March 25, 2017

Tales From the Deadball Era Fun For All

July 18, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

TalesWhen I learned that Mark Halfon’s Tales From the Deadball Era: Ty Cobb, Home Run Baker, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and the Wildest Times in Baseball History had been released I couldn’t wait to crack it open.  I wasn’t disappointed.  Rather than chronicle the Deadball Era (1901-1920) in chronological order, Halfon takes a different approach and feeds the reader chunks of informative and entertaining information that captures the era perfectly.

The book immediately jumps into the art of cheating with a great quote from Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby—“If a big leaguer doesn’t like cutting the corners or playing with ‘cheaters,’ then he’s as much out of place as a missionary in Russia.”—then moves on to pitchers dominating the game, the science of “inside baseball” and rowdyism, which was prevalent in the 19th and early 20th centuries before men like American League President Ban Johnson began cracking down on offenders.

Halfon doesn’t make an assumption about his audience and expertly toes the line between too much information and not enough.  As a Deadball Era expert I never found myself bored or hoping to move past sections, rather I appreciated Halfon’s description of events and learned a few things about the era that I didn’t already know.  Once I was finished it struck me that this is a book that everyone can enjoy, be they experts or just casual fans.

The middle section goes deeper into the lives and careers of Deadball Era icons John McGraw, Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson, and gives yet another account of the 1908 game between the New York Giants and Chicago Cubs made famous by a base running error by Fred Merkle that earned him the nickname “Bonehead” and will be forever known as “Merkle’s Boner.”

But none of it comes across as stale.  Halfon presents a compelling argument that questions the conventional wisdom that Johnson “refrained from intentionally throwing at batters” because he was afraid he’d hurt someone.   “Although Johnson may not have been a head hunter,” he writes, “his aversion to hitting batters seems to be more fiction than fact.”  Halfon then presents data to support his claim.

In the McGraw chapter he writes about an incident in 1905 that had Christy Mathewson, “The Christian Gentleman,” punching a boy selling lemonade and enraging a Philadelphia crowd that resorted to throwing “bricks, stones, sticks, and whatever came handy” at the Giants’ carriages as they pulled away from the ballpark.  Considering how revered Matty was for sportsmanship, I was shocked by this story I’d never heard before.

The third section is largely devoted to the Black Sox Scandal, and if I have one complaint it’s that Halfon clings to some of the same urban legends that have surrounded the scandal since Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men Eight was released in 1963.  In Halfon’s defense, though, much of the scandal is still vague despite researchers’ best efforts to uncover all of the facts and, to his credit, he admitted that he learned “too late that the threat to Lefty Williams is more fiction than fact.”

Regardless, Halfon is knowledgeable about the Black Sox and the third section is as entertaining and informative as the rest of the book, which is loaded with great stories.  If you’re looking for a fun summer read I highly recommend Halfon’s Tales From the Deadball Era.

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