Baseball Books Reviewed: The Chalmers Race

The Chalmers Race: Ty Cobb, Napoleon Lajoie and the Controversial 1910 Batting Title that Become a National Obsession, by Rick Huhn. University of Nebraska Press, 2014. HB, 283pp, $29.95.

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 season.

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 get caught.)

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 car.

Or not.

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.