Friday, April 15, 2011

The Original Curse by Sean Deveney

When I mentioned to a friend of mine, a person with strong Chicago ties, that I was reading this book, he asked an interesting question: Why write this book now? Why read it?

Obviously, no book really needs justification, and no reader needs to explain their reason for reading it, though I suppose I do that every time I get in front of my computer and start a review. However, I think he had an excellent point.

We all know about the Black Sox scandal. Most baseball fans even know that gambling was a bigger deal than just one World Series. A few might go further and name crooked players, starting with the 1919 White Sox team and going all the way to Pete Rose. It's not a proud time for the sport, but in a game with a history going back before the Civil War, there's going to be some blemishes that look terrible at the time but fade in impact as the game moves on.

For me, the thing that makes this book a recommended read for any sports fan is not just the great details about playing baseball in the early twentieth century, when 11 home runs was an amazing feat and a pitcher could throw all eighteen innings of a double header. No, it's the fact that no matter who the men running the leagues are at the time, baseball always has had a problem dealing with trouble.

See if this sounds familiar: In a changing United States economy, the sport of baseball grows more popular than ever, with fans packing the seats of both major and minor league stadiums. Some of these fans don't care much about how they are entertained, and players start to do things they shouldn't in the name of higher monetary gain. Baseball is informed of this problem, but opts to do nothing, shuffling problem players quietly out of the game and doing all they can to quietly discredit (or ignore) those who sound a warning cry.

Only when things are so bad that the court system is involved does baseball make a move, picking certain players to cast to the winds and declaring the game clean, trying to keep the problem as quiet as possible and keep fans in the seats. It's only a few isolated incidents, after all, no need to police the game better or admit there is a wide-ranging problem.

Steroids Era?

Nope, try the early 1920s, when baseball's problem was gambling. Players felt they needed to make more money, and therefore, some (perhaps a lot) turned to bookies, offering to subtly alter the course of a game in exchange for a piece of the action. In The Original Curse, Sean Deveney argues that the year before the Black Sox scandal, angry and disillusioned Cubs players tossed the series to the less-talented Red Sox, giving the 1919 cross-town rivals the idea to do the same thing.

Using sensational ideas, such as that controversial premise and planting Babe Ruth's name on the cover, Deveney hopes to draw the reader into a story that has the real purpose of serving as an allegory for the steroids problem, the drug trials of the 1980s, and baseball's rather weak acknowledgement of its decades-long racism that continued long after Jackie Robinson. It's a cheap tactic, but it worked, because I probably would never have picked this book up if it didn't have Babe Ruth's name at the head of the cover.

What does not work very well, is Deveney's claim that the 1918 shenanigans, promulgated in the shadow of World War I (and this making them even more shameful, as players draft dodged in order to keep making hundreds of times more money than the men--including relatives of mine--who fought and got gassed in the trenches), created the 1919 scandal. His evidence is extremely shaky, and while I think there's a good case that the 1918 series was rigged by the Cubs (thus meaning the aspersion cast on Ruth by the cover is borderline libelous), I do not see how this incident influenced the 1919 White Sox any more than all the other cheating that was going on at a brisk clip.

Ironically, it's the fact that Deveney makes a compelling case that *lots* of games were fixed that undermines what he's trying to prove. It makes me wish he'd changed his focus a bit, but then we'd lose the sexy and marketable title. In this era of competition for shelf space and attention, having a daring cover was more important than matching it to the facts inside, I guess.

Normally when an author misses their primary point, I'd tell you to steer clear of the book. This is an exception, however. The story itself is a strong condemnation of just about everyone involved, from the United States Government, which dithered over baseball's role and caused player uncertainty, to the players who cheated and tried to get out of serving to the owners, who apparently have to sign a "greed" clause when taking over a team. It's the only explanation for the stupidity that dates back at least to World War I and still continues to this say. Think Bud Selig is bad? Despite being a former owner of the Brewers, at least he's never been drunk during a labor negotiation!

While the majority of the book shows that there never was a "good old days" for America's Former Pastime, we can feel for a few players. Grover Cleveland Alexander did the honorable thing and went to war, effectively killing himself in the process. Other players had families and back in 1918, the US didn't care and would still make you serve. Their anxiety makes cheating almost--repeat, *almost*--justifiable.

Filled with little vignettes about important players in this drama, tales of two teams that made the World Series more by attrition than anything else, and some details that are only now coming to light, The Original Curse has a lot going for it, despite the not-very-appropriate title. It won't make Barry Bonds and company any less of a jerk, but at least you'll know they're in good company in the baseball Hall of Shame. At least these 1918 villains are about as far away from Cooperstown as Hawaii. Hopefully, they'll all stay there in the land of infamy where they belong and not move into a different Hall. That would be the biggest shame of all, one that not even years of good baseball could erase.

If you want a good read that proves the more things change, the more they stay the same, this book is for you. I enjoyed it a lot, but be warned: Reading it might make you like professional sports even less than you do now. Sometimes learning the truth does ruin the fun. It's what keeps baseball covering up for its players and owners, both in the history books and in the public eye. That's an original curse I don't think the game will ever shake.

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