Phillies’ starting catcher Walt Lerian died on October 22, 1929 in Baltimore as a result of being crushed against a building the day before by a truck that had jumped a curb. Lerian had played two seasons for the Philadelphia Phillies from 1928 through 1929. At the time of his death, at the age of 26, Lerian had been considered a promising talent in the major leagues.
I finished reading Eric Rolfe Greenberg’s novel The Celebrant last week for my baseball literature class. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the book at first, but the more I think about it, the more I like it.
This novel presents a mashup of true baseball history with a fictional plot. As he chronicles some of the major games in the career of New York Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson, Greenberg also introduces us to the fictional character Jackie Kapp. Jackie Kapp comes from a family of Jewish immigrants that owns a jewelry-making business. Jackie is a Giants fan who comes to idolize Mathewson after watching Mathewson’s first no-hitter in July 1901, while on the road in St. Louis. To commemorate the achievement, Jackie designs a ring for Mathewson. Mathewson is so impressed by the ring that he refers to Jackie as “Master Kapp.”
The story also draws in two of Jackie’s brothers, Eli and Arthur, who are also active members of the family business. Eli is a free-spending gambler, as we learn right off the bat (no pun intended) when he bets on Mathewson’s success all through that first no-hitter. Arthur, meanwhile, is the complete opposite of Eli: a no-nonsense, unsympathetic, money-and-numbers-driven businessman. Throughout the novel, we see Jackie somewhat caught between the two brothers, understanding Arthur’s aims while sympathizing more with Eli’s free-spirited approach.
The primary focus of the story, however, is on the progression of the careers of both Christy Mathewson and Jackie Kapp. Both careers take off gloriously, with Mathewson’s gem of a no-hitter leading and Kapp’s creation of a magnificent ring that would, at least in this story, lead to the proliferation of commemoration rings for championship teams. Both men have the utmost respect for the craft of the other, and they spend much of the novel admiring each other’s work from afar. Jackie Kapp is the intended reference for the novel’s title — he is “the celebrant” of baseball — although it might be argued that Mathewson is, in his own way, a celebrant of Kapp’s work as well.
As time goes on, however, both men experience a steady decline in their careers. Jackie grows increasingly frustrated by the commercialization of his jewelry. Mathewson’s baseball career ends with some disappointing games, and his final role with the game is shrouded in disappointment over the 1919 World Series scandal.
At various points in the book, Greenberg’s language becomes overwrought with detail, which sometimes makes for a laborious read. This same detail also provides for some delightful moments in the novel, especially when Greenberg describes the play-by-play of some key games. Overall, though, my favorite characteristic of this book is in the idea of a celebrant in the world of baseball. While his obsession with Mathewson’s career is borderline creepy, Jackie Kapp has a deep and genuine appreciation and love for the game and for the performance of his idol. He and Mathewson both strive to live their lives and pursue their careers according to the ideals they have in relation to their respective worlds.
While I wouldn’t call it the best baseball novel that I have read, I certainly do have an appreciation for The Celebrant.
Here’s an infographic sponsored by WAHL, which appears to have been created going into the 2012 All-Star Game. It depicts the success of pitchers with facial hair versus those who are clean-shaven in recent years. Now if I can find one that revolves around the length of hair on one’s head, maybe I can figure out what’s going on with Johnny Cueto?
They didn’t get along. Gehrig thought Ruth was a big-mouth and Ruth thought Gehrig was cheap. They were both right.
In April of last year, Brewers catcher Martin Maldonado hit a ground ball to third in a game against the Pirates. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez noticed something was off about the ball as soon as he fielded it, but had the presence of mind to throw to first anyways. Unfortunately for Alvarez, Maldonado’s hit had literally caused the cover of the ball to peel back, which prevented him from being able to put any speed on his throw. As the broadcasters point out, Maldonado had literally knocked the cover off the ball!
In Eric Rolfe Greenberg’s novel The Celebrant, Jackie Kapp mentions hanging out on the streets to track New York Giants games on boards designed to allow fans to follow the action. I wondered what this kind of board would look like. I had a picture formed in my head, but then I found this photo the other day that blows that picture out of the water. This is a photo of a “baseball game reproducer” board on the streets of Washington in October 1912, operating during the World Series between New York and Boston. I have to say, if I was living during that time period, with no radio and no TV, I could live with this option for tracking a game. It’s like an early twentieth-century version of MLB.com Gameday.
The beauty of the game is that there are no absolutes. It’s all nuances and anticipation, not like football, which is all about vectors and forces.