Review — A Great Day in Cooperstown

A Great Day in Cooperstown: The Improbable Birth of Baseball’s Hall of Fame, by Jim Reisler (Caroll & Graf, 2006)

Greatday Conspiracy theories aside, there were those who would have loved to attribute the creation of baseball to Abner Doubleday in the bucolic town of Cooperstown, NY. Committees were created to establish the "true origins" of the national pastime, but facts seemed to be tossed aside in deference to romantic notions, especially when trying to create the Baseball Hall of Fame, located in that burg.

Ostensibly, Jim Reisler’s latest book is about the day the baseball legends came to town: Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Connie Mack, Walter Johnson, and company, all assembling as the first "class" of the new Hall.

In fact, the information about that particular event could have been condensed into a journal article. In trying to stretch it into a lengthier piece, Reisler runs out of steam and has to find ways to flesh out the book. In between chapters describing each of the players inducted on that sunny day in 1939, he tosses in the subterfuges involved in deciding who gets credit for "inventing" baseball, as well as the behind-the-scenes ministrations to create the physical space for the Hall of Fame and Museum itself.

In trying to do it all, he does justice to none of the individual components.

What’s particularly disturbing is the lack of attention to detail. One example: the author quotes Christy Mathewson heaping praise on Mr. Mack and Honus Wagner at the opening event. The problem: Mathewson died in 1925. In another example, he credits Walter Johnson with an "unreal 212 shutouts," as if Johnson’s actual number of 110 isn’t enough.

Who is to blame for such mistakes? The author? The editor? Even if these are the only factual errors, it renders questionable other information which might go unnoticed by the casual fan. To say nothing of other portions of the book. "Alexander had sought a job as a big-league pitching coach, but no team had taken a chance, with the $250,000 that he was thought to have earned in baseball long since gone." Is the author trying to say that Alexander was not considered for employment because he wasted his career earnings? That Reisler has written for such prominent publications as Sports Illustrated, Newsweek, and The New York Times makes such statements all the more disappointing.

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