Thursday, August 21, 2008

Tris Speaker: The Rough-and-Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend

I read Timothy M. Gay's Tris Speaker: The Rough-and-Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend, which I liked though clearly you need to be a baseball fan to get into it. I found that it is really less a biography than a chronicle of early 20th century baseball that centers (no pun intended) on center fielder and Hall of Famer Tris Speaker. This didn't bother me much, as I appreciated the opportunity to read about how great a fielder he was, playing very shallow center in the dead ball era, the rivalries that emerged at that time, and the bitter fights between players and management.

However, as the book went on I wondered more about Speaker himself. In particular, he went from a vicious bigot, who played an active role in segregating clubhouses by religion, to a guy who married a Catholic woman and eventually worked closely as a coach with Larry Doby, the first African American to play in the American League. I think the book could have done more to explain whether his shifts in opinion mirrored baseball more generally, or were exceptions, and what the effects were.

Gay also occasionally tends toward hyperbole, perhaps a natural reaction to reading sportswriters of the era. A particular 1912 game was "among the most anticipated--and hyped--regular season baseball games in history" (p. 104). Or "No ballplayer in history was as beloved by a community as Tris Speaker was in Cleveland in 1920" (p. 207). And he veers toward colloqualism, as Babe Ruth's baserunning gaffe in the 1926 World Series might be explained in the following manner: "Maybe old Judge's [Ruth's] flatulence had finally gotten to his brain" (p. 245).

Nonetheless, if you're a fan of baseball history, you will very likely enjoy it.


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