The Thoroughly American Game; Recent Books Bring to Life Some of Baseball's Legendary Teams and Iconic Players, Its Enduring Friendships and the Silent, Mysterious Language That Pervades the Game

Insight on the News, October 27, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Thoroughly American Game; Recent Books Bring to Life Some of Baseball's Legendary Teams and Iconic Players, Its Enduring Friendships and the Silent, Mysterious Language That Pervades the Game


Byline: Stephen Goode, INSIGHT

The Boston Americans defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates five games to three in the first World Series. That was 100 years ago, in 1903, when baseball was maybe a half-century old. Folks in Boston waxed ecstatic at the home team's victory.Throughout the country in remotest rural America and in the nation's rapidly growing major cities enthusiasm for the series, for both champion teams, for baseball itself, was white hot.

Suddenly, with the first one hardly over, the World Series was as American as McGuffey's Readers, apple pie and Thanksgiving dinner with the family. Boston Globe sportswriter Tim Murnane caught the feeling among Americans when he wrote following the series that the games showed "that baseball is the greatest outdoor sport that has ever been known and it is thoroughly American, combining everything in the way of athletic skill, nerve, grit and honesty, and all that is best in our national character."

That first great World Series recalled by a member of the losing Pittsburgh team 50 years later as "the wildest World Series ever played" is described with apt vigor and a great eye for detail by Louis P. Masur in Autumn Glory: Baseball's First World Series (Hill and Wang, $23, 244 pp), one of four very readable (and relatively short) books on baseball published in recent months.

The other new books include Mark Gauvreau Judge's evocative Damn Senators: My Grandfather and the Story of Washington's Only World Series Championship (Encounter Books, $25.95, 170 pp) and David Halberstam's The Teammates (Hyperion, $22.95, 217 pp), a deeply moving description of the lifelong friendship of baseball great Ted Williams and three of his Boston Red Sox pals, Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky.

The fourth book isn't so much about baseball's great history, though it does have a lot of history in it, as it is about the way the game is played. Paul Dickson's informative, entertaining The Hidden Language of Baseball (Walker & Company, $22, 230 pp) delivers on just what its subtitle promises: How Signs and Sign-Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime. It's about all those signals from catchers, fielders, coaches, everyone about 1,000 per game on the average, excluding umpire signals, Dickson says that make baseball the great game it is but which very often are entirely missed by spectators.

Great players have been one of the big drawing cards of professional baseball since its early days and Masur, a professor of history at the City College of New York, has a splendid set of greats to describe in his book on the first World Series. The Pittsburgh team, which had just won its third consecutive National League pennant, included several first-rate players: second baseman Claude Ritchey, for example, and Kitty Bransfield at first base. Tommy Leach played third base and Sam Leever pitched. Each was a widely admired athlete. But the best-known famous Pirate was Honus Wagner, one of those larger-than-life players whose skills quickly became legendary. Honus (short for Johannes) had been born in 1874. At the age of 12 he went to work in the Pennsylvania coal mines, but he loved baseball and many regard him as the greatest shortstop of all time.

At a glance, Wagner didn't strike anyone as a first-rate athlete. He looked "awkward," Masur writes, quoting sportswriters, "with his huge hands (like 'hams,' they said) and bowed legs (like 'parentheses'), and yet he could run like a 'scared rabbit.'" Many great stories circulated about Wagner, one of the best of which was told by Wagner himself in his later years.

The story involved a young pitcher for St. Louis against whose fastballs the Pittsburgh team was not faring well. How to deal with the pitcher? Wagner had the solution. He let two of the man's fastballs go by for strikes. The next pitch, Wagner caught bare-handed, sneering at the surprised St. …

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