Book reviews:  1921 and Reggie Jackson

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.

Strengths

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.”

Structure

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.

Style

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.

Standards

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.

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Comments

  1. Jim C said...

    Very well-written analysis of both books. Reggie Jackson is perhaps my least-favorite player of the modern era, with his relentless self-promotion, poor defensive skills, and overbearing arrogance. He may have hit a lot of clutch home runs, but he holds no home run records. He does, however, hold lots of strikeout records, and will until Mark Reynolds’ career is over. Reggie once said that he did not think Nellie Fox deserved to be in the Hall of Fame. I think Reggie has no business there, with his career .263 average, and 5 full seasons of strikeouts, and a glove and throwing arm that put everyone in the stadium at risk.

  2. Steve Treder said...

    While I agree that Jackson presented his share of flaws, in fairness it must be pointed out that when he was a young player, until the mid-1970s or so, Jackson was a very good defensive outfielder, both in terms of range and (especially) throwing arm, and he was a first-rate baserunner as well.  In the book, Perry does an excellent job of stressing this point:  the Jackson that many fans first viewed closely in his Yankees and Angels days was exhibiting a much narrower range of skill than he’d once possessed.

  3. Northern Rebel said...

    In an interesting connection of the two books, I remember in 1969, Reggie Jackson had 37 HR’s at the all-star break, and was on pace for the Babe’s record.

    He only hit 10, the rest of the year.

  4. Paul E said...

    I remember that Tiger Stadium All Star game blast that Jackson unabashedly watched and gloated over….that incident singlehandedly signaled the conversion in MLB of the humble, respectful opponent into the proud, boastful, gloating anathema of sportsmanship. Absolutely, the least favorite player of my lifetime, Jackson, more than anyone save Muhammed Ali,  earned the title “The Krakatoa of Self-Promotion”.

    Throw in his LCS stats and he more closely approaches his regular season stats and is no longer the vaunted Mr. October

  5. Jim G. said...

    Steve, sure Reggie had good range and a good arm, but he was always plagued with either a lack of concentration or a bout of showboating. I can remember many times when he’d get to balls that not many players could get to, only to have the ball clank of his glove. He also had a penchant for trying to throw every runner out, bypassing the cutoff man and allowing the other runners an extra base. The throwing issue was MOST irritating, because he did have a great arm. As with most aspects of his playing, it wasn’t AS great as he thought it was.

  6. Jim C said...

    I’m sure it would have happened without me, but it truly warms my heart to know that I opened the anti-Reggie discussion this morning. Rock on, my brothers!

  7. Northern Rebel said...

    I’m trying to think of a player I liked less than Reggie……

    I’ll let you know.

  8. Paul said...

    Personally, I’m just amazed that on a stat-friendly web site someone made an anti-Hall of Fame argument based mainly on batting average, strikeouts, and outfield throwing arm.  Had not such creatures gone extinct?  Forsooth, does not the fabled “Doc Cramer belongs in the Hall” debate lurk nearby, waiting to strike the poor unsuspecting surfer and deprive him of his life, liberty, and linear weights?

  9. Kevin S said...

    I just finished reading *1921*, and though I enjoyed it, my wife will fully agree with Mr. Treder’s criticism. “Why,” she asked me, “are you reading a book full of play-by-plays of 90-year-old games?”

  10. Jim C said...

    Yes, I know who Doc Cramer was. but based on the flow of comments and my own personality, I thought a “Who’s Doc Cramer” comment would be good for a few laughs.

  11. Northern Rebel said...

    Bob,
    I’m not criticizing Rizzuto’s entrance. I am referring to the proliferance of players like those I noted in my previous post.

    These guys played in the 20’s and 30’s, and racked up house of card stats, from the hitter’s era, especially the ‘29-‘30 seasons. Many of them were from the NY teams.
    My partial list of people who don’t belong in the hall:

    Joe Sewell
    Jack Chesbro
    Ross Youngs
    Freddie Lindstrom
    Earl Combs
    Eppa Rixey
    Dazzy Vance
    Rube Waddell
    Lloyd Waner
    Dave Bancroft
    Harry Hooper
    Red Faber
    Burleigh Grimes
    Chick Hafey
    Jesse Haines
    Travis Jackson
    Addie Joss
    George Kell
    Andre Dawson (especially with Tim Raines not in)

    As you can see, there is a significant NY connection. I don’t know who was on the veteran’s committee, but they obviously favored New York teams.

  12. Paul said...

    Oh, come on.  You’re not fooling me.  But for the rest of you….

