cannot think of another American sport that lends itself so well to the printed word as baseball; every season presents itself as a challenging read, and getting to know all of the players and coaches, their strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies, is not unlike cracking a novel like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Marquez’s masterpiece requires the reader (at least this reader) to frequently reference the family tree at the front of the book, or face the prospect of becoming hopelessly lost amid multiple characters scattered over what is essentially the history of the world. And so it is with baseball, with more than 160 games, the epochal season plays out from spring to autumn, echoing a single life, from birth to death, or an entire civilization, from rise to fall. It is hard to say where the Cubs would fit into this rather neat analogy.
And what life, or civilization, would be complete without strife, hardship, wars or rumors of war? This brings me to Tris Speaker, subject of a University of Nebraska Press book by Timothy Gay (Tris Speaker: The Rough and Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend ). It’s a long overdue examination of a man who was arguably the greatest center fielder ever to play the game. Nearly eighty years after he left the game he still holds a number of American League records, yet less talented outfielders have become household names while Speaker has gone on to relative obscurity. There are no films or highlight reels featuring this complex and controversial Hall of Famer who eluded the easy metaphor and (apparently) many a sportswriter. And it seems some still don’t want his story told. Ray Buck, a writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, noted recently that the publication of the UNP book “kicked up quite a fuss” in the Speaker’s hometown of Hubbard, Texas. Buck noted that the book sparked a controversy between Speaker’s descendants and author Timothy Gay, who told the Star-Telegram that “there’s only one way to do justice to Speaker’s life and legacy – and that’s warts and all,” including a legacy of cheating induced by a gambling habit. The family claims the book is full of untruths, but Gay contends, "every fact and assertion (was) carefully documented” in five years of research.
I hope some of you will pick up a copy of Tris Speaker and delve into the life of a legendary player-coach and the days of the Dead Ball Era, one of baseball’s most exciting and nuanced chapters.
Not that today’s game isn’t without its own excitement or nuance. The sports blog deadspin.com noted the recent “beanball war” between the Mets and the Nationals. It’s a pretty one-sided conflict, with six of the seven beanballs in last week’s three-game series thrown by Mets pitchers (Jose Guillen of the Nationals was plunked three times, twice by Pedro Martinez). The teams play another three-game series this week, so stay tuned.
Speaking of the Mets and beanballs conjures up memories of the famous beaning of Mike Piazza by Yankee Roger Clemens in the summer of 2000. There was much anticipation when the two met later that year in Game Two of the “Subway Series,” but no one expected that this time it would be a piece of bat, rather than a ball, that Clemens would chuck in the direction of his rival. I felt a little sorry for Piazza, a gifted player whose legacy will always include that unremarkable foul that delivered a fateful piece of bat to Clemens. And what of the White Sox’s Robin Ventura, who unwisely charged the mound following a beanball delivered by veteran Nolan Ryan. Barely moving from his spot on the mound, the 46-year-old Ryan clamped a headlock on the 26-year-old Ventura and pummeled the lad into baseball history.
So that’s the way it works sometimes in the story of baseball. All the hustle, talent and greatness can be overshadowed by one simple, unexpected turn. Play like a champ every day, but look out for that goat. That brings us to The Unforgettable Season, and poor Fred Merkle, who will have to wait until next time. I also want to look back at The Boys Who Were Left Behind, those St. Louis Browns, and how sometimes even the weight of history can’t keep a great story from being told.