Thursday, July 9, 2009

This One Hurt

There have been a lot of celebrity deaths in the last couple of weeks, but I didn't become overcome by grief until Monday when I heard about the passing of my friend and fellow baseball nut Gene Carney. I last saw him a couple of weeks ago, just before he and his wife joined another couple for a trip to Alaska. He was excited about exploring a place he had never seen before, and the vacation was going splendidly until the morning he did not wake up. As our mutual friend Bill Deane put it, dying in your sleep "is the way to go but, gosh, not at 63 and so full of positive energy."

If you like baseball, do yourself a favor. Follow this link ( to explore Gene Carney's "Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown". Originally hand-printed and mailed to subscribers, his column has been on the website for the past dozen years. The site's description will give you an idea of what you'll find there: "'Notes from the Shadows of Cooperstown' is an eclectic and ecumenical publication of anything and everything baseball. 'Notes' is typically a mix of current events and history, facts and fiction, prose and poetry, along with humor of all sorts, reviews of books, films, baseball on TV and radio, and ranges from the Little League field, thru the minors, to the majors. 'Notes' has been written and edited by Two Finger Carney since 1993."

The nickname is pure Gene, a whimsical comment on his typing style. Spend some time looking through his columns, several hundred of which are archived at the site. You'll learn about baseball, and you'll come to know the man as well: thoughtful, enthusiastic, probing, principled, lighthearted, inventive, and curious about everything.

Gene brought all of those qualities to the baseball work for which he will be long remembered: his 2006 book Burying the Black Sox: How Baseball's Cover-Up of the 1919 World Series Fix Almost Succeeded. The book deservedly won the 2007 Larry Ritter Award given by SABR's Deadball Era Committee to the year's best book on the Deadball Era. Writing about a subject that has both enchanted and puzzled baseball historians for decades, he synthesized their work and went well beyond anything that had been written before. How? By questioning everything and pursuing every possible angle with tireless tenacity.

As he followed the various trails leading toward the truth of what really happened so long ago, he shared his findings in his columns. Week by week, he would tell us how his sleuthing was paying off in ways large and small. He would find a source that had been referred to by one of the many previous explorers of this murkiest episode in baseball history, and he would share that discovery. Or he would take a much closer look at a well-worn source and see something in its implications that nobody had thought of before. He picked up scents and followed them doggedly, and whatever he found would bring some enlightening mingled with the necessity of exploring further, pushing on to whatever nuggets of truth might lie ahead.

It was fascinating to share that trail vicariously with Gene through his columns, and exciting to work alongside him occasionally. You never know where connections are going to be made in the pursuit of history. Around 1985, a friend of a friend was clearing out some storage space and gave me something simply because I was the biggest baseball fan he knew of. It was a binder containing more than 200 pages of handouts from a history course he had taken at the University of Massachusetts--a course on the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Nearly two decades later, I gave the binder to Gene, who was floored by the wealth of newspaper clippings and other material originating from the time of the scandal. It provided numerous leads which he gleefully pursued. He even contacted the professor, though I don't think he learned anything new from him.

The point of Gene's book--suggested by the subtitle--is that the important thing is not necessarily what happened in the 1919 World Series. The web which ensnared the players was so tangled that it was and still is impossible to know who did what. Only the players really knew, despite what they said in public, and we cannot know. But Gene charted a vast new territory in focusing on the efforts to suppress the truth of what happened. The two men who had the most authority to uncover the truth--White Sox owner Charles Comiskey and American League President Ban Johnson--learned plenty about what had happened, but their self-interest caused them to cover things up. Despite the efforts of some journalists, notably Hugh Fullerton and the staff of a little-known-today magazine called Collyer's Eye (which Gene single-handedly put back on the historical map) to expose the fix, it took until nearly a year later for the scandal to break loose from the cover-up engineered by the powers-that-were.

