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Book review: Larceny and Old Leather

Larceny and Old Leather by Eldon Ham.
Academy Chicago, pp.260, hardback, $25.00

I have a somewhat different take on baseball's history, because I didn't grow up with the game. In Britain, I played cricket, which is kinda like baseball. Except with only two bases, two hitters up simultaneously, ten outs per innings, only one or two innings, a flat bat, no foul territory or strikeouts, a ground rule double scores four runs, a home-run six, and hitting the batter is a fairly legitimate tactic. Okay, not very like baseball at all.

But the point is, I don't have the romantic idealism often associated with the game. I never experienced any supposed golden era, because for me, baseball largely didn't exist before 1999 and the Diamondbacks. I have known no time other than multi-million dollar contracts, suspiciously high home-run totals and ballparks named after dubious corporations.

Hence this book perhaps comes less as a shock to me than it might for many. It demonstrates that questionable tactics have been used throughout the history of the game - perhaps more so than now, when at least the illusion of scrupulous fairness must been seen to be observed. But as the first sentence puts it: "Every baseball player from the little leagues to the big leagues know it is illegal to steal signs, yet every Major League team assigns someone to do just that."

Ham's attitude to that kind of thing is summed up in the subtitle, "The Mischievous Legacy of Major League Baseball," and I'm not certain it's one I share. In fifty years, will we look back at the likes of Barry Bonds [legal disclaimer: it's not yet proven he took anything. Technically.] and shake our heads in amusement at his "mischievous" use of steroids? However, Ham draws a line between "good cheating" and "bad cheating," though it's never clear why using a corked bat is "good cheating", while steroids are bad.

Speaking of which, Ham almost entirely ignores the drugs issue, save a couple of passing asides - that's strange, since while this book is mostly a historical perspective [there's little coverage of anything after the birth of free agency], amphetamines have been used for around forty years.

And this is no rose-tinted retrospective; indeed, the chapters on racial or religious bigotry pull few punches; they make for grim, if fascinating reading. But the word "mischievous" does seem particularly inappropriate for the likes of Cap Anson, who once proclaimed, "If you want me to play, you'll have to get that nigger off the field." "Malicious" would seem closer to the truth.

Nor is the book limited to in-game behaviour; the intrigues of the owners and baseball authorities also covered, in particular their struggles to stop players from plying their trade freely. There's also a lengthy section on gambling in baseball, a plea for Pete Rose to be allowed into the Hall of Fame, and chapters on great curses and radio's impact on baseball.

Some of these do stray away from the basic theme of the book, and at times, such as Ham's hagiography regarding the Yankees' lineups of the 1920's, has little or nothing to do with cheating as far as I can tell. This is boilerplate history and, frankly, gets tedious. However, I think even the most ardent baseball fan will learn new nuggets from this book. Here's a selection of stuff I didn't know before reading it, which I do know:

  • How the phrase, "out of left field", originated.
  • The game where a player was ejected by the home town mayor.
  • Colonel Sanders' role in cursing the Hanshin Tigers
  • The judge who described baseball as, "one of the evils of the day."
  • Where M.C. Hammer got his name.
  • Jackie Robinson's Olympic-medal winning brother.
  • Robinson himself, not the first black baseball player.
  • The Gould paradox and its impact on the game.

As a result of these, and others, I put this book down a more-informed person that I was when I picked it up, and that's always a good thing. Ham's love for the game shines through, particularly in a last chapter that argues, convincingly, that baseball has shown remarkable resilience in the face of previous crises and concludes, "After decades of grit, legends and mischief, Mudville lives on." Here's to that.