Bob is a longtime member of the Florida sports media, having served as a reporter and copy editor for more than 30 years. His true sports passion, however, is the history of the various games, exhibited by his in-depth book reviews and hobby of collecting cards and other sports memorabilia. He blogs for TBO.com on both subjects, transferring his work for the Tampa Tribune to the realm of cyberspace.
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New book reveals some good old country comforts in our baseball bones
Posted Jan 16, 2013 by Bob D'Angelo
Updated Mar 27, 2013 at 09:35 PM
Baseball’s roots are tied to the city game that evolved from Alexander Cartwright’s vision, despite that whimsical fable of Abner Doubleday and Cooperstown. And yet, the country boy who makes good is still a compelling story.
Big, rawboned fireballers like Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Dazzy Vance honed their pitching skills on makeshift, rural baseball diamonds. And sluggers like Mickey Mantle exuded awe as they’d hit baseballs “a country mile.”
There’s some good old country comfort in our baseball bones.
Texas A&M history professor David Vaught taps into the culture that brought about rural baseball, farming, and small-town life. “The Farmers’ Game: Baseball in Rural America” (John Hopkins University Press; $29.95, hardback, 214 pages) is a fascinating work of six essays that reflects Vaught’s expertise in American rural history.
This is not just about baseball history. It’s a studious look at baseball in the context of farms and the men who worked them. And while Vaught’s essays take up just 151 pages (there are an additional 53 pages of notes and a 10-page index), there is plenty of plenty of good material.
To me, the most interesting chapter was “Multicultural Ball of Texas Cotton.” Vaught visits the Czech and German ethnic groups that lived in south-central Texas and how the farmers came to enjoy baseball. Attention is also given to black players, who, freed from slavery, found time to play the game when not working as sharecroppers.
The Czech culture is particularly fascinating, as those settlers in Texas adhered to an ethic they called hospodářství. It was an idea that embraced order, careful attention to detail, wise use of resources, conservation, cooperation and a meticulous manner. Those are the same attributes that define successful baseball teams.
Vaught uses the example of John Skrabanek of Snook, Texas, to illustrate.
“His idea of entertainment was to repair a farm implement in the evening,” Vaught writes. “Yet this family and community patriarch — duty-minded, frugal, and fiercely proud of his ethnic background — found it in his heart to purchase baseball gloves for his three sons as they came of age.”
Baseball, Vaught asserts, “actually complemented, indeed reinforced, the Texas Czech’s sense of hospodářství.” It was stressed that Czech players knew the game’s nuances, were able to cooperate and communicate with one another on the field, take pride in the execution of plays, and “to find strength not only in joy and victory but also in suffering and defeat.”
Brenham had a crack baseball team in 1925, the Wildcats, managed by one-armed player-manager Dick Hooper. Hooper was a 1920s version of St. Louis Browns outfielder Pete Gray, except his missing arm was due to injuries he suffered during World War I. Hooper enlisted a 12-man team of five Germans, two Czechs, and two Anglo-Americans. The squad took attention away from a paralyzing drought and brought the community closer together.
Vaught turns to a more common theme — the town that lives and dies by its team — in an essay about the southwest Minnesota town of Milroy, which “looks right out of a Sinclair Lewis novel.”
“For decades, farmers and townspeople of Milroy, whether on the field or in memories, have expressed themselves through baseball — not with a sense of fatalism but with passion, ingenuity, and a burning desire to beat their rivals one way or another,” he writes.
The town literally closed down in 1947 as the population traveled to attend a Monday afternoon game in Mankato.
The 1954 Milroy Yankees went 33-3 in the regular season, with former minor-league pitcher Reed Lovsness leading the way with an 18-0 record and 227 strikeouts. Milroy won the Class B (small-town) state title, then beat Class A champion Benson 4-3 to reign supreme among 700 teams.
The arrival of the Minnesota Twins in 1961 and access to major-league baseball on radio and television hastened the decline of town ball in the state.
Vaught mines some interesting nuggets in this chapter, particularly the design of rural baseball fields. For example, the town of New Munich had a graveyard in left field. Outfielders apparently were reluctant to chase balls hit in that area, Vaught writes, since they were bouncing off the tombstones of their ancestors.
That’s reminiscent of the homers hit by future major-leaguers Dwight Gooden and Carl Everett when they played Senior Little League baseball in Tampa for Belmont Heights. Those drives would leave the park, fly over 22nd Street and land in Memorial Park Cemetery across the road.
Vaught’s chapters on Hall of Fame pitchers Bob Feller and Gaylord Perry are familiar to baseball fans, but are still good reads. Feller “thrived under his father’s work ethic, whether in the corn field, wheat field, or baseball field.”
Perry threw his first spitter on the night of May 31, 1964, at Shea Stadium, when he pitched 10 shutout innings in relief for the Giants to pick up the win in a marathon 23-inning game that was the nightcap of a doubleheader. Side note: my dad actually attended that Sunday game and had to leave early because he had to work the next day. When he got home, he turned on the radio and noticed the game was still being played.
Perry came from a sharecropper community in eastern North Carolina where farmers “saw baseball not as a sanctuary from their real world but as very much a part of their real world.”
His success in baseball did not translate to farming, as the agricultural crisis of the 1980s eventually forced Perry to declare bankruptcy.
Chapters on the game in rural California and a tantalizing history of baseball in Cooperstown round out an enticing look at baseball away from the city.
While baseball thrives on statistics, this book is an absorbing read not for the numbers (there aren’t many), but for the social and historical issues it brings to the forefront.