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Roy Kerr. Big Dan Brouthers: Baseball's First Great Slugger. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2013. 216 pp. Paper, $29.95.

With this biography of Dennis "Big Dan" Brouthers, retired professor of Spanish Roy Kerr has published four of five planned volumes on nineteenth-century Hall of Fame players. His previous efforts include studies of "Sliding" Billy Hamilton, baseball's first great leadoff hitter, stolen-base king, and run scorer; Roger Connor, the game's first career home run champion; and Buck Ewing, the best catcher and overall player of his era. The subject of Kerr's next book is Sam Thompson, the nineteenth century's single-season RBI leader and premier clutch hitter.

In the present volume, Kerr traces Brouthers's life from his youth in Wappingers Falls, New York, to his final days performing menial labor at the Polo Grounds for John McGraw, one of his former teammates. In between, Brouthers starred in the major leagues for sixteen years with nine different teams in three different leagues, engaged in labor activism with John Montgomery Ward's Brotherhood, played semipro and minor-league baseball, owned minor-league teams, and scouted for the New York Giants. Kerr corrects several errors and misconceptions about Brouthers's play that have persisted for over a century. Using photographic evidence, Kerr concludes that Brouthers fielded right-handed, not left-handed. In spite of Big Dan's large physique--one of his more than four dozen nicknames was Jumbo, after the six-ton elephant in P. T. Barnum's circus--he was a competent defensive first baseman and a good, speedy base runner, averaging 25 stolen bases per year and swatting 21 inside-the-park home runs. All Brouthers's nicknames refer to his size or slugging prowess. Kerr explains the meaning and origin of many of these monikers and provides a complete list of them in an appendix.

As the title of the book suggests, Kerr argues that Dan Brouthers was the greatest slugger and the most feared hitter of his era and one of the best of all time. Big Dan hit for average and power, rarely struck out, and was the first batter that opposing pitchers consistently walked intentionally. Brouthers won five batting titles and seven slugging championships, including six in a row from 1881 to 1886. He led his league in on-base percentage five times. Thrice this fearsome batsman topped his loop in batting, slugging, and on-base percentage in the same season, including two years consecutively. At various times during his long career, Brