This spring has graced us with two new books that, while obviously differing in important ways, share many elements as well.
Both 1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York, by Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg, and Reggie Jackson: The Life and Thunderous Career of Baseball’s Mr. October, by Dayn Perry, are serious and thoughtful volumes displaying highly impressive research. Both centrally focus upon baseball in the New York setting, with attention to the heightened expectation, pressure, and media frenzy that’s essential to the Big Apple.
And while these books address eras half a century apart, there are strong parallels between several of their main actors: relentlessly willful super-wealthy Yankee owners (Jacob Ruppert and George Steinbrenner), humorless, hypercompetitive hard-drinking managers (the Giants’ John McGraw and the Yankees’ Billy Martin), and, of course, egotistical, self-indulgent, charismatic, larger-than-life superstar Yankee sluggers (Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson).
Alas, these works share a final similarity: for all their many genuinely excellent qualities, neither book quite fully succeeds.
To be sure, there’s a whole lot to praise in both. To begin with, each is a handsomely presented, top-shelf physical product, with no stinting on any of the extras: wonderful photos aplenty, richly detailed endnotes and indeces, and 1921 even tosses in the luxury of appendices providing box scores and statistical tables. These are the publisher’s equivalents of a five-star hotel, complete with butter-soft linens and a plush bathrobe, as no detail has been overlooked, and no small effort spared.
These accoutrements surround an equally major league quality of content. Each work plainly aspires to be the premier source on its chosen subject, and each abundantly succeeds in that endeavor. And each does a masterful job of elegantly weaving relevant quotations from other sources into the narrative. Consider 1921’s flawless description of the popularity of Babe Ruth (p. 317):
Ruth was so genuine and so unbridled in his enthuisasm for baseball and for life that his drinking and carousing only added to his allure. Grantland Rice captured the Babe’s persona well when he wrote, “Ruth, the man-boy, was the complete embodiment of everything uninhibited.” After the devastating Great War, Americans wanted to enjoy themselves. Sports became “an American obsession,” and celebrities (in sports and in entertainment) became the focus of great attention and adulation.
In a time of increasing urbanization and mass production, the Babe was one of the biggest and most inimitable heroes of the times, one who appealed to people of all ages. He was “a screaming symbol, saying ‘I won’t go’ — to some, the last gasp of the rugged individual.”
Each book adopts a specific and traditional history-book form: for 1921, it’s the detailed examination of a tightly bounded time and place, and for Reggie Jackson it’s the classic chronological biography. To be sure, there were sound reasons for the respective authors to make these choices.
Nineteen-twenty-one was certainly among the most pivotal seasons in major league history, as the sport endeavored to re-establish credibility in the wake of the shattering Black Sox scandal revelations that had come to light in the fall of 1920. Baseball grappled with this existential challenge while offering a brand-new high-scoring style, centered around the exploits of the most amazing sports superstar yet seen, and it did so with that superstar’s New York Yankees achieving their very first pennant, and then facing off in the World Series against the long-dominant cross-town New York Giants.
And, as Perry aptly puts it in the prologue of Reggie Jackson (pp. 6-7):
His 563 home runs and impossible gift for the moment made Reggie a baseball legend, but his reluctant and conflicted pioneering made him a cultural icon. He is, at once, more than the breadth of his statistics and more than the changes he wrought. Reggie himself coined a phrase for it. “Sometimes,” he once said in his familiar pensive way, “I underestimate the magnitude of me.”
After so many years, Reggie’s life — Reggie’s “magnitude of me” — begs for fresh testimony.
So it’s easy to see why Spatz and Steinberg decided to focus on this year and this city, and why Perry judged that this player merits a full-scale biography. But the forms so chosen, and so rigorously applied, impose inherent limitations that exact meaningful costs.
Spatz and Steinberg meticulously cover the season that saw the birth of both the still-thriving Yankee dynasty, as well as, effectively or at least nearly, the “modern” mode of play. But these concepts are intriguing not just because of what particularly happened in and only in 1921, but rather in terms of their many implications regarding what has happened since. And the book’s dedication to an exquisitely detailed accounting of the specific events of that single year leaves little room for consideration of the larger issues churning in that era, and how and why they reverberate today; they’re touched upon, but only fleetingly.
Perry’s all-Reggie-all-the-time chronology yields two problems. First, Jackson, while an unquestionably important figure in baseball history, isn’t the sort of book-length protagonist for whom the reader is inclined to root. In chapter after chapter, on page after page, we see Jackson demonstrating shallow pettiness, calculated insincerity, and appalling self-centeredness; he comes across, in short, as a most unlikeable man. Thus it becomes increasingly difficult to rouse much sympathetic concern for the outcomes of Jackson’s endeavors.
Second, as with 1921, the strict focus on Jackson alone allows for little examination of whatever the wider implications of his career might be. In the prologue Perry told us of the importance of “the changes he wrought,” but precisely what those changes were, and how Jackson particularly wrought them, aren’t questions explored with much vigor.
A slightly annoying manifestation of this missing-the-forest-for-the-trees issue is the degree to which both books repeatedly indulge in extended play-by-play recaps of various games. Propulsion of larger narrative themes tends to grind to a halt in these sections. Time and again, the reader is left wondering about the necessity of lingering over such minutia, and how this abounding space might have been more effectively devoted to broader and deeper concerns.
Perhaps in keeping with the disciplined devotion to a chosen form, both books display an apparently purposeful absence of assertive personality in the authors’ voice. It’s obvious that both works are placing a high value on fairness, on even-handedness, on presenting facts in a clean, straightforward, objective manner.
Certainly, there’s much to be said for such an approach. It strengthens the credibility of the reported events, allowing the reader to adopt and maintain a calm confidence in the both the accuracy and the thoroughness of the work’s underlying research, as it’s clear that no axe is being ground, no spin effected. In both books this virtue is maximized, but at some expense of other potential, undeveloped virtues: those of humor, and energy, and passion, and moral force.
While no one can doubt the sincerity and extraordinary quality of the scholarship embedded in these pages, the reader isn’t always persuaded to invest the care in learning these facts that the authors have invested in researching and presenting them.
I’m reminded of a maxim often uttered by one of my favorite undergraduate History professors: “History,” he would say, “must be art, not science.” By this he meant that while the historian’s requirement to get the objective facts right is clearly imperative, that’s merely the beginning of the task: the fundamental goal is to then organize and present such facts in a manner that not only engages, but compels and even moves the reader. Otherwise, he would say, why bother?
It’s in this way that both books fall just short of achieving what they might. The reader of both will highly respect the quality of the work provided, the painstakingly detailed research, the thoroughly articulated accounting. But the reader of both may be left wanting a bit deeper perspective, and some further original insight.
I could be accused of holding these very fine authors to too high a standard. Twenty or thirty years ago—heck, ten years ago—these books would have bowled over all competition on the (then) distinctly limited baseball history playing field. In that environment, both of these books would soar as brilliantly-researched and earnestly-presented masterpieces of baseball history scholarship.
And so they both might deserve accolades. But the (delightful) fact is that as of 2010, the standard of baseball history writing is vastly higher than ever before. Increasingly, over the past decade we’ve been treated to an ever-greater array of baseball histories of ever-higher quality, both in the rigor of hard research and the power of lyrical presentation. We’re privileged to live in an unprecedented Golden Age of baseball history writing.
That’s great news for readers. But it’s difficult news for writers: on this field, today as never before, to triumph you need to play a truly amazing game.
References & Resources
Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg, 1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010.
Dayn Perry, Reggie Jackson: The Life and Thunderous Career of Baseball’s Mr. October, New York: Harper Collins, 2010.