Bill Felber, executive editor of the Manhattan (KS) Mercury and a baseball historian, is the author of The Book on the Book, published by St. Martin’s Press, and A Game of Brawl, a colorful account of the 1897 National League pennant race, published by the University of Nebraska Press/Bison Books. His most recent book, Under Pallor, Under Shadow, about the watershed American League pennant race of 1920, was published by Bison Books in 2011.
Imagine a Major League pennant race coming down to a final scheduled series between the contenders. Now imagine that series coming down to the final game. Now imagine that final game being halted early by natural elements, throwing the pennant to whichever team happened to be leading when those natural elements intervened.
Finally, imagine that many of the most knowledgeable baseball historians—and almost all regular fans—are unaware any of the above ever occurred.
From a baseball standpoint, there was nothing gay about the 1890s. Stylistically, it was a rough-and-tumble decade producing teams famed as much for their willingness to brawl as for their superiority. Nowhere was this more true than in Baltimore and Cleveland.
George Stallings was an archetype of the manager with a dual personality: genteel, courteous, and refined away from the ballpark, a profane tyrant in it. A wealthy, mannered Georgia cotton farmer during the winter, Stallings managed for 13 seasons in the Major Leagues, compiling a sub-.500 record. Yet the single pennant he won—with the miraculous Boston Braves of 1914—transformed Stallings’s image from egomaniac to personnel genius.
Prior to the introduction of instant replay, a baseball umpire’s judgment was sacrosanct, impervious—by law—even to the filing of a formal protest. Like popes speaking ex cathedra, umpires’ safe-out, fair-foul, and other judgment calls were deemed infallible.
The truth, of course, has always been otherwise. As replay review has periodically demonstrated, umpires from time to time simply miss. They are, to adapt Dickens, human and prone to fall.
Donie Bush was a baseball lifer. Emerging at 20 in 1908 as shortstop for the American League champion Detroit Tigers, Bush played in nearly 2,000 games, then worked four stints as a big league manager and three years as a scout. Between 1938 and 1940 he co-owned the Louisville Colonels, selling his shares to finance the purchase of his hometown Indianapolis Indians, which he owned for 12 more seasons.
In January of 1920, Babe Ruth arrived both physically in New York and stylistically as a home-run threat. His achievements that season transformed the way baseball was played while invigorating public interest to levels never previously imagined, much less approached.
On the rare occasion when Hubert Benjamin “Dutch” Leonard’s name is recalled today, it is as the man who tried to get Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker thrown out of baseball. In 1926, Leonard—whose 11-season pitching career had ended the previous summer—accused Cobb, Speaker, and Smoky Joe Wood of having conspired with him to fix a September 1919 game between the Tigers and Indians.
To the extent Baseball Is a Funny Game is recalled today, it is largely for its yarns. This is due in part to the content and in part to the subsequent reputation of the author. When the book hit stores in May of 1960, Joe Garagiola was a little-known retired catcher who had taken up color commentary in St. Louis. His anonymity, however, was about to change.