The book on sports

And so it is written, which is why it’s been read now and then:

“Prior to the era of collegiate doubleheaders, the most important shot in basketball was the two-handed set shot. But with the advent of basketball teams from the South and West, the one-handed jump shot (Fig. 140) began to challenge the set shot. Teams such as Notre Dame, Minnesota, Kentucky and West Virginia came to Madison Square Garden year after year and scored sensational victories over the best in the East by using the one-hand shot. Today it is generally accepted that both shots are equally as (sic) important.”

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“Today” in this instance refers to 1948, the year Garden City Publishing Co., Inc. issued a 188-page oversized hardcover titled, Giant Book of Sports, on whose page 84 the above passage appears.

Dedicated to the memory of Babe Ruth—“exemplar of fair play, clean sportsmanship, courage and skill in American sport”—and with a target audience of American boys who presumably sought to become the next “Bones” McKinney of the Washington Capitols or Snuffy Stirnweiss of the New York Yankees, the book offered rudimentary and intermediate instruction in baseball, football, basketball, tennis, bowling and boxing.

Its pages were peppered with the sort of pre-irony boosterism—“Study the basic rules and practice, practice, PRACTICE!”—so expressive of the postwar zeitgeist, and augmented with typeset tutorials featuring hand-drawn illustrations—Fig. 140, as you might imagine, shows a pencil-rendered white guy in very short shorts lofting a short-range one-handed “jump shot” toward the hoop—and tips from professional ballplayers such as Joe DiMaggio, Sid Tannenbaum and Ken Strong.

“A kicker should stand about ten yards behind the line of scrimmage with his feet slightly apart, knees bent, the weight over the center of the body,” advises Strong, a professional placekicker/punter/halfback from 1929 to 1947, in the section titled, How To Kick. “Lean forward at the waist. Extend the arms so that you are ready to receive the ball with the fingers spread.”

Having discovered the brittle old book in a box of antique things, I felt downright excited, perhaps a bit like Indiana Jones, when I first cracked open—literally, as it turned out—Chapter 1, Baseball, its intro adorned with a black-and-white drawing that seemed to show a company softball game attended by a mysterious Mennonite and pair of Abe Lincoln impersonators but that probably depicted a very early baseball game and now represented a period piece inside a subsequent period piece, a nesting of two nostalgias.

Indeed, my reading soon became a kind of historical archaeology, a layered exploration of earlier eras by way of one printed relic, and uncovered both the quaint—“Every hamlet has its teams. Every vacant lot is filled with youngsters matching their skill”—and the classic—“the big leagues want hitters.”

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Intrigued, I continued to turn the pages, leafing through tips on base stealing (“You can practice sliding on the grass in your stocking feet”), pitching (“The slow ball, or change-up, is held just like the fast ball except that the ball is held against the palm”), fielding (“On bunts, whip off the mask, pounce on the ball, and scrape it up like Yogi Berra in Figures 40 and 41”) and hitting, which revealed both the expected—DiMaggio, extolling the virtue of courage at the plate—and the unexpected, the example of Spider Jorgensen, “star infielder with the Dodgers,” as having one of the most unusual, and therefore inadvisable, stances in Major League Baseball.

Spider Jorgensen?

Though a lifelong fan of the national pastime, I had never heard of this Spider Jorgensen. And even if a number of modern hitters were now using his stance, a “stance so open that he is actually facing the pitcher,” the former “star infielder” still seemed remaindered to a fixed and inflexible past, stranded, like the makers of Esslinger’s Little Man Ale, in a history forever closed to the attentions and appropriations of future generations.

Stranded with him, it seemed, were many of the entries in the chapter-ending glossary of baseball terms. Sure, I knew that a banjo hitter is one who hits a lot of bloopers, and, more or less, that a bench jockey is a “substitute whose chief occupation is heckling opponents,” but who knew that a barber is a talkative player, that a Blind Tom is an umpire and that a lemon in the grapefruit belt is a high-priced rookie who flops in Spring Training?

Times had changed, and so had the terms of its literate occupants, those humans who had codified games and conceived of ways to explain them. And yet a “hanging curve” was still a hanging curve, fodder for any hitter, in any era that you might recall today, who could routinely “get a holt o’ one.”


