One of our more melodious sportswriters details the importance of Mathewson and McGraw in raising baseball to the status of a national pastime.
As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, baseball was undergoing a facelift, writes Deford (An American Summer, 2002, etc.). While brawling and whoring were once as common to the sport as hits and outs, civility and upstandingness now became critical, as did class and style: “Proficiency mattered so to a nation on the make.” Frank Merriwell met his real-life counterpart in Mathewson: golden, tall, handsome, kind, educated, the beau ideal and a pitcher whose statistics didn’t just speak but bellowed his dominance. At his side on the New York Giants was McGraw: pugnacious, hardscrabble, shanty Irish, tough, field-smart, and as rude as any ballplayer ever was, but a winner who was adored despite his old-school ways. Together, the two would bring the spotlight to both a sport and a city. As much as Mathewson was in command as a slabman, Deford is in command of this story, as much a piece of social as of sporting history. Characters are made real, but so too is New York City and the way sport came to reflect the muscular Christianity championed by the prep school and college establishment. That, too, would pass, but not before baseball had captured the public imagination. Deford writes with a cunning sparkle in his eye; he loves happy little ironies like fans having once been referred to as “cranks,” while he himself is indeed a droll fan, or crank. He’s ready to tip his hat to the Giants for the passions they stirred, the controversy of their manager, and the deserved popularity of their pitching ace.
Mathewson and McGraw may be the star attractions, but it’s Deford’s reach of baseball knowledge, its color and historical circumstance—all the minutiae that pile up into a grand and recognizable edifice—that sets this one apart.