Of Tribes and Tribulations: The Early Decades of the Cleveland Indians by James E. Odenkirk
James Odenkirk's recent book, Of Tribes and Tribulations, covers the same history that other books have covered. Nonetheless, Odenkirk's opus offers a unique perspective.
The first thing that readers will notice about his writing is Odenkirk's breadth, perhaps a reflection of his many years of participating in the multi-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary culture of NINE. He consistently focuses on context, on the sociological, political, and economic character of Cleveland and the nation as a whole, and on the social and psychological make-up of the team and its members. Fittingly, the first chapter opens with a description of nineteenth-century Cleveland and its place in the postbellum United States; the final chapter begins with questions regarding racism and anti-Semitism, within baseball and beyond. This contextual breadth, some of it filling the bulk of a given chapter, enriches the reader's appreciation for the baseball story Odenkirk tells. Indeed, his writing is a reminder of the importance of understanding the behavioral sciences, economics and labor relations, law, communication, politics, urban planning and architecture, the arts, popular culture, and general history in order to appreciate the meaning of even a single baseball team, let alone the game as a whole.
The customary, expected recounting of Cleveland's wins and losses plays a secondary role in Odenkirk's narrative. Although he presents traditional hitting and pitching stats, Odenkirk eschews overly complicated or lengthy statistical analyses. ("Among baseball historians, sabermetrics are often suspect." ) Descriptions of games are presented to tell a bigger story in the unfolding of the team's history. Although chapters proceed in a more or less chronological order, the chronology within each chapter often loosely follows the linear passage of time, following instead the personal timelines of individual people and individual ideas. When Odenkirk does include the unfolding of events on the field, he chooses games that allow him to weave a compelling story that contributes to readers' appreciation for the professional and personal development of individual Cleveland players and for the team's impact on the Cleveland community—and the community's impact on the team. As a result, descriptions of Cleveland's games and seasons often move back and forth in time, moving ahead to finish an individual storyline and then jumping back to pick up the narrative from where it branched off.
This nonlinear progression results, in part, from the breadth of Odenkirk's writing and, in part, from its narrowness. If it had not already become clear [End Page 266] to readers, Odenkirk closes his book with his admission that he presents The Early Decades of the Cleveland Indians from a fan's perspective, stating simply that baseball writing is presented—and is meaningful—"[f]rom the perspective of one's own life" (273). His book is thus a scrapbook that gathers more than a half century of mementos, clippings, and photos, all collected and arranged more by theme than by time and most of all for their personal meaning to the curator of these memories.
Although Of Tribes and Tribulations clearly reflects Odenkirk's personal attachment to and affection for the Cleveland Indians, his writing does not descend to boosterism. Similar to the 1940s Cleveland sportswriters Odenkirk admires, he "provides literate copy" and "equable and judicious appraisal" (188). He is unafraid to point out the flaws in his subjects, even icons like Bob Feller.
Moreover, although reflecting his own connection to the Tribe, Odenkirk's stories are simply too good not to appeal to a broader audience. Sneaking Napoleon Lajoie off a train to avoid arrest offers a memorable parable of the bizarre owner-player relations in professional baseball. A triple play that began with a ball bouncing off the head of Cleveland third baseman, Odell "Bad News" Hale, into the shortstop's glove stirs memories of other unusual plays the reader has witnessed. And giving pitcher Ray Caldwell a contract that stipulated he must get drunk after each start was not even the best Ray Caldwell story. That distinction goes to the time he was struck by lightning while pitching the top of the ninth at League Park, lay unconscious on the mound for five minutes, got up, and finished the game by striking out the bemused Philadelphia batter.
All in all, Odenkirk does an admirable job—creditable, he might humbly say—of conveying not only the early history of the Indians but what that history has meant to Clevelanders "forever looking for silver linings in storm clouds" (273). His personal approach to history thus gives his writing a certain timelessness. Over a hundred years ago, writers in the Plain Dealer complained about attendance at Indians games: "Cleveland might well be 'the poorest rooting town in the league'" (27). Odenkirk points out, however, that then, as today, attendance could be frustratingly low even as interest in baseball grew, as indicated by growing audiences for mediated fan experiences, first through print media, later through radio, and towards the end of the book, through the emerging medium of television. Media and media personalities—sportswriters, cartoonists, and broadcasters—figure prominently in Odenkirk's book. Stories about the late Jack Graney, for example, illustrate the effect media were having on interest in the game as well as on fans' perceptions of individual players: "Graney transformed 5'7" centerfielder Roy 'Little Thunder' [End Page 267] Weatherly into a Gulliver with a glove, a racing, leaping, diving maker of impossible catches" (115).
Cleveland's "political volatility and fragmentation," its racial and ethnic composition, economic history, and geography have made Cleveland "different from cities of a similar size and background" (271). While the history of the Indians will certainly resonate with Cleveland fans, Odenkirk's personalized approach will have a broader reach, for it reminds readers that one of baseball's universal truths is that it is experienced uniquely through the lens of fans' personal participation, the subjective meanings they find, and the intimate connections they develop. Baseball history is thus best reflected in the way each fan—including James E. Odenkirk—chooses to recount her or his memories of the passing seasons.