Chapter 2, Football, began the way Chapter 1 had begun, with a drawing, a brief history of the sport and a roster of inductees in the sport’s Hall of Fame, their mugs more or less immortalized by the pencil of one Samuel Nisenson. Of particular note was that while the baseball hall consisted entirely of professionals such as Ty Cobb, Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Hans Wagner, Pie Traynor and Babe Ruth, the football hall consisted exclusively of college players and coaches.

As if to remind the future reader that things weren’t always the way they are now, the publication of Giant Book of Sports preceded the advent of the Pro Football Hall of Fame by 15 years and boasted names like Doc, Jock, Red, Ace, Bronko, Fritz and Dutch to support an implicit point: that until 1970, when the NFL and AFL merged and TV contracts were strengthened, college football was the prince to pro football’s pauper, the winner, not the runner-up, of the popularity game. By contrast, the 16 teams of Major League Baseball together drew 20 million fans in the year prior to the publication of the book I now was perusing.*

*And yes, I gleaned this fact from the book I was now perusing.

Leafing forward in my trip back through time, I soon arrived at a passé look—leather helmets without the benefit of facemasks. As if to affirm the vintage imagery enshrined in our collective consciousness, each illustration depicted a player who looked a lot like George Clooney, albeit a bit less handsome, in the movie, Leatherheads, and thus perfectly suited to an era that by contemporary standards seemed virtually prehistoric, so distant and disconnected that only 21st-century cinema could bring it back to life.

Conversely, I realized that if not for the uniform pants folded just below the knees, the illustrated baseball players could have passed for modern big leaguers, each so unfailingly suited to a traditional cap that no single era could have laid claim to his appearance or performance.

But the football players? Just a few years away from the widespread use of plastic helmets, the football players seemed more time-bound than timeless, wedged permanently with the bobby-soxers and Dorsey Brothers in a charming yet outmoded past.

They seemed stuck in a timeline made not of overlapped pieces and transitional links but of many discrete parts, laid one after the other in a staggered series that failed to replicate the comparatively seamless continuum of baseball, whose current players wear throwback uniforms that don’t look so very different from their customary uniforms—a lot less different than, say, Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler would look were he to wear a wool jersey, canvas pants, leather shoulder pads and a leather helmet.

Indeed, by appearances, Joe DiMaggio (Figs. 9 and 10) could have hit in any era while always looking the part, timelessly stylish and enduringly wedded to his place at home plate. His swing, so utterly DiMaggian that its fluidity is fixed in our minds but hardly anchored to an era, would have traveled incely in a Wellsian time machine and reemerged in just as menacing a proof in any batter’s box in any stadium in any of baseball’s seasons.

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By contrast, the nameless ball carrier in Fig. 85 might as well have worn a zoot suit while playing The Merry Game of Fibber McGee, so absurdly outdated was his appearance. His “cross-over step”—performed, per text, just as he receives the snap from the center—seemed the prototype of a 1940s cake topper. And the tips—“take full advantage of interference (and) develop various dodging tactics”—appeared to have come from an early ancestor of the contemporary Captain Obvious.

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Even so, the outworn pose wasn’t all that separated his likeness from that of, say, Adrian Peterson*. The man’s pants, jersey and helmet, which looked more like a swimmer’s cap than a defense against a viciously rung bell, and even his number 66—they all stood out as museum pieces, musty, outmoded, and consigned to a collection of obsolete objects, along with the RCA Victor Tube Phonograph and the Hudson Utility Coupe.

They were, or are, pieces of our history, valued with a historiographical awareness of what they meant to the tenants of a generation, but now their service seemed only to nostalgia.

*For another key difference, see Postscript.

Just as antiquated, as if in a warehouse of once vital but now ignored things, were other gridiron how-tos. By now the “spinner play” and—with apologies to Doug Flutie—the dropkick had gone to the musty archives, and apart from Tim Tebow’s collegiate deployments, so had the jump pass. And even if modern offenses had turned the single-wing and the T formation into the shotgun and the Wildcat, none had dusted off the formations in Figs. 137 and 139.

With regard to aerial strategy, at least one ‘40s maxim had flunked the test of time: “When one team has fumbled and the other recovers, it is a good idea to pass into the territory of the back who fumbled. He will probably be a little on edge and a pass into his region may result in a nice gain.”

