in 1969, Durocher was there.

Dickson examines Durocher's life and times through primary source materials, interviews with those who knew him, and original newspaper files. There are fascinating and new insights into the racial integration of baseball, Durocher's unprecedented suspension from the game, the two clubhouse revolts staged against him in Brooklyn and Chicago, and his vibrant life on and off the field.

In this excerpt, Dickson writes of what made Durocher into a legend of the game: "Leo Durocher (1905-1991) was baseball's all-time leading character - cocky, flamboyant, and galvanizing, casting a shadow across several baseball eras, from the time of Babe Ruth to the space-age Astrodome, from Prohibition through the Vietnam War. For more than forty years, he was a dominant figure in the game, with a Zelig-like ability to be present as a player or manager for some of the greatest teams and defining baseball moments of the twentieth century.

Unlike the passive Leonard Zelig, however, Durocher was an actor in all of it. He performed on three main stages: New York, Chicago, and Hollywood. He entered from the wings, strode to where the lights were brightest, and then took a poke at anyone who tried to upstage him. He shared the limelight on occasion, but only with Hollywood stars such as Spencer Tracy, whom he called his 'lucky coin'; movie tough guy and sometime roommate George Raft; 'best friend' Frank Sinatra; and his third wife, movie star Lorraine Day.

He had the right script. Durocher played shortstop for four major league teams, including two that were given nicknames that still resonate today - the 1928 'Murderers' Row' New York Yankees and the 1934 'Gashouse Gang' St. Louis Cardinals. Both of these great teams won the World Series with Durocher playing shortstop. He also appeared as a player on three National League All-Star teams: in 1936 (as a Cardinal) and in 1938 and 1940 (as a Brooklyn Dodger). Although he had a lackluster lifetime batting average of .247 - teammate Babe Ruth nicknamed him 'the All-American Out' because of his anemic offense - he earned a reputation as the best defensive shortstop of the era before World War II.

Durocher went on to become manager of four major league teams for a total of twenty-four seasons. He managed 2,008 wins in 3,739 games, winning three National League pennants (in 1941, 1951, and 1954) and the World Series in 1954. He was named Manager of the Year three times by The Sporting News. His lifetime winning percentage with the Dodgers, Giants, Cubs, and Astros was .540. At the time of his death, only five managers in major league history had won more games than Durocher's 2,008.

Two of the teams he managed - the New York Giants and the Chicago Cubs - played in pennant races considered to be two of the most exciting of the twentieth century. One was in 1951, when Durocher's Giants overcame a 13 1/2 game deficit, going 37-7 down the stretch to catch the runaway Brooklyn Dodgers and beat them in a playoff series that ended with Bobby Thomson's epic home run, the 'Shot Heard 'Round the World.' That final game, called the 'Miracle of Coogan's Bluff,' is still regarded as among the greatest single games in baseball history. The other pennant race involved Durocher's 1969 Cubs, who had a nine-game lead in August, only to lose to the underdog New York Mets, who came out of the pack to win the pennant and ultimately the World Series."

Tales from the Deadball Era: Ty Cobb, Home Run Baker, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and the Wildest Times in Baseball History

By Mark S. Halfon

Nebraska; paperback, 240 pages; $19.95

Mark S. Halfon is a professor of philosophy at Nassau Community College in New York. He is the author of Can a Dead Man Strike Out? Offbeat Baseball Questions and Their Improbable Answers.

In the new book Tales from the Deadball Era, Halfon tells the incredible story of life in the Major Leagues in the early 1900s, the careers of Hall of Famers including John McGraw, Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson, and the events that defined the Deadball Era, which went from 1901 through 1920.

It was a time that was a baseball fan's dream, as it was marked by hope and despair, innocence and cynicism, and levity and hostility, and it helped the popularity of the game explode. The strategies that were employed, such as slapping the ball around getting runs 90 feet at a time; the underhanded tactics, and the bitter battles made this storied era of the game so memorable.

Cheating for the sake of victory would earn respect, corrupy ballplayers fixed games with impunity, and violence plagued the sport. It was a time when some spectators stormed the field to heckle umpires, while ballplayers went into the stands to confront hecklers. 

The sport also had an endearing side, with fans heading to the field with baskets of flowers, loving cups, diamond jewelry gold watches, and cash for their favorite players in the middle of games. 