Gene meticulously waded through the misdirection and the deceit to piece together a convincing account of how the cover-up reflected the desire to keep baseball's image unsullied. If the truth hurts, suppress it. Baseball's rulers had looked the other way for many years at the rampant gambling in the game by players and fans, and had swept under the carpet many accusations about players throwing games. Finally the scandal broke, and as ugly as it was, the game survived. Gene was particularly struck by the parallel between this long-ago scandal and our current steroids scandal. Once again, the people running the sport/business were undoubtedly aware of what the players were doing and did nothing to stop them--until they were dragged, kicking and screaming and denying, into facing reality and admitting there was a problem all along.

Burying the Black Sox will likely remain the benchmark book about the Black Sox for many years. However, Gene was not content to sit back and rest on his laurels. Writing about that scandal--like many events a century or more old--is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without a box to give us the whole picture. Gene knew that there were many more pieces of the puzzle to be found, and he dedicated the last few years to tracking as many of those down as possible. He used grants from SABR to travel around the midwest, looking at documents which might shed more light on what happened. Just recently, he was one of the first to dive into recently released documents at the Chicago History Museum. As always, he shared his discoveries with the readers of his column. As always, gaining new ground only spurred him on to further exploration. It is hard to imagine continuing on the trail without his guidance.

I met Gene in 2002, when I moved back to Cooperstown. We had corresponded for a few years after I discovered his column, where he had reviewed my first two books. He lived in Utica, about 45 minutes from Cooperstown (in "the shadows" as he put it), and traveled here more often as his research intensified. He was the leader, "the heart and soul" (as Bill Deane has said)of SABR's Cooperstown-Utica chapter, lining up speakers, organizing events, and presiding at the regional group meetings held three or four times a year. I had lunch with him often and got to know him pretty well, and in the last few months spent more time than ever talking with him because he was part of a group doing an extensive research project here in the Hall of Fame library.

Gene was the type of person you hear about at times like this, someone nobody has anything bad to say about. He was a gentleman--and a gentle man. That doesn't mean soft or weak, just gentle. His instincts were kind and generous. In his detective work, he would often run into dead ends and places where the people who were there at the time should have acted differently, or be frustrated by another writer's failure to ask the right questions or pursue a trail that was clear then but which became obscured before the rest of us could venture upon it. Many of us have been known to refer to such people (famous or not) as assholes and idiots. I do it. Not Gene. He'd shrug his shoulders and say, "it's too bad _____ didn't ask _____ about it when he had the chance." He was reluctant to criticize or to judge, knowing that there must have been prevailing factors influencing them which we simply cannot know about. He used a lot of deductive reasoning in his book, made inferences about what might have been the case based on what people did or said after the fact, but even in the case of Shoeless Joe Jackson, he would not say authoritatively whether the man engaged in the fix or not. He wouldn't say because he knew the answer lay only in Jackson's heart. Jackson played pretty well. He tried to tell his bosses what was up. He knew what was going on. He tried to give the money back. He got bad advice from people he trusted (such as Comiskey's lawyer). He confessed. Gene stacked up the evidence, for and against, but left judgments up to his readers.

I've gone on at some length because I'm trying to convey what is best about people like Gene whom I have met through SABR and the realm of baseball historians. In his youth, he studied to be a priest, then wound up devoting his working life instead to social work and helping people in need. Eventually, he turned his lifelong passion for baseball into a hobby (his newsletter/column). Eventually that became a career of sorts, and after he retired two years ago he turned to baseball history full-time. I've heard from a number of people this week who never met him but were touched by his generosity in sharing his knowledge and helping other people with their research. I remember that last year there were similar outpourings after the too-early death of Dick Thompson, another relentless researcher who always found time to encourage others to get everything they could from examining this game they love. I met Dick Thompson once, and after his death I thought "it's my loss that I didn't know him better." So I feel very fortunate that I knew Gene Carney pretty well. We'll all miss his perspectives on baseball past and present, but I'll miss his friendship and his good company even more.


Sgt. Schultz the Ewok said...

May he rest in peace

Piotr LA said...

You describe these things in a very interesting way. I'm very happy that I found your blog.