Top 100 Baseball Blog

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Betrayal: The 1919 World Series and the Birth of Modern Baseball- A Review

The Chicago Black Sox (eight Chicago White Sox players who were banned from baseball for throwing the 1919 World Series for gamblers) has been one of the most popular topics of the sport’s literature for years. However, with so many unknowns, allegations and passed time, it remains a fruitful ground for new work. An excellent example of this is Charles Fountain’s recent entry, The Betrayal: The 1919 World Series and the Birth of Modern Baseball (Oxford University Press).

Many books on the Black Sox scandal cover similar territory. After all, there are only so many angles one can take on the subject. What sets The Betrayal apart from its predecessors is that it has a little bit of everything. Fountain rarely dallies too long on any one aspect of the whole mess, and as a result is able to cover an amazing amount of ground in 290 pages. In some capacity, the players, gamblers, journalists, executives and authors/historians who have previously worked with the subject are all examined. He does so while introducing some new sources but never delving too deep; giving just enough information to weave a tight informative narrative.

While it’s not necessary that someone reading The Betrayal has a prior knowledge of baseball or the Black Sox, it definitely helps. The many nuggets within the book don’t always have a lot of depth (length) but really enhance one of baseball’s greatest and most tragic stories. These include:

-The feud between American League executive Ban Johnson and White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, which resulted in Johnson practically financing the investigation to prosecute the eight players in an effort to take down his nemesis.

-The successful machinations of mobster Arnold Rothstein, believed to have orchestrated the plot, to steer clear of any legal ramifications.

-The debunking of various myths of the Black Sox, including the infamous “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” utterance by a child as disgraced outfielder Joe Jackson left the courthouse.

-The 1924 law suit where Jackson attempted to extract back pay from Comiskey after being released following his banishment from baseball. Although the jury found in his favor, the judge overturned the verdict and briefly jailed him and fellow Black Sox Happy Felsch on charges of perjury.

Fountain does a good job of pointing out newer information and that which is simply not true but has become part of the accepted story over time. He not only suggests that the “Clean Sox” may not have always been as pristine as their legacy suggests but also pulls the curtain back a bit on shadier characters in the story such as gamblers Abe Attell and Bill Maharg, and Swede Risberg’s mistress.

Some points of view that would have been a welcome addition to this work are those of the key figure’s families and of fans. While I can’t attest to the availability of such sources, knowing a bit more from those perspectives would round this story out all the more.

Fountain has an easy writing style that lends to good narrative. While there is an occasional instance of verbosity, it’s certainly not something that diminishes the quality of the book.

The 1919 World Series and the Black Sox will forever be one of baseball’s great stories. Although it has been retold numerous times from many different angles, there are still plenty of ways to keep the topic fresh and engaging. A great example of this is The Betrayal, which is something readers will enjoy, regardless if they are new to the topic or are long-time students of the plot that nearly took down baseball.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free advanced copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

What the Flip is Going on With the Reaction to Jose Bautista's Bat Flip?

The Toronto Blue Jays are playing in the 2015 American League Championship Series in part because of a deep and powerful offense and timely pitching. However, much of that has been lost in the recent furor over an emphatic bat flip made by slugger Jose Bautista after hitting an Divisional Series-clinching home run against the Texas Rangers. Somehow, this display of emotion following a play that not only capped a furious rally but also put his team in the driver’s seat for the series was seen as not playing the game “the right way.” Not only was the bat flip no big deal, there are plenty of examples from baseball history of similar displays where not only has nobody batted an eye, they have actually been celebrated.

First of all, it’s fair to say that even the positive reaction to Bautista’s disposal of his lumber following his big jack quickly veered into the ridiculous. Toronto’s mayor went on television and attempted to recreate the moment. At least one fan immediately rushed out and commissioned a tattoo. Twitter also naturally had quite the reaction, with Craig Calcaterra of perhaps having the best and simultaneously most ridiculous reaction when he tweeted that the flip was so manly that it had “made everyone pregnant.”

Undoubtedly, being on the receiving end of a bat flip is not much fun. The Rangers and their home run-yielding pitcher, Sam Dyson, saw their October dreams slipping through their fingers like so many handfuls of water. However, does that mean Bautista was in the wrong? Baseball is a game of competing wills. That moment in sports when dominance is asserted over another not only defines a major reason why there are so many fans but also harkens back to our more primal instincts as humans.

Unwritten rules in baseball are dumb. Just plain stupid. The only rules (besides those in the actual rule book) should be playing as hard as you can, and by God, if you have a little fun while doing it then all the more power to you. Opponents who don’t care for such displays of exuberance should try harder to win the particular matchup themselves instead of hoping that everyone will adhere to baseball’s unpublished version of Miss Manners.

The negative reactions to Bautista are uninformed at best and in some cases, possibly related to something trickier like race, at worst. One would be remiss to not at least wonder if his Latino heritage (he was born in the Dominican Republic) contributed to any of the vitriol. Anyone who might say there is no need to bring race or ethnicity into this need to look no further than Game 1 of this year’s ALCS, where at one point, Kansas City Royals’ fans could be heard chanting “U-S-A” when the Blue Jays were batting (which was a bit laughable since their team’s pitcher at the time was Edinson Volquez (himself a native of the D.R.).

As mentioned earlier, there are plenty of historical examples suggesting that this bat flip, if anything, should be remembered fondly as a part of baseball lore:

New York Yankees slugger Babe Ruth famously called a home run he hit during the 1932 World Series against Charlie Root and the Chicago Cubs. Once thought to be myth, historians have gone out of their way to successfully prove that this actually happened.

Carlton Fisk hit a game-winning home run in the 12th inning of Game 6 of the 1975 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. Known simply as “the home run,” the dramatic moment was made even more famous by his passionate waving of the ball to go fair, followed by him practically dancing around the bases to officially end the game.

In Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, a lamed Kirk Gibson hit a game-winning home run for his Los Angeles Dodgers against the Oakland Athletics and their star closer Dennis Eckersley. The slugger did so much fist pumping while circling the bases that nobody can say for certain that it wasn’t the genesis for the craze that would eventually sweep the Jersey Shore.

Joe Carter ended the 1993 World Series by giving the Blue Jays the championship over the Philadelphia Phillies by virtue of his walk-off home run. Much like Fisk, he practically cha-cha-ed around the bases to reach the waiting embraces of his euphoric teammates.

This list could go on and on. In addition to over-the-top reactions to big moments, the other commonality these all share is that they are all fondly remembered as some of the greatest moments in the history of the game. Yes, there were winners and there were losers, but such is sports. If one cannot experience and express joy during such monumental times then what is really the point of playing? Baseball is largely an escape for fans. The highs experienced from big plays and wins are balanced by disappointments.

Some may say that a bat flip is in poor taste, or not something they would personally do. That’s fine. Jose Bautista came up huge in a pressure-packed situation and reacted spontaneously. There can be no choreography in such a situation. It’s what he felt. It’s what he did. Get over it. Better players than him have done far worse and are remembered fondly for it. Let’s stop the inane sermonizing and give the man his due for his special and memorable accomplishment.

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Sunday, October 18, 2015

Pudge- The Biography of Carlton Fisk: A Review

The number of baseball players who are synonymous with a play so famous that there is immediate recognition upon hearing their name is restricted to an elite group. All fans know Willie Mays’ catch or Babe Ruth’s called home run. However, it’s hard to argue there are any more well known than Carlton Fisk’s extra innings home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series that is etched in history by his emphatic waving the ball fair as he made his way down the first base line. Obviously, the Hall-of-Fame catcher had a number of other distinguishing moments throughout his career and they are all detailed in Doug Wilson’s exciting new biography Pudge: The Biography of Carlton Fisk (Thomas Dunne Books- an imprint of St. Martin’s Press).

During a 24-year major league career, Fisk forged a legacy that led to his 2000 enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Pudge aims to give the big picture of how that happened from both baseball and personal points of view. It’s an ambitious goal that is largely met despite the broadness of the scope.

Growing up in small-town New Hampshire, Fisk is portrayed as someone personifying Yankee (not the baseball team) ideals. His upbringing created a hard-working and pragmatic personality that not only bolstered his career but at times contributed to conflict. For better or for worse he became one of the more distinct and polarizing figures in the game.

Fisk spent the first half of his career with the Boston Red Sox, which was a storybook opportunity for a “local” like him. Excelling at other sports as a youth, especially basketball, he came to his eventual career in professional baseball because his collegiate play at the University of New Hampshire meant he played in front of team scouts.

Fisk’s career with the Red Sox was a blend of success, injuries and turmoil. Despite him missing a number of games over the years because of physical ailments, Boston vacillated between being contenders and also-rans during his tenure. During this time they also endured regular drama that emanated from the front office in the chaotic years in the twilight of former owner Tom Yawkey and the years immediately after his passing in 1976. Wilson’s synopses of each season are packed with many interesting anecdotes detailing the drama. One of the most intriguing was the game of chicken the team played with the catcher following the 1980 season that led to his shocking departure through free agency.

One of the most important aspects of Fisk’s career was his sometimes informal and sometimes formal challenging of New York Yankees’ catcher Thurman Munson for status as the best receiver in the game. Their mutual competitiveness, and at times begrudging admiration for each other, made for many great moments and sound bites.
As mentioned previously, Fisk was no stranger to conflict. He famously had contract disputes with the Red Sox, and later the Chicago White Sox. Additionally, he didn’t always get along with managers and was comfortable making his thoughts known. 

While Wilson comes out firmly on the side of the Fisk, it remains unclear if the drama was simply a byproduct of his strongly competitive personality that aided his success, or if his tremendous career persevered in spite of it all.

Wilson relies almost exclusively on secondary sources and articles to frame this biography. Although that can sometimes be problematic when trying to present the best and most accurate depiction, Pudge is well sourced and researched.

Fisk, who played in parts of four different decades, was never self-promoter. This often resulted in him being somewhat underappreciated. Nevertheless, he was one of the best players to ever man his position or play baseball, so having a better understanding of him as a person and athlete is very important. Wilson has done a commendable job in this regard, and Pudge is a fine read for anyone wanting to know more about the Hall-of-Famer.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free advanced uncorrected copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Traveling to a Boston Red Sox Game: A Running Diary

Last weekend I traveled with some friends down to a Boston Red Sox game (playing the Baltimore Orioles) for the first time in years. It remains such a unique experience for an out-of-towner like me that I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on this particular trip.
-          Coming from northern Vermont like us, it can be hard to get jazzed up for a game simply because of the bleak three-and-a-half hour trip down the interstate, which offers next to nothing in the way of a view.

-          Now that parking lots in proximity to Fenway Park charge upwards of $40 for a spot, taking the subway in, which we did, is a much easier solution. Not only is it much more affordable, it may even be quicker, as you don’t need to navigate snarls of traffic coming in or going out.

-          Life in Boston is certainly at a different pace than Vermont. Not 30 seconds after emerging from the subway station, we encountered someone yelling and threatening a ticket scalper, culminating in a mostly-full bottle of Arnold Palmer being angrily thrown down the street (nearly soaking an innocent bystander).

-          No matter how many times you’ve been there, the feeling you get as Fenway Park comes into view never gets old. The old architecture, statues, fluttering banners and animated fans walking up and down the sidewalks immediately infuses you with the kind of excitement one typically experiences as a small child on Christmas morning.

-          The Red Sox team store is an impressive thing to behold. Approximately the size of a typical Wal-Mart, it has just about every article of clothing and trinket associated with the team that one could want. On the day we were there, popular 1980s-era player Sam Horn showed up to do a meet and greet and sign autographs. Having met him before, it came as no surprise at how gracious and friendly he was, even accommodating requests for photographs.

-          After hustling out of the store to make sure we didn’t miss all of the pre-game activities, we were rewarded by hitting the stands just as fans were being permitted to enter the field (in a roped-off section that was essentially the warning track encircling the diamond). A number of players were on the infield side of the ropes to interact with and take pictures with fans as a thank you. Having never seen this before at Fenway, it came as a pleasant surprise.

-          Despite thousands of fans taking advantage of the on-field opportunity, a friend and I were able to capture our own “experiences.” We were both able to touch the Green Monster and take pictures of each other in front of the looming home run stopper. I also got pictures with Wade Miley, Noe Ramirez and Eduardo Rodriguez. Koji Uehara was next to me at one point and had his arm on my shoulder but was so mobbed by fans that he moved on. I swear, I’ve never seen that guy when there wasn’t a huge smile on his face!

-          Our seats ended up being $37 tickets on the left field side family section, under the overhang. The view and the experience was surprisingly good bang for the buck. The only complaint from this over six-footer is Fenway’s famous lack of leg room, as my knees touched the back of the seat directly in front of me for the entire game.

-          A lady sitting behind us complained loudly after we and the rest of the park leapt to our feet to applaud a home run by Boston catcher Blake Swihart. “People aren’t supposed to stand up at baseball games,” she matter-of-factly said to no one in particular. Fortunately, she didn’t have to worry about suffering through another such occurrence, as she and her companions were escorted out of the section moments later for drinking beer in their seats—which are an alcohol-free zone.

-          The Red Sox may not have had a very good season but they sure have some impressive looking young players. Swihart hit his home run. Henry Owens, the team’s starter that day, didn’t allow a run. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts looks like a younger, better-fielding Hanley Ramirez. Outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. appears to be performing ballet when he playing defense. There is definitely reason to think that going to another late-season game in the next year or two will have much more meaning.

-          The performance of Neil Diamond’s classic Sweet Caroline during the eighth inning never gets old. It’s hard to believe the team thought about doing away with it last year. Swaying along to the crowd and singing is an integral part of being a Sox fan.

-          The Red Sox played a video board tribute to NESN television announcer Don Orsillo, whose contract is not being renewed at the end of the season. It was a nice way to remember the 15 years of solid work he has put in as the voice of the team. The crowd contributed with a standing ovation that lasted around a minute, and there were numerous fans waving sticks with cutouts of Orsillo’s head attached. “Don Or-silloooo,” the crowd chanted, as play got back underway…

-          Overall, it wasn’t a particularly exciting game, as Boston beat the Orioles 2-0. However, the real treat came after the last out was made, as the Red Sox once again opened up the field to allow fans to run the bases. After waiting in an indeterminably long line for about half an hour, we were able to stroll around the bases. Although many of the staff who were tasked with herding us sheep were not the friendliest (on more than one occasion they could be heard telling us to “move it!”) it was a pretty amazing experience for this life-long fan. As I was waiting in the queue to go out on the bases, I noticed Tom Werner, the team’s chairman, standing 10 feet away. I beckoned him over and asked him to take a picture with me, which he graciously did.

-          After the on-field experience, it was a relatively quick escape from the Hub. Other than briefly stopping for me to snag a significantly discounted “Free Brady” t-shirt from a street vendor, we made it back to the commuter lot from the subway without incident. Yes, going to Boston for a game isn’t necessarily cheap, and for someone as far away as me is a full day commitment. However, it’s an experience that never gets old, and is something I hope to continue on a regular basis.

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