Sportswriter-turned-skipper for the New York Giants, Horace Fogel, had a reputation for making some questionable decisions in his short tenure as manager. Most notable was his attempt to turn second-year pitcher Christy Mathewson into a position player, in spite of Mathewson’s having won twenty games as a rookie. Fogel’s rule over the Giants dugout came to an end on June 10, 1902, fired by the organization, and Mathewson went on to the Hall of Fame — as a pitcher.
World War I broke out in late-July 1914, following the assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary, though it was not until April 1917 that the United States officially entered the war. America had remained neutral in the conflict, at least until German U-boats began to strike at ships with Americans passengers on them. In retaliation, the United States declared war on Germany mere days before the start of the 1917 baseball season.
As the war raged on, Major League Baseball proceeded with its full schedule, in spite of the fact that most minor leagues shut down for the season. Very few professional players joined the military at first, either through the draft or through voluntary enlistment. This, unsurprisingly, did not sit too well with the American public. Even as owners donated money to the war cause and gathered up baseball gear for soldier recreation, the public demanded greater sacrifices from organized baseball. In response, owners cut down on team travel, reduced the 1918 schedule from 154 games to 140, and trimmed player salaries. When the criticism continued, owners answered with the insistence that baseball played a role as the national pastime. Its contribution to the war effort, they claimed, was in its ability to keep American spirits high.
Early in the 1918 season, however, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker determined that being a baseball player was a non-essential occupation to the war effort. Furthermore, all draft-eligible men employed in “non-essential” occupations were required to apply for work directly related to the war or take a chance on being called into military service. Baseball owners managed to delay the “work or fight” requirement until the end of the season on September 1st, and continued fighting in order to gain a longer reprieve for World Series participants. In spite of its misgivings, the government relented.
Nevertheless, an average of fifteen players per team found themselves drafted or chose to
enlist prior to the deadline. All teams, as a result, sought out replacements, who were often younger, less experienced, and less talented. As the quality of play deteriorated, so did fan attendance in stadiums. The 1918 World Series ended up being a match up between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. It remains the only World Series to be played entirely in September (running from the 5th to the 11th), due to the premature end of the regular season, and a number of players threatened to strike due to low attendance.
Game 1 of the 1918 World Series became the first time “The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed at a Major League game. Thanks to the war effort, no doubt, baseball seemed eager to continue to prove its patriotic contribution to the cause. (“The Star-Spangled Banner” would become the national anthem in 1931.) The Red Sox went on to win the Series, four games to two, led by a young pitcher by the name of Babe Ruth.
Meanwhile, in Europe, players who found themselves participating in the war had a not-so-enjoyable experience. Grover Alexander, considered to be one of the top pitchers of the time period, suffered from loss of hearing, shell shock, and would later develop epilepsy. He would later be driven to alcohol abuse, as a result of his experiences during the war. Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson were part of a gas defense drill that turned out very badly when a number of soldiers missed the signal to put their gas masks in place. Ty Cobb managed to escape unharmed, but Mathewson inhaled a considerable amount of poison gas. His health deteriorated over time, and Mathewson died of tuberculosis seven years later. Also among those sent to Europe were George Sisler and Branch Rickey. In total, an estimated two hundred and fifty ballplayers ended up serving in the military, while others joined the reserves or found war-related work.
If the war continued into 1919, rumor had it, owners would be forced to cancel the 1919 season altogether. Fortunately for baseball, however, Germany formally surrendered on November 11, 1918, thus ending the First World War.
It seemed like it was back to business as usual for baseball. However, the 1919 season would prove in phenomenal fashion that this was hardly the case. While baseball managed to continue limping along during the war, the racetracks had been forced to shut down entirely. As a result, gambling in baseball skyrocketed. This, combined with the efforts of owners to recoup loss funds as a result of the war, would set off a domino effect that resulted in a metaphorical explosion by the end of 1919.
Led by legendary pitcher Christy Mathewson, the Giants lost to the Cardinals on May 24, 1909. It was the first time in five years that the New York team suffered a defeat at the hands of the Redbirds, having beat them 24 consecutive times prior to this game.
A young ballplayer looks on his first spring training trip as a stage struck young woman regards the theater.
Henry Mathewson, the younger brother of Christy Mathewson, signed with the New York Giants on January 20, 1906. The younger Mathewson did not prove to be as talented as his brother, however, appearing in only two Major League games over the next two seasons for a total of 11 innings and sporting a 4.91 ERA.
Many Fans look upon an umpire as a sort of necessary evil to the luxury of baseball, like the odor that follows an automobile.
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.