Stealing Games by Maury Klein
In 1911, baseball was transforming itself from the dead ball era to a more modern, open game. The introduction of the cork-centered ball in 1910 resulted in hits that traveled farther and faster. Better equipment was developed and new rules instituted to fit the new game. Relationships between management and players began to change. The sub-title of Stealing Games captures the theme of this excellent study of the parallel between baseball and society: “How John McGraw Transformed Baseball with the 1911 New York Giants.” McGraw came to the Giants in 1902 and began an unprecedented 31-year stint as their manager, winning ten pennants and three World Series titles.
America was changing at the same time. The pace of life was quickening. There was more reliance on machines and technology, and an urban culture was developing. There is no better author to draw the parallels between baseball and society than Maury Klein, a historian of business and economics and a lifelong baseball fan. He has written extensively on American industrial cities between 1850 and 1920, the railroad in American life, the men who invented modern America, and the Union Pacific Railroad. In 17 previous books, he has covered America from Fort Sumter to the present day.
The game that McGraw perfected included reliance on smart play, speed, the hit-and-run, and especially, the stolen base. The 1911 Giants stole 347 bases, a record that still stands! One of McGraw’s nicknames, “the Little Napoleon,” reflected his managerial style. Ultimately, it reflected how managers in business led their industries. They were in charge and brooked no argument. That was McGraw on the field. He was a “profane, brawling, umpire-baiting agitator who also knew how to get his men to play their best.” In private life, he was a gentle man who loved his wife and showered her with flowers, and who became great friends with many of the umpires he so mercilessly abused.
Along with facts and figures that trace the performances, Stealing Games contains the occasional oddball piece of trivia. While playing for Baltimore, “To protect their feet against blisters (McGraw and Ned Hanlon) bought thick steaks to put in their shoes.” Equipment has improved.
Part One of Stealing Games lays the groundwork to show how McGraw became the manager we remember today, how he learned baseball. It shows the machinations of ownership, the creation and dissolution of entire teams, player trades and defections, and, despite all the changes, the rising popularity of baseball as it was becoming America’s pastime. It also reports here and in an appendix the famous 1908 failed attempt to bribe an umpire. This attempt was probably a major reason why players who were not guilty in the more famous 1918 “Black Sox” travesty were banned for life regardless of their level of culpability.
Part Two covers the marvelous breakout season of 1911 from April through the World Series in October. This section is for the true fan with its rich, almost daily dose of detail about individual games and how each fit into the greater picture of the season. It illustrates how a skilled researcher is able to bring to vivid life baseball’s raw statistics and facts. Couple this section with an epilogue, “The Parade Passing,” that shows the lives of the players after their days of glory, and one finds intriguing and interesting parallels with modern professional players. Some lived long and happy lives; others died penniless and broken by alcoholism.
Maury Klein has created a heavily researched and beautifully written book that skillfully blends a wealth of statistics with the human side of the story as he articulates the tale of the 1911 New York Giants. Stealing Games is a must read for every serious baseball fan.
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