Book Review: “1921”

When I ordered “1921” by Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg, my first motives were tied to my curiosity about how the book handled the relationship between New York Giants Manager John McGraw and old-time family friend of my father, Curt Walker. I had always heard that McGraw thought highly of Walker. When I grew old enough, I wondered why McGraw had dealt a talented young guy like Curt Walker away to the Phillies, even if it were for Irish Meusel.

I learned the answer to that one and much more. What a great read this book turned out to be.

“1921” is about a great transitional year in baseball history, one that reflects consciously on those times as a greater symbol of all the change going on in American culture at the same time. It was a battle between the old Giants of John McGraw and the young Yankees of Babe Ruth for the heart of New York; it was a period of struggle for baseball’s credibility with the fans over the harm done by the Chicago Black Sox scandal; and it was a death rattle battle between the old small-ball kings of the dead ball era and the power-game circus that had been awakened by the bat of George Herman “Babe” Ruth.

1921 also was the year following the season that baseball ostensibly introduced a new livelier ball. Some still argue that nothing along those lines actually happened, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the “old apple” was now leaving the yard at a record pace by 1921, and largely off the bat of a former foster kid from St. Mary’s School in Baltimore. Add to the performance changes the fact that, by 1921, baseball and its major league umpires had really clamped down upon trick pitch artists and the use of scuffed baseballs in big league games. In brief, everything was happening on the side of making things better for hitters and worse for pitchers.

The competition between the Giants and Yankees also cranked up higher due to the fact the two clubs used the same Polo Grounds venue for their home field. When the tenant Yankees began to out-draw the landlord Giants, the latter finally gave the former their eviction notice and the race was on for the American Leaguers to build a new home. Using the hope that fed on the new troughs of income that grew from the feats of the Babe, the Yankees acquired some reasonably priced land just across the East River in the Bronx from the Polo Grounds. Then they started working on the place that will always be remembered as “The House That Ruth Built,” the original Yankee Stadium. The new just-across-the-bridge ballpark would be ready for the Yankees’ start of the 1923 season.

It didn’t matter what the Giants did. The Jazz Age light was lit in 1921 and the Prohibition Era Party boys, the power-bound New York Yankees, were leading the way to a new kind of rebellious national fascination with sensory excess and athletic achievement by the talented few. The fact that few of the flapper-era Yankees lived to see a ripe old age is not too surprising to those who study such things in this more health-conscious, actuarial age of the early 21st century. Dr. Oz would have gone nuts as the team physician for the 1921-29 Yankees.

“1921” pays good reference attention to what was going on in America during this great season and the authors do a fine job of giving us a good detail track on how game outcomes, injuries, deals, and personnel changes effected the pennant races. Casey Stengel joined the Giants in a deal with the Pirates, putting him in a position to play against the very club that will years later elevate him to the Hall of Fame as their manager.

I also learned that McGraw acquired the rookie Curt Walker from the same Georgia minor league club that launched Ty Cobb to the majors – and that Curt came with scouting recommendations that placed him ahead of Cobb at the same early stage of development.

Walker came to the Giants late in the 1920 season from Augusta of the Class C Sally League for the purchase price of $7,000. Ty Cobb had been purchased from the same club by the Detroit Tigers in 1905 for $700.

In New York, Walker quickly earned McGraw’s praise as a complete young ballplayer as he did all things well while filling in for the injured future Hall of Fame right fielder, Ross Youngs, who, like Curt Walker, was another native Texas son.

McGraw finally traded Curt Walker and catcher Butch Henline to the Phillies in the early summer of 1921. He sent the boys there, along with $30,000 cash, in exchange for disgruntled Phillies outfield star Irish Meusel. Meusel was at the top of his game in 1921  and he went on to be a key factor in the success of the Giants that season. Curt Walker was a part of the “give something to get something” price that Meusel cost the Giants. That point is clear to me now.

The Giants would go on to defeat the Yankees in the 1921 World Series, but the Yankees would turn it around by taking the 1922 World Series for their first big win of all time. The next year, 1923, the Yankees moved to Yankee Stadium. You don’t need me to tell you what happened from there.

“1921” is a well-researched and well-written book. I give it my full recommendation as an important new work in the chronicles of baseball history.

Tags: , , ,

One Response to “Book Review: “1921””

  1. Fred Heger Says:

    Bill,
    A very good review. I may go out and buy the book.
    Fred Heger

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: