BOOK REVIEW: THE UNFORGETTABLE SEASON/MORE THAN MERKLE
SEASONS IN THE SUN
by Doug Ward
JULY, 2006-In North America, the 2006 Major League Baseball season has reached its halfway point. For me personally the season has been rather frustrating so far, since my favorite team, the Cleveland Indians, has not played nearly as well as I had hoped. On the other hand, I have received some consolation from the play of my second-favorite team, the Cincinnati Reds, which has been much better than expected.
In 2005 the Indians finished second in the American League
Central Division to the Chicago White Sox, who went on to win the American
League pennant and the World Series. Although I was disappointed to see the
Indians come in second, I was happy for
Baseball has a special attraction for people who love both history and numbers. In Baseball, the wonderful Ken Burns documentary on the history of the game, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin tells how her interest in history was sparked when her father taught her how to "keep score" in a baseball game. (Scorekeeping involves much more than noticing how many runs each team scores. It is a system for conveniently keeping track of every play that occurs during a baseball game.) I can relate to Dr. Goodwin's experience, because when I was growing up, baseball played a role in my budding interest in numbers and mathematics. I first learned how to convert fractions to decimal form and carry out the traditional procedure for "long division" in order to compute batting averages and other baseball statistics.
As Goodwin found out, every baseball game has a detailed story. The story of each game is part of the larger narrative of a baseball season, and each season takes its place in an ongoing saga that stretches back through the years for more than a century. For baseball enthusiasts, today's events on the playing field take on added significance in light of their place in this history. When a batter steps to the plate to face a pitcher, people watching the game might be thinking about what has happened in the past when this batter has hit against this particular pitcher. They might also be comparing this batter and pitcher to others who have come before them, and their teams to teams from the past, and they may be viewing the current game as part of a long rivalry between the two teams on the field. The leisurely pace of a baseball game is conducive to this sort of reflection and comparison.
Here there is a rough analogy between watching a baseball game and reading the Bible. God in his wisdom inspired much of his revelation to us to be written down as a narrative. All the parts of the Bible, even those that are not composed in the narrative genre, have a place in the overall story. Moreover, constant references-from faint echoes to explicit quotations-are made to previous chapters in the story. Discerning readers are aware of this phenomenon, which scholars call intertextuality, and their understanding of the text is enhanced as a result.
In the minds of baseball fans, every year in the last one hundred or so is associated with the baseball highlights of that year. The mention of any particular year from that span evokes memories of those highlights.
For instance, the mention of 1927 brings to mind the potent batting order of the New York Yankees (known as the "Murderer's Row"). Batting third in that order was Babe Ruth, whose sixty home runs in 1927 set a record that lasted until 1961.
The year 1947 immediately reminds us of Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers, who chose to finally break the shameful "color barrier" that had previously kept African American players out of the major leagues. In 1947 the Dodgers inserted Jackie Robinson in their lineup, and Robinson courageously paved the way for many great African American players to follow.
In 1967 an exciting four-team pennant race in the American League was won by the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox were led by left fielder Carl Yastrzemski, who won the Triple Crown-i.e., he was first in the league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in. (No player since 1967 has accomplished this feat.) But the Red Sox lost a seven-game World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, bringing back memories of a similar Series in 1946.
Since each baseball season tells a story, it is not surprising that many books have been written to recount those stories. I have enjoyed a number of books of this type over the years. For example, Robert W. Creamer's Baseball in '41 (Viking, 1991) describes the memorable season of Joe DiMaggio's fifty-six game hitting streak and Ted Williams's .406 batting average, the last season before those players-and many others-left to do their part in the Second World War. David Halberstam's Summer of '49 (William Morrow, 1989) chronicles a classic pennant race between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and his October 1964 (Villard Books, 1994) covers the last season of the Yankees' long dynasty. (The Yankees won all but three American League pennants between 1947 and 1964.) In the National League that year, the St. Louis Cardinals overtook the Philadelphia Phillies in the final days of the season and went on to defeat the Yankees in the World Series.
