For whatever reason, The Old Ball Game marked my first foray into the writings of Frank Deford--at least past the possible Sports Illustrated article I may have read or his pieces for NPR's Morning Edition.
The Old Ball Game: How John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, and the New York Giants Created Modern Baseball tells an historically vital story about how baseball was revolutionized by the unlikely pair of John McGraw and Christy Mathewson. McGraw was a symbol of the old guard--the coarse, hot-tempered, ever-competitive, occasionally violent manager of the New York Giants beginning in 1902, having left his beloved Baltimore after feuding with the founder of the American League, Ban Johnson. Mathewson was nearly McGraw's polar opposite. Where McGraw had come from an impoverished working class background rife with family tragedy, Christy Mathewson was raised by God-fearing people in the classic American household. He was, quite literally, the archetype for Everybody's All-American, having been the Big Man on Campus at Bucknell and chosen what was then the fairly risky path of the professional athlete. Mathewson was the mild-mannered, even-keeled, devout superstar with matinee idol looks to contrast McGraw's squat, everyday plainness.
While there wouldn't have seemed to be a common ground between the two were one to put them in a room without either having prior knowledge of one another, the two got on famously. It was their work together and their contrasting personas that--in the largest city in the United States--that helped capture the collective imagination of the public and catapulted baseball into the status it long held as America's pasttime.
With Deford's deft wordsmanship and keen eye for colorful source material, their story comes to life, complete with enough tragedy, success, and consequence for ten books. The read is an enjoyable one and can be completed easily within a few short hours, making it a must read for anyone with any interest in the history of Baseball or the turn of the 20th century, as both are covered vividly and deftly within its pages.