- Tales from the Deadball Era: Ty Cobb, Home Run Baker, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and the Wildest Time in Baseball History by Mark S. Halfon
Baseball junkies shouted for joy recently when a researcher unearthed the only known audio recording of legendary pitcher Walter Johnson. In today’s media-saturated sports environment, modern fans are never more than a few clicks from their favorite players’ latest interviews and on-field highlights. The wonder surrounding Walter Johnson’s rediscovered voice, or around the Yeti-like quest for definitive footage of Babe Ruth calling his shot in the 1932 World Series, reminds us that much of American sports history remains lost in the shadows, preserved only in old newspapers, half-true autobiographies, and a handful of other sources.
Mark S. Halfon, professor of philosophy at Nassau Community College, illuminates one of baseball’s most mysterious periods, the so-called “Deadball” era stretching roughly from 1901 to 1920. Relying heavily on major newspapers, some memoirs, and a handful of secondary sources, he captures a time when baseball existed in a near-anarchic state where umpires made rules (and players found loopholes) on the fly, cheating was fine so long as it helped your team (or a popular opponent, when your own team’s cause was lost), and gambling was an accepted part of the game (except when it was not).
As Halfon’s good-times title suggests, Tales from the Deadball Era does not seek to break new interpretive ground. Rather, it serves as a pleasant compendium of well-worn stories of organized baseball’s round-and-tumble early days. Anyone hoping to read about Merkle’s Boner (or blunder, as Halfon chastely calls it), Nap LaJoie bunting his way past [End Page 130] Ty Cobb for a batting title, and Wee Willie Keeler “hitting ‘em where they ain’t” won’t be disappointed. Halfon tells these stories and many more. He also includes brief, on-field-centered biographies of Cobb, Walter Johnson, and John McGraw.
Halfon is best when sketching the moral gray area baseball occupied during these years. Anyone appalled by today’s steroid scandals or the occasional corked bat should remember the ethical ambiguities plaguing baseball’s supposedly innocent youth. Halfon devotes considerable space to various instances of gambling, culminating in the infamous Black Sox scandal. Spitballs and emery boards make appearances. Early major leaguers cut bases and tripped opponents with impunity while the umpires’ backs were turned. League officials provided little moral guidance, either ignoring rule breakers or slapping them with modest fines. Umpires sometimes held their tongues even when they spotted malfeasances for fear of retribution from the stands.
The abundant examples of fans’ rowdy behavior raise an interesting, unexplored paradox. Halfon asserts that white, middle-class professionals comprised the bulk of major league audiences. Yet these people, the same types who boosted the Progressive Era’s emphasis on order, reform, and good government, appear curiously unmoved by the national pastime’s consistent violations of that ethos. Moreover, frequent acts of ballpark violence appear to contradict standard interpretations of Progressive behavior. Because the fans so often directly inserted themselves into the game, whether by intimidating umpires, interfering with balls in play, or placing bets from their seats, some deeper understanding of who these people were, what motivated them to act as they did, and how they related to the baseball establishment and vice versa seems essential to fully understanding the Deadball era.
Halfon’s final chapters describe baseball’s transition away from “smallball.” Babe Ruth arrives just as loosely woven balls and legally doctored pitches vanish from the scene. The Black Sox tarnish the game’s reputation, although Halfon concludes that the thrown World Series never really imperiled baseball’s popularity. But the scandal did give new commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis an excuse to crush the gambling and other shady practices that defined the previous two decades. Baseball’s rules, tactics, and culture had...