Friday, February 17, 2023

Review: Baseball at the Abyss (2023)

By Dan Taylor

Let's go back in time almost a century, to the baseball offseason of 1926-27. It was almost a bad news/good news time when it came to the health of the sport. 

The bad news was that two of the greatest players in baseball, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, had become involved in something of a gambling scandal. This was not exactly welcome, since baseball still was recovering from the stain of the fixed World Series of 1919 featuring the Chicago "Black Sox." On the other hand, Babe Ruth was enjoying his full rebound from a mediocre 1925 season, as he put up his usual astronomical numbers in 1926 for the New York Yankees. He was the game's biggest star.

That's the setting for "Baseball at the Abyss," Dan Taylor's book on a somewhat peculiar time in the sport's history - the fall of 1926 to the fall of 1927.

The premise of the book is that major league baseball was poised to take another body shot to its reputation. Luckily, the gambling situation was overshadowed by the exploits of Ruth, who would go on to have one of his greatest seasons and who would lead his Yankees to one of the most dominating years in history. 

The Cobb/Speaker situation probably is the most interesting one, even though it probably ranks as something of a subplot here. The story is relatively unknown. The pair had gotten together with Dutch Leonard and Joe Wood to wager money on a 1919 series in the regular series. The four men later wrote letters to each other about the circumstances of the bet after the fact. The letters proved handy after Leonard thought he received a raw deal from player/manager Cobb with the Detroit Tigers several years later. Leonard handed the letters to the baseball authorities, and Judge Kenesaw Landis, the commissioner, launched an investigation. 

It's interesting to note that Landis, who became famous for cleaning up after the Black Sox scandal, opted to do very little this time around. Cobb and Speaker left their respective teams (Detroit and Cleveland), and finished out their careers in new locations.

Meanwhile, Ruth was watching all of this from Los Angeles - or more to the point, Hollywood. He was the star of a movie in production. It was one of the business ideas from Christy Walsh, who had become Ruth's manager. The Bambino had all sorts of business opportunities come his way during the 1920s, and needed help sorting out the legitimate ones. Walsh did that - the first pro athlete to go that route. The manager also had another idea - offseason training. Considering Ruth was past the age of 30 and was a man of many large appetites, this was a good idea. 

Ruth and the '27 Yankees had a record-setting year. Ruth hit 60 home runs to break his own standard for a single season, and the team - with a lineup nicknamed "Murderers' Row" - swept through the American League and the World Series like Sherman went through Georgia. Ruth's chase received plenty of publicity along the way, in part because another slugger in the Yankees' lineup, Lou Gehrig, kept up with Ruth in homers for much of the season. The race captured the public's attention.

That's the setting. But does it turn into a worthwhile book? That's a more difficult judgment. Author Dan Taylor certainly put in the hours to go through reference material, particularly newspapers from those days. His writing is fine. But there are a couple of good-sized problems here.

First, it's a short book by any standard. It checks in at less than 180 pages of text (lots of footnotes), which isn't much for something that costs $36. Some of those pages are devoted to Ruth's movie-making time, which really has little to do with baseball's rebounding from the Cobb/Speaker scandal. (The movie, by the way, didn't do too well, in part because of sound issues.) And it's not easy to make Ruth's bid for 60 homers be too interesting almost a century later, as the outcome is so well known.

Second, outside perspective on this story is missing. It's most obvious during the portions on the gambling scandal, where experts are needed to put matters into context. Should the players have been banned from baseball on the spot? Would the outcome been different if the letters had become public earlier in the 1920s? Would lesser players have been treated differently? Was Cobb's vigorous public defense of his actions justified, and did it make him look less than honest from today's viewpoint?

But the lack of perspective also applies to coverage of the Yankee team, which was considered the best team of all time through the 1960s at least. Certainly others weighed in on Ruth and the rest of the team over the years in hindsight - including the principals themselves - but there's none of that here. It would have filled out the book and given it more scope.

Taylor weighs in with the concept that the Yankee team was about the only reason fans went to the ballpark in 1927, because Ruth and Company were such attractions. I'd argue that such a noncompetitive pennant race meant the Yankees were one of the few compelling stories out there in '27, as there wasn't an important game played all year. A balanced league might have led to a pennant race with two or more teams in which the suspense built up during the course of 154 games, which would have led to bigger crowds in other cities. 

Therefore, "Baseball at the Abyss" probably doesn't work as well as it could have. Those interested in that part of baseball history will find it reasonably entertaining, but it's more of a missed opportunity.

Two stars

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