Tales from the Deadball Era: Ty Cobb, Home Run Baker, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and the Wildest Times in Baseball History
© 2014 Mark S. Halfon, narrated by Michael Butler Murray
240 pages | Audible 8 hrs 4 minutes
George Carlin once mocked baseball in one of his sketches, comparing its urbaneness with the ‘technological struggle’ of football. He couldn’t make such a sketch a hundred years before, because baseball as we know it was very different — technically professional, in that players were receiving pay and signed to contracts and the like, but far more combative, with players and fans accosting one another and often the umpire, leading to serious injuries and at least one death. Violence was more accepted as part of play, with spiked cleats giving basemen a reason to dread runners sliding at them. It wasn’t quite as bad as the old practice of tagging runners out by hitting them with a thrown baseball, but player-on-player injuries were not uncommon. A lot of rules moderating the sport did not yet exist, so fielders had considerable license to modify balls to make them unpredictable and even difficult to see — and the same ball might be used for the duration of the game, being replaced only if it was knocked out of the park. Already soft to begin with, when a misshapen ball soaked in tobacco spit and covered in dirt careened toward the plate, it had a better chance of becoming a ‘beanball’ and smacking the batter than it did making it into the outfield. The difficult nature of these balls meant that players played ‘inside’ baseball, working the infield and batting not for power but for strategy — the object was to make contact and get men on base, not to swing for the fences, so there was more bunting than we see today. Frankly, this kind of game sounds more interesting, but the grand slams that followed in the wake of Ruth and rules that reduced the amount of ball-tampering and irregular pitching proved to be popular with spectators. Violence and drunkenness were common, but so was gambling — and the cheating that followed in its wake, as pro ball players who felt shortchanged by their owners (and whose attempts at striking were always undermined) were susceptible to playing a weaker game in return for a few thousand under the table. There are a lot of big personalities here, including Ty Cobb — who Halfon is kinder to than others, detailing how the southerner was endlessly hazed by his Yankee teammates, so much to the point that he started carrying a handgun for protection. The book ends with an appraisal of the Black Sox scandal, which Halfon argues was not at all unusual for its time, and the fact that it became such a public outrage was more helpful to baseball than not, leading to increased scrutiny and better oversight to sharply reduced corruption from gambling. At any rate, following the passage of Prohibition, the gangsters bankrolling such corruption would soon have other mischief to keep them busy. If you’re a fan of baseball, this was tremendously entertaining, with a lot of strong characters at play and insight into an era where the game was very different.
The Glory of their Times: The Story of Early Baseball, Told by the Men who Played It, ed. Thomas Ritter
How Baseball Happened, Thomas Gilbert