The On Deck Circle

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Archive for the tag “John McGraw”

Hall of Fame of the Heart

What does reason know?  Reason only knows what it has succeeded in learning. -Dostoevsky

If you could build your own Baseball Hall of Fame, what kind of place would it be?

It’s likely that the actual Hall of Fame includes several  players you admired while growing up.  It’s also likely that some of the players you admired the most then, and still do today, were never deemed Hall worthy.

You may not even have any real problem with that.  Intellectually, you probably understand the statistical reasoning that has served to exclude some of your favorite players.

But suppose we were to construct a Hall of the Heart, that is, a place (or, more accurately, an idea), where those players who captured our imagination all those years ago would be enshrined?  In fact, when we use the term “Hall of Fame,” it begs the question, famous to whom?

If fame is the fleeting, fickle standard by which we are to choose our immortals, it is by definition an extremely subjective standard.  Just because the evolution of The Hall has coincided with a revolution in statistical analysis doesn’t necessarily mean that the membership of the former should be almost entirely dependent upon the mathematical equations of the latter.

Or, as the 19th century Russian writer, Dostoevsky, stated in Notes From Underground:

[Man] is fond of striving toward achievement, but not so very fond of the achievement itself, and this is, naturally, terribly funny. In short, man is constructed comically; there is evidently some joke in all of this. But two times two makes four is still an altogether insufferable thing. Two times two makes four–why, in my view, it is sheer impertinence. Two times two makes four is a brazen fop who bars your way with arms akimbo, spitting.

Now, don’t get me wrong here.  This is not a diatribe in favor of the so-called “traditionalist” view of baseball.  Nor am I suggesting that the statistical work that has been done by the modern, progressive wing of the baseball universe has been accomplished by “brazen fops.”   The fact is that the “traditionalists” use stats just as readily to make their particular cases just as often and with as much gusto as those of the sabermetric persuasion.  They just choose to use a different set of (generally older) stats.

What I’m advocating here is a return to the idea of baseball as fun, as entertainment, and as the fount of the dreams of youth.  For that, we have to look inward, into our irrational, passionate selves.     We never cheer a 1.040 WHIP, but we do cheer the unlikely triple hit by the chubby kid that scores the go-ahead run in the home-half of the eighth inning.

What follows, then, is (perhaps inevitably) a list of the players who inspired my imagination as a child, and on into my teens and early twenties.  They are the by-product of time and place, and are of a distant genetic lineage to the gods and immortals of old:  Hercules, Odysseus, Achilles, Agamemnon, Heracles, Theseus, etc.

I will strive for brevity in my comments about each one of my heroes.  My list, after all, is not intended to convince you of anything at all, except of my own vulnerable humanity.

It is also not in any particular order.  Let the imagination do its work, uninterrupted:

1)  Tom Seaver:  My very own Odysseus.  Conquering hero, fated to spend several years away from home ( Queens / Ithaca) eventually to return again, triumphant, however briefly.

2)  Freddy Lynn:  Inspiration in the summer of ’75 for so many backyard dives and catches.  To play so fearlessly, even for one season in the sun, is what it’s all about.

3)  Steve Garvey:  Though it’s not a Steve Garvey model, I bought a first-base mitt to be like him.  I still have it today.  Handsome, dependable, heroic and a star, in the mid-1970’s, he was everything I could ever hope to be.

4)  Rusty Staub:  There was always something mysterious about him.  Rusty sometimes wore a black glove while batting, he came from foreign lands (Montreal, by way of Houston), and he was also a practicing chef.  He was like a secret agent masquerading as a baseball player, and he had a certain swagger about him.  He was like Robert Vaughn in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  crossed with Robert Vaughn in The Magnificent Seven.

5)  The Boys of Summer:  This was the first grownup book I ever read.  I was around ten or eleven years old, and while reading it, I wanted the entire Brooklyn Dodgers team to be my friends and family.  Roger Kahn also made me want to be a writer, if I couldn’t be a ballplayer.

Giants manager John McGraw and pitcher Christy...