Ballplayers had physical battles between opposing clubs that occurred regularly in a phenomenon known as "rowdyism," but they also were eager to volunteer for "benefit contests" to aid fellow big leaguers and the country in times of need. "Joke games" reduced sport to pure theater as outfielders intentionally dropped fly balls, infielders happily booted easy grounders, hurlers threw soft pitches over the plate, and umpires ignored the rules.

Halfon writes of the growth of the game, "Baseball surged in popularity at the turn of the twentieth century as longtime enthusiasts and recent converts flocked to city parks, empty lots, and open fields form sunup to beyond sundown to play a game that gripped a nation. Drugstores, shoe manufacturers, and meatpackers organized squads that battled for bragging rights, while steel mill, coal mine, and railroad companies hired workers to play on company teams. An explosion of clubs led to the creation of new leagues including industrial leagues, Negro leagues, and professional girls' leagues, each answering the call of voices seeking their place on the ball field. Baseball's reach extended further to the edges of society, where wayward youngsters in reformatories and hardened inmates in penitentiaries participated in a sport thought to have rehabilitative powers.

"Not only did baseball take hold as a thrilling form of recreation, but it also emerged as an enormously popular spectator sport. Major League attendance soared, minor leagues flourished, and amateur baseball drew huge crowds. Nearly one hundred thousand fans attended the 1915 amateur baseball championship of Cleveland, and the public gathered to watch ballgames on any level in any venue. Exhibition contests before, during, and after the regular season found audiences eager to see big leaguers compete against each other, local clubs, and college teams, while barnstorming in the autumn brought baseball to small towns and rural villages, where fans mingled with famous players that they only read about in newspapers. It was not enough. An insatiable thirst for what had become the national pastime led to the creation of indoor baseball, offering a measure of solace in the winter months."

Tris Speaker: The Rough-and-Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend

By Timothy M. Gay

Nebraska; paperback, 342 pages; $21.95

Timothy M. Gay's essays and articles on the Civil War, politics, baseball, college basketball, and golf have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, and other publications. He has written several books, including Satch, Dizzy, and Rapid Robert: The Wild Saga of Interracial Baseball Before Jackie Robinson.

This is the first book to tell the full story of the turbulent life of Tris Speaker, the three-time World Series winner and early inductee of the Hall of Fame, and it brings to light the grit and glory of his pivotal role in baseball's dead-ball era.

Speaker played for the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians in the early part of the twentieth century, and he was lauded by Babe Ruth as the finest defensive outfielder he ever saw, and by Grantland Rice as "perfection on the field." He put up numbers that amaze observers up to now, including his record for career doubles, 792, that may never be approached, let alone broken.

Gay writes a robust account of one of the greatest times in baseball, and some of the darkest moments that ever tainted a game and hastened the end of a career. His four years of research on Speaker unearthed a document that suggests that cheating induced by gambling was far more widespread in early baseball than officials have acknowledged. He also captures the rough-and-tumble early years of Major League Baseball and restores one of baseball's true greats to is rightful place in history.

In this excerpt, Gay writes of Speaker's unrivaled talent: "Ask informed observers to name the greatest center fielders in history and they will invariably cite (Willie) Mays, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, maybe Ken Griffey, Jr., and a couple of others. Even Duke Snider, whose skills weren't in Speaker's league, will get more nods than Tris. Yet nearly eight decades after Tris's retirement, he still holds American League records among outfielders for most career chances, most put-outs, most assists, most double plays, and - here's a statistic not often associated with center fielders - most unassisted double plays. Speaker played so shallow and with such elan that perhaps as many as six times in his career he caught line drives and out-hustled the runner to get a force out at second base. The only other dead-ball immortal whose defensive acumen was in Speaker's class was Honus Wagner, the gritty shortstop of the Pittsburgh Pirates whose gargantuan hands gobbled up every grounder in sight.

'Speaker was Willie Mays before there was a Willie Mays,' maintains baseball historian Richard Johnson, the curator of the Sports Museum of New England. Like Mays, Speaker was a fearsome hitter. Speaker's lifetime batting average was twenty points higher than DiMaggio's and more than forty points higher than Mays's and Mantle's. Tris was much more than a Punch-and-Judy hitter. If the lively ball had been introduced earlier in his career, many of Speaker's more than a thousand career doubles and triples would have been home runs."

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