Saturday, April 5, 2014

From Abacus' Bookshelf: Frank Deford's "The Old Ball Game"

Oddly, inaugural Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson became a member of the New York Giants, Major League Baseball’s gold standard during the first two decades of the 20th Century, before John J. McGraw, his manager, mentor and close friend-to-be.

This little anachronism, though, is hardly the most peculiar component in the personal and professional relationship that lies at the heart of Frank Deford’s The Old Ball Game: How John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, and the New York Giants Created Modern Baseball.

Matty, all 6’2” and 195 pounds of him, was the epitome of Christian muscularity,” right up there with Teddy Roosevelt and the fictitious Frank Merriwell. A product of stout, rural Pennsylvania Protestant stock, Mathewson was well aware of Muggsy McGraw and his battlin’ band of Baltimore Orioles, multiple champions of the National League, even as he was lighting up the ball fields and gridirons of Bucknell University.

The 5’6” McGraw, on the other hand, was a first generation Irish Catholic immigrant, second-oldest of a large clan from the village of Truxton, NY. Motherless and on his own before the age of 13, the little “mucker” was a big-league ballplayer at 18 (after having already barnstormed Cuba), a champion at 21, a manager at 26.

As Deford puts it, “Matty was the All-American boy grown up; Muggsy as the All-American striver (or, well, hustler).”

McGraw’s Oriole teams of the Gay Nineties were known for their aggressive and innovative style of play.  Muggsy and Wee Willie Keeler mastered the hit-and-run attack. He and an inventive groundskeeper developed the “Baltimore chop.” Indeed, few opportunities for gamesmanship, or “muckerism” as it was called, were missed at a time when the rules and conventions of the game were still evolving. Confrontation, even suspension, was no stranger to the Little Napoleon.

Mathewson, conversely, was almost a de-facto “partner” to the lone umpire who worked a game in those times. (Maybe that’s why, in that era, a pitcher who dominated an opponent was said to “officiate.”) Never did “Big Six” officiate better than during the second World Series against the Philadelphia A’s of Connie Mack in 1905. In a six day span, he crafted three complete-game, shutout victories, allowing but 14 hits and one measly walk—on the heels of a 32-8 season.

Muggsy McGraw had taken command of the Giants in July of 1902, hired by owner Andrew Freedman, himself described by Bill James as “George Steinbrenner on quaaludes, with a touch of Al Capone.” Symbolic of the team’s dysfunction, Horace Fogel, Matty’s third manager in less than two calendar years in New York, had just converted the pitcher, who’d notched 20 of the Giants’ 52 victories in ’01, into a first baseman.

Courtesy of a bum knee, the Little Napoleon’s playing career was effectively over by the time he settled into the Big Apple. But his managerial magic rebuilt and revitalized the rag-tag Giants to a 36-game improvement in his first full season, abetted by a 30-win performance from that no-longer-first sacker, Mathewson.

For that 1903 season, Matty and his newlywed bride Jane took the unusual step of sharing living arrangements with Blanche and John McGraw. (The meeting of the wives that year in spring training is among the many anecdotes and cultural references by which Deford enlivens his narrative.) This in-season set-up would remain in place until Mathewson left the Giants in 1916 to pursue a managerial opportunity in Cincinnati.

In those intervening years, through triumph and improbable defeat—Merkle’s “boner” in 1908, Snodgrass’s “muff” in 1912—led by those Giants, baseball evolved from a disreputable occupation peopled by an unsavory immigrant element into our national pastime, fit for college men like Matty.

Deford’s well-researched narrative details many key games—including Matty’s mostly ceremonial swan song with the Reds against old rival Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown. That research also yielded this bit of McGraw wisdom: “Very few ballplayers are ever as valuable to a team the first year they are married as they are before or after.”

Each man contracted illness that contributed to a pre-mature death. Christy Mathewson developed Tuberculosis from exposure to poisonous gas during military service in World War I. Appropriately enough, Big Six succumbed to his illness during the 1925 World Series, at the age of 45.

John McGraw was exposed to malaria as a young player in the 1890’s while barnstorming the Caribbean. A variety of health issues, exacerbated by more frequent alcohol consumption, induced McGraw’s sudden mid-season retirement in 1932. Death soon took him at 60 in February of 1934.

Neither man ever saw the Baseball Hall of Fame, but both laid its foundation.