The year 1883 was an excellent one for baseball in St. Louis, unless you were rooting for Philadelphia. According to one, no doubt, unbiased reporter for a Philly paper, the season’s roster of the St. Louis team that was the forerunner of today’s Cardinals was “vile of speech, insolent in bearing, and impatient of restraint.” Not only that, the club was led by “an illiterate individual named Comiskey, whose sole claim to distinction rests upon his glib use of profane language.”
The fellow at once “illiterate” and “glib” was the same Comiskey who later shortchanged the Chicago White Sox, which he owned when they tanked the World Series in 1919. But in 1883 Charles Comiskey was employed by one of the more eccentric fellows ever to run a ball club, Chris Von der Ahe. A German immigrant who’d arrived in this country with nothing but ambition, Von der Ahe became a successful beer merchant. He saw in baseball an opportunity to increase sales. His excesses, public and private, make for entertaining reading. He built a life-size statue of himself and stood it outside the ballpark. His malapropisms were grand. According to Edward Achorn’s “The Summer of Beer and Whiskey,’’ Von der Ahe said of one especially speedy member of the St. Louis ball club: “Dot poy . . . can run like a cantelope.”
Von der Ahe and his club were not alone responsible for making baseball America’s game, as the subtitle suggests, but Achorn makes a case that Von der Ahe was among the more colorful baseball men of his or any time.
“Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club” is also about a team of yore, although the Chicago Cubs of the 1920s are more recognizable as a Major League ball club than were Von der Ahe’s allegedly vile and insolent employees in St. Louis. Boston fans may recognize those Cubs, since, like the pre-2004 Red Sox, “they would fall short of the world’s title in peculiarly humiliating ways.” The Cubs included such dependable crowd pleasers as Gabby Hartnett, Grover Cleveland Alexander (briefly), and slugger Hack Wilson, who once threw his bat high into the air after striking out and was warned by the umpire that “if that bat hits the ground, you’re out of the game.”
There are lots of other good stories in “Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club,” but what sets the book apart from many set in baseball is how Roberts Ehrgott handles the context in which the fun and games transpired. In the ’20s, Chicago was certainly the Cubs, but it was also Al Capone, and, as Ehrgott writes, “Chicagoans venturing to other parts of the country and abroad learned that their city was becoming a byword for mayhem and violence.” Nor were the Cubs themselves immune from what plagued those who watched them. After they’d failed to win the 1929 World Series following what Ehrgott calls their “final pratfall in Philadelphia,” the stock market turned dramatically south. Cubs manager Rogers Hornsby was among the many whose “portfolio was in jeopardy,” but, as Ehrgott puts it, “few had any understanding of the danger” during “the death throes of a feckless age.” Chicago’s dizzy baseball hopes and dreams seem especially poignant against the background of the onset of the Great Depression.
“Next Up at Fenway” isn’t really a baseball book. The high school about which Steve Marantz writes sits across the street from Fenway Park, and the student on whom he concentrates, Marcos Baez, harbors beautiful dreams of playing pro ball, but Marantz is most concerned with education. At Fenway High School he discovers a handful of energetic and imaginative teachers who inspire their students, most of them Latino. Their mission is “to create a socially committed and morally responsible community,” Fenway High faces obstacles such as the poverty of lots of the students and the insensitive and arbitrary demands of clumsy state and city bureaucracies, but on a day-to-day basis, student by student, the staff builds and sustains the community their mission has encouraged them to imagine. As Marantz puts it, “humanities, though less fashionable than science and math, was the tail that wagged Fenway.” In these days when so many anxious parents and desperate students talk about education strictly in terms of test scores and future employment opportunities, the call for a grounding in the humanities is welcome, if lonely.
The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game
By Edward Achorn
Public Affairs, 336 pp., illustrated, $26.99
Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club: Chicago & the Cubs during the Jazz Age
By Roberts Ehrgott
University of Nebraska, 512 pp., illustrated, $34.95
Next Up at Fenway: A Story of High School, Hope, and Lindos Suenos
By Steve Marantz
Inkwater, 208 pp., illustrated, paperback, $14.95
Bill Littlefield hosts NPR’s “Only A Game” at WBUR in Boston and teaches at Curry College.