Sunday, November 1, 2009

Book Review: THE FIRST FALL CLASSIC by Mike Vaccaro (Doubleday, 2009)

Vaccaro, a columnist for the NEW YORK POST, has written a real gem of an historical baseball tome here -- a gem not without hairline cracks, certainly, but one that entertainingly and (for the most part) accurately portrays the events surrounding the 1912 World Series, which was indeed, as the title claims, the first truly great Fall Classic. Up until 1912, there had been relatively few truly memorable World Series and only one (that of 1909) that had gone the limit of seven games. The match between the New York Giants and the Boston Red Sox "maxed out" and then some, with one tied game being called due to darkness and the eighth and final contest extending into extra innings. If that weren't enough, the eighth game featured a "strike" of sorts by a segment of Red Sox fans -- which, even then, were notoriously loyal -- and the final decision turned upon several of the most famous "boners" in World Series history.

In his HISTORICAL BASEBALL ABSTRACT, Bill James notes that the major-league teams of the 1910s were as diverse a collection of individuals (excepting skin color, of course) as have ever played big-league ball. Teams were potpourris of the educated and illiterate, the gentlemanly and the borderline-criminal, and sometimes the mixture curdled into something ugly. The Red Sox were split between Irish Catholics and Protestant/Masons, while the Giants, led by manager John McGraw, the most notorious of hard-ass skippers, had on their roster Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson, a college graduate and famously straight arrow, and a couple of guys who hated McGraw's guts but wouldn't have wanted to play for any other manager. The Giants, despite not having won a championship in seven years prior to 1912, were every bit as arrogant as any modern New York team, while the speedy Red Sox gloried in the exploits of hard-throwing young pitcher Smoky Joe Wood and the antics of "The Royal Rooters," a pack of peripatetic, well-organized fans led by Boston Mayor John Fitzgerald, JFK's grandfather. Throw in the natural rivalry between New York and Boston -- not to mention hard feelings stemming from the Giants' refusal to play the Red Sox in a postseason series in 1904, the year before the "true" World Series began -- and you have a match-up that dwarfed even a dramatic Presidential race and a sensational trial involving corrupt NYC policeman Charles Becker in the popular press.

I won't give away specifics about the Series, but I will say that, despite several misspellings and errors of fact, Vaccaro gets the background details right. Ordinary citizens who couldn't get to the ball park followed the games in "virtual" fashion by means of scoreboards such as the one above. Vaccaro gives authentic voice to them, as well as to the players and other principals. He is especially good at detailing the sinister inroads that dishonesty had begun to make into the game by this time. Aside from describing the pervasive gambling in and around the ballparks, Vaccaro posits a conversation between Red Sox manager Jake Stahl and team owner James McAleer in which the latter "suggests" that the former refrain from using Wood, the Sox' best pitcher, in one game in New York with the Sox holding a "safe" 3-1 Series lead. The unspoken reason: to have a better chance of filling the stands for one final game in brand-new Fenway Park. I've never heard this story told anywhere else. I am, however, familiar with the "fan walkout" occasioned by the Sox management's foolish decision to sell the Royal Rooters' tickets out from under them, a gaffe which led to the deciding game drawing only a fraction of capacity.

Anyone interested in baseball history should enjoy this book. Among the books I've read regarding this era in baseball, only THE UNFORGETTABLE SEASON, G.H. Fleming's clippings book about the 1908 NL race, clearly surpasses it.


Joe Torcivia said...


You wrote: "Ordinary citizens who couldn't get to the ball park followed the games in "virtual" fashion by means of scoreboards such as the one above."

Isn’t it funny that, today, you can have the same “virtual / pitch-by-pitch graphic representation” of a game at!

And that I’ve used that to follow Red Sox games (while watching Yankee games on TV) to keep track of the AL East pennant race. You know, back when there WAS an AL pennant race – before the Yankees pulled away!

Chris Barat said...


Yes, I immediately thought of that as well. What is MLB "gamecast" but an updated version of the "Playograph" and similar virtual scoreboards. The difference, of course, was that you had to be physically present -- along with several thousands other souls -- to witness the virtual action.