Sunday, August 7, 2016

Scribes and Stewards of the Game

Photo by Mark Granieri

Only three words are needed to describe the Neshanock's participation in the 19th annual vintage base ball festival at Old Bethpage Village - missing in action.  Now called the Doc Adams Classic in honor of the venerable Knickerbocker's many contributions to the early game, the two day event drew teams from as far a way as Boston and Maryland.  Flemington, unfortunately, could muster only five players (four over 50) not the best way to take on strong clubs from Connecticut and Maryland.  Thanks to those members of the Mutuals, Atlantics and Sandy Hook clubs who became Neshanocks for the day.  The first match against a team made up of representatives of three Connecticut teams was a mismatch from the very beginning as Flemington fell behind 7-0 before coming to bat and it got worse from there, ultimately a 28-2 shellacking.  The second match against a strong Rising Sun Club was much closer with the Neshanock closing to 9-6 with the tying run at the plate in the bottom of the eighth, but it was not to be.  One offensive highlight (actually the only offensive highlight) were two hits apiece in the second game by Bobby "Melky" Ritter and Mark "Gaslight" Granieri.  With the losses, Flemington falls to 15-8 on the season heading into next weekend's National Silverball Tournament in Rochester.

Photo by Mark Granieri 

It's early August and two of the three base ball eras where I spend most of my waking hours are headed towards the home stretch.  Both vintage base ball which occupies at least one day a week and major league baseball where I spend most evenings exchanging text messages with Paul Zinn about the Mets have about two months left.  Most of my days, however, are spent in the Deadball Era (1901-1919) working on a biography of Charles Ebbets which is due at the publisher in six months, no where near as close to the end (unfortunately), but also in the home stretch.  Now with a second draft almost complete, it feels on schedule, but there's no shortage of work left especially trying to understand and then explain the Brooklyn magnate.  A recent step in that direction was looking at what contemporary sports writers said about Ebbets at the time of his death in April of 1925, not obituaries which don't always accurately capture facts, but descriptions of the Brooklyn owner written by people who actually knew him.  Just one example is something written by Tom Rice in the Brooklyn Eagle who knew Ebbets well and said, like all rich men who started with nothing, the Squire of Flatbush was a big man in big things and a little man in little things.

William McGeehan of the New York Herald Tribune

That remark requires further thought and analysis, but more relevant for this post is something written by William O. McGeehan in the New York Herald Tribune.  Apparently previously sarcastically critical of Ebbets supposed cheapness, upon his death, McGeehan wrote more positively ending one article by grouping Ebbets with Charles Dryden a long time sports writer, saying that if the "men who now have the game in their keeping can see it as the Squire of Flatbush and Charles Dryden saw it the game will be safe and worthy of their faith."  What's striking about this is the idea that sportswriters had an oversight responsibility to the game, similar to owners who have put their own money at risk.  Sportswriters have, of course, always been important to the game's development beginning with the work of William Cauldwell and Henry Chadwick, among others who promoted the game in the 1850's and 60's.  As professional ball grew during the late 19th century, sportswriters seem to have taken on an even more important role which probably reached its height in the Deadball Era especially after the 1903 peace agreement between the National League and the upstart American League.

New York and Boston sportswriters - Spalding Guide 1910

Once the structure of the two leagues was formalized (it didn't change for 50 years), major league baseball was played in just 10 cities dramatically limiting the number of people who saw big league game in person.  The existence of Sunday Blue Laws in the East along with the absence of night games further limited those who could actually see a game with their own eyes.  From that point until radio broadcasts became a norm, the men, and they were almost all men, who covered baseball for the daily newspapers were the eyes and ears of thousands of fans who had no other means of following the game they loved.  Unlike today with multiple and growing means of accessing game information, writers needed to give their readers far more detailed accounts of the play by play which today's writers rightly assume their readers already know.  This broad responsibility to their readers expanded to include a sort of watch dog role as well and I think it's on that basis that William McGeehan lumped one of his colleagues, and by implication himself and the other writers into a kind of governance role which while not equal to the owners, was important in its own right.

Sports writers at 1913 World's Series at the Polo Grounds - typically Deadball Era writers sat in the first few rows of the upper deck, not in a separate press box

What really brought all this to mind is finalizing (I hope) my contribution to a forthcoming SABR Deadball Committee publication on the World's Series (that's how it was written) of that era.  The book should be published sometime in 2017 and promises to be excellent because of both the extensive number of pictures available from that time and the quality of the content.  I can confidently say that about the content because even though I've contributed two chapters, no one will be reading my words.  In designing this project, the two editors, Tom Simon and Steve Steinberg had the inspired idea to follow in the footsteps of one of the most noteworthy baseball books ever published - G. H. Fleming's The Unforgettable Season, the first book length treatment of the mythical 1908 National League pennant race.  In putting the book together, Fleming chose to tell the story not in his own words, but those of the contemporary sportswriters who actually watched that controversial chase for the National League flag.  The World's Series book will follow the same format, drawing on the writings of the contemporary sports writers with just brief passages setting context and background.

Unidentified Group of Sportswriters 

When the project was first announced Paul Zinn and I volunteered for the 1916 World's Series, since, after all, we wrote the book - The Major League Pennant Races of 1916.  A year or so later when I heard other series were still available, I signed up for the most famous or infamous series not just of that time, but of all time, the 1919 Black Sox event.  I did so because I wanted to see to what extent the experts of the day who watched the events unfold in real time had any sense that something was amiss.  My selections from the contemporary accounts focus, therefore, on the controversial plays and the scribes' opinions and it's probably best to wait for the book to come out so everyone can draw their own conclusions about what the writers' thought or at least what they were willing to put in writing.  The point for this post, however, is to suggest that this is an aspect of the Deadball Era that needs more attention, questions like "Who were these guys?"  "What did they do and how did they do it?" and especially how effectively did they carry out their watchdog role on the major events of the era - the coming of the American League, the birth of the World's Series, the 1908 Pennant Race and, of course, the 1919 World's Series.  I know the 19th century SABR committee plans to address the sportswriters of that period - it feels to me at least that a similar effort is needed for the Deadball Era.

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