Tales from the Deadball Era: Ty Cobb, Home Run Baker, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and the Wildest Times in Baseball History by Mark S. Halfon
(Potomac Books, 2014, 248 pages)
Modern baseball has been scandalized by steroid use, labor disputes, and inflated salaries. It’s enough to get anyone nostalgic for the good old days when ballplayers played hard, clean, and for the love of the game. Well, if this era ever really existed, it wasn’t during the Deadball Era. The Deadball Era, which stretched from about 1900 through 1919, was an era known for its gritty play, high batting averages, and trick pitches. According to Halfon though, it was also marked by rampant cheating and violence (on the part of players and fans). The 1919 Black Sox scandal is the most notorious of baseball scandals, but Halfon insists that “throwing” games was part of the culture of baseball in the Deadball Era. It would seem that corruption has always been an integral part of the game.
Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times is still the best book on Deadball Era baseball. However, Halfon contributes some fascinating new insights. One of Halfon’s goals is to dispel the myth that baseball faced a crisis after the Black Sox scandal and was only saved by the popularity of Babe Ruth and the new “lively” ball. While the game certainly changed dramatically in 1920, with home run totals skyrocketing, Halfon convincingly argues that there was never any dip in baseball’s popularity after the scandal – it would seem that fans had accepted such scandals as part of the game. As evidence of this, Halfon brings to light the fact that in addition to throwing the 1919 World Series, there is plenty of evidence to show that the White Sox also took a dive in the 1920 pennant race. He takes the high attendance and huge national following for the 1920 World Series as an indication that corruption never seriously challenged the popularity of baseball.
For all the differences between Deadball Era and contemporary baseball, a little historical investigation of this bygone era reveals all sort of issues that feel familiar. These insights and stories should hold the interest of any baseball fan.