Q&A With “First Fall Classic” Author Mike Vaccaro

Hot Stove New YorkSenior Writer IOctober 6, 2009

Mike Vaccaro has been the lead sports columnist for the New York Post since 2002. A New York native, Vaccaro has also covered the local sports scene for the Newark Star-Ledger, as well as working for papers in Kansas City and Arkansas.

He’s just written a book entitled The First Fall Classic: The Red Sox, the Giants, and the Cast of Players, Pugs and Politicos Who Reinvented the World Series in 1912.

He’s also the author of 1941: The Greatest Year in Sports and Emperors and Idiots.

His latest book details the ninth World Series, and third one for the Giants (the only New York team to make it to the fall classic up to that point).

And it had it all: Intrigue, drama, hatred, gambling, cheating, a tie game, an extra-inning deciding game, an all-time goat to rival Bill Buckner, day games, fans sitting on the field of play, no Joe Buck or Tim McCarver, the rebuilt Polo Grounds, brand-new Fenway Park, the Royal Rooters, Christy Mathewson, John McGraw, Tris Speaker, Smoky Joe Wood, you name it.

It was one of the the most thrilling World Series (or world’s series as they called it back then) of all-time. And was played by real men, not the pampered metrosexuals who run around on the field today, with their batting helmets, batting gloves, elbow pads, steroids, manicured facial hair, dopey handshakes and dances, umpire warnings, air travel on gas-powered flying machines and newfangled electricity to play night games.

Here's a Q & A with Vaccaro about the book.

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Jeff Freier: Why did you pick the 1912 World Series to write about?

Mike Vaccaro: I wanted to find a Series that was classic in every sense of the word but hadn’t been written to death. That pretty much eliminated most of the ones from 1950 on, because we’ve surely read many book-length accounts of 1955 or 1960 or 2001.

I thought about the ‘47 Series but there have been so many books written about the Dodgers, and Jackie Robinson, that I felt that ground had been covered.

And I seriously considered 1926, a great Series between the Cardinals and Yankees that featured the famous strikeout of Tony Lazzeri by Grover Cleveland Alexander.

But once I started looking into 1912, I realized it had a lot of the elements I was looking for. It went the distance (beyond, in fact, since there was a tie and Game 8 went into extra innings).

It had tons of compelling figures (five Hall of Fame players, a Hall of Fame manager, even two Hall of Fame umpires).

And because I like to put my books in context with the times, it even had two excellent complementary storylines to pursue (the 1912 Presidential election and the attempted assassination of Teddy Roosevelt, which happened during the Series, and an infamous murder trial that was really the first-ever “Trial of the Century”).

So that was where it started. And it was then that I really saw just how fertile the storyline was, because of all the things we’ll soon talk about in detail. It was an incredibly fun and rewarding Series to research and a terrific book to write.

JF: Was there a New York–Boston rivalry all the way back in 1912?

MV: Absolutely. Really, New York and Boston had been rivals going back to Revolutionary times, when New York mostly stayed loyal to the crown and Boston, of course, became sort of the home office for Patriots.

Then, not long before 1912, New York Harbor surpassed Boston Harbor as the country’s primary port. Baseball only stirred the pot.

In 1904, the Red Sox held off the Highlanders (now the Yankees, of course) on the last weekend of the season to win the AL pennant and then were denied the chance to defend their World Series title because the Giants refused to play them.

So all of that was simmering as the ‘12 World Series began as well.

JF: What are the biggest differences between the 1912 version of baseball and today’s version?

MV: The biggest thing is the style of play. 1912 was still very much the Deadball Era, and home runs were happy accidents that no good team ever relied on because they still occurred relatively infrequently.

So there was a lot of “small ball” and a big reliance on pitching. And everyone was expected to play that way. When you look at games from that era it’s at first shocking to think how routine it was for a superstar like Tris Speaker, for instance, to not only be called upon to sacrifice but to do it on his own because that’s just the way things were done.

JF: What was the role of gambling at that time? Weren’t players actually allowed to bet on their own team? And how much of a threat was throwing games, going all the way back to the first World Series in 1903?

