We humans are, in general, a
fairly myopic bunch. We assume that the way things are right now is pretty much
the way they’ve always been.
Just ask a teenager if they’ve
ever heard of an 8-track cassette. Or a reel-to-reel tape player. Heck, there’s
absolutely no way they’d have any idea what a vinyl record was if it weren’t
for hip-hop DJ scratching.
Just two years ago, there
was a raging argument as to exactly who was truly most valuable in the American
League – was it the first Triple Crown winner in 45 years, the Tigers’
Miguel Cabrera, or Anaheim’s rookie sensation Mike Trout, the darling of the
sabermetric crowd. It seems impossible to fathom that a Triple Crown season –
just the 16th time it’s been accomplished in the game’s long history
– might not be the best season in a given year, although it’s far from a
guarantee that the TC = MVP. Just ask Ted Williams or Lou Gehrig or Chuck Klein
or Rogers Hornsby.
But to a more basic level,
it’s still fairly well accepted that a .300 average denotes an accomplished
batting ability, advanced statistical analytics or no. And it’s a visual,
palpable, almost mystical symbol that’s held true since they first started
keeping track of this most statistically oriented of games.
And it’s there – right there
– in the stat column that baseball fans so fiercely hold and defend and
sanctify, that Rick Huhn’s marvelous history on the 1910 batting race is
centered. Because back then, while EVERYBODY knew a great hitter when they saw
one, and EVERYBODY knew that hitting above .350 was an awesome achievement,
what was far, far less readily knowable (the way it’s been for at least two
generations now) were the players’actual batting averages within a given
Consider that today - if
you’re careful and technologically savvy enough - you can track, on a pitch-by-pitch basis, any major league at-bat
in real time, even if you’re sitting in church, or watching your daughter’s
dance recital, or in the middle of a chick-flick with your wife. (Just don’t
But as Huhn so precisely
develops at the beginning of CHALMERS, things were so very different
back then. Seasonal averages, if published at all, might appear in daily
newspapers or The Sporting News once,
at mid-season, and final averages might not be certified until weeks after the
World Series concluded. And the record keeping and official scoring judgments
were haphazard at best and blatantly prejudicial or even fraudulent at worst.
But the results never seemed
quite as important as they became that summer of 1910, due mainly because of
Messrs. Cobb, Lajoie, and Chambers.
The first two are more than
familiar to baseball fans and SB
aficionados. The Georgia Peach needs no introduction, but Huhn nevertheless
masterfully reinforces the widely-held and still prevailing opinion of Cobb as
both the greatest player in the game and the most despised personality among players,
teammates, and spectators. Conversely, Larry Lajoie (whose image holding a
quill for a bat has remained an integral part of the SPITBALL logo and graphic style since the magazine’s inception in
1982) was a universally beloved figure as well as one of the most powerful
hitters in the game.
However, it was the unique
marketing ploy of baseball fan Hugh Chalmers – who offered the thrilling prize
of a brand-new Chalmers touring car for the champion batsman in the major
leagues – that captured the attention of the baseball world. Huhn expertly
describes the country’s growing fascination with the automobile, as well as the
rise of Chambers from cash register salesman to automobile magnate.
So the story weaves together
America’s growing dual obsession with baseball and automobiles, the hero and
the anti-hero standing far above the rest of the pack during an otherwise
lackluster pennant race season in both leagues, and, of course, controversy.
It’s a fairly well-known
tale about how Lajoie went 8-for-9 – including seven bunt hits in a last day
doubleheader between his Cleveland Naps and the woeful St. Louis Browns while
Cobb skipped Detroit’s last two games, to catch Cobb from behind and win the
What actually transpired that
day in the St. Louis dugout, what actually appeared on the official and
unofficial scoresheets from these games as well as games from earlier in the
season, and what actually occurred in American League president and aptly
nicknamed Czar of Baseball Ban Johnson’s office, are all meticulously
researched and described by Huhn. It’s a fascinating tale of politics,
perception, personality, and publicity, and the author, with the panache and
organizational detail of a former trial attorney, mixes just the right amount
of fact and conjecture in the retelling of events.
And the aftermath is also
examined in detail, including the previously untold story of St. Louis manager
Jack O’Connor’s lawsuit against Browns’ ownership, as well as the controversy
revisited some 70 years later, when SABR pioneer Pete Palmer discovered
discrepancies in Cobb’s batting records from this and other seasons just as Pete Rose was approaching the
all-time hit record.
The very best history
includes a compelling story replete with seminal characters, provides thorough
research (including extensive footnotes and bibliography) and combines a
masterful understanding of the era with a vivid style. When a century-old
subject continues to inspire debate and controversy, there’s no doubt that the
reading public anxiously awaits the definitive treatment from just the right
author. Rick Huhn is that author, and The Chalmers Race is that subject.