Book review: Joe Croninby Steve Treder
March 05, 2010
Consider the following: A handsome, gregarious, eminently likable first-generation Irish-American gains prominence as an amateur ballplayer in 1920s San Francisco. By the end of that decade he's in the major leagues as a first-string shortstop; by the earliest years of the 1930s he's a full-fledged big league star. At the age of 26 he's named playing manager, and immediately wins a pennant in that role.
He remains a star player-manager for a dozen years, then, once retired as a player, wins another pennant skippering from the dugout. Then he spends a decade as his team's general manager, and following that he serves as president of the American League for 15 years. He's in the Hall of Fame as a no-doubter simply on the basis of his performance as a player, and taking the full measure of his accomplishments over a half-century in the sport, there's ample reason to consider his among the handful of the most impressive and important careers in baseball history.
Yet Joe Cronin, who forged this storybook career, is—well, he's hardly obscure, but his status within the popular imagination isn't as lofty as one would think it might be. Few casual fans have more than the faintest idea who Cronin was. Even among the baseball-history-geek fringe frequented by the likes of yours truly, Cronin's name rarely comes up. He isn't disrespected so much as he's overshadowed; he's just less prominent than numerous contemporaries in each of his realms, as a player, a manager and an executive.
And this isn't merely a recent phenomenon: Even in his heyday, Cronin was never a true media superstar. It's significant that despite the rich abundance of this-writes-itself material presented by Cronin's epic career, no full-length biography had been published until Mark Armour's just-released Joe Cronin: A Life in Baseball.
Why this should be—why Joe Cronin never became the baseball icon he might have—isn't a question Armour directly confronts. Yet through chapter after chapter of this meticulously researched, smoothly written chronicle, two explanations make themselves evident. The first works to Armour's advantage, optimizing the book's interest quotient. Alas, the second serves as Armour's enemy, persistently seeking to bathe the otherwise vivid story in tones of bland, beige, drabness.
The good news (for us): Cronin's struggles
The first explanation as to why, despite his amazing career arc, Cronin never ascended to the most elite level as a marquee baseball name, is the hard truth that no single thing among his many achievements was brilliant.
Of all the roles he filled within the game, the one at which he was best was ballplayer, yet even there Cronin was very, very good, but not quite great. At no point was Cronin ever the premier player in his league, and he was rarely a serious contender for that status. He battled injuries at some key junctures, and periodically encountered difficulties with fielding. And at each succeeding rung on his soaring career ladder—field manager, general manager, and league president—Cronin's performance would achieve less distinction. While he was far from a failure in any of these challenging assignments, in each of them enduring success eluded Cronin, and once he left the field of play his profile could better be described as earnest plodder than dynamic thoroughbred.
Yet while standing as a major reason why he didn't attain elite stardom, this aspect of struggle, the degree to which things didn't always come easily for Cronin, is good tidings for Armour. A story of sure and effortless success, while more impressive than Cronin's, would be less engaging than the story Armour relates. It's precisely in the episodes of difficulty, and how Cronin confronted them, overcame them or didn't, learned from them or didn't, that we less-than-superstar readers find in Cronin a character with whom we can readily identify. The Joe Cronin we come to know in this biography is, in his array of strengths and weaknesses, a profoundly human figure.
Among the strengths Cronin exhibited was a tireless work ethic, an indefatigable persistence even in the face of defeat. For all his athletic gifts, Cronin wasn't the very most swift or graceful of players, but none was more diligent, more dedicated to his craft. And as a manager, and particularly as an executive, Cronin was, shall we say, less than visionary, but he endeavored to make up for what he lacked in mental firepower with old-fashioned effort, with unsurpassed integrity, and with genuine warmth and congeniality. The fellow the reader comes to know is hard to root against, despite his shortcomings.
And while Armour presents Cronin sympathetically, the book doesn't shy away from the shortcomings. The deepest failure of Cronin's career was when, through his entire tenure as GM of the Boston Red Sox from 1947 through 1958, he neglected to racially integrate his major league roster while, literally, every other franchise around him was taking that historic step. Armour invests due attention on this crucial issue, examining it from several angles, including the essential question as to whether Cronin's action (or, to be precise, inaction) was motivated by any manner of personal racial animus. The evidence presented leads the author to conclude that Cronin was no racist in any overt sense, but as Armour sums up his utterly level-headed investigation (p. 217):
The strongest evidence against the Red Sox, and against Cronin, is circumstantial yet undeniable—the Red Sox very obviously did not have any black players. This fact, whether due to policy or simply incompetence, did untold damage to the Red Sox of the 1950s and beyond.For the reader, Cronin's troubling placement within this perplexing issue makes for a particularly intriguing chapter.