    Doc Cramer
    http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/cramedo01.shtml

    AKA, the anti-Reggie.  Career .296 hitter, never struck out more than 35 times in a season, good defensive reputation in center field, and, to the best of my knowledge, well liked by all.  He also had no power, did not walk much, and was a bad base stealer.  As a total package he was an acceptable major leaguer, but nothing more.  People still want to put him in the Hall of Fame, but it is hard to understand why, unless all you focus on is batting average, strikeouts, and outfield defense….

  13. Northern Rebel said...

    Jim C:

    Just in case you weren’t pulling Paul’s leg, Doc Cramer was a Centerfielder with a splendid glove who played from 1929-1948.

    He was a .300 hitter with little power, who rarely walked or struck out. For some reason 4 American league teams saw fit to put him in the leadoff spot, despite the fact that his OBP was not much higher than his batting avg.

    A tough durable player, he managed to produce 9 seasons with over 600 AB’s, and 13 straight years with 541 AB’s or more.

    As a result, he racked up 2705 hits, and must have made enemies on the veteran’s hall of fame commission, because there are many lesser players elected by them.

    There are many players presently performing in the majors, who are worthy of induction upon their retirement, but I’d like to see a commission formed to start removing the Travis Jackson’s, the Freddie Lindstrom’s, and the Earl Combs’ who don’t belong, but were voted in by the pals, most of them New Yorkers.

  14. Bob Rittner said...

    Northern Rebel, you were doing fine until your last 5 words, “most of them New Yorkers”, which repeats (insinuates?) the canard that NY has some special pull in selecting HOFers )and other award winners).

    And before you mention Rizzuto, although there was a campaign for him, led by Steinbrenner, his biggest booster on the committee was Ted Williams.

    As for other honorees who probably do not deserve enshrinement, the leading voice was Frankie Frisch who was primarily concerned with his Cardinal teammates such as Jesse Haines.

    In any case, the campaign successes for HOF enshrinement center around popular players and are unrelated to their NY or non-NY careers. Such is the case of recent questionable inductees such as Tony Perez, Jim Rice and Andre Dawson, none of whom come close, in my view, to having the qualifications of Earle Combs, a worthy member. In fact, if you wanted to mention an unworthy candidate with a career that overlapped Combs and at the same position, Lloyd Waner would be a far better choice, and he had no NY connections.

  15. Alec Rogers said...

    Having just completed 1921, let me offer a dissenting view. 

    In fact, it is one of the most engaging, educational books I have ever read on baseball history and a model of the “season history” genre.  Perhaps this reflects my taste for more academic, university press style of writing, but I’ve read dry academic baseball histories before, and 1921 is NOT it.

    First, the “game by game” style used in 1921 can, in lesser hands, devolve into boredom.  Other season histories that over rely on this are hard to digest. Fortunately, the authors of 1921 are such skilled authors I was actually left fascinated about whether the Giants were going to take 2 of 3 from Dodgers, etc.  You didn’t just feel you were reading the box scores, but were riding on the team train, listening to the conversations, concerns, etc.

    Next, the implications of 1921 are, I think, obvious to the point that it would have been banal to state them – the way the game became what it is today with its focus on the long ball, the concentration of wealth and strength in New York, etc.  The parallels between 1921 and today hit you with such force they hardly need be spoken (e.g. constant complaints about the New York teams buying players rendering other teams unable to compete, poor officiating, etc.).

    I would like to know what Mr Treder DOES find to to meet his standards for baseball history if 1921 does not.

    It meets mine, and much more.

    (NB: if you don’t understand why you should read about 90 year old events, you just don’t like history, period.)

  16. Steve Treder said...

    I’m glad to hear you loved 1921.  It’s an excellent book:  I liked it, but I didn’t love it.

  17. Alec Rogers said...

    Fair enough – to each their own.

    I’d still be interested in your recommendations, though.

    Alec

  18. Steve Treder said...

    A book that comes immediately to mind that I found superior to 1921, that overlaps to a significant degree in the subject matter, is one I reviewed on this site a couple of years ago:  Ed Barrow, by Dan Levitt.

    http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/book-review-ed-barrow/

    Yet even better than that one, the best work of baseball history I’ve encountered over the past several years, is Lee Lowenfish’s masterful biography of Branch Rickey.

    That’s the gold standard.  It’s unrealistic, of course, to expect or demand that every new book in this field measure up to that one.  But my view is simply that in recent years the bar has been raised regarding how good a baseball history book must be to be considered among the very best the category has to offer.

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