Gamesmanship, more than sportsmanship, had remained a common theme, linking the lifeblood of one era to that of another and rendering each unapologetically cutthroat, but no, no longer were players going both ways.

The football chapter ended with a digest of outstanding achievements, all from the college ranks, and included this entry: Most field goals, season – 17, “Frosty” Peters, as a freshman, Montana, in 1924, all drop kicks.

Meanwhile, back in Chapter 1, the Digest of the Outstanding Achievements in Baseball included this item: Hitting safely in most consecutive games – 56, by Joe DiMaggio. N.Y. Yankees, May 15 to July 16, 1941.


Outstanding Achievements in Basketball
Madison Square Garden Scoring Records
Most Points 1 Game: Harry Boykoff, St. John’s vs. St. Francis, 1947 – 54.

So began the end of the basketball chapter—with a list of achievements secured only at one arena and only by college players. The Basketball Association of America, a forerunner to the NBA and featuring among its 11 teams none farther west than St. Louis, had been founded just two years prior to the publication of Giant Book of Sports, and thus did the records reflect not only the absence of a sustained pro basketball history but also the provincial nature of the sport and its staging and coverage.

Granted, college teams from the “South” and “West” had scored “sensational victories over the best in the East” by using the one-handed jump shot, but still, if the Outstanding Achievements were any indication, Northeastern teams like St. John’s, Fordham and NYU were pretty much the only squads to have scored by the bucketloads at Madison Square Garden, and Madison Square Garden was the only arena to have very much mattered.

At the same time, according the list on page 82, inductees in the Basketball Hall of Fame included 10 college coaches and 16 college players but no pro coaches and just 10 pro players, all of them from Northeastern teams that included the Boston Whirlwinds, Troy Trojans and Brooklyn Visitations.

Brooklyn Visitations?

Though a subscriber to Sports Illustrated since childhood, I had never heard of these Brooklyn Visitations. And even if they did win six Metropolitan Basketball League championships between 1922 and 1935, they still seemed remaindered, even more than Spider Jorgensen, to a fixed and inflexible past, stranded, like the makers of Dixie Peach Pomade, in a history forever closed to the attentions and appropriations of future generations.

In fact, Jorgensen’s Dodgers would leave Brooklyn for Los Angeles in 1958, essentially trading a series of black-and-white stills for a long-running color reel, and yet in doing so still would maintain the continuity of a then 74-year-old franchise and an eventual link between Fred Warner, the third baseman on the inaugural 1884 Brooklyn Atlantics, and Luis Cruz, the L.A. Dodgers third baseman who in 2012 hit .297 using a Spider-like open stance.

But the Visitations? Following the 1936 season, the Visitations became but recollections, lost heirlooms waiting for an online encyclopedia to find them.

Paging forward, I soon arrived at tips for the granny shot—yes, the granny shot—as well as the two-handed chest shot, a method, as previously mentioned, that had already ceded some short-shorts-era mojo to the one-handed jump shot but that now seemed so laughably antediluvian that it could have joined Paranthropus boisei as an evolutionary dead-ender, done in by better-adapted styles.

No doubt, if a player today were to follow NYU All-American Don Forman’s 1948 advice—“Be sure that the ball leaves your finger tips at eye level”—he’d find himself without a prayer and without a team but with two black eyes and a broken nose, courtesy of the behemoth who slammed it back in his face.

For comparison, I turned to the baseball page most associated with ball release, and there saw Bob Feller providing advice whose essential truth and relevance had not changed in the six decades since he issued it: “The ball is released off the first two fingers with a downward snap of the wrist.” Likewise, Fig. 20 showed Dizzy Dean getting “that extra hop on his fast ball” by turning his hips away from the batter and kicking his left foot high.

And even now, in the present tense, it is still the preferred technique.

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Modern critics can argue about the biomechanics of pitching—humeral torque, shoulder kinematics and scapular loading—but in the time since 1884, when the sport legalized overhand pitching, pitchers haven’t radically altered the way they deliver the ball to the plate. No hurler is using a granny shot, of course, or a delivery similar to the jump pass of Harry Gilmer, All-American, on page 56, his face forever unmasked in a look from the past.

It’s true that pitchers have added pitches to their repertoires (see: the split-finger), and that bullpens are more important than ever before (see: the Giants), but even now, as the 2013 season has come upon us, the lessons of Feller still apply: “I use the entire arm, including shoulder, elbow and wrist, and twist the curve off vigorously (Fig. 27).”