Probably my favorite book from this "stories of a
season" genre is Mike Sowell's The Pitch That Killed (MacMillan, 1989; I.R. Dee, 2004), because it features the
1920 Cleveland Indians, the first
1908: A Superlative Season
At least one baseball season has been the subject of more than one book. The 1908 season is notable, and not just because it marked the second (and, as of 2006, the last) time that the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. It was also the only year in which an American or National League team lost the pennant by just half a game.2 In both leagues, three-way pennant races were not decided until the final day of the season. The close races captured the nation's imagination, diverting attention from the 1908 presidential election campaign. Attendance at games broke all previous records, and those who couldn't make it to the games followed the results in the daily newspapers.
In those days before radio and television, newspapers played a more central role in informing the public than they do today. It is fitting, then, that one book on the 1908 season is simply an edited compilation of newspaper articles. In The Unforgettable Season (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981; reissued in 2006 by the University of Nebraska Press), G.H. Fleming carefully selected articles in order to tell the story of the 1908 season from the vantage point of one National League team, the New York Giants.3 Fleming, an English professor at the University of New Orleans, sifted through the sports sections of twenty-six daily newspapers-including a dozen from New York-and two weekly sports tabloids in preparing this fascinating volume.
In addition to chronicling the 1908 National League pennant race, The Unforgettable Season preserves a vintage sample of a distinctive writing style that has since disappeared.4 The sportswriting of the early twentieth century was unique. The writers made no pretense of objective reporting; they were unabashed partisans for the teams they covered. Their writing was filled with the baseball slang of the day but could also be sprinkled with biblical and classical allusions. It featured deft and playful use of language along with sometimes blunt and sarcastic commentary. Here are some typical examples:
·After the Giants
defeated Philadelphia 12-2 on May 4, the New York Herald gave this
description of the performance of the Giants' star pitcher, Christy Mathewson: "Mighty Mathewson
appeared in the box for the home talent, bright-eyed and rosy as a flower of
June, and his performance was of the high-grade kind which glistens with
quality and comes only in five-pound boxes. He toyed with the sphere as a cat
would with a ball of yarn, putting it where he pleased, and in the six innings
in which he officiated he let the Quakers have three hits, but he presented
these at such long intervals they were in no way associated with the two feeble
runs made." Later sportswriters, more concerned with brevity, would have
simply written something like, "Mathewson had a
masterful outing against
·But on May 18, Mathewson was less successful against the Cincinnati Reds.
Jack Ryder of the
·On May 25, W.A. Phelon of the
·On the other hand,
on June 20 William F. Kirk of the
·On July 4 the New
York Press reported that a major factor in a Philadelphia loss to the
Giants was a seeming unwillingness by Philadelphia baserunners
to slide on close plays at home plate: "Titus did not slide to the plate
in the first inning and the failure to hit the dirt cost him [a fine of] $25.
Two other sluggish athletes from the banks of the
·On July 11, C.B.
Power of the
·The sportswriters of that era sometimes waxed poetic. After the second-place Giants defeated the first-place Pirates on July to move closer to the top of the National League standings, W.W. Aulick of the New York Times joyfully proclaimed, "For they beat the bunch Piratic in a fashion most emphatic, and they'll drive 'em from the attic, never fear."
·Aulick also loved to give humorous accounts of the heated arguments between players (or managers) and umpires that often resulted in the umpire ejecting the offending party from the game. On May 30, Aulick described a play in which umpire Frank Rudderham called Giants' outfielder Mike Donlin out on a close play at first base. When Donlin protested that he was safe, "Rudderham spoke up in a still, small voice, saying this impression was erroneous." In Aulick's retelling of the incident, Donlin then asked Rudderham if he had met a certain local oculist. "Such is not my good fortune," returned Mr. Rudderham, "why do you ask?"
"I should advise you to visit him," said Mr. Donlin. "Your eyesight appears defective."
"Probably you are right," agreed Mr. Rudderham. "I cannot see you for the rest of the game."
