Watching ESPN on Sunday night, as the NCAA selected the 64, er... 68 (who can keep up anymore?) teams invited onto a rung of millions of fans' brackets nationwide, one would think that college basketball was the only sport going on. Now, imagine a SportsCenter type program in 1914. Every night would be dominated by one sport, but that would be baseball.
Of course, baseball at the turn of the 20th century had a monopoly in the hearts of most sports fans, with boxing and a few others all vying for a distant second place. And while the wins and losses are duly recorded from that era, it's still clouded in mystery to a degree. The black-and-white images from the first two decades of the 1900s add to the intrigue... who were these men so aggrandized and, on some rare occasions, reviled in the purple, often slanted prose of the day?
It's not those wins and losses that are of interest 100 years later as much as the stories. And, oh, what stories. In Tales from the Deadball Era: Ty Cobb, Home Run Baker, Shoeless Joe Jackson and the Wildest Times in Baseball History (Potomac Books, 248 pps., $26.95), Mark S. Halfon looks at the stories behind those results and players. Some may be familiar to many baseball history fans, but even avid students of the era will find some gems in this breezy read.
Besides the idea that the ball was different and no one hit home runs, many fans' knowledge of 1900-1920 baseball starts and ends with the Black Sox Scandal. Indeed, many of the stories in Tales have gambling and suspected game-fixing as central themes. There are more details than are often noted about other games and series, and even "backroom" deals between players to help preferred teams gain certain places in the standings.
But Halfon gives a more complete picture of the era, including such nuggets as poor Johnny Kling getting pelted with bottles and debris as the Cubs' catcher camped under a foul pop in the famous season-ending make-up game in New York in 1908 (thanks, Fred Merkle). Jeffrey Mayer's long-lost relatives, perhaps? And "joke games" in which pitchers gladly tossed in fat pitches to friends and generally clowned around were colorful but further impugned the integrity of the game.
In addition to relating the anecdotes, Halfon takes a stance against one particularly long-held belief about the culmination of the era. Not content to accept conventional wisdom, Halfon concludes that baseball didn't need saving from the Black Sox scandal and that Babe Ruth, while he doubtlessly increased the popularity of baseball, didn't "save" it. In a chapter entitled "The Black Sox Myth," he contends that following WWI, gate receipts were up, one sign of the game's health.
"In the end the Black Sox Scandal strengthened baseball," he argues. "No longer would dishonesty or the appearance of dishonesty find quarter in the sport." He added: "Despite a few unnerving days at the end of September , baseball's heart barely skipped a beat."
Whatever the reason, thank goodness for that.