“The First Fall Classic”: A Baseball Book Review
Mike Vaccaro’s book, “The First Fall Classic,” published by Doubleday Books, is a lively, engaging, and well-researched look at the 1912 World Series between the New York Giants and the Boston Red Sox. If there is just one book you might ever want to read about baseball in the pre-Babe Ruth years, this is the one for you.
The strength of this book lies in Mr. Vaccaro’s obvious enthusiasm for his subject matter. He has an eye for details, and his book is ripe full of engaging little moments where we feel not like the reader of a book, but like an eaves-dropper listening in to a fascinating story.
An example of this occurs early on, when Tris Speaker, the Red Sox center-fielder, hits a monster home run during batting practice, witnessed by several of the Giants players. In Vaccaro’s words:
There was an audible gasp, then instant silence. It was the longest ball anyone had ever seen hit in this stadium, or in any of the previous three stadiums bearing the name, “Polo Grounds.”
“Holy smoke,” Fred Merkle said, loud enough for McGraw to hear.
“You know how many runs they get for that, Merkle? They get zero runs for that. Next time I catch you admiring their work it’ll cost you twenty-five bucks.”
The book is organized in such a way that, for the most part, each chapter is a self-contained, one-act drama about each of the eight (yes, eight) World Series games that year. The final chapter, however, is entirely dedicated to the climactic tenth inning of the final game, a showdown between Smoky Joe Wood and Christy Mathewson.
We can feel the tension that Mathewson and his manager, John McGraw, felt being so close to their first World’s Championship since 1905. But with 30 game winner Wood in the way, it was far from a done deal.
The cast of characters throughout this book, both baseball and civilian, is wide-ranging and colorful. We are updated throughout regarding the 1912 Presidential election campaigns of Teddy Roosevelt of the independent Bull Moose Party, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, and incumbent President, and huge (both literally as well as figuratively) baseball fan, William Taft.
The baseball action on the field is also complemented by a sensationalist, headline grabbing murder trial involving a police lieutenant on a special vice squad, Charles Becker, who was charged with murdering a Jewish bookie named Herm Rosenthal. Headlines of the day called it, “The Trial of the Century.” At times, even the proceedings of the murder would be interrupted, however, by news of the World Series.
In fact, reading about how much the 1912 Series affected virtually the whole country, one is left with the sobering realization that even though baseball today remains one of our most popular escapist leisure activities, it just doesn’t occupy the same place in America’s consciousness the way it did a hundred years ago.
This book review is not the time or the place to speculate as to why that is, but it is clear that ballplayers a hundred years ago were, from a socioeconomic standpoint, closer to the average American citizen than they are today.
Players like Giants second baseman Larry Doyle, Red Sox outfielder Red Murray, and Giants pitcher Jeff Tesreau, emerged from coal mines, farms, small Atlantic seaboard hamlets, and remote country hollows. With a few notable exceptions, such as Christy Mathewson, Harry Hooper, and Larry Gardner who all attended college, most of the players of this era, like the fans who adored them, had relatively little formal education.
But they sure knew how to play baseball.
I was also surprised to learn that there was a deep, dark cultural divide on the Red Sox, between the Protestant southerners (like Smoky Joe Wood and Tris Speaker) and the northern Catholics on the team (like Heinie Wagner, Bill Carrigan and Bucky O’Brien.) On at least one occasion, these teammates engaged in a fistfight over their cultural differences.
Then there was the issue of corruption that surrounded baseball in those days. Specifically, the issue of gambling. Bookies and odds-makers were omnipresent in ballparks in those days, and even Giants manager John McGraw was known to associate with Arnold Rothstein, an underworld bookie.
In fact, this book provides so many anecdotes regarding this issue that it is unsurprising that, just a few years later, the Black Sox Scandal took place. What does come as a surprise, at least to me, is that so much gambling and fraternization with known criminals and undesirables was tolerated by so many for so long.
But then again, we have our own modern parallel, the steroids issue. Nearly a century later, baseball finds itself dealing with a scandal that could have been avoided if so many key people hadn’t turned a blind eye to this problem for so long. And, once again, the key motivating force behind baseball’s modern scandal, is, at root, money.
In a sense, then, this book makes clear that baseball, and the men who play it, organize it, and manage it, have changed little over the past century.
Lastly, Red Sox fans will especially enjoy the prominence given by the author to the “Royal Rooters,” the Red Sox Nation of their era. Their unofficial leader, Nuf Ced McGreevy, is a character that could have been invented by Charles Dickens. And the story of how these uber-fans were betrayed by Red Sox owner James McAleer makes fascinating reading.
My criticisms of this book are few and relatively minor. The relevance of the so-called Trial of the Century, which the author revisits from time to time, is questionable, at least insofar as the author provides it a position of prominence.
Also, an index would have been helpful in trying to more easily return to certain players, characters, or anecdotes.
The epilogue, however, is an eye-opener in that we learn about how many of the players of the 1912 World Series came to meet unfortunate, sometimes tragic, ends. More than a few died sooner than they should have.
Overall, then, I highly recommend this book to any baseball fan looking for an interesting, entertaining summer read. At just 290 pages in length, “The First Fall Classic” is certainly also a manageable read even for those with a full summer schedule.
Perhaps the best way to finish this book review is with a quotation from Giants second-baseman and team captain, Larry Doyle:
“Damn, it’s great to be young and a New York Giant.”
To which I can only reply,
Damn, it’s great to read a book about baseball players who loved the game a century ago as much we still love the game today.