* RK reviews: Red Sox oldies but goodies

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* RK reviews: Red Sox oldies but goodies

Wife and daughter are at the Sawx-Tigers game at the moment, so I thought it appropriate to haul these three reviews out of mothballs. All appeared in A Red Sox Journal, published by The Buffalo Head Society in the late 1990s.

* * *

Murder at Fenway Park, by Troy Soos. Kensington Publishing: NY. 1994

Imagine your first day as a member of the Boston Red Sox in 1912. You rush to Fenway, anxious to meet your new teammates and get back to the game you love after being released and written off the year before, a 19-year-old has been.

But your train arrives late. You’ve missed the game. Everyone is gone and there’s no one there to welcome you. No one, that is, but a bloody corpse. There’s been a Murder at Fenway Park and now you have to not only prove to the authorities that you’re not the murderer, but also keep from becoming the next victim.

Murder is the first in Troy Soos’ series of “historical murder mysteries” featuring Mickey Rawlings, journeyman ballplayer.

Off to this inauspicious start, Rawlings must contend with cops who want to arrest him, a team official who thinks news of the death would be bad for attendance, and teammates resentful of any new young player. He must also learn the art of investigation on the fly, as it were, if he’s to clear his name. Poor Mickey; all he wants from life is to bat .250 and play in a World Series.

While trying to find the real culprit, Rawlings discovers the murder is connected with the seamy world of gamblers and corruption, stemming from the 1910 batting crown race between Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie. The victim had been a pawn in that suspicious contest, which saw Lajoie win the title (and the trophy car that went with it) under questionable circumstances. Mickey’s crude investigations turn up a plethora of suspects, including Cobb himself. But when a second killing takes place, the evidence once again points at Rawlings and his time is running out.

Through all these distractions, Rawlings is nevertheless a ballplayer. 500s’ renderings of the games are a treat. The former research physicist at MIT painstakingly depicts Rawlings’ thought processes in his alert play in the field and as he takes his at bats against the likes of Walter Johnson and Jack Warhop. Soos’ eye for detail would make Ted Williams proud, not only in his depiction of the games, but of life in 1912 Boston as well.

Soos seamlessly blends in the players of the era and has no qualms about giving major roles to stars like Cobb and Hal Chase, another baseball bad boy of the day. He incorporates real events among the fictional, such as the sinking of the Titanic, a suffrage parade in New York, and Cobb’s suspension for beating a defenseless fan, which precipitated a one-day strike by his surprisingly supportive Tiger teammates.

Despite all his troubles, including finding some doctored evidence placed in his lodgings, Rawlings finds time to indulge in his favorite pastime, silent films. By attending the “flickers” he becomes reacquainted with a young lady who helps in his investigation and introduces him to Karl Landfors, a muckraking newspapem1an, who will become the Watson to Rawlings’ Holmes.

Subsequent installments in the Rawlings’ series include Murder at Ebbets Field, Murder at Wrigley Field (even though the Cubs’ ballpark wasn’t so named until years after the story setting), and, most recently Hunting a Detroit Tiger. Fans of both mystery and baseball will find all of these volumes entertaining. Soos’ fifth novel, The Cincinnati Red Stalkings, is due out next spring and the tireless author is already preparing the next adventure, which sees Rawlings in the uniform of the St. Louis Browns. Soos has also written a non-fiction book entitled Before the Curse: The Glory Days of New England Baseball, 1858-1918.

The Babe in Red Stockings: An in Depth Chronicle of Babe Ruth with the Boston Red Sox, 1914-1919, by Kerry Keane, Raymond Sinibaldi and David Hickey. Sagamore Publishing: Champaign, IL. 1997

The Babe in Red Stockings would be an apt name for a detective story and in a sense it is. Co-authors Keane, Sinibaldi and Hickey have been tireless investigators in their subject. Ruth burst onto the scene the ultimate raw talent.

Strong, uncultured, boisterous, all this rube wanted to do, at the beginning at least, was play ball. In the numerous biographies of the “sultan of Swat” we are reminded over and over how stunned he was to learn he’d be paid for his services. Sold to the Red Sox by the minor league Baltimore Orioles, Ruth became one of the premier pitchers in the big leagues. But it was his startling strength at the plate which swayed the fans. In 1918, with the Sox vying for the pennant, manager Ed Barrow sought to utilize Ruth’s bat on a more regular basis. Pinch hitting was one of the few skills Babe did not acquire (he was adjudged to be a very smart fielder and a surprisingly adept baserunner). Barrow experimented, moving the youngster to first base and to the outfield, but these appearances were sandwiched between Ruth’s pitching stints and the constant shuffling began to wear on him after awhile. Massachusetts-based Keane and Hickey, along with Sinibaldi, a longtime Bosox fan from Florida, recount almost every game the Sox played during the Ruth era.

Naturally, more attention is paid to the contests involving the pitcher-cum-slugger. The Babe is somewhat inconsistent in these renderings. Sometimes his pitching lines are included, some times they’re missing data, and at other times they’re simply omitted. The same with his batting performances for the games. The authors should have decided to go entirely one way or the other. (One criticism of the book, which is ostensibly a scholarly work by dint of the copious research involved, is an amazingly shabby job of proofreading. Readers may quickly find the inconsistencies in punctuation distracting.)

Nevertheless the information is abundant, not only regarding the facts and statistics of the games, but of Ruth himself. We can see how he matures from a hayseed to a resourceful ballplayer. He married Helen Woodford, moved to the Massachusetts countryside, engaged an agent … all signs of an astute athlete for whom playing solely for joy had worn off. Baseball was relatively unaffected by World War One until 1918, when Secretary of War Newton Baker issued his “work or fight” edict. Red Sox owner Henry Frazee worked harder than any baseball executive to ensure that the season continue as long as possible, perhaps not coincidentally because his club was heading towards the league championship. “[T]he best that could be said of [Frazee] is that he was much maligned …. The worst, and closest to accurate, is that he was reviled … he may be the only man the youngsters in Boston learned to hate before they even knew his name. To many he was simply the ‘Guy who sold Babe Ruth. ‘”

Squabbles between Ruth and the Red Sox management over salary and deportment are adequately reported here, but the main story is how Ruth developed from an all-star caliber pitcher into a batting master, the likes of which had never been seen heretofore. Kids no longer aspired to be Ty Cobb; they wanted to be a slugger like the Babe. Out with the “scientific game,” in with knocking the ball out of the park. The authors include a detailed version of Frazee’s sale of Ruth to the Yankees, debugging several myths about the transaction. They also wax hypothetical about what might have happened had Ruth spent his entire career with Boston, both for the slugger and the Sox.

Absent from The Babe are the tales of the lurid escapades which helped make him larger than life (of course, most of them came once Babe had moved on to the Yankees). What is mentioned often is the Babe’s lack of luck with cars, having been involved in several accidents of greater or lesser seriousness while with the Sox. The appendices sport a bibliography and a game-by-game listing by year, from Ruth’s debut on July 11,1914, to his final turn on the hill on September 20, 1919, a game in which, fittingly, he cranked a homer in the bottom of the ninth to lead his team to a win over the White Sox. Another section lists his World Series accomplishments and the pitching records he set.

Despite its minor flaws, after reading The Babe in Red Stockings one can easily see how Ruth, in the words of the authors, “took the game of baseball to a level it had never known before.”

* * *

The Great Rivalry: The Yankees and the Red Sox 1901-1990, by Ed Linn. Ticknor & Fields: New York. 1991.

Strange, isn’t it? Folks from New England are referred to as Yankees. Yet Fans of the Red Sox hate the Yankees. The two teams have been going at it for over 90 years and it’s one of the special rivalries in all of sport. Ed Linn captures all the high and low points of this symbiosis in The Great Rivalry: The Yankees and the Red Sox, 1901-1990.

Linn, chronicler of such characters as Ted Williams (Hitter: The Life and Turmoil of Ted Williams), Bill Veeck (Veeck as in Wreck), Leo Durocher (Nice Guys Finish Last) and Willie Sutton (Where the Money Was: The Memoirs of a Bank Robber), among others, portrays the different eras of the Boston-New York competition in an enjoyable anecdotal style. His main demarcations for ninety plus years can be broken down into the Babe Ruth years, the individual rivalry between DiMaggio vs. Williams, and the 1977-78 seasons in which each team demolished the other in a version of the “Boston Massacre.”

Rivalry opens with Bucky Dent taking Mike Torrez over the Green Monster to win the one game playoff in 1978. He then flashes back to the humble beginnings, unremarkable though they be.

Before the 1961-62 expansion, clubs met about twenty times a season, instead of the today’s unbalanced schedule. This number of contests and geographic proximities built some long-standing competitions (Dodgers-Giants and Cardinals-Cubs, to name two).

Prior to the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920 the two teams met 358 times games with the Red Sox holding the edge, 191- 167. While Ruth wore the pinstripes, the Yankees took 224 of 330 contests: the “Curse of the Bambino” had begun.

From that point, for the next 60 or so years, the Yankees were the cream of the crop and the Sox were … well, they weren’t.

The Sox were bought by Tom Yawkey in 1933, who vowed to turn the team around. He tried new managers Joe Cronin and former Yankee skipper Joe McCarthy) with mixed results. But he helped put together a nucleus of Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky and Bobby Doerr as well as pitchers Mel Parnell which made the Red Sox competitive. In his chapter on “Ted and Joe,” Linn writes: “For 13 seasons … the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry was illuminated and made resplendent by the presence of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, the two most magnetic players of their time. When they were on the ball field, nobody else mattered; and when they were on the ball field together, you felt privileged to be there.” Certainly, neither were saints, having their varying degrees of difficulty with managers, fans and the press, but for one magical season they were practically god-like, and Linn keeps you on edge with his storytelling.

He devotes a full chapter to that 1941 season, with DiMaggio putting his mark in the record books with his 56 consecutive-games hitting streak, and Williams triumphing over the .400 mark. There were some exciting seasons in the late ’40s between the two teams, but as the Yankees were running away with championship after championship throughout the fifties, the Sox began to show holes and quickly became a team of underachievers.

It wasn’t until the mid-sixties that the tide seemed to turn; as the Sox got better, the Yankees were having their worst seasons.

The most entertainingly gossipy chapters deal with what happened to the teams after free agency became a given. The rivalry intensified to an almost palpable hatred. See Graig Nettles body slam Bill Lee. See Munson and Fisk battle it out at home plate. See the teams fighting themselves! Jackson vs. Munson, Jackson vs. hi~ manager, Billy Martin. Martin vs. George Steinbrenner. All of this tumult set the stage for the two “Boston Massacres.”

The first, in 1977, saw the Sox destroy the Yankees in their June series, as they swept the Yankees decidedly, 9-4, 10-4, 11-1. But fortunes reversed the next year, as the Yankees exacted their revenge by wringing out the Sox in September with victories of 15-3, 13-2, 7-0 and 7-4, outhitting their opponents 49 to 16. Boston had been leading the New York by 8 1/2 games with 40 games to play and ended up losing the pennant on the strength (?) of Dent’s homer in that playoff game.

Linn effectively ends his story there. An “afterwards” meanders a bit about the teams’ fates between ‘78 and ‘88. The Great Rivalry may have cooled in the past 20 years, but Linn’s lively book keeps the memories warm.

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