Distinguished Senators, the Washington Nationals Blog That Is Great

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Book Review!

The Pitch That Killed by Mike Sowell is the story of the only major league pitch that ever literally killed somebody, that thrown by Yankees submariner Carl Mays to Indians shortstop Ray Chapman on August 16, 1920. I liked it. A lot. The book, I mean, not the pitch.

Sowell was either lucky or perspicacious in his selection of a topic to write a book about, because the tale lends itself to entertaining anecdotes, historical information valuable to readers who were born 70 or so years after the incident, and some scary stuff. Sowell covers it all in 93 compact chapters of clear, matter-of-fact prose.

Entertaining anecdote: 1920 was Babe Ruth's first year with the Yankees and the year in which he smashed his own home run record with 54. Urban Shocker, then of the Browns and later Ruth's teammate, used some psychological warfare on Ruth: when the Babe came to the plate, Shocker motioned for his outfielders to come in. Ruth, furious, swung and missed at the first pitch, whereupon Shocker brought the defenders in even closer. Another swing, another miss, another step towards the infield for the outfielders. Ruth swung at strike three.

Valuable historical information: Chapman's death was actually the decisive event in a running battle between the leagues and their umpires on the one hand and the club owners and pitchers on the other over baseballs. The leagues had been pushing for heavily-used baseball to be removed from play, while the owners chafed at the expense ($2.50 each, which seems like a lot for 1920) and the pitchers complained that clean balls were too hard to make break and too easy to hit. The pendulum had just swung in the owners' direction when Chapman was hit by scuffed up, brownish baseball (thrown off the field afterwards and lost to history), guaranteeing that all future hitters would have fresh, clean baseballs on which to tee off.

Scary stuff: Sowell gives us a preview of the Chapman beaning and shows us what can happen when baseball meets skull by relating the story of Chick Fewster. A Yankees infielder, he was at bat in an exhibition game against Brooklyn before the 1920 season when a Fred Pfeffer curveball hit him just above his ear. Fewster collapsed, twitched for a while, and didn't come to for ten minutes. When he did wake up -- and this is the really terrifying part -- he starting losing his vocabulary while talked to his teammates. Eventually he was down to two words, and he was unable to say or write anything else. Fortunately, Frewster recovered and actually wound up having a big league career.

The Pitch That Killed ranges widely, but its core are the stories of Mays and Chapman, and it's hard to imagine two more different men. Mays was a sullen loner, almost universally disliked by reporters, teammates, management, and basically every one else -- when his house burned down, he figured someone who knew him did it. He had a reputation for throwing at batters and for not always putting forth his best effort when he was annoyed with his situation. He petulanty left the Red Sox, demanded to be traded, and almost tore apart the American League when the Yankees violated Ban Johnson's injunction against dealing with him. Chapman, on the other hand, was adored by his team and city, and it seems to have been real affection, not an after the fact halo effect. This fact makes the chapters about Mays far more interesting, but the writing is so brisk that nothing drags.

Chapman's death occurred in interesting times, and TPTK takes its time in getting to its climax, allowing the reader the leisure to enjoy the scenery. Babe Ruth was at his legendary best; carousing, attempting a movie career, getting into almost-fatal car crashes. The White Sox spent much of the season battling it out with Cleveland and New York, but with Chicago in second place and heading into Cleveland for a vital series, the Black Sox scandal broke, and the reigning AL champs limped to the finish line with eight players under suspension. During the World Series, which Cleveland won against Brooklyn, Dodgers pitcher Rube Marquard earned his nickname by getting arrested for scalping tickets. These kinds of stories add color to the basic narrative, and the book is full of them.

In covering Chapman's death and its effects on the people around him, Sowell seemingly takes his cue from the box score of the game, a picture of which is included. A laconic note -- "Hit by pitched ball - By Mays (Chapman)" -- is the only record the box score makes of the incident. Sowell is not quite that reserved, but the book's lack of purple prose actually helps the reader understand the strain under which Chapman's friends operated.

Take, for instance, Tris Speaker, the Indians' manager and centerfielder. Speaker appears throughout TPTK, and at every turn is shown to be a sober-minded leader who has earned the respect of his peers as much through his skills as a manager as through his exploits as a player. Sowell relates a number of incidents Speaker is involved in after Chapman's death: he doesn't attend the shortstop's funeral, possibly owing to a nervous breakdown. A fight -- an actual physical fight -- erupts between Speaker, a Mason and a Protestant, and two of his Catholic players over Chapman's memorial service, perhaps further explaining Tris' absence. Shortly afterwards, Speaker, barely playing and playing badly when he does put himself in the lineup, uncharacteristically blows up at an umpire, who (to his credit) lets him. The reader, instead of being beaten over the head with pathos, is allowed to figure out for himself what Chapman and his death meant to those around him.

One final note: after the Indians' triumph in the 1920 Series, TPTK follows the history of the story's leading figures. The most interesting part of this comes when Col. Tillighast Huston, co-owner of the Yankees, gets drunk. He blurts to a sportswriter, "I wanted to tell you that some of our pitchers threw World Series games on us in both 1921 and 1922." Specifically, Carl Mays and "Bullet" Joe Bush were thought to the be the culprits, and a concerned citizen told a reporter that Mays let the Giants score three runs in the eighth inning of game three of the 1921 Series after a bribe had been given to his wife, who was sitting in the stands and who signaled her receipt of the payoff by wiping her face with a handkerchief.

My immediate reaction was to dismiss these claims, but that's not based on anything other than that I'd never heard them before. Whether or not the Yankees had two championships stolen from them by their own players, quite a few people thought they did. Besides Huston, Brooklyn manager Wilbert Robinson gave some kind of drunken agreement. Miller Huggins went to his grave thinking he'd been cheated, saying just before he died that any of his former charges could expect help from him if they were in financial trouble, but "I made only two exceptions--Carl Mays and Joe Bush. If they were in the gutter, I'd kick them!"

It's likely too late to establish guilt in this case, but the fact that there were rumors swirling about a matter this important is tantalizing. Someone -- someone without a strict dedication to the truth or any kind of scuples about impugning the dead -- could write a secret history of baseball, coming up with a litany of scandals that (and I'm just brainstorming here) Kennesaw Mountain Landis demanded swept under the rug for the good of baseball. Seriously, you'd make a mint. They'd give Tom Hanks a terrible haircut and make a movie.

But I digress, and now it's time to sum up. The Pitch That Killed is very good, and you should read it. Maybe I'll let you borrow it, but I will be re-reading it, so get it back to me, alright?

Weird Coincidence Update: One year ago almost to the day, a blogger named Ryan wrote a review of The Pitch That Killed.


Harper said...

You've sold me. I'll pick that up right after I'm done with my current book. I will say though that my friend would disagree with the title. We thinks "The Pitch that Killed" was thrown by Mitch Williams to Joe Carter.

Ryan said...

Sweet! Next up: a 30,000 word post about the benefits of Amway.