Although Fleming celebrated the best of early twentieth-century baseball reporting in his compilation, he also realistically portrayed its unseemly aspects, reminding us that there is no such thing as "the good old days." As Lawrence Ritter noted in his foreword to the book, today's readers may be shocked to see the racial and ethnic slurs that appeared in the newspapers of 1908, a reflection of American attitudes in that era. For example, when Philadelphia pitcher Harry Coveleski defeated the Giants in three late-season games, New York reporters responded by ridiculing Coveleski's name and ethnic background. The
Baseball in Transition
Readers of The Unforgettable Season will notice several aspects of professional baseball in 1908 that sound very familiar a century later. Before the season started, rumors circulated that John McGraw might be fired as manager of the Giants after a disappointing 1907 season. Pirates' shortstop Honus Wagner, baseball's first "superstar," threatened to retire and refused to report to the Pirates until he was offered a higher salary. Wagner added to his income with product endorsements, appearing in an advertisement for Coca Cola in The Sporting News in July. ("Coca-Cola is the only beverage I have ever drunk that had vim, vigor, and go to it-that quenched the thirst and assisted my mental and physical activity.") Before the season started, the Giants and the Boston Braves (then often called the Doves after owner George B. Dovey) engaged in a blockbuster trade, the Giants sending five players to
Other details will seem unusual, examples of how much things
have changed in a hundred years. On August 27, the
Overall, The Unforgettable Season portrays a sport in transition. For one thing, professional baseball was gaining in popularity and status. In March 1908, one member of the Giants decided that he would begin to use his real name, Strang Nicklin, after nine years of playing professional baseball under the alias Sammy Strang. He was no longer ashamed to admit what he did for a living. On the other hand, baseball still had image problems, and newspaper stories from 1908 show that its reputation of connections with fighting, alcohol, and gambling was not undeserved.
In 1908, the customs and practices of baseball were still actively developing. Players were learning to work effectively with larger gloves, and shinguards were gaining in popularity. A July 18 article in Sporting Life reported that one umpire was experimenting with used hotel registers as more effective chest protectors. The Giants, who had a deaf pitcher named Luther Taylor, had become pioneers in the use of hand signals for communication between the manager and the players on the field. The Pittsburgh Pirates became the first team to protect their field from rain with a large tarpaulin.
Baseball was evolving and growing in popularity in 1908, and with that growth came some growing pains. The crowds at games tended to overflow the available seating, and so standing room was provided in roped off areas of the outfield. The large numbers of spectators created crowd control problems. When a close game ended, spectators often would rush onto the field, sometimes even assaulting a player or umpire.
Baseball games in 1908 were simply understaffed. There were not enough security personnel, and more umpires were needed. Criticism of the umpires has been a constant in baseball through the years, both on the field and off, but the articles compiled by Fleming give the impression that such complaints were more frequent and strident than they are today. In 1908 the practice of using two umpires-instead of just one-began to be implemented. However, the majority of games were still handled by a single umpire, and newspaper reports indicate that one umpire was just not enough.6 There were frequent missed calls, and sometimes games were impossible for one umpire to control. In a time before the scrutiny of television cameras and instant replay, infielders would knock down baserunners-and vice versa-counting on the likelihood that a lone umpire wouldn't detect their infractions.
How Not to Clarify the Rules
One further aspect of baseball's "growing pains" should be mentioned: In a sport that was still developing, it was inevitable that the rules would sometimes need to be clarified. A controversy over one particular rule played a memorable role in the 1908 National League pennant race. In hindsight, the conflict could have been avoided if league officials had been quicker to address the unresolved issues noted above.
In researching The Unforgettable Season, Fleming
found an item in the
"In the last half of the ninth, with the score tied, two men out and a runner on third, the batter hits to left field and the runner scores. The batter, seeing the runner score, stops between home and first. The ball is thrown to first baseman, who touches his base before the runner reaches it. Can runner score on this?"
The column editor answered briefly: "No. Run cannot score when third out is made before reaching first base." And the editor was right. According to baseball rules, a run coming in from third base would not count unless every other runner who was in a position to be forced out was able to advance successfully to the next base.
There were no questions about this rule in the case of a ball hit to the infield. For example, if a ground ball was hit to the second baseman with two outs and runners on first and third, it was well known that no run scored if the batter was thrown out at first or the runner on first was forced out at second, even if the runner from third reached home before the out was recorded. But in the case of a hit to the outfield, where it was clear that every runner would easily be able to advance, it had become customary to allow runners other than the one on third to simply leave the field without actually touching the next base. The game was essentially over, and with fans about to rush onto the field, the players and umpire deemed it prudent to exit as quickly as possible. The letter of the law was overlooked since the spirit of the law had been satisfied.