Giants manager John McGraw and pitcher Christy Mathewson during the 1911 World Series. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6)  Christy Mathewson:  Although he played long before my time, I was struck by his story, his boyish good looks, and his integrity.  Mathewson was college educated.  His manager, John McGraw, was an old-school tough without much formal education.  Yet McGraw loved Mathewson like a son.  It was the sort of relationship I coveted with my father.

Mathewson was gassed in a training accident in 1918 during the First World War.  He would die young, at age 45 in 1925, of tuberculosis.

Like Achilles, he would shine brightly all too briefly.  He was both literally and figuratively a warrior, and the war would contribute to his early demise.

7)  Keith Hernandez:  Keith was, without doubt, the greatest fielding first baseman I’ve ever seen.  He took charge of the infield in a way I’ve never seen a first baseman do either before or since.  Always fearless and accurate when throwing across the diamond, he cut down more base-runners in a week, than I’ve seen some do in a year.

Keith was also a great clutch hitter.  Never a big power threat, Keith would spray line-drives all over the place, usually when they mattered most.

He also had a smoking habit, and, although it never inspired me to start smoking myself, it did make him seem more accessible and human.  He wasn’t some body-building athlete intent on perfecting his physique.  He was a baseball player with the God-given ability, the natural instincts and the competitive drive to succeed in a very difficult sport.

8)  Will “The Thrill” Clark:  An intense southern boy from the bayous of Louisiana, Will Clark was  nothing if not a competitor.  The eye-black he wore made him look like a special forces sniper.  Another first baseman, he helped get me back into collecting baseball cards in the late 1980’s.  I wanted to collect every card that featured him, and I wanted to copy his smooth, left-handed swing.  I was always happy when the Giants came to town so I could watch him play.

If the character, Swan, from the movie, “The Warriors” was a pro baseball player, he’d be Will Clark (and wouldn’t the Baseball Furies just love that?)  Swan is the very first Warrior you see in this clip. The movie is loosely based on Homer’s, The Odyssey.

Eric Davis hit for the cycle in 1989.

Eric Davis hit for the cycle in 1989. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)9)

 9)  Eric Davis:  Eric the Red.  A contemporary of Will Clark, he played with a slash and burn style reminiscent of the Norseman of myth and legend.

I absolutely loved the way Eric Davis, in his prime, made the game of baseball look so easy that he might soon grow bored with it and find another hobby.

He could steal bases, hit homers, range around the outfield, score runs, and he played with just enough of the toughness of the streets of L.A. where he grew up.

Later, in 1998, Davis also made a heroic comeback from colon cancer to play remarkably well for the Baltimore Orioles.

Eric Davis and I also share a birthday, May 29th.  He was born exactly one year before me.

10)  Jeff Bagwell:  Bagwell grew up in my home state of Connecticut and is just a few years younger than I.  Throughout the ’90’s, Bagwell was my favorite player.  He was powerful, he could really run the bases, which was most unusual for a first baseman, and I loved his wide-open stance.  An aggressive player, Bagwell basically had no weaknesses in his game.  If the god Apollo could play baseball, he would be Jeff Bagwell.

These are certainly not the only ten players in my Hall of the Heart.  A random sampling of many others would include Roger Maris, Dwight Gooden, Larry Walker, Bernie Carbo, Jerry Grote, Lou Gehrig, Bill Lee, Jim Bouton, Dave Kingman, Sid Fernandez, Rube Waddell, Jerry Koosman, Mookie Wilson, Jon Matlack, Jimmy Wynn, Bobby Murcer, Buck O’Neil, Satchel Paige, Kirby Puckett, Ken Griffey, Jr., Ted Williams, Cal Ripkin, Jr., Gary Carter, David Cone, Mike Vail, Lenny Randle, Mark Fidrych, Ron LeFlore, Sandy Koufax, Smoky Joe Wood, Ron Guidry, Dizzy Dean,  Arky Vaughan, Paul Konerko, Brian Giles, Nomar Garciaparra, Rusty Greer, “Toe” Nash, Sidd Finch, Moonlight Graham, Robin Ventura, Addie Joss, and yes, even Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Oh, and some guy who used to pitch for the Red Sox named Babe Ruth.

Now that’s a Hall of Fame for which I would happily pay the price of admission.

Who would you include in your irrational, sentimental Hall of the Heart?

I’d like to know.

“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.

‘Nuf Ced.

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