Postscript

Change is registered in the layers of history, in the chapters of shared and storied experience, but isn’t always spelled out at the moment it is made. The publication of Giant Book of Sports arrived at a pivotal time—just one year after Jackie Robinson’s MLB debut, one year before Wally Triplett’s NFL debut and two years before Earl Lloyd’s NBA debut. Tellingly, except for those of boxers Joe Louis and Henry Armstrong, the black-and-white drawings remain, in essence, far less black than white.

The rest is a story—a brighter story—for another day. Here and now I look to the book and see that baseball, more than the other team sports featured, remains a beautiful display of continuity, its evolution directed by tiny tweaks to established practices: the addition of the split-finger fastball, the subtraction of smokeless chew; the emergence of the designated hitter, the death of the dead ball and its 3.4 runs a game. The line from now to then is a straight one, and its characters—its letters, numbers, men—are easy to trace.

DiMaggio’s hit streak is still a record, and his numbers—unlike Gilmer’s 3,786 lifetime passing yards—still look right in modern grids. Dizzy Dean, at 6-foot-2, would look nearly as imposing on a modern mound, but Don Forman, at a mere 5-10, might never make it to a contemporary court.

And in a Chapter 1 as foundational as Genesis, the Georgia Peach is still telling the hitter that “you must step properly if you’re going to hit the ball,” while Joltin’ Joe is still telling the fielder that he’s “off to (a) spot at the crack of the bat.” Meantime, with relevance to readers both now and then, “Snuffy” Stirnweiss is perfectly demonstrating the double-play pivot.

Names and terms have changed—does “crooked arm” still mean a left-handed pitcher?—but the narrative itself is consistent, familiar, pertinent. You can still practice sliding in your stocking feet, even if you say you’re wearing socks. The slow ball is still held like a “fast ball,” even if you call the first a changeup and spell the second “fastball.” On bunts, you still should whip off the mask, pounce on the ball and scrape it up, if not like Yogi Berra in Figures 40 and 41, then like Yadier Molina on ESPN. And you know that the big leagues still want hitters. The pages continue to turn.

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Comments

  1. bucdaddy said...

    “Teams such as Notre Dame, Minnesota, Kentucky and West Virginia came to Madison Square Garden year after year and scored sensational victories over the best in the East by using the one-hand shot.”

    And they were still 7-10 years from getting a load of Hot Rod Hundley and Jerry West at WVU.

    I’m a bit of a Luddite, so I didn’t ask for it, but a year ago I got a Nook for my birthday. While I was at Barnes & Noble getting it set up, one of the helpful techs there asked me if I knew about the 1.8 million free books. I said thank you very much, and proceeded to see what baseball books from the early part of the 20th century were available. One I downloaded and read was Johnny Evers’ “Touching Second,” which is full of advice about playing “scientific baseball,” which was all the rage in Johnny’s day, and even some stuff that looks like primitive attempts at sabrmetrics. For instance, somebody kept track of where balls were hit for a bunch of games and used it to show why fielders play where they play.

    Anyway, I hadn’t really thought much about why the deadball era was the deadball era. I guess I always figured it had something to do with one gray baseball used for entire nine-inning games until the thing resembled something more like a mush ball (literally a “dead ball”), and that likely was a big part of it. But I had never considered that the suppressed offense of the time was DELIBERATE. I mean, I’ve read stuff about how Babe Ruth came along and showed a different way to play—swinging for the fences—but I don’t think the full impact of what that meant ever sunk in until I read this remarkable passage in Evers’ book:

    Frequently batters who slaughter the ball in the minor leagues, and hit any kind of pitching, fail utterly when drafted into the major leagues. Many followers of the sport imagine that the reason for this failure is to be found in the superiority of the major league pitchers, which is wrong. These men would hit in the major leagues, and hit hard, perhaps as hard as in the minors, if allowed to hit with the same freedom. There are, in the major leagues, many batters who could not hit in the minor leagues at all. The reason for both is found in team work, which is the chief cause of the decline in batting. Some batters are adapted to the system, other are not.

