'The Old Ball Game,' by Frank Deford, and 'Forging Genius,' by Steven Goldman
Rookie outwrites veteran Deford in duel of baseball books
Sunday, May 01, 2005

Before home-run-hitting Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, the great idols of baseball's "dead ball" era were New York Giant greats Christy Mathewson and John McGraw.

By Frank Deford
Atlantic Monthly Press ($24)

Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel
By Steven Goldman
Potomac Books ($24.95)

"Matty," one of the first baseball stars to graduate from college, pitched with grace and dignity. In his photographs he already seems to be posing for his plaque in the Hall of Fame. Like Gehrig, he died young, the result of exposure to poison gas during World War I.

(To mark Mathewson's death on Oct. 7, 1925, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Senators wore black armbands during the World Series.)

McGraw, his manager, was the prototype of the scrappy Irish immigrant and is considered one of the game's master strategists. Their differences in age and background made them unusual candidates for such a close and lasting friendship, but ideal subjects for books.

In fact, their story has been chronicled many times, most notably in Ray Robinson's "Matty: An American Hero" and "John McGraw" by Charles C. Alexander.

It isn't clear exactly why Frank Deford or anyone else thought that their story needed to be rehashed or why the Sports Illustrated piece that his book was expanded from needed expansion.

Deford seems to have relied on his reputation in the selling of this book and phoned this one in. The writing is almost flip-page cliche:

McGraw was "a male version of the whore with a heart of gold" and Mathewson was known "to be smart as a whip."

At other times the book seems to have been translated from English to Esperanto and back again: Matty's son, Christopher Jr., "predeceased" his mother.

Hazy in its conception and lazy in its execution, "The Old Ball Game" wilts in comparison to a book from first-time author Steven Goldman.

"Forging Genius" not only breaks new ground on Stengel but also is more incisive than Deford on McGraw, Stengel's mentor.

The former Yankee manager was so thoroughly schooled in strategy and tactics by McGraw that one frustrated reporter, when asked by a colleague if Casey told him who was scheduled to pitch the next day, replied:

"No, he started to, but he got to talking about McGraw and the time he managed in Toledo and the Pacific Coast League and God knows what else. I think tomorrow's pitcher is Christy Mathewson."

"Forging Genius" isn't so much a biography as a study in how three-quarters of a century of baseball wisdom came to be encapsulated in one of the game's classic eccentrics.

"Is this serious? Are they really going to put a clown in to run the Yankee operation?" asked a New York sportswriter when told that Stengel has been chosen to manage the Yankees in 1948. That's how Stengel was regarded by those who had not studied his minor league record carefully or who had paid insufficient attention to how he got the most out of a rag-tag collection of misfits with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

"Because I can make people laugh," he once said, "some of them think I'm a damn fool. But as a player, coach and manager, I have been around baseball for some thirty-five years. ... I've learned a lot and picked up a few ideas of my own."

And along the way, he did more than any other manager to create the modern game. Goldman has looked over a well-traveled road and found in it new directions. His is that rarest of baseball books -- respectful toward tradition and irreverent to perceived wisdom.

The greatest of American sportswriters, Red Smith, once wrote that it was necessary to reintroduce Stengel to readers "at least once a decade." Goldman's book ought to do for at least a century.

First published on May 1, 2005 at 12:00 am
Allen Barra is author of "Brushbacks and Knockdowns: The Greatest Baseball Debates of Two Centuries."