Monday, July 17, 2023

Books: "Baseball at the Abyss" By Dan Taylor


Baseball at the Abyss: The Scandals of 1926, Babe Ruth, and the Unlikely Savior Who Rescued a Tarnished Game

By Dan Taylor

Rowman & Littlefield; 220 pages; hardcover, $36.00; eBook, $34.00

Dan Taylor is a sports historian, author, and a former award-winning television sportscaster who is currently the television broadcaster for the Fresno Grizzlies. Taylor has written five books, most recently Lights, Camera, Fastball: How the Hollywood Stars Changed Baseball (click here for our review from April 2021), and he is a memeber of the Society for American Baseball Research and contributes to their biography project.

Baseball at the Abyss is Taylor's newest book, and it highlights a scandal that has largely been forgotten, while deepening our understanding of one of the greatest players ever, Babe Ruth, on one of the most-remembered teams ever, the 1927 Yankees.

In the winter of 1926, Major League Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis was informed by veteran pitcher Dutch Leonard of a betting and game-fixing scandal involving two of baseball's biggest stars, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker.

Leonard, who was part of the Boston Red Sox starting rotation, which included Babe Ruth, on their championship teams in 1915 and 1916, and he was a member of the Detroit Tigers in 1919 when a game between Detroit, managed by Cobb, and the Cleveland Indians, of which Speaker was its player-manager, predetermined the outcome of a game.

In October 1926, Landis visited Leonard on his farm in California, where he was informed of this. Leonard produced letters proving that he was one of four people, plus Cobb, Speaker, and Cleveland pitcher "Smokey" Joe Wood, in the final days of the 1919 season to fix the outcome of a game to preserve the Tigers' finishing in third place and the money that came with that finish. Cleveland had already locked up second place, and once the agreement was made to fix the game on September 25, 1919, the four of them made bets on it. A check of the results from that game, which was the last home game of Detroit's season, gave credence to Leonard's allegations, which resulted in Cobb and Speaker being banished.

Sportswriters said this scandal was worse than the infamous "Black Sox" scandal when eight Chicago White Sox players, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, were accused of throwing the World Series. The reputation of baseball was in tatters.

Taylor reveals how baseball was saved, and it was set in motion by one unlikely individual, Christy Walsh, who was the business manager for Babe Ruth and baseball's first player agent. Walsh had a varied career in the newspaper and advertising business, and he saw the potential in Ruth's star power, as he arranged for him to star in a movie and he pressed The Babe to hire a fitness guru, change his habits, and train while in Hollywood.

The scandal became a distant memory, as Ruth enjoyed his best season in 1927, when he hit 60 home runs and led the Murderer's Row Yankees to a World Championship and heights they had never seen before.

Taylor paints the scene at the fourth game of the 1927 World Series, which saw Ruth facing Pittsburgh Pirates' pitcher Carmen "Bunker" Hill, in this excerpt: "The faces around Yankee Stadium reflected the intense interest in the game from all levels of society. Being a Saturday afternoon, working men flocked there. Laborers sat alongside executives. Celebrities dotted the box seats. The numbers who poured through the turnstiles were akin to the crowds that greeted the Yankees throughout the summer, be they in Detroit or St. Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Washington, DC, or Boston. So riveting was Ruth's pursuit of the single-season-home-run record that every American League club enjoyed its finest attendance whenever the Yankees came to town. Four of the biggest turnouts in all of baseball in 1927 were, in fact, recorded in the Yankees' own park - seventy-two-thousand on Opening Day and again on the Fourth of July, and crowds that topped sixty thousand were tallied on two other occasions. 

Large crowds, enthusiasm over the record pursuit, and accompanying favorable headlines in newspapers all across the country were a reassuring sight for the game's commissioner. From his front-row box, Kenesaw Mountain Landis was a mixture of emotions. Just as he could calmly enjoy the action one minute, the next, he would angrily wave photographers away, while later, a cigarette still hanging from the right side of his mouth would reveal the nervousness churning inside. Landis had seen baseball enter spring training smeared by scandal - two of its most popular players accused of fixing games and two managers charged with gambling on games. The scandal wrought damning off-season publicity. Baseball's integrity was roundly impugned. Columnists proclaimed the once-proud game now hovered about with professional wrestling and horse racing, its outcomes open to question and mired in suspicion. That was before a new Babe Ruth, a revived Babe Ruth - a Babe Ruth who, made by his business manager, Christy Walsh, to take the game more seriously than ever before, began a record-setting assault on American League pitching, one that riveted an entire nation.

Just as American League pitchers knew Babe Ruth loved to hit a fastball, the more experienced, more intelligent pitchers in the game knew full well slow pitches were his Achilles' heel. During the 1926 World Series, the Cardinals' Grover Cleveland Alexander boasted of facing Ruth: 'He will get them only around the knees and he will get screwballs and slow curves.'

Carmen Hill possessed an excellent curveball and evoked loud groans from the large Yankee Stadium crowd when he induced Ruth to swing and miss one for strike one.

The Yankees' sensation assumed his batting stance once again. Buoyed by the success of his curveball, Hill decided he would tempt Ruth with another. Only this time, he would throw it with slightly less effort to decrease its speed. Once the pitch left Hill's hand, Ruth lifted his right heel off the ground. He recognized the spin as that of a curveball, slow at that. Ruth raised his bent right knee and synchronously twisted his hips ever so slightly to the left. As the pitch drew near, the slugger dipped the head of his bat four inches, flicked his wrists to bring the bat forward, then began a swift, violent swing. The curveball broke inward toward the left-handed-batting Ruth. It traveled waist high and caught the bat two inches about his hands. On contact, frustration struck Hill, who would call the pitch 'a real pooper.' Instantly, the ball shot high into the air, and a mighty roar went up from the crowd.

Major J. Andrew White, describing the game over the CBS radio network, told of the ball's flight and its landing in the bleachers in right center field. The scoreboard operator was put to work and changed the numbers on the board to reflect a 3-1 Yankees lead.

Yankee Stadium became awash in delirium. Exaltation from the stands, as opposed to moisture from clouds overhead, rained on Ruth as he trotted from base to base. At that moment in time, the record-setting slugger was not only the focal point of thousands in Yankee Stadium but also millions more who listened by radio or watched special game-tracking boards set up outside newspaper buildings, in garages, and restaurants in both the major metropolises and small burghs. At that very moment, nothing anywhere in America held more interest.

As he completed circling the bases and then touched home plate, Ruth's Bunyanesque power hitting had the Yankees on the threshold of a World Series title. But far more important was not just what it had done for the Yankees but the game of baseball. By captivating Americans throughout the summer of 1927, Babe Ruth wiped away the cynicism from the winter scandal. His astounding record chase engendered new fans and ignited passion anew among old. More importantly, Babe Ruth lifted baseball from the smoldering ashes of controversy and placed the game back onto its rightful throne as America's favored sport.

Ruth's unmatched achievements during the summer of 1927 were the product of a transformative journey, one that turned animus to awe and put to rest suggestions that he was washed up and his own worst enemy. He traversed an improbable path, prodded by an unlikely initiator, an unrelenting man who instigated with kick, cajole, and a bit of deception. The seeds for Ruth's remarkable productivity and, with it, the resuscitation of baseball were planted in the most implausible of settings - not in any ballpark not any of the resort spas where ballplayers often prepared for a season. It was on the set of a Hollywood movie where baseball began its improbable recovery from a winter at the abyss."

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