What I’m Reading: Where They Ain’t

Where They Ain’t, by Burt Solomon, is an excellent look at baseball in the immedate pre-modern era, from 1894 to 1902. It observes this era through the lens of the Baltimore Orioles, who invented a new style of baseball that made them the most successful team of the 1890s, and when they broke up, whose key players and manager formed the core of many of the most successful teams of the early 1900s.

Baseball in the 1880s was a leisurely affair of getting a man or two and base and waiting for a big home run to score (a lot like the 1950s–and to an extent, today’s game as well). But after the 1892 season, the National League (the only league at the time) moved the pitcher’s mound back to 60 feet, six inches, from its previous distance of 50 feet, and also required the pitcher to keep one foot on the pitching rubber when pitching. That may not seem like much of a change, but it was just enough. That extra split second the ball takes to get to the plate was just enough to give a quick player the time to judge what part of the field he could hit the ball to, allowing more precise hitting. It was just enough to make it that much harder for a pitcher to field a bunt. And it was just enough extra time for a sneaky base stealer to successfully make it to second or third before the catcher could throw him out.

The four main players on the Orioles–“Wee” Willie Keeler, John McGraw, Hughie Jennings, and Joe Kelley–along with their manager, “Foxy” Ned Hanlon, were the first to recognize the kind of baseball the change allowed: a scrappy, fast-paced, hitting and running type of game (similar to the 1970s-80s game) they called “scientific baseball.” And they rode that recognition to first place finishes from 1894-96, and second place finishes in 1897-98, behind the Boston Beaneaters (later the Boston Braves), who had largely adopted their methods.

Unfortunately, the National League, and after 1901, the American League, used Baltimore as a pawn in fairly baroque baseball politics, and the result was that the Orioles after the 1902 season moved to New York and became the Highlanders (later named the Yankees), with the team’s personnel spread across the major leagues. John McGraw, the diminutive but fiercely-willed third baseman for the Orioles, became the manager of the New York Giants in 1902 where he was known as the “Little Napoleon” for his controlling but winning style. He won 10 National League pennants and three World Series with the Giants and still holds the National League record for most wins.

From 1899 to 1905, Ned Hanlon managed the Brooklyn Superbas (later the Dodgers), bringing Willie Keeler, Hughie Jennings, and Joe Kelley with him as the right fielder, shortstop, and pitcher, respectively. Hanlon, Keeler, Jennings, and Kelley led the Superbas to first place finishes in 1899-1900. Jennings also managed the Detroit Tigers from 1907-1920, where he coached Ty Cobb and led the Tigers to three American League champtionships and several other good seasons.

One idiosyncrasy of the book is that it adopts some of the conventions of the language and baseball lingo of the 1890s. For instance, at that time fans were known as “cranks” and pitchers were called “twirlers.” Fine. I probably could have done without not capitalizing avenues and streets in street names, i.e. 21st street or Maryland avenue. But after a few pages, you get used to it, and it does help with the effect of placing you in the 1890s.

I really like the way Solomon interwove history and current events into the baseball story. For instance, he describes the way attendance dropped off in the 1898 season because of the Spanish-American War–who worried about baseball when American sons were fighting overseas? Or how in 1902, Willie Keeler went to St. Mary’s Hospital in Brooklyn with a suspected shoulder fracture to take advantage of a brand new invention–an X-ray machine, which St. Mary’s was one of the first hospitals in the world to possess.

And those are just two examples of many. It is for that reason that Where They Ain’t receives one of my coveted Shortcuts to Smartness awards, for books that provide a whole education in and of themselves. (Congratulations, Burt Solomon!) In this book you learn not just about baseball history, but also American history, and the history of the cities of Baltimore and Brooklyn, and 1890s politics, and what makes a team work, and how to achieve success. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in any of those subjects.

One Comment on “What I’m Reading: Where They Ain’t

  1. Pingback: What I’m Reading: The Old Ball Game – Nicholas Bruner

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