Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Novel notes: “The Celebrant"

The history of baseball can be divided into dozens of different eras (which is why it’s tough to compare athletes who played decades apart), but really there are two major periods: BR (Before Ruth) and AR (After Ruth). Officially, these are known as the “Dead Ball Era” and the “Live Ball Era.”

Babe Ruth ushered in a new era of sluggers and power pitchers. But before his time, baseball was dominated by punch-and-judy hitters and finesse pitchers. Ty Cobb, considered the best player of the Dead Ball Era, racked up 4,189 hits, but only 117 of them were home runs (and most of those were probably by accident).

“The Celebrant” is a novel chronicling the Dead Ball Era, which most baseball fans don’t know much about. At the center of the novel, and at the center of the Era, was Christy Mathewson, the great New York Giants hurler.

Pretty interesting time, the Dead Ball Era. Back then, pitchers like Mathewson often threw every other day or every third day, and they almost always pitched complete games (sometimes a starting pitcher would throw both ends of a double-header). Today, of course, starting pitchers are part of a five-man rotation, and most are limited to around 100 pitches per outing. On rare occasions, in the playoffs ace pitchers are thrown on only three days’ rest instead of four; those pitchers are considered iron men.

The atmosphere surrounding the game was also quite a bit different. In the early 1900s, the American League was a fledgling enterprise. National League owners and managers, particularly John McGraw, didn’t recognize the other league as a valid entity. In fact, McGraw and the 1904 Giants boycotted the World Series, because they didn’t think the Boston Americans (now known as the Red Sox) presented much of a challenge.

I’ll talk more about Christy Mathewson and some other issues when I review this fascinating book (I’m about a third of the way through now).

--Matt Kelsey

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