MV: It was huge. Remember, this was only seven years before the Black Sox scandal ruined the 1919 Series and nearly destroyed the sport, but gambling was an accepted part of the game them.

Bookmakers were visible at every ballpark, and in the newspapers leading up to the Series players would talk openly about the odds of the Series; John McGraw had bet (and lost) $500 on his team in the 1911 Series and was planning on doing so again.

And it was interesting to discover that McGraw was business partners with none other than Arnold Rothstein, who wound up masterminding the 1919 scheme. He and Rothstein owned pool halls together; it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that more than billiards was being contested in them.

Baseball was always very concerned about the throwing of games, which is why the players’ pool was drawn only from the receipts of the first four games of any Series (a practice that still continues, by the way).

Starting in 1903 there had been talk that maybe the Boston and Pittsburgh players weren’t quite going full tilt because why only play five games (it was best-of-9 in that year) when you could milk it for seven, eight or nine games and get a bigger pie to divide?

This all became a big point of contention when Game Two of the ‘12 Series was ruled a tie, and the players believed the make-up game should be included in the player pool and the National Committee said no.

JF: The 1912 Red Sox were a lot like the 1970s A’s and Yankees, with in-team fighting and brawls, weren’t they?

MV: That’s a very good analogy and yes, they were, though mostly the dividing line between the two was religion.

The team was almost evenly split between Masons (non-Catholics) and “KCs” (the Catholics) which was especially relevant in a very Catholic city like Boston, and especially interesting because the Sox’ two most important players—Smoky Joe Wood and Tris Speaker—were very much a part of the Mason faction.

For the most part the ‘12 Sox learned to play with each other much like those A’s and Yankees teams did, but it nearly came splintering apart at the worst possible time—during games seven and eight of the Series—before they decided to hold their noses and play together one last time.

JF: If John McGraw and Billy Martin got into a fight, who would win?mcgraw-stahl

MV: Maybe the BEST question of all! I think Martin would win only because he was like the most nightmarish bar brawler ever: he wouldn’t care how many bones of his YOU broke, so long as he knocked you cold by the time it was done.

Plus, while McGraw was feisty and ornery, and while he was definitely a spikes-up player, he was never inclined to put up his dukes nearly as often or as readily as Martin. Billy by TKO.

JF: Besides his obvious talent, why was Christy Mathewson the most popular figure in baseball at that time?

MV: Even in those days, a lot of people turned to sports figures to find role models and Mathewson was as perfect a model as anyone could ask for. Not only was he a gifted athlete, he was a devout Christian, a loyal family man, his teammates and manager loved him, and the thing was, it wasn’t an act.

I open the book with a true story of him happening upon a car accident and him speeding off with the injured toward a hospital, and unfortunately for Mathewson the end came for him when, at age 38, he decided to enlist in the Army for service in World War I when nobody would have questioned him sitting the war out.

Over There, he was exposed to mustard gas, got TB, and ultimately died far too young from it. It only increased the mythology around him.

JF: Until Babe Ruth came along, the Giants owned New York. How were the Yankees (or Highlanders) and Dodgers perceived at that time?

MV: The Yankees were complete step-children. They had the worst year they ever had (and ever have had, to date) in 1912. They were about to get kicked out of their ballpark (which was being torn down so Columbia-Presbyterian could be built), and it was the next year when they officially changed from Highlanders to the more headline-friendly Yankees.

McGraw barely acknowledged them, and only agreed to let them share the Polo Grounds because they’d done McGraw a solid and allowed the Giants to use Hilltop Park in 1911 after the previous Polo Grounds had been burned to the ground on Opening Day.

As for the Dodgers, they were in Brooklyn, and in 1912 that meant they might as well have been in Philadelphia or Chicago—a whole different city as far as the Giants were concerned.

Brooklyn had only been absorbed into the city at large 14 years earlier and while it was certainly more convenient to play the Dodgers than, say, the Cardinals, there was no real blood feud yet.

Brooklyn residents cheered for the Dodgers, everyone else rooted for the Giants, and a few of the farmers in Northern Manhattan cheered for the Yankees. As dominant as the Yankees have been since 1921, even they never touched the 1912-era Giants for city-wide appeal.

JF: Were the players back then tougher and meaner yet more “pure,” playing for the love of the game, or is that really just a myth?

MV: Well, I do believe they were tougher only because the game was a tougher, meaner place and it required a lot more toughness just to get by.

But they were hardly playing for the love of the game. It was actually refreshing; most every player, when talking about the Series, failed to say things like “We want to win the title!” or “We want to raise a pennant!” or “We want a championship pin!”

They were totally upfront and honest: “We want the winner’s share.” They took being professional very, very, VERY seriously.

JF: Why aren’t there any players named Rube or Heinie anymore?

MV: Because I think whoever dubbed anyone that would wind up with a fist in the face. Although it would be great if the left side of the Yankees infield was manned by Rube Rodriguez and Heinie Jeter, wouldn’t it?

JF: Let’s move on to some modern-day topics. How do you think this year’s Yankees are different than the championship-less editions of the previous eight years?

MV: I believe they have embraced the journey a lot more than their immediate predecessors. Too much joy is taken away from Yankee seasons, I think, because it’s become the team motto that any season that doesn’t end in a title was almost a waste of time.

I think that’s made some teams lately very tight and less likely to maintain a certain level.

I think this team likes playing together and so the journey has been as important to them as the destination.

Oh, and taking Mark Teixeira away from the Red Sox might well turn out to turn the rivalry back onto its other axis before too long, proving that when it comes to Boston and New York, the more things change the more they stay the same.

JF: Any profound thoughts about the mind-boggling 2009 Mets?

MV: Only this: I know there’s a lot of anger among Mets fans, and they deserve to be angry. And I know it’s a loser’s lament to spend so much time about injuries.

But it does beg the question: how good would the Yankees have been if they lost Jeter for 120 games, Teixeira for 130 games, both Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner for two thirds of the season, CC Sabathia for the final month, and Phil Hughes for the season?

Maybe they don’t lose 92 games. But I doubt we’re seeing them in the playoffs, either.

JF: Who have been your favorite Met and Yankee players to cover over the years? How about least favorite?

MV: David Cone was always a guy who was terrific to talk with, and I have never met a nicer professional athlete than Berne Williams. Mike Piazza was a lot better with the media than we’d been led to believe before he came to New York.

Least favorite? I was never a big fan of Randy Johnson when he was here. And I’ve had some battles both in the paper and in person with Steve Phillips.

JF: Who was the best interview?

MV: Cone. He wanted to be a sportswriter when he was growing up and was as good at the Q part as he was with the A.

JF: Who was the biggest bonehead you ever interviewed?

MV: Well, I never got to cover Fred Merkle so…I’ll never forget how insolent and defiant Chuck Knoblauch was after he failed to pick up that ball in Game Two of the ‘98 ALCS. I was just breaking in as a columnist in New York and it was nice to have someone to tee off on.

JF: How much of a difference is it covering sports in New York than, say, when you were in Kansas City?

MV: Numbers, mostly. In Kansas City, there were two papers in locker rooms, and that was only if the Topeka paper was there that day.

On one hand, that was terrific because you could actually develop personal relationships.

I remember doing a story on Johnny Damon when he was with the Royals; the team had a plan where as a means of trying to entice their young players to stay they would pay for the first $100,000 of a new house (I know, it seems very innocent. But, man, you could buy a serious palace for $100K in KC in 1997).

Johnny had me out to the place as it was being built and it was…well, just very different than you can expect to get from any athlete in New York City. There’s just too many of us.

JF: What would you consider your greatest moment while covering New York sports?

MV: It will always be hard to top Games Four, Five and Seven of the 2001 World Series, the combination of incredible moments and the backdrop of Ground Zero. Taken collectively, those would be No. 1, easy.

If I were to round out a Top Five it would probably look like this: 2. Giants over Patriots; 3. 2000 Subway Series; 4. Larry Johnson’s 4-point play, 1999; 5. Game Six of the ‘96 Series, when it was still fresh and unexpected for the Yankees to win a title.


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