Sunday, January 23, 2011
Yankee Doodle Dandy
As I said in my last review, I'm on a bit of a horse racing kick right now. After picking that novel, I decided I wanted to read about a jockey. The pickings are slim in our system and I opted for this book, Yankee Doodle Dandy, about Tod Sloan. I felt good about this pick because within an hour after putting in the request for it, I checked Baseball-Reference's This Day In History section and there, on that very day, was something about jockey Tod Sloan buying a billiards parlor with New York Giants manager John McGraw. I figured if he was a business partner of McGraw's, he has to be an interesting fellow.
After reading the book, it's hard to say. Despite being touted as a biography on Tod Sloan, the majority of it is a history of horse racing through the end of the 19th Century. I think the author did this to flesh out the book since there wasn't a whole lot of source material on Sloan.
Sloan was most noted for supposedly being the fellow who popularized the current style of riding a racehorse; leaning forward and being up around the neck and head. Before Sloan, riders sat upright back in the saddle and rode like you see in Westerns.
Most of Sloan's success came abroad, even serving as the jockey for Edward, Prince of Wales's entry in the Epsom Derby. His success was rather short, though, as the British Jockey Club accused him of taking money from owners as gifts and wagering on races. He was banned from racing in England and the ban was enforced in America as well ending Sloan's career.
Sloan was such a popular figure that George Cohan wrote a musical, Little Johnny Jones, that was based on Sloan. This is the musical that gave the world the songs "Yankee Doodle Boy" and "Give My Regards to Broadway".
I found the book somewhat interesting but wish it had been honest in it's title. It's really only the last couple of chapters that deal significantly with Sloan. There's one chapter in which Sloan merits only a single chapter. What bugged me the most about the book was the lack of citations and how it tied in to Dizikes' writing and research. I thought Dizikes' writing was pretty bland and a large amount of his writing is cobbling together fragments of sentences from newspapers. He then sometimes cites them (citations were really haphzard) in clusters in the endnotes. So you'll read a paragraph which contains four or five quotes of a few words apiece, turn to see from where they came, and just find a list of newspapers with no indication of what came from where. I thought it was really lackadaisical and unprofessional, especially from a college professor who also has won the National Book Critics Circle Award. While not an awful book, it annoyed me enough not to recommend it.
As an aside, the link above is not the version I read, it is the softcover edition. The hardcover dustjacket has a famous caricature of Sloan on the cover. It gives the book, which is small in size, the feel of a book geared towards kids. Nice to see that they changed the cover for the paperback, even though the image has nothing to do with Sloan.