The bad news (for us): Cronin's pleasantry
The other reason Cronin didn't achieve greater fame is that he was just—well, he was just a nice guy, in the boringly straight-arrow sense. He was steady, square, and utterly non-temperamental. Armour begins the book with a contrast of Cronin's personality to that of Ted Williams, whom Cronin managed in the Splendid Splinter's first six big league seasons (p. 2):
Williams … spent his entire career battling bouts of rage and immaturity. No one ever accused Joe Cronin of being immature—he behaved like a ten-year veteran when he broke in … Cronin was a family man, a devoted churchgoer, a gentleman who wore suits and watched his language in front of women. Joe Cronin did not have a rebellious bone in his body.Despite their enormous differences, Williams profoundly respected Cronin, and indeed they were sincere friends until the day Cronin died. This is testament to Cronin's considerable interpersonal skill, and authentic goodness: Williams famously didn't like everyone, and had no qualms about saying so, but he always liked Joe Cronin.
And it wasn't just Williams, by any means; as Armour's book makes abundantly clear, Cronin earned the goodwill of nearly everyone he ever met. They may or may not have respected Cronin's executive acumen, but virtually no one found reason to say a bad word about Cronin the person.
But while this was a blessing for Cronin's family, his colleagues and his employees, it wasn't so for the sportswriters covering his teams. Along with being a pleasant individual, Cronin was a conservative, cautiously methodical manager and executive. It was his way, in every facet of his life, to ruffle as few feathers as possible. Cronin's public-consumption utterances were just about guaranteed to be prudent, inoffensive, and lightweight: in other words, dull as dishwater. Cronin was absolutely never implicated in a personal or professional scandal, at any point in his long career; for a figure continuously in prominent public roles for many decades, Cronin sought and attracted remarkably little attention.
If such a character is to be passed over by the sportswriter, he's to be dreaded by the biographer. For while the Joe Cronin we come to know here is someone the reader finds likable, he isn't necessarily someone the reader finds interesting. What often compels page-turning in fiction or biography is a sense of unpredictability, a need to find out what this crazy protagonist (whether we like him or not) is going to do next. Cronin never does Armour this favor; indeed Cronin as much as goes out his way not to, making decision after decision, offering comment after comment, year after year on page after page, that's safely, sanely, agonizingly predictable.
One pictures Armour late at night, deep into his painstaking research, poring through yet another vintage newspaper clipping via Proquest. Armour, at his wit's end, hoping against hope that this time he'll discover Cronin indulging in the mildest degree of trash talk, or this time he'll uncover a hint of long-overlooked mischief on Cronin's part—but no, here yet again is a cheery, harmless, "I like our ball club's chances this year," and another account of Cronin and his beloved wife Mildred happily, responsibly attending to a familial obligation. Imagining his reader's yawn, Armour groans.
The Armour achievement
So this biographer was faced with a peculiar challenge: the story of a baseball career of spectacular scope, spiced with the all-too-human drama of periodic professional struggle, yet conspicuously lacking an alluring core of dynamic personality or social dysfunction. No novelist would invent a protagonist as sweetly dull as Joe Cronin.
But here's the thing: This isn't a work of fiction. Armour's task wasn't to invent Joe Cronin as he might have been, it was to capture and illuminate Joe Cronin as he was. And Armour has fulfilled this task remarkably well.
The dramatic limitations presented by Cronin's vanilla personality are what they are, but many of Cronin's fellow characters in this epic tale are anything but vanilla: not just the salty Williams, but also hot potatoes such as Lefty Grove, Jimmie Foxx, Joe McCarthy, Jim Piersall, Pinky Higgins, Bill Veeck, Charlie Finley, Alex Johnson, and yes, even Bud Selig.
Indeed the sheer breadth of Cronin's career is fascinating enough, and the deeper one looks into it, the more interesting it becomes. For instance, his insider-yet-competitor relationship with the Griffith family (Mildred was Clark Griffith's niece and Calvin Griffith's sister) is in itself among the more intriguing scenarios in the history of the American League, and Armour explores it fully.
This book isn't a superficial rendering, but rather a work of serious-minded scholarship. It's intended for the serious-minded student of baseball history. Mark Armour has produced a grand and deep biography of one of the sport's central figures. I approached it with very high expectations, and came away fully satisfied.
References and Resources
Mark Armour, Joe Cronin: A Life in Baseball, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010.
Steve Treder can often be found spending way too much time talking baseball at Baseball Primer. He welcomes your questions and comments via e-mail.