With apologies to Alfred Lord Tennyson, “In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of baseball.” With the media spasms of opening day upon us, it’s time for a review about "The Old Ball Game." That’s the title of Frank Deford’s rollicking thesis: Underpaid late 19th-century ballplayers who toiled in hot woolen uniforms near rickety flammable wooden bleachers tossing soft horsehide-covered deadballs with all the bounce of marshmallows spawned major league baseball. Those stories compare happily with today’s arrogant multi-millionaires who enjoy steroids, hits that threaten orbit and games that rival War and Peace for length.
Young fans in the late 1940s, including this reviewer, were only a few decades removed from arguably the greatest pitcher and manager in baseball history. That was about the same length of time Christy Mathewson and John J. McGraw were separated from the American Civil War when Yankee soldiers returned from battle with a new game.
Matty was a handsome six-foot two-inch clean-cut college graduate when a tiny fraction of Americans had finished high school. He personified Victorian virtues that eschewed abuse of alcoholic beverages, womanizing and throwing professional baseball games. His was one of the most devastating right arms in baseball history.
McGraw was a stubby ferocious pugnacious manager who helped develop a new scrappy style of baseball to fit his personality. Credit McGraw with the hit-and-run, Baltimore chop, squeeze play, holding onto belt loops to slow opposing runners, doctoring foul lines and keeping outfields ankle-deep in weeds to hide balls when outfielders needed a quick replacement for a lost long drive.
“Never were two men in sport so close to one another and yet so far apart in ilk and personality,” Deford wrote. Muggsy McGraw had made his name years before becoming the New York Giants manager by starring for the roughhouse Baltimore Orioles, a virtual street gang that spiked shins and cheated their way to pennants. McGraw was a man who one umpire claimed “eats gunpowder every morning and washes it down with warm blood.” He took over the foundering Giants in 1902 and, with Matty, led the Giants to five pennants between 1904 and 1913. Mathewson looked past McGraw’s vulgar bluster to his loyalty and strategic brilliance. McGraw admired Matheson’s mound smarts and valor.
The pair lived through some of early baseball’s most storied episodes. McGraw refused to face the champion of the upstart American League in 1904, canceling what would have been the second World Series. After recapturing the pennant the next year, he did agree to face the Philadelphia Athletics, whom Mathewson, only 25, shut out three times in three starts, the greatest individual performance in Series history.
For all their success, Matty and Muggsy were victims of famous blunders: Merkle’s boner, when the Giants’ Fred Merkle cost his team a pennant by failing to touch second base, and Snodgrass’s muff, when Fred Snodgrass dropped a fly ball and the Giants’ 1912 World Series title with it.
Deford mentions Frank Merriwell, vaudeville acts and the growth of New York. London might have been larger, but, Deford notes, “New York used four times the electricity.”
Matty “was golden, tall, handsome, kind and educated, our beau ideal, the first all-American boy to emerge from the baseball field, while McGraw was a pugnacious little boss who would become the model” for the classic tough flinty coach.
An aside: Many call Deford the best sportswriter ever. This reviewer places him in second place, after Roger Angell, author of the Boys of Summer, the best book about baseball and the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1940s and ‘50s. Angell’s baseball prose is elegiac, a lament to an irrecoverable youth. Some call him the poet laureate of baseball. Another credential: Angell was the stepson of E.B. White, co-author of Elements of Style, a thin tome that every Cornell student for decades knew as the Writer’s Bible.
Frank Deford is probably the second best sports writer of the modern era; being second to Roger Angell puts him in an enviable Pantheon.
The Old Ball Game was published in 2005 but is worth what readers will pay now. This reviewer found a dozen hardcover and paperback versions at AbeBooks.com for less than four bucks with free shipping.
A two-evening read about the riotous genesis of professional baseball is always worth four bucks any spring, this reviewer avows.