    In the perfected team work of the major leagues batters must hit to advance runners and score runs rather than to get base hits. They are compelled to permit the kind of ball they can hit to cut the plate unmolested and then hit at one which, perhaps, they are lucky to touch. Besides many times they are ordered to wait, and not to hit at all, in order to allow the pitcher to weary himself.

    A few years ago the Chicago club purchased a player late in the season who was one of the great batters of the American Association. His hitting helped the team win the pennant, yet Chance released him without even bringing him to Chicago to play the final games. The act surprised the followers of the Cubs and someone asked Chance why the man was released. “First ball hitter,” explained Chance loquaciously (for him.”

    Chance was right. The player was worthless as a team hitter, but if permitted to hit the first ball pitched to him he batted heavily and if he could have been the first man up in every inning he probably would have led the league in hitting.
    ——
    This is remarkable for a couple reasons (to me), One is that Evers, who probably knew no other way to play the game, doesn’t seem to consider that there might be anything wrong with this. And, I guess, why would he? He lasted 15+ years in the majors (pretty much all in the deadball era) and played championship-caliber ball for guys like Frank Chance, so why would he question what worked?

    Second, of course, is that even the best managers of the day were so caught up in the “scientific baseball” teamwork stuff of bunting and stealing and hitting and running and waiting for pitchers to get tired that they likely (literally) managed to suppress offense to a huge degree. They must have thought 1-0 games where the a batter draws a walk, steals second, gets bunted to third and scores on a fly ball were the ideal. It’s not hard to understand why they would have despised a guy like Ruth, and the style of baseball that was soon to come along, why they weren’t just old men grousing about “Why, back in my day …” It was the only baseball a guy like Johnny Evers had ever known.

    Anyway, I otherwise found the Evers book to be remarkably dull and had to slog through it. However, for a lively, funny and informative read, I can’t recommend Christy Matthewson’s “Pitching In A Pinch” too highly.

  2. bucdaddy said...

    Ah, I see that Shane Tourtellotte reviewed this back in August 2012. I must have missed it when he did. Anyway, he does a good job of exposing some of the anecdotes as being (if we’re kind about it) misremembered.

    Anyway, a few others things came to me while I was mowing the lawn.

    One is that I don’t doubt that in the early part of the century, the best pitchers in the American Association probably were just as good as many of the major league pitchers. And many of those in the PCL and other top leagues were just as good too, since there wasn’t anything like the organized minor leagues that came into being later, and a really good ballplayer was just as likely to spend his career in a “minor” league.

    Another possible reason for offensive suppression in this era is that it can’t have taken the pitchers long to figure out that if Frank Chance is going to get rid of a good hitter because he hits the first pitch, then grooving a first-pitch strike was likely a good idea. And we know generally that most hitters are worse hitters when they’re behind in the count.

    Another is about the prevalence of group-think. It’s not hard to understand why the Cubs loved “scientific baseball”: They were great at it, one of the dominant teams of the 1900s. It’s hard to imagine, though, why the OTHER teams in the NL would go along with this and cooperate in their own demise. You’d think somebody would have thought, “To hell with this, this ain’t working, we can’t beat the Cubs at their own game, let’s try something different.”

    (FWIW, the 1908 Cubs scored 3.96 runs a game and were second in the NL to the Giants, with 4.16.)

    It took the better part of two decades before that happened, though.

    This might be worth keeping in mind when we look at modern group-think among managers, such as bullpen use. Many of us now think it’s a silly idea to bring in your best reliever (and pay him tons of money) with nobody on base in the ninth to face the 6-7-8 hitters with a three-run lead. And maybe someday the managers will see it that way too. But it took nearly 20 years and one remarkable player to bust the “scientific baseball” mindset. We’ll see how long it takes for some of the modern mindsets to go away.

  3. dennis Bedard said...

    Fascinating flashback to another era of sports culture.  In the mid 60’s I ordered two books from an ad in the Weekly Reader:  How To Star In Baseball and How To Star In Football.  I read each religiously.  The instruction was so basic as to be corny.  There were illustrated pictures on how to field a ground ball and how to catch a fly ball.  Turned sports into something akin to assembling a model car with all the diagrams.  But then again, as the French say, plus la change, plus ca la meme chose. The more things change, the more they remain the same.  “Study the basic rules and practice, practice, PRACTICE!”  I don’t care if it is 1748, 1886, 1950, or 2013.  That advice will never be too old to heed.

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