LAT Festivals of Book - Plaschke & Deford

The 10AM session I attended had Bill Plaschke and Frank Deford talking about baseball and plugging Deford's new book The Old Ball Game: How John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, and the New York Giants Created Modern Baseball.

Below is my attempt to reconstruct the session from quickly scribbled notes and my memory!

Thus, the first part of the session was Deford giving a quick summary of the book.

He explained that John McGraw was the manager of the NY Giants and Christy Matthewson was the star pitcher. These two men were opposites. McGraw was a profane, hard drinking self-educated man who only got as far as the 7th grade. Yet, he read a lot and knew many things beyond baseball. Matthewson was the "All American Boy." He was tall and college educated at a time when only 6% of the population graduated from high school. Prior to Matthewson, the only "star" sports figure was John L. Sullivan the Irish boxer revered by many.

Despite the differences between McGraw and Matthewson, they were good friends and they and their wives shared an apartment.

At the time they were in baseball, New York city was coming into prominence with only London larger. The city had officially set up the 5 boroughs, the skyscrapers were going up and baseball was becoming the national past-time.

BP: Do you think baseball is still the national past-time?

FD: It isn't so much that baseball has declined but rather other sports like basketball and football have gained popularity. NASCAR might now be the fourth national sport replacing hockey.

BP: Steroid?

FD: In the past, the problem in baseball was gambling. Games were fixed. The 1919 Black Sox story wasn't really such a shock because of the rampant amount of gambling. Baseball survived that scandal and will survive steroids.

BP: Should McGwire get into the hall of fame?

Plaschke didn't thinks so but Deford was less clear about what he would do if he were a HoF voter.

BP: How do you think Matthewson would do today?

FD: 6'2" 210 lbs with a 90ish fastball and good control. He probably would have done fine.

BP: Do you think today's athletes are worse?

FD: NO! Back then, drinking was a huge problem. Bugs Raymond, a relief pitcher once traded the ball he was using to warm up with for a drink and then entered the game drunk!

BP: Sheffield incident?

FD: I'd give him the benefit of the doubt. The situation could have degenerated into a Indiana-Detroit brawl but it didn't because Sheffield was relatively restrained.

Baseball is unique in that the fans can be part of the field of play. FD thought fans have probably changed more than the athletes. Fans are much less civil than in the past when fans dressed well for games and would never use the vulgarities that are common among fans today. Also, today, there are women fans.

BP: Do you think sports writers who are critical of sports figures have contributed to the problem?

FD: TV has definitely changed things. It has made the players and the lives of the players public.

BP: What do you think of the hostility between fans and players?

FD: Indeed it is a problem. In the past, the fans, the players and the sports writers were all together and not so different. In the past during off-season players would have regular jobs. Now, there is a loss of trust and the players make so much more money that they aren't "ordinary" people anymore.

BP: Jackie Robinson and less black players in baseball, what do you think?

FD: Black sports figures are now found in football and basketball. It seems that city kids are drawn to basketball rather than baseball which needs a big field in order to play.

On a side note, weather is a factor in sports. Notice that lots of the good players come from the sunbelt where they can train more months out of the year.

BP: What do you think about asterisks for records?

FD: What can you do? At one time there were no blacks in baseball. At one time there were no steroids. We simply can't re-write history. Interestingly, McGraw wanted to bring up some good black ball players but it just wasn't possible then.

BP: What do you think of pitching inside?

FD: No helmets then. Pitchers pitched inside but they never were head hunters. Matthewson once bet some cadets at West Point that he could hit the same spot for 20 pitches in a row. He did and collected their money!

BP: Designated hitter?

FD: It is hear to stay. Only the NL doesn't use it. Everyone else does. Speaking of how the game has changed. In the past, pitchers took pride in the complete game. Now, it is rare. In football, the QB lives for the two-minute drill. In basketball, the star wants the ball for the last shot. In baseball, the starter rarely finishes the game. Now, that "drama" belongs to the closer.

BP: LA Angels?

FB: Hilarious! Just like Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers.

BP: No names on jerseys?

FD: Red Sox, Yankees, Giants and Dodgers are doing it now. Show the purity of the game as a team sport. There weren't even numbers on jerseys until the 1920s.

BP: Best player ever?

FD: Babe Ruth. It is almost impossible separate the man from the myth. He could pitch and hit. Jackie Robinson was a huge symbol. He was a terrific athlete and baseball might have been his fourth best sport really. Interestingly, he only got into baseball because he got discharged early from the army because he refused to sit in the back of the bus. He got discharged and wound up recruited by the Kansas City Monarchs.

BP: Best sports moment? For me, it once was McGwire's record breaking homer.

FD: As a child, I saw the Orioles win the World Series against the Dodgers. But as an adult, it has to be Borg versus McEnroe in that amazing tie breaker match. They were at the top of their game and evenly matched. Often times, games are close but the two sides might not be at their best.

BP: I only saw the Gibson homer in 1988 because I got out of the elevator in time to see it.

The time was opened to audience questions (AQ).

AQ: Didn't Matthewson gamble?

FD: Indeed, he did. Otherwise, he was pretty much a clean cut guy but gambling was something he enjoyed.

AQ: Baseball mishandled of steroids?

FD: Football and baseketball got on it faster than baseball. The player's union has to take a big share of the blame.

BP: Do you think Rose should be in the Hall of Fame?

FD: Probably.

BP: I agree. His gambling took place after his playing days.

AQ: Players who are good off the field too?

FD: You have to like Ripkin and Koufax.

BP: What do you think about Bond's for Hall of Fame?

FD & BP: Probably. He can just plain hit. The steroids (he probably took them) would help him hit farther but the skill to hit the ball, he always had.

AQ: Salary cap?

FD: It is needed. As a business, sports needs the competition among the teams. Football has got it to work. Hockey needs it and can't seem to get to it.

AQ: What do you think of TV coverage of baseball games?

FD: It is good. Many camera angles. But one thing is that the game is so much longer now. In the old days, the game could be over in 1 1/2 hours. Now, it is typically 3 hours.

AQ: Greatness of Joe Torre?

FD: He is great. Some will say there is just so much talent with the Yankees. But the job is managing the egos of players and in Torre's case also the owner! Red Auerbach is never given enough credit for the championships with the Celtics. He had to work with big egos like Bill Russell and get everyone to work together.

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Science books session
Everyday Italian cooking session
LAT Festival of Books initial blog post