Saturday, February 2, 2013

Baseball Book Club - Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball

I'm going to make the assumption that no one else read this for Baseball Book Club and just give my review for it. If you did read it, please feel free to leave your comments in the comments. Next month, as you can see from the book list I put forth in December, the book for February is Mike Sowell's The Pitch That Killed. If you think you might like to try and read it this month and discuss it and such, please let me know. I really would like to make this more like a real book club and discuss this with others. I'd also like to try and add some contextual history in posts leading up to it. If no one else is out there who is interested, I'm not going to bother with the extra stuff, at least for this month. If there is interest, though, I will by all means do my best to spice things up a bit.

I had looked forward to reading Norman Macht's first volume in his trilogy on Connie Mack. I've known Norman for decades (you can't be part of SABR for any length of time and not) and know that he has devoted well over thirty years of his life researching Connie Mack. He has written many books on baseball and is a good writer and researcher. I've always felt that Norman looks like Connie Mack a bit, too. Not that that means anything. All things considered, I was expecting a pretty good book.

There was some concern, though. Readers of this blog know that I find baseball writing to generally be lacking compared to writing in other fields. The fact that Macht's book is in excess of 700 pages made it a tad imposing, especially if it turned out to be unreadable.

If you check out my new Goodreads widget (site redesign!!!) or click on through to this link, you will see I gave this two stars. I must have been wrong in my expectations, huh?

Yes and no. It's probably a three star book but my being let down probably made me go two. It is well written and readable. If you want to learn about early baseball, you could certainly pick up a lot reading this book. If you want an enjoyable baseball read and are willing to sit through 700 pages, again you could do a lot worse than read this. It took about 500 pages or so before I started to weary of it and wanted it to be over which isn't too bad. It took Audrey Niffenegger about three pages.

There are a number of things that just rubbed me the wrong way. Not surprisingly, given the amount of time Macht has spent studying his subject, he is a tremendous fanboy. Connie Mack (I wrote Connie Macht before I edited. Too funny.) can do and did no wrong. How he wasn't named President of the U.S., Pope, and Miss Universe is beyond me. To say this book is a biased treatment is an understatement.

That in itself wouldn't have been so bad (well, maybe it would be. I groaned out loud sometimes at how unabashedly Macht revered Mack and if he had toned it down a bit, he probably could have shortened the book). A lot of authors, especially those of biographies, tend to view their subjects with rose-tinted glasses. You have to present your subject somehow. If you want to cast your subject in an ultra-positive light, fine. But leave me with some sources so that if I want, I can read up and formulate my own opinions.

Aye, there's the rub. In a 700+ page book by a noted baseball researcher, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research for almost as long as it has been in existence, this is the number of citations Macht gives us.


At the end of the book he has a page and a half with the header "A Word about Sources" where he says he "was not the kind of diligent source-noter who warms the hearts of academic PhD thesis advisers. So I cannot cite date, page, and column whence cometh all the raw material of this book. Nor do I think most readers care".

I beg to differ. I think that most readers of 700 page baseball biographies are very much like me. They want to know where information came from. They were expecting that after decades of research by someone with Macht's pedigree that these biographies would become the highlight of the canon of Connie Mack research. That future generations of researchers would turn to these books for information on Macht, the Philadelphia Athletics, and early baseball. But if virtually nothing is cited (Macht does drop an occasional newspaper name in the text which makes it possible to find something given the chronology of the book but there are no formal citations), how is anyone to really know if what is found on these pages is actually true? Macht even concludes this section by talking about previous Mack biographies and saying that My 66 Years in the Big Leagues "contained nothing reliable". Isn't that being a little hypocritical? How am I to know how reliable this book is if I cannot find anything without conducting huge amounts of research on my own?

That killed my perception of this book (in case you couldn't tell). The fact this was published by a university press (Nebraska) in this fashion I found astounding. Sure, I understand if you've been at this for as long as Macht has, and probably well before he even thought he might write a book(s) on Mack, he might not have cared or remembered where things came from. But to then omit ALL sources - I can't accept it. There's material in the book that counters common wisdom, there's interesting factoids, there's good stories. Citations can't be given for some of them? Not one?

I need to stop. I'm getting overly worked up about this. I can't help it. It just astounds me.

But speaking of common wisdom, perhaps part of my problem with the book, too, has to do with the "villain" of the book. I guess Macht felt that there needed to be some conflict, a bad guy to play the devil to Saint Cornelius.

So who do you think the bad guy might be? John McGraw would immediately come to mind for me. Manager of the rival New York Giants of the despised National League. A man who cursed and gambled and would go to any means to win ballgames. That would be a hell of a guess and it would be wrong. McGraw is painted in a pretty good light. How about Ty Cobb then? He was an asshat. Star of the rival Detroit Tigers. He must be the bad guy. No, not Cobb. Too early for Hal Chase. Maybe in volume two. Johnny Evers? He was a jerk but he played for the Cubs and didn't have much to do with Mack and the A's. Now you're just reaching.

No, the bad guy in this book, the guy that Macht castigates more than anyone else in this book, the bad, bad man who could do no good is....Christy Mathewson.

Now I'm a huge fanboy of Mathewson. I'll even call him Matty because I'm such a fan. The one picture from the Hall of Fame that I got when I interned there was of Matty. The Celebrant is my second favorite baseball book. I'm not going to like it when someone casts him in a negative light. But I'm also knowledgeable enough to know that he had faults. But Macht takes every fault and singles him out. Contract jumping between the National and American Leagues in their early years? Not an unusual practice and one that Mathewson, among many players, engaged in (not that Macht cites it). But Mathewson is especially singled out and criticized for it and then the point is rehashed over and over later in the book, well after the point where it should even be an issue. Macht almost gloats when Matty loses a playoff game. It was inexplicable. Not as inexplicable as not including any sources, but pretty bad.

Most people, myself included, and most folks of that era regarded Mathewson as a good person. He was often viewed as the Yin to McGraw's Yang. I think if you asked folks who best embodied moral behavior among ballplayers of the Deadball Era, Mathewson would be atop that list. And perhaps this is why Macht chose to berate him so. By taking someone who was regarded as well as Matty, perhaps someone who personifies the saintly characterization as much as or more so than the great Connie Mack, and knocking him down a few notches, then maybe that makes Mack look better. I don't know. I thought it was a very odd tack to take and again, without any original sources cited that might explain why Mathewson transgressions were worthy of the vitriol, it just rubbed me wrong and made me like the book even less.

For all the negatives, I'll probably still get the other books of the trilogy. I think that they are important books and while the sources cannot be easily found, perhaps another aspiring researcher in the future will take Macht's passion and cite everything better. It is a shame that the output of so much effort and energy from a great researcher and writer is diminished because of the decision.

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