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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Urban Shocker: Silent Hero of Baseball's Golden Age- A Review

Professional athletes ingrain themselves on the collective memory of fans who stockpile memories of the exploits of their favorites.  These evolve into legacies, which linger long after the athlete is done playing. Unfortunately, some pass way too young, including pitcher Urban Shocker, who was dead at the age of 37; less than a year removed from being the ace for the fabled 1927 New York Yankees. The largely forgotten story of this great hurler has been reinvigorated by Steve Steinberg’s Urban Shocker: Silent Heroes of Baseball’s Golden Age (University of Nebraska Press- 2017).

Steinberg, a seasoned baseball historian and writer has found a hero that is largely missing from the lexicon of many aficionados of the sport. Shocker was a right-hander who won 187 games with a 3.17 ERA between 1916 and 1928 for the St. Louis Browns and the Yankees. A spitballer, he was truly one of the best in the game, racking up 91 wins in the four-year span of 1920-1923. He was brought down by a bad heart that limited him in the twilight of his career and ultimately killed him.

Shocker is remembered as a rather taciturn man, which only helps him recede into the shadows of baseball memories past. His greatest success also came with the Yankees, where it was easy to be pushed out of the spotlight by the likes of Ruth and Gehrig. However, the hurler was a near Hall-of-Famer in his own right, which makes this biography a needed entry into the baseball catalog.

Like many players of his generation, Shocker had a unique path to the majors. He didn’t start playing professional ball until he was 22 and was nearly 30 before he became a big league regular. However, once he gained his foothold he was immediately respected, and Steinberg does an excellent job of digging up testimonies of his peers who discussed their trepidation in facing him or delight in watching him hurl the bean.

Part of the intrigue with Shocker was his ability to make the ball move like few pitchers before and since. Again, the author beat the bushes to find anecdotes to relate exactly how conniving and effective he was with his craft.

While Shocker certainly is a fascinating character, his story is not one that matches some others in terms of ribaldry and sensation. He had his struggles with alcohol and a failed marriage, but his existence remained typically out of the limelight and thus doesn’t give him as much flare as other historical baseball figures.

Aside from his talent and results on the field, Shocker will be remembered primarily for his untimely death. His final year of life is extraordinary, as he tried to hold on to his career as he was wracked by rising age and ravaging heart disease. Despite having to sleep sitting up, losing a dangerous amount of weight and often feeling faint, he pushed through. In the weeks up until he died he was still trying to pitch on a semi-pro basis in the hopes it would lead him back to the majors (he pitched in just one big league game in 1928, the year that he died).

Steinberg has put together a nice biography of one of baseball lesser-known standouts. This will likely be more appreciated by a baseball fan or researcher instead of a casual reader but it is well-written and researched. The importance of mining baseball research and making it a consumable product cannot be understated. Urban Shocker delivers on this and then some.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of the book being reviewed by the publisher, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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