May 11, 2013

Pitching (poorly) in a pinch

History is not always written by the winners.  Take, for example, the climactic one-game playoff between the New York Giants and the Chicago Cubs that decided the 1908 National League Pennant race - regarded by many as the greatest ever.  Was it a big game?  Well, says Bill James in his New Historical Baseball Abstract:

To give a modern fan the sense of it, the National League pennant race in 1908 was like the American League race in 1967, only with one of the teams being in New York and the other in Los Angeles, and with Kerry Wood or Livan Hernandez being called up by another team in September so he could make four starts against one of the teams that was trying to win the thing, and with one of the key games suddenly erupting into a major controversy which would necessitate the New York team making a special trip to Los Angeles for their 162nd game, which Roger Clemens is to pitch against Pedro Martinez, with a few odd death threats, riots, attempts to fix the game, fights between players and fans, and some loose talk about a strike thrown in for good measure. The world has never seen the like of it.

The estimable Christy Mathewson was the losing pitcher, and dedicates a full chapter to the game in his fine Pitching in a Pinch.  James calls it "as fine a 5,000-word piece about baseball as has ever been written."  James can be a bit hyperbolic, but after reviewing the claim...yeah, this is right up there.
It was hard for us to play that game with the crowd which was there, but harder for the Cubs. In one place, the fence was broken down, and some employees were playing a stream of water from a fire hose on the cavity to keep the crowd back. Many preferred a ducking to missing the game and ran through the stream to the lines around the field. A string of fans recklessly straddled the roof of the old grand-stand. 
Every once in a while some group would break through the restraining ropes and scurry across the diamond to what appeared to be a better point of vantage. This would let a throng loose which hurried one way and another and mixed in with the players. More police had to be summoned. As I watched that half-wild multitude before the contest, I could think of three or four things I would rather do than umpire the game.

Pitching in a Pinch is unusually well-written for a sports autobiography, and well above the level of the typical sports journalism of that era, or any era.  I wondered if Mathewson had written it himself, as he was one of the few college men in the game back then.  But no, James and John Thorn say a fellow named John Wheeler (must be this one?) ghosted the book.  Thorn comments:
Could Mathewson write? No, probably reporter wrote [of a Mathewson journalistic effort]: "For a college man, Mathewson . . . uses about as poor language in his review of the Giants' games as any respectable newspaper will stand." 

It is Wheeler's craftsmanship we observe, then, so accomplished that Mathewson's voice comes through as if over a microphone, real as life, 101 years later.



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