I recently finished reading The First Fall Classic by Mike Vaccaro (Anchor Books 2010), a book about the 1912 world series (according to Vaccaro, the World Series didn’t become capitalized until 1913) between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Giants. Vaccaro is a sportswriter for the New York Post.
While I enjoyed reading the book well enough, I can only give it a so-so review for reasons I will elaborate on below.
I had a bit of a hard time getting into the book at first because Vaccaro’s prose is pretty purple. However, his book relies heavily on newspaper accounts of the day, and I suspect that Vaccaro was trying to capture the sportswriting of that era, which was definitely over-the-top. Once I came to terms with that style of writing, which has the feel of the books about baseball’s past exploits written for children, the book moved along fairly briskly.
The most interesting thing I took away from the book was Vaccaro’s strong implication that Smokey Joe Wood intentionally threw the next to last game of the 1912 series.
The back story is as follows. Major league players of this era (with brief exceptions from 1901 to 19o3 when the American League was establishing itself and raiding National League teams for talent and again in 1914-1915 when the upstart and ultimately unsuccessful Federal League created real competition for major league talent) were flat-out exploited and underpaid, and they knew it.
Also, at the time of the 1912 World Series, MLB turned a blind eye on gambling on baseball and there was little concern about players betting on the games in which they played so long as they were betting in favor of their own teams.
The National Commission, a three-man panel which governed the major leagues at the time, had unilaterally instituted a payment system for players playing in the World Series which paid them only for the first four games of the series no matter how many games the series went (players got 60% of the gate receipts for the first four World Series games). The idea was to prevent the players from intentionally throwing games to make the series last longer so they could get paid more. There had been suspicions back in 1903, when the Pittsburgh Pirates had jumped out to a three games to one lead in the first World Series but then lost three games in a row at home, that the Pirates hadn’t been giving their best efforts in at least two of those games in order to extend the series.
Well, the National Commission’s decision may have made some sense, but the players hated it because they weren’t allowed any say in it. Also, the four-game rule did nothing to stop owners from intentionally trying to extend the series and thus collect 100% of revenues from sold-out extra games.
Vaccaro contends that the Red Sox owner James McAleer, himself a former ballplayer, did exactly that. With the Red Sox leading the series 3-1 after five games (game two ended in a draw on account of darkness — remember, no stadium lights in those days), everyone expected that Joe Wood, who had won 34 games during the regular season and had already defeated the Giants twice in the World Series, would start the next game. Further, according to Vaccaro, Red Sox manager Jake Stahl fully intended to start Wood in game six.
However, McAleer ordered Stahl to pitch Buck O’Brien instead of Wood, (again according to Vaccaro) in the hopes that O’Brien would lose the game played in New York, so that McAleer would get another sold-out game in the newly opened Fenway Park the next day. McAleer’s argument that Wood could use another day of rest before coming back in game seven, if necessary, did not carry the kind of weight in 1912 that it would today.
Vaccaro further writes that although McAleer’s decision was made the night before game six, McAleer instructed Stahl not to inform his players until the next morning. Meanwhile, Joe Wood’s brother placed heavy bets on the Red Sox on behalf of himself, Smokey Joe and many of their friends based on the understanding that Smokey Joe would be pitching.
O’Brien had pitched well in the third game of the series losing 2-1, but he got hammered for five runs in the first inning of game six, and the Red Sox went on to lose the game 5-2.
However, back in Boston for game seven, Wood pitched even worse, allowing six first inning runs, mostly on fastballs reportedly slower than batting practice pitches and right over the heart of the plate. Despite having nothing whatsoever on the ball in game seven, Wood was well enough the next day to throw the three final innings of game eight and pick up his third win of the series. Wood allowed an earned run on three hits and a walk but also struck out two Giants batters.
Vaccaro’s story is plausible if all of the facts set forth by Vaccaro are accurate and not just the unsubstantiated speculations of certain sportswriters back in 1912. Other portions of the book make me wonder.
Unfortunately, like a lot of baseball histories, Vaccaro doesn’t do a particularly good job of getting basic facts right. For example, the book refers to the “Irish Potato Famine of 1840” — the famine didn’t start until 1845.
Similarly, he refers to the National League’s Brooklyn franchise as the “Superbas” — according to both Baseball Reference and Baseball Almanac the Brooklyn team was primarily using the name “Dodgers” in 1912, having last used the “Superbas” name in 1910.
Finally, Vaccaro completely misstates the later retirements of two of the players heavily involved in the 1912 World Series drama. Specifically, Vaccaro writes that Hugh Bedient, Boston’s second best pitcher in the 1912 series as a major league rookie, “called it quits at age 25” after pitching for the Federal League’s Buffalo Blues in 1915.
In fact, Bedient did no such thing. In 1916, he pitched for the Toledo team (then called the “Iron Men” — the “Mudhens” would come later) in the American Association, one of the three top minor leagues and a natural landing spot for Bedient after the Federal League folded.
Bedient did indeed retire prematurely, but that happened after six appearances for Toledo in 1917, not two years earlier as Vaccaro claims. Bedient sat out the next three seasons but returned to professional baseball in 1921 at age 31. He ultimately pitched five more seasons for the Toledo Mudhens, the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League and the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern League, all leagues that would be considered AA or AAA today, until he finally retired for good.
Vaccaro does the same thing with Fred Snodgrass, claiming he retired at age 28 after playing the 1916 season for the Boston Braves. Snodgrass did, in fact, return to his home town Los Angeles in 1917, but not to go into business, at least not immediately. Instead, he spent the summer of 1917 playing for the Pacific Coast League’s Vernon Tigers, where he was the team’s second best hitter. Only after the 1917 season did Snodgrass retire from professional baseball to pursue business opportunities.
A book written in the last five years about professional baseball in 1912 should have a better idea of the relationship between the major and minor leagues in those days. If a player had a bad year for a major league team and was sold or traded to an American Association, Pacific Coast League or Southern League team, it wasn’t anywhere near the big deal it is today, because players could continue to make good money playing in the high minors for as long as their talent held out. In fact, most major league players of that era finished their careers in the minor leagues after their time in the majors was over.