- The Cooperstown Chronicles: Baseball’s Colorful Characters, Unusual Lives, and Strange Demises by Frank Russo
Frank Russo may be best known as the creator of thedeadballera.com, an intriguing and imminently useful site dedicated to deceased Major League Baseball players. The site has links to everything from articles about the players’ lives and playing careers to photos, obituaries, and other realia. Russo’s book, The Cooperstown Chronicles: Baseball’s Colorful Characters, Unusual Lives, and Strange Demises, expands on the basic premise of his website by presenting short, typically one-to-five-page, biographies of players from the late nineteenth century to the present time. Rather than focusing on the players’ individual accomplishments on the diamond, Russo situates the players within their historical context and attempts to reveal their personalities, problems, and life after baseball. Casual baseball [End Page 446] fans will immediately recognize some of the players, such as Ty Cobb, Don Drysdale, Lefty Grove, and Casey Stengel; however, the overwhelming majority of the players, such as Al Thake, “Turkey Mike” Donlin, Spider Clark, and Bill Hogg have been long forgotten except by the most zealous baseball historians. One of the strengths of Russo’s work is his encyclopedic knowledge of all eras of baseball; another is his particular interest in players from the deadball era (prior to 1920).
The volume begins with “Bad to the Bone,” a chapter dedicated to “tough guys and bad asses.” Russo opens with two late nineteenth-century infamous teams in the National League, the Baltimore Orioles and the Cleveland Spiders, who terrorized opponents with their language, savagery on the base paths, and outright belligerence toward opponents. Included among many entries are Hall of Famer Cap Anson, one of the greatest hitters in baseball history but also an overt racist and bigot; and two of the most despised cheaters and game fixers in baseball history: Hal Chase (suspended by baseball in 1918) and Chick Gandil, the point man for the Black Sox scandal in 1919 and one of the eight White Sox players banned for life by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
“Beer Drinkers and Hell-Raisers” seems like a chapter that could be expanded to a multivolume set about baseball players, as beer drinking and baseball have been synonymous since the founding of the National League in 1876. Entries on the usual suspects are here (Hack Wilson and Mickey Mantle), as well as other well-known players (Rabbit Maranville and Paul “Big Poison” Waner). Especially fascinating are the players about whom little is known or has been written, at least in the last eighty to one hundred years, such as Terry Larkin, an alcoholic who shot his wife and died at age thirty-eight in poverty, and heavy drinkers, like Ed McKean and Bob Spade. Russo notes that, since baseball’s inception, “the game has been plagued by the “‘white death’—tuberculosis” and devotes a lengthy chapter, “Consumed by Consumption,” to the disease that killed players well into the 1950s.
Few things scare a batter more than a high, inside fastball or a dusting. The chapter “Headhunters” is a chronological look at some of the nastiest pitchers ever to play the sport. Spitballer Carl Mays killed Ben Chapman in 1920 with a wet one to the head; consequently, the spitter was banned, save for sixteen hurlers who were grandfathered in. One of those was Burleigh “Ol’ Stubblebeard” Grimes, who lasted until 1934. Other hurlers included are mostly well known and, given their intimidating presence on the mound, were mostly successful. From hard-throwing Pat Malone and Charlie Root from the 1929 Cubs to Sal Maglie and Early Wynn, these pitchers established control of the plate.
Given that Russo is a well-known necrologist, it is fitting that this volume concludes with three somewhat macabre chapters about death. “Suicide Is Painless” chronicles players who took their own life (some during their active playing career or shortly thereafter) Most of the players included were active prior to 1940; two notable exceptions are...