Touching on “Touching Second”

As long as there has been baseball, it seems, there have been books about baseball. Much like the sport, it took a while for baseball writing to build itself up to a good professional level. If 1876 and 1901 are pivotal years in the development of baseball, the baseball book had its watershed year in 1910 with the printing of the first real classic of the sport. That book was Touching Second: The Science of Baseball, written by Johnny Evers and Hugh Fullerton.

Evers should be familiar to any serious fan and is familiar to anyone who knows baseball’s second-most famous poem. Second baseman for the Chicago Cubs and hinge of their double-play combination between Joe Tinker and Frank Chance, Evers was a key component of a dynastic club. He was a bundle of frayed nerves and a hard man to get along with, but he was also a leading tactician of the game, brimming with ideas. The title refers to his most famous rulebook stratagem, getting Fred Merkle out for missing second in a pivotal game against the New York Giants that eventually won Chicago the 1908 pennant.

Obviously, the book was capitalizing on his fame, not only from the Merkle controversy but from his important role on the best team in the National League. That would be enough to support half a dozen quickie memoirs today, with quality a secondary consideration. Fortunately, Evers was a smart enough ballplayer to give his book some intellectual heft in examining the minutiae of the game. Even more fortunately, he had a great collaborator.

Fullerton was a Chicago sportswriter with a growing reputation. He made his first great splash by predicting the 1906 Cubs, 116-36 record and all, would lose the World Series to the “Hitless Wonders” Chicago White Sox, which they did. Despite this contrarian call, he loved his hometown Cubs and was a natural choice to work with Evers.

The title page gave Evers top billing in bigger type, naturally enough, but the bulk of the work ended up being Fullerton’s. The book’s introduction stated as much, with an honesty that’s refreshing even if it was tucked away where the reading eye would hopefully slide past it. Several whole chapters were actually articles Fullerton had written for The American Magazine, with Evers making additions and corrections afterward. It was much the same with other chapters, Fullerton writing them and Evers coming in later to make his amendments.

Aside from any questions of credit, Touching Second is an engrossing look at baseball in the Deadball Era and before and perhaps the first true “inside baseball” book. The authors go far to live up to the subtitle of “The Science of Baseball.” There are fielding diagrams of sometimes bewildering complexity and occasional streams of statistics that you could almost imagine coming from a sabermetric writer of today. The sophistication of modern analytics is not there, but for a time when visual analysis meant remembering what you saw and number-crunching was done with pencil and paper, or possibly a mechanical adding machine bigger than today’s laptop computers, they were probably on the cutting edge.

(For an example, Fullerton counted up over 10,000 batted balls and concluded that line drives were far better for producing hits than grounders or fly balls. His groundball numbers are squirrelly, but the liner and flyball figures match up reasonably well with modern balls-in-play data. And I’ll say it again: 10,000 plays, scoured from scoresheets from every team in the majors, and tallied by hand. I feel a twinge of carpal tunnel syndrome just thinking about it.)

The tactics of that era’s game are strongly portrayed. Old-timers would often laud the deadball game as a thinking game, as opposed to the station-to-station fireworks that Babe Ruth introduced. In this book, from the heart of that era, you can see some of the thoughts they were talking about. The complexities of signals, of fielder positioning, of batting approaches, and much more get the authors’ pens flowing.

Again, it’s not a modern sophistication backed by mass computing power, but it shows that anyone who dismisses their time as primitive has missed something. One even suspects today’s players and managers could learn a thing or two in these pages.

On top of all that, Touching Second is replete with anecdotes, giving color and life to an era frozen in monochrome to us who live a century after. Some are illustrative of game principles, some of personalities, and of course, some are just for fun. Whatever their type, they seldom fail to entertain.

But whether they tell a true story of the game can be another matter.

Reading beyond the lines

There’s a part of me that’s a born historian, and that means being willing, even eager, to dig up the roots of old stories to see whether they are anchored in fact. This is no unique trait in the field of baseball. Rob Neyer wrote a whole book researching these “tracers” as he calls them, examining the truth or lack thereof behind dozens of anecdotes. (One of them even involves something mentioned in Touching Second, though, oddly, Neyer makes no reference to the Evers/Fullerton book in that chapter.)

Being willing, even eager, to butt in where my betters have already toiled—how do you think I came to start writing here?—I started looking up the facts behind the anecdotes of Touching Second. It didn’t take me very long to catch a goof, as it was the very first anecdote I examined.

The tale has a touch of the shaggy dog and more than a touch of ragging the Irish, still a popular sport at the time. It involves a Chicago Irishman named Faugh, a committed Cubs rooter, going into foreign South Side territory for the first game of the Cubs-White Sox World Series of 1906. Before the game, he’s waving a sheaf of bills and offering the legions of White Sox fans ever-lengthening betting odds in favor of his beloved West Siders. Then the umpire, as was the custom in the day, announced the starting pitchers and catchers for the two teams.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the batteries for today’s game will be Reulbach and Kling for the West Side, Walsh and Sullivan for the South Side.”

After a second’s silence, Faugh’s loyalty to his fellow Irishmen wins out, and he starts offering good odds in favor of the White Sox.

At this far remove, there’s no way of telling whether there was such a man as Faugh who had such a change of heart. But I can sure check the starting players, not to mention where the games were played. The first game of that World Series was played at the Cubs’ home field, not the White Sox’s, so that’s strike one. The starting pitchers were Three-Finger Brown and Nick Altrock, which is strike two. Ed Walsh and Billy Sullivan were the White Sox’s starting battery twice in the Series, in Games Three and Five. As home field alternated game by game that year, both of Walsh’s starts (including Game Five, the only time he faced Ed Reulbach) were at the West Side Grounds, not the South Side.

I have to call that strike three. The facts never quite align, and when the majority of them do, the remainder spoils the intended effect of the anecdote. Whatever kernel of truth there was is lost in the surrounding fiction. I’m tempted to say Fullerton made it up as an Irish joke, except I cannot see how quick-tempered Evers would have stood for that in a book bearing his name.

Better perhaps to say that Fullerton’s memory failed him, and he mixed up the dates and locations. And yet, this is a newspaperman. If he needs to check a few facts, he can consult the archives of his own employer and read the papers. For him to forget the details of a Series that helped make his career, and then not double-check when the effort would be minimal, is a disappointment.

Such goofs are forgivable, if they don’t come too frequently. In the very next paragraph, he speaks of the next year’s pennant race, the one that happened in 1908. Hmm, 1906 followed by 1908: oops. And before the page is over, he begins talking about the invention of baseball in Cooperstown by Abner Doubleday. Even in 1908, when the Spalding Report issued this myth as the true story of baseball’s creation, there were people who thought it a bushel of horse-feathers. Plenty of others took the commission at its word, and I won’t condemn Fullerton for excessive trust, but on other grounds …

Granted, these are peripheral matters. They don’t cut to the core of the bigger lessons Fullerton and Evers are trying to teach their readers about the national pastime. If those stand up, the occasional hiccups with vanishing years and strained ethnic humor don’t matter so much. So let me look at those bigger lessons.

Two tales

One noteworthy anecdote takes place late in the epochal 1908 pennant race, as the Cubs desperately try to stay in contact with the league-leading Giants. It’s meant to show the value of discipline and the manager’s role in maintaining it. I quote directly from the book*:

* Since Touching Second is in the public domain, I can do this freely. I could transcribe the whole volume and be in the clear, but that’s a pretty dirty trick for filling pages. Besides, we don’t get paid by the word here.

The Chicago club had just finished a double header [in Philadelphia] and had lost one of the games in heart-breaking manner when it seemed won. New York had beaten Pittsburg [sic] twice, and it appeared as if the results that day had decided the championship. The Cubs, returning to the hotel in carriages, were silent and downhearted. Not a word was spoken for a long time. Suddenly Tinker remarked to [manager Frank] Chance:

“Well, Cap, I guess it’s all off. Let’s break training and make a good night of it.”

For an instant Chance was silent. Then he said:

“No. We were good winners last year. Let’s show them we are good losers and play the string out. We may win yet.”

The following day Chicago won two games and New York lost two, and the Cubs were back in the race. When Tinker made the remark the team had twelve games to play and, by winning eleven of them, it tied New York for the championship and then won the deciding game. Chance’s insistence upon continuing in training and delaying the celebration brought the victory.

Well, it may have happened something like that. The Cubs did have a series in Philadelphia in mid-September, at the same time that the Pirates were at the Polo Grounds. The sequence Evers and Fullerton described, though, never occurred.

The closest I can come is September 18: Chicago lost a single game to the Phillies while the Giants swept two from Pittsburgh. (Back in 1908, it was often spelled without the ‘h,’ as in the quotation above.) The Cubs did have a double-header the next day but won only one game, as the other ended in a tie. Pittsburgh beat the Giants that day, but in a single game. Rather than 12 games to play (minus the Merkle games), Chicago had 15 left, going 13-2 rather than 11-1 before the replay that decided it all.

Tinker and Chance may have exchanged those words, but the surrounding circumstances end up distorted by our authors. Having all the games be parts of double-headers adds a false urgency to a pennant race that needed no embellishment. It even detracts from the consternation of the Cubs by giving them a phantom win on a day when all they did was lose and fall a game-and-a-half further behind John McGraw‘s Giants.

The lesson’s a worthwhile one, something teams from the 1914 Braves to the 2011 Cardinals and Rays profited from understanding. Back in 1910, though, anyone who read that anecdote and remembered how the games really had been played would have wondered if they were being fed a tall tale. Today, if you have your own doubts whether Chance really took a stand in that carriage, you’re entitled to them.

Another anecdote with a moral involved the number of umpires on the field. In 1908, more than half of all National League games had only one umpire, the rest having two. A single umpire had always been vulnerable to on-field chicanery, but this Cubs-Giants game at the Polo Grounds in 1908 was a matter of malice aforethought:

[Giants catcher Roger] Bresnahan and several of the Chicago players were discussing plays and arguing the chances of one umpire seeing everything that takes place, all conceding it to be impossible. A reporter who was present {If this wasn’t Fullerton, I’ll eat my hat.—ST} suggested that, when the one umpire was behind the plate and either a bunt or hit-and-run was attempted, the umpire always ran down into the diamond, in front of the play in order to see a play either at first or second base, and that the catcher could, therefore, stop, trip, or interfere with the batter without the slightest danger of being seen. Later in the evening, the reporter, meeting [Cubs catcher Johnny] Kling, asked his opinion of the possibility of such a play.

The following day, early in the game, Chicago had a runner on first base and the batter tried to sacrifice. Bresnahan cut in ahead of the runner, bumped him off his feet, and after the other runner had been forced at second the luckless batter was doubled at first base. Two innings later Kling did the same thing to a New York batter, tripping him so he was thrown out on a hit that probably would have been safe. Twice after that the catchers took advantage of the umpire and interfered with batters until the crowd was roaring with indignation. The play had one result—there were two umpires on the field the following day.

In an era when all games have four umpires, or six when it really counts, it’s amazing that this state of affairs could be tolerated as long as it was. Fullerton’s story—I credit it to Fullerton, as he was so obviously an instigator—is a sharp nudge to the powers that be, showing the necessity of extra eyes on the field.

At least it would be if it happened. But it didn’t. All of the Cubs-Giants games at the Polo Grounds in 1908 had two umpires.

Neither was it a matter of a slip-up on dates or places. Every game the Giants played in Chicago that season had two umpires. Every game the two teams played the previous year, 1907, had two umpires. The anecdote couldn’t come from 1909, either, since Bresnahan had been traded to the Cardinals, and Kling was holding out for the whole year. Even in 1906, every game the Giants and Cubs played had two umps. (There was the notorious August 7 incident when McGraw refused to let Jim Johnstone into the Polo Grounds after an adverse call the previous day, but that game was forfeited without an at-bat being played.)

I suppose I could look up 1905, or even earlier seasons, but I’ve already put in more effort confirming the facts of the story than Fullerton did, and he was part of that story. This assumes that there were facts, and Fullerton wasn’t weaving the tale from his own imagination.

The inexact science

I began this article by lauding Touching Second but have since spent a couple thousand words tearing away at it with mounting force. Did I come to praise this book or to bury it?

I want to praise it. A look into the baseball world of more than a century ago, into the mind of one of its sharpest practitioners, is something to treasure. It’s instructive to see not only the differences between their baseball and ours, but the similarities. We see how they put their brains to work to raise the level of the game they played, and if their efforts were crude by our standards, that points to how high our standards have become, building atop what they did.

On one point after another, though, the cracks appear. Obvious errors crop up, and less obvious falsehoods undermine serious points the book tries to make. Shouldn’t we expect better from a sports reporter as good as Hugh Fullerton?

One could argue that it was a different era. Today’s journalists work under a higher standard of expected conduct (which leaves open the question of whether they meet it). Standards for a baseball book surely weren’t so stringent as for a “serious” topic, either. There’s always been a high tolerance in the game for telling whoppers. Many volumes of baseball anecdotes are so full of blarney, you’ll never have to visit the Stone in Ireland: you can kiss the book. We don’t spend our days condemning them.

If Fullerton (and Evers) had treated Touching Second as a light-hearted, superficial look at the game, this wouldn’t be a problem. But they promised more. The subtitle revealed their ambitions: this was to be “The Science of Baseball.”

“Science” wasn’t a throw-away word in 1910: it was as much a part of the culture as it is today. That year, Ernest Rutherford was conducting the experiments that would discover the atomic nucleus. The year before, Louis Bleriot crossed the English Channel in an airplane, as the practicality of that invention of 1903 grew explosively. And the world was still absorbing the import of the theory of relativity, the 1905 revelation that would make the name “Einstein” synonymous with “genius.”

When you purport to offer the science of something, even in 1910, you’ve made a serious commitment to your subject. And there is one standard that science requires above all others: reliable data. If the numbers are fudged, massaged, or made up, you don’t have science. You have warped conclusions that won’t stand up to skeptical scrutiny. At the worst, you have fraud.

