Monday, December 16, 2013

Book Review: A GAME OF BRAWL by Bill Felber (University of Nebraska Press, 2007)

Thanks to expansion, divisional play, and wild cards, we will most likely never again see a "good, old-fashioned" pennant race in baseball.  This book tells the story of the first pennant race to truly capture the entire country's attention.  While the setting and the baseball were old-fashioned, to describe the emotions involved as "good" would be somewhat misleading.  In 1897, the much-hated, cutthroat Baltimore Orioles did vicious battle with the comparatively mannerly, yet no less determined, Boston Beaneaters -- the ancestors of today's Atlanta Braves -- for the top spot in the unwieldy, 12-team National League.  The battle reached a fevered climax when the two teams played a late-season three-game series in Baltimore that author Felber, with only slight exaggeration, calls the greatest event in the country's sporting history up until that time.

Major-league competition in the 1890s was warped by the huge gap between the league's haves and have-nots and, more to the immediate point, by the popular idea that dirty play and intimidation of the umpire were simply part of the game.  The Orioles weren't the only team that used chicanery and bullying to triumph; they were simply the best at it and had better personnel to execute the gamy game plan, including such future Hall of Famers as John McGraw, Willie Keeler, Wilbert Robinson, and manager Ned Hanlon.  The "original O's" won three straight NL titles between 1894 and 1896 and seemed primed for a "four-peat" in '97, but the Beaneaters, whom the Orioles had supplanted as the league's top club, overcame a sluggish start to challenge the champions.  In the process, the Boston club, cheered on by the country's first organized fan contingent, the Royal Rooters, swept up a large number of neutral fans who dearly wanted baseball's original "evil empire" to be humbled.

Due to the frequent descriptions of game action, Felber's book is a bit of a dry read at times, but he mixes in occasional diversions highlighting other aspects of the game in the 1890s, such as the battle over the propriety of Sunday baseball, the hellacious treatment given to umpires (which was frequently reciprocated by the feistier ones), and the use of marionette re-creations in theaters to enable fans to follow their teams on the road.  The world may have been a much lower-tech place back then, but the "prehistoric" version of modern fan culture made up in sheer enthusiasm what it may have lacked in sophistication.

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