Baseball Epic

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

BASEBALL EPIC is a gem of a little book about the "famous and forgotten lives of the dead ball era." Writer/cartoonist Jason Novak has picked out some of the key players of that era (1900 to 1920) and memorialized them with his drawings and bios. Though his scale is small, he manages to pack a considerable amount of baseball history into his pictorial survey.

Here he is on Bill Bernhard, who managed minor league teams in "an era when even the majors paid poorly." When asked how much a player should make, Bernhard replied, "Anything he can get."
Novak deftly brings to life the colorful and scrappy side of playing major league baseball in those early days when spitballs were legal and players loved to play tricks on the owners. A case in point being Germany Schaefer, who sometimes would "take the field wearing rain gear in an attempt to have the game declared a rainout."

But Novak doesn't gloss over the racism and nastiness that were also part and parcel of the national pastime. Chief Bender, whose mother was Chippewa, had to "endure relentless taunts, insults and war whoops from the bleachers." The Chief, though, got his revenge when he pitched a winning game and would circle the stadium yelling, "Foreigners! Foreigners!"

Some of the many Black players banned from playing in the segregated major leagues turn up in BASEBALL EPIC, notably Jimmy Claxton, who broke the color bar by passing himself off as an American Indian. His career came to a quick end when "a spectator in the bleachers recognized him as a black player" and he was booted.

Touching portraits of Jim Thorpe, Eddie Cicotte (banned from baseball because of his role in the 1919 Black Sox scandal), and Lizzie Murphy (the first woman to play on a men's team in exhibition games against teams from both the major and Negro leagues) also stand out. The book concludes with a little-known mini-biography of Ty Cobb, whose father disapproved of his decision to become a ballplayer.

"Don't come back a failure," he told his son. Shortly thereafter, "Cobb's mother shot his father dead. Heartbroken, Cobb channeled his fury to become one of the greatest, but most embattled, players in history."

(Coffee House Press,