Since the Chicago Cubs were in
On September 4 in
Umpire O'Day, who reportedly had not seen the play, ruled that the run counted and the game was over. The Cubs then formally protested the decision, arguing for the need for two umpires and citing witnesses who could testify that Gill had not touched second base. On September 9, National League President Harry C. Pulliam denied the protest, upholding O'Day's ruling.
The Cubs' protest provided Pulliam with an opportune moment to make some statement on how the rule in question would be interpreted in future games. However, Pulliam failed to take advantage of the opportunity, and his inaction came back to haunt him just two weeks later.
On September 23, the Cubs played a key game against the
The September 23 game was staffed by two umpires. Base umpire Bob Emslie declined to rule on Evers's appeal, saying he had not seen the play. Emslie deferred to his partner behind home plate, who happened to be none other than Hank O'Day. O'Day, who this time had seen that the runner on first had not touched second, called the runner out and ruled the game a tie.
Not surprisingly, a huge uproar ensued. The Cubs argued that
the game should be forfeited to them, since the Giants had left before the end
of the game. The Giants pointed out the prevailing custom that did not require
every runner to touch the next base on a game-winning hit. A writer for the
Fleming included a wide range of commentary on the
controversy in The Unforgettable Season. Sadly,
This time the National League, again standing behind its
umpires, ruled to uphold O'Day's decision that the
game ended in a tie.7 It was
decided that the game would be replayed at the end of the season, on Oct. 8.
The replay turned out to be a playoff game of sorts, since
Since the New York Giants lost the pennant by just one game,
the controversy over the September 23 game continued after the season ended.
Hounded by complaints, National League President Pulliam suffered a nervous
breakdown in early 1909 and committed suicide on
Almost a century after the controversy, a number of
questions remain. In particular, why didn't Giants manager John McGraw, who was
known for his attention to detail, instruct Fred Merkle
to be sure to touch second base in the event of a hit by the next batter? After
the protest that followed the September 4 game in
The Rest of the Story
After reading a primary source from the past, one often benefits from the insight provided by related secondary sources. For example, readers of the Bible often find that their understanding is enhanced by good commentaries and other reference works.
Similarly, baseball fans who read the newspaper accounts
collected in The Unforgettable Season will enjoy the additional discussion
provided by David W. Anderson in his book More
than Merkle: A History of the Best and Most Exciting
Baseball Season in Human History (
The subtitle of
Based on the information in More Than Merkle, armchair managers will have plenty of opportunity to second-guess decisions made by the managers of 1908. In particular, many of the managers used their best pitchers heavily, while other pitchers were apparently underutilized. As a result, several key games were lost by overworked pitchers who hadn't had sufficient rest to be effective.
For baseball fans who love history and numbers, the books by Fleming and Anderson are an unbeatable combination, ably relating the story of a truly memorable season and giving an insightful glimpse at American culture a century ago.
also have an indirect personal connection with the 1920 Indians. One of the
pitchers for the 1920 Indians was a man named Guy Morton. His son, also named
Guy, became a Christian minister after a brief baseball career and served for
many years as pastor of
2In the American
3Fleming went on to write similar books about the 1927 New York Yankees and 1934 St. Louis Cardinals.
4Sometimes I glimpse faint echoes of the old style in the writing of veteran sportswriter Hal McCoy, who has covered the Cincinnati Reds for the Dayton Daily News for many years.
5This issue did not
arise often, however, since no games were scheduled on
6Crews of three umpires became standard in 1933, crews of four in 1952.
7In making their
ruling, league officials examined statements submitted by participants in the
game. It was later reported that the statement made by the Giants' Christy Mathewson played a crucial role. Mathewson,
known for his integrity, admitted that Merkle had
never touched second base. On this point, see Frank DeFord's
book The Old Ball Game: How John McGraw, Christy Mathewson,
8Years after his retirement from baseball a visiting speaker at his church made a joke about him, not realizing he was in the congregation.
9Joss pitched another no-hitter in 1910. Sadly, he contracted tubercular meningitis and died in 1911, at age 31.
10By some coincidence the Chicago Cubs had a number of players of German extraction, while the White Sox roster contained several Irish players. This fact was often commented upon in 1906, when the two teams met in the World Series.
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