Deford goes to bat for two of baseball's Giants

Books

April 03, 2005|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN STAFF

The Old Ball Game: How John McGraw, Christy Mathewson and the New York Giants Created Modern Baseball

By Frank Deford. Atlantic Monthly. 241 pages. $24.

In August 2003, Frank Deford wrote a long story for Sports Illustrated about the beginnings of modern baseball, focusing on manager John McGraw and pitcher Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants. It had been exactly a century since that oddest of couples started wearing the same uniform.

The characters, time and place were as rich as they were real, and an SI editor suggested Deford expand the story into a book. Deford, a Baltimore native, took the advice and wrote The Old Ball Game: How John McGraw, Christy Mathewson and the New York Giants Created Modern Baseball.

The book is vintage Deford, lively and learned and just plain fun. He has spent more time writing fiction than straight sports history lately, and while his novels are popular and estimable, he is especially deft at depicting forgotten athletes and their stories. It is a pleasure to get to read him again on such a subject.

His choice of topic itself is perceptive. Some books have subtitles that overstate the importance of the story inside, but in this case, the suggested significance of McGraw and Mathewson is accurate.

At the beginning of their time together, the World Series didn't exist and most major league games were played before sparse crowds at shabby wooden parks. But by the time Mathewson left McGraw and the Giants in 1916, the World Series had become a national spectacle and large crowds filled steel stadiums such as Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and the Polo Grounds.

It was a rollicking era of growth, and McGraw and Mathewson were the game's biggest stars. They were the Earl Weaver and Jim Palmer of their day, only they got along so well they even lived together with their wives.

Mathewson was America's first sports hero, a tall, humble, college-educated (Bucknell) pitcher who stood for grace and sportsmanship as well as brilliance on the mound. He was so wholesome that fans confused him with the perfect heroes of children's sports fiction.

McGraw was the opposite of "Matty" in many ways - short, paunchy and pugnacious - but he was similarly brilliant, a master strategist and manipulator. He was credited with inventing the hit and run and other plays while with the old Baltimore Orioles of the 1890s.

Deford tells the story of both men, moving the narrative back and forth as the Giants evolve from a downtrodden franchise to the game's most successful. They helped New York win its first World Series title in 1905, with Mathewson throwing three shutouts within six days, a feat some still call the greatest in Series history.

But sadness eventually intervenes on the narrative, as both men faced hardship on and off the field. The Giants were tagged as chronic Series losers with four straight appearances resulting in defeat. (They didn't win again until after Mathewson retired.) Then both men died relatively young, Mathewson at 45 from tuberculosis possibly related to his exposure to mustard gas during World War I and McGraw at 60.

Deford cuts all the fat from the story, leaving a slender volume that can be read in one long sitting. It was obvious he found delight in researching a baseball era that featured gamblers, wise guys, jailbirds, skinflint owners and players of transcendent ability.

The game was far cruder then, and unimaginable in some ways. (One player, a known gambler, threw games for years, even after he was suspended and reinstated.) But Deford judiciously leaves it to the reader to decide if the game also was better then, because in some ways, it was.

John Eisenberg is a sports columnist for The Sun.

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