A Game of Brawl (2007) by Bill Felber tells the story of the 1897 National League pennant race between the Baltimore Orioles and the Boston franchise unofficially nicknamed the Beaneaters. Felber present this as one of the greatest pennant races of all time and it certainly was a doozy. It also was a culture clash as the Orioles – pennant winners for the previous three years – were known for playing a dirty style of baseball while the Boston squad represented more gentlemanly play and civilized behavior in general.
The two teams had many of the colorful players of the era including future Hall of Famers Jimmy Collins, Hugh Duffy, Billy Hamilton, Kid Nichols, and manager Frank Selee for Boston and John McGraw, Hughie Jennings, Joe Kelley, Wee Willie Keeler, Wilbert Robinson, and manager Ned Hanlon for Baltimore. Felber follows both of the teams throughout the season leading up to the three game series in the last week of the season that decides the pennant (I won’t give away who won). Interestingly, there was a post-season series at that time called the Temple Cup which would match up these two teams again, however it was viewed by fans and players as little more than an exhibition even though the team that lost the pennant won the Cup.
In addition to the pennant race, Felber captures the feel of this era of baseball. First there was spring training which in those days really was needed to get the players back into ship. The teams sailed to a Southern town, practiced calisthenics and running, and then barnstormed back North playing amateur teams who offered no real preparation for the Major League Baseball season. During the season, with six teams on the East Coast and six teams to the West, teams played enormously long homestands and made long road trips to visit the ballparks of all the franchises in that region.
Felber also tells the sad plight of umpires of the era who were abused verbally and physically by players and fans. 1897 was a particular bad year with an enormous turnover of umpires even though most games were worked by a single umpire. On some occasions, players or managers ended up umpiring their own games! The abuses of 1897 led to some reforms for the much-maligned umpires, including ending the practice of single umpire games.
An interlude in the book tells the sad story of Louis Sockalexis, the Penobscot Indian who quickly rose to stardom and plummeted just as fast for the Cleveland franchise. His popularity led to a nickname change for the Cleveland team from the Spiders to the Indians. Sadly Sockalexis’ career and life were not as enduring.
The fans play a big part in the game in 1897, with the relationship between players and fans at the ballpark and around the town much more interactive than today. The excitement of the pennant race meant that thousands of fans in both cities were willing to pay admission to see road games reenacted by marionettes. The year also saw the birth of the vociferous, singing fan club The Royal Rooters who traveled en masse to see their beloved Bostons play in Baltimore. Felber cites this as the first recorded incidence of fans traveling to see their team play on the road.
This is an excellent book overall with a couple of weaknesses. First of all, Felber obviously became familiar with the names and positions of several dozen players on the two teams. For the reader however, his narration can get confusing as it’s hard to keep track of what players play where or for what team. Also he’s not very good at building up the natural drama of the games themselves during the season-ending showdown. With those caveats I recommend this book for baseball fans and historians.
[Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, c2007.]