What I’m Reading: The Old Ball Game

The Old Ball Game, by Frank Deford, is actually a re-read for me. I read it when it first came out in 2005 and remembered it as a delightful and informative book about the New York Giants in the early 1900s, focusing on their manager, John McGraw, and their star pitcher, Christy Mathewson. But after I read Where They Ain’t, by Burt Solomon, a couple years ago, which is about the 1890s Baltimore Orioles and their star player John McGraw, I wanted to come back to this one. Indeed, the two books make great companion reads, allowing a reader to follow McGraw’s entire career arc.

Both books claim in their subtitles to explain how the modern game came to be–Where They Ain’t is “the Fabled Life and Untimely Death of the Original Baltimore Orioles, the Team That Gave Birth to Modern Baseball,” while The Old Ball Game describes “How John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, and the New York Giants Created Modern Baseball.” They can’t both be right, can they?

Actually, I think they can. The 1890s Baltimore Orioles were the first team to take advantage of a number of rules changes from 1890-1893 providing a better balance between pitching and hitting than had previously existed, and created a scrappy, fast-paced, hitting and running type of game that is still fairly close to the type of baseball played today. Meanwhile, the New York Giants of 1900-1920 were the first powerhouse franchise in the new world of professionalized and cleaned-up baseball, where the traditional National League and the upstart American League (created in 1901) tried to appeal to a middle-class brand of spectator with more genteel standards of player behavior, new stadiums with more comfortable seating and facilities, and eventually, a crackdown on the gambling that had become pervasive in the sport. So while the 1890s Orioles pioneered the modern style of play, the 1900-1920 Giants exemplified the modern baseball organization.

The link between the two books is, of course, John McGraw, a fierce and scrappy competitor as a player in the 1890s, and probably best described as irascible during his long career as manager of the New York Giants, from 1902-1932. During his first few years with the Giants, he was a player-manager, which was fairly common in those days. After a knee injury in 1903, however, his playing days were over. As Deford describes, McGraw seemed to go from youthful to old and stout practically overnight. Perhaps there was a hidden benefit, for it may have allowed him more to time to think about the game. He was known throughout his managing career as one of the canniest, most innovative, and most strategic managers in the game. Even after the shift in baseball to a more power-driven style of play in the 1920s, McGraw continued to succeed, taking his team to the World Series every year between 1921 and 1924, and beating Babe Ruth’s Yankees in 1921 and 1922, though losing to them in 1923 (and to the Washington Senators in 1924).

Deford’s portrait of McGraw, with his endless squabbling with umpires, drunken fights in hotel lobbies, and feuds with commissioners, reminds me of stories of 1970s Yankees manager Billy Martin. Unlike Martin, however, who uniformly is represented as petty and mean-spirited, McGraw was a complicated man. He definitely had a lot of anger, a result of his impoverished upbringing in a small town in upstate New York with an alcoholic Irish father. But he was also generous to a fault, constantly making small loans and gifts he knew would never be repaid; as one Giants employee put it, he was “tough with hard people and warm with soft ones.” He was devout, rarely missing a Sunday mass. And he valued education, attending English and history classes at St. Bonaventure in Allegany, New York, during the off-season in the 1890s.

Perhaps it was that which allowed him to get along so well with Christy Matthewson, who otherwise seemed like McGraw’s complete opposite. Christy was the original All-American sports star, and everything seemed to come easily for him. He had been a football and baseball star at Bucknell University (also an honor student, in the band, the glee club, served as class president, and on and on). He was blond and handsome, the epitome of “muscular [Protestant] Christianity” which was in vogue at the time. After a rough rookie year in 1899, he moved up to the majors permanently in 1900 and became one of the most celebrated pitchers of all time, with a career won-lost record of 373-188. He was soft-spoken and had such a reputation for honesty that if an umpire didn’t see a play, he would ask Christy was had happened, knowing Christy would give the true answer, even if it meant a call went against him.

Hardly could two people be more different, and yet McGraw and Matthewson soon became best friends. After Christy married in 1903, he and Jane even moved into the same New York apartment with John and Blanche McGraw, and they lived together for years. The truth is, the two seemed fascinated with each other: Christy with the endless baseball stories and theorizing of the wily older man, John with the good nature and fine education of the younger man. Together, the two would lead the Giants to a World Series win in 1905 and heartbreaking losses from 1911-13 and again in 1917. And, as the subtitle has it, create modern baseball along the way.

This is definitely one of the better baseball books I’ve read. It’s beautifully written and highly readable. Anyone who is a student of baseball history would find it to be well worthwhile.

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