I don’t believe Fullerton was a fraud. He was a better man than that. In the aftermath of the 1919 World Series, he came as close to declaring the Series fixed as lawsuit-fearing newspapers would let him. He endured a storm of attacks from complacent authorities without recanting, until the truth came out and he was vindicated. (Not that his critics gave him credit.) He stood four-square for honesty in baseball’s darkest hour. I cannot call such a man a liar.

But back in 1910, the truth stretched mighty far in his hands, and I cannot pretend that doesn’t matter. This isn’t a meta-narrative like Babe Ruth’s “Called Shot,” where the story about the story became at least as important as the original tale. Fullerton’s stories are supposed to speak for themselves, and each time they deviate from the straight facts, our view of that bygone time dims and blurs.

Yet we still have that view, even if imperfect. The authors weren’t trying to write a historical document, but that’s what it is now. We don’t have enough glimpses of that era to toss one away at the first stumble of its writers. If they neglected some of their fact-checking, even if they whipped up a few stories out of their imaginations, we with a modern bounty of research material at our fingertips can remedy at least some of their deficiencies.

So no, I haven’t come to bury Touching Second. It deserves to be read. It deserves to be appreciated. And it deserves to be examined so future readers can know what to take at face value and when to take that grain of salt.

I’ve done a little of the work, as I’ve shown here. I may well be doing more, at least to satisfy my own curiosity, and perhaps to share with my readers here—if you can stand it. (That’s what the Comments section is for, folks.)

And who knows? I may track down that Neyer tracer myself and prove to my satisfaction whether Chance really did deliberately destroy Jack Harper‘s career over a beaning. It’s page 53 in my edition, and I can hear it calling to me now.

References & Resources
Touching Second is the heart of this article. My copy, from BiblioBazaar in 2010, is a reproduction of the original 1910 Reilly & Britton publication.

Primary research was done at Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference.

Other sources filling in details were Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends, Cait Murphy’s Crazy ’08, Baseball Dynasties by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein, and Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men Out.

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Comments

  1. David P Stokes said...

    I wonder if books on more “serious” subjects, even now, really are writen to a more stringent standard.  I recall in one of Bill James’ works, he pointed out what he considered to not be just errors, but really sloppy errors in David Halberstram’s Summer of ‘49, and wondered if Halberstram was as sloppy when writing about politics and social issues.  Going by a lot of newspaper articles I read, non-sports journalism isn’t any more accurate than sports journalism.

    Or as one of my political science professors back in college said, “the dirty little secret of the news industry is that the stories are wrong.”  They all have errors in them, hopefully not material errors.

  2. Chris said...

    Just read further in your article, which I *should* have done before my prior comment.  Can I remove my comment?  *face palm*

    Aaaargh…

  3. Paul G. said...

    Here’s the story behind Pittsburg[h]‘s temporarily missing “h”:

    http://www.phlf.org/2000/12/21/the-controversial-spelling-of-pittsburgh-or-why-the-h/

    Histories are replete with these sorts of errors. The better historians will either excise these flaws before going to print, or admit to the audience that while the story itself is true some of the details may be off, or proclaim when they are making stuff up and explaining why they do it.  It is the true hacks that revel in their ignorance, or worse are unaware of said lack.  Occasionally the hacks get lucky because there is no one who knows the facts to contradict their fictions, or at least nothing comes to light until after the check is cashed.

    I’ve encountered several descriptions of the Battle of Little Bighorn from the point of view of the American side, which is a neat trick since none of Custer’s command survived the battle save a horse.  I’m pretty sure Mr. Ed was a sitcom and not a military chronicler, so the likelihood of any such description being the least bit useful is remote.  (Recent study of the battlefield seems to show that the battle developed in a way that few expected, for what that is worth.)

    So, my take on the two key bits:

    1. I tend to think Chance did give a speech something like that, though the exact wording is probably an approximation and quite likely cleansed of some colorful language.  For that matter, did people actually talk like that in 1908 when not giving a prepared oration?  It sounds like something a newspaper writer would write, not something a baseball manager would say.

    2. If I were to guess I would say that the one umpire trickery is a true story in general, though the particulars are certainly dicey.  Could it be possible that a box score would list two umpires even when one of them was not present, perhaps due to some illness?  Perhaps.  It could also be a transplant from a spring training game or some other such exhibition which would make more sense if the “reporter” wanted to prove a point without undermining a game that counted.

    With all that said, I had never heard of this book before and it was good to learn something today.

  4. gc said...

    The comment about Pittsburg(h) just reminded me that we were looking at an image of a railroad map of the Civil War South at a museum where there was a Columbus SC where Columbia should be and wondered whether it had changed names…but as far as I can read it was always Columbia.

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