The late, great Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti once said one of the important things he learned by working on the inside of baseball was “the enormous grip this game has on people…it goes way down deep.”
I learned that lesson all over again reading a wonderful new baseball book telling the story of how the game came to be defined in 1921 as a New York game – the Yankees and Giants faced off in the 1921 World Series – and how that spectacular rivalry helped the great game bounce back from the Black Sox Scandal of 1919.
As the Los Angeles Times said in a recent review of 1921 – The Yankees, the Giants and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York, “1921 was a transitional one. The nation had only recently emerged from the horrors of World War I. Prohibition was in place, although that didn’t stop Ruth and company from indulging. And why not? Ruth was widely regarded as baseball’s savior for restoring the credibility and allure of the national pastime in the aftermath of the 1919 Black Sox gambling scandal, in which members of the Chicago White Sox took money to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. By 1921, he was the game’s pre-eminent superstar, acquiring an agent — the ubiquitous Christy Walsh — and igniting the first home-run boom.”
For a baseball junkie – and someone who loves history – 1921 is a great retreat into the formative days of the game so many of us enjoy today. And that is the value of a fine book like this – it connects my history (and yours, perhaps) to the game our fathers also loved.
My dad, a knowledgeable baseball fan, used to talk about the great Yankee teams of the 1920’s and 1930’s. No Yankee fan he, his admiration was for the franchise’s success and for the supporting cast around Ruth and Gehrig and later DiMaggio. He admired a Yankee outfielder by name of Bob Meusel, a guy with a lifetime .309 batting average, 156 career home runs and more than a thousand RBI’s. Meusel played only 11 seasons, all but one for the Yankees and often hit fifth in the line-up behind Ruth and Gehrig.
In 1921, Meusel hit .321, had 24 homers (Ruth hit a remarkable 59) and drove in 135 runs. Meusel and his brother Emil (nicknamed Irish), played against each other in the World Series that year. In 1921, these guys – and their substantial accomplishments – come alive and I can almost hear my dad, the baseball fan, weaving a story about the “old days” in baseball. A wonderful aspect of the game is that the history of baseball really allows us to appreciate an entirely different era.
Baseball in New York in 1921, with writers like Damon Runyon and Heywood Broun doing the daily reporting, was something special. (Runyon once wrote, “The race may not always be to the swift nor the victory to the strong, but that’s how you bet.”) Ruth appropriately received a lot of newspaper ink, but so too did the managers of the Yankees – Miller Huggins – and the Giants – John McGraw.
After the Yankees came on late in the session to win the American League pennant, Runyon wrote of Huggins, who rarely received the credit he was due for the success of this heavy hitters and slick pitchers, “the little manager of the New York club, tramped across the yard in the wake of his men, his head bowed in characteristic attitude. In happiness or sorrow Huggins is ever something a picture of dejection. The crowd cheered him as his familiar Charley Chapin feet lugged his small body along, and Huggins had to keep doffing his cap.”
Good book about great characters and the American game in a very interesting time.