Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Fine Book about a Forgotten Ballplayer

For four years, I was privileged to serve on SABR's Deadball Era Committee's "Larry Ritter Award" subcommittee, three of them as the chairman. The Committee's award honors Lawrence Ritter, whose magnificent The Glory of Their Times introduced most of us to the rich period from 1900-1930.

There are plenty of books published every year on Deadball Era topics, and we had ten to twelve to choose from each year, many of them first-rate. The book I just finished reading is the 2014 winner of the Ritter Award: Mike Lackey's Spitballing: The Baseball Days of Long Bob Ewing ($19,99, by Orange Frazer Press). It would have been a solid contender for the award in any of the years when I was on the panel.

Bob Ewing had about as unpretentious a major league career as any biographical baseball subject. The right-handed pitcher grew up not far from where Lackey spent several decades as a newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist, in central Ohio. The farmer's son was 24 years old by the time he got around to playing professional ball, mainly in nearby Toledo. Five years later, he made it all the way to Cincinnati, and he won 108 games for the Reds over the next eight seasons.

Apart from their place of origin, Ewing appealed to Lackey for his average qualities. As he puts it in his Introduction: "While the feats of a few have been immortalized, cast in bronze and enshrined in Cooperstown, the struggles and triumphs of hundreds were written on water. Their was but the fleeting and uncertain celebrity of the sports pages, apportioned and reapportioned from one day to the next by [Ren] Mulford and the other chroniclers who served as the Greek chorus to the great drama of baseball in its early days."

Like everybody who writes well about the Deadball Era, Lackey is a meticulous and dogged researcher. What sets him apart is his writing and his organization of material. The style isn't flashy and doesn't sound like anything you'd read in a newspaper. Its strengths are precision, clarity, and perspective. The inevitable side-trips are navigated smoothly, and once the point is made the narrative returns to its central subject.

While many baseball biographies suffer from repetitiousness and/or excessive game-by-game recaps, Lackey neatly ducks these pitfalls. Relying on the accounts of Cincinnati sportswriter Ren Mulford and others, he presents as much solid evidence as he can. The rest is made up of thoughtful discussion of significances and possibilities. Lackey takes us inside the baseball world of 1900-1910, and I found the exploration full of one revelation after another.

Ewing, after making a name for himself at Toledo, struggled in his early years at Cincinnati, and his whole tenure there was marked by mediocre support from a team that struggled to sneak into the first division. Late in 1904, he unveiled a spitball, and from 1905-1908 he averaged 307 innings pitched, 28 complete games, and 17 wins, with an aggregate E.R.A. of 2.20. A gangly 6', 1 1/2" tall, "Long Bob" became the first National League purveyor of a pitch that caused reactions of awe mixed with disgust. Lackey takes us through the whole spitball controversy in general and how it affected Ewing in particular.

A good measure of a writer's talent is our willingness to follow him/her along on wherever the narrative might lead us. I felt more than willing to take Lackey's "Grand Tour of Long Bob Ewing." It is both thorough and thoroughly readable, with extensive notes and a fine collection of photos (in the one on page 140, Ewing bears an eerie resemblance to Lon Chaney Sr. in "The Phantom of the Opera"). It tells a worthy story solidly, with little extraneous material.

Though not overly colorful as a player, Ewing found a second career as an earlier version of Barney Fife. Elected sheriff of his home county in Ohio, he moved into the jail, where his wife cooked for the prisoners. While they were there. Within a month, he was taking a prisoner to New Hampshire, stopped along the way,  and left the prisoner on his own honor, so the prisoner escaped. Soon after, Ewing's car was stolen almost right in front of him. A year later, his office let a murder suspect escape, and that was followed by another homicide. The last section of this book is the icing on the cake with its account of Ewing's misadventures in office.

I knew very little about Bob Ewing before I read this book. I know a lot about him now, and I learned even more about the era in which he lived, struggled, thrived for a while, and experienced baseball's growing pains.If you want to read a baseball book which helps you to see what it was like long before we were born, and to learn from it, get your mitts on Mike Lackey's book. Larry Ritter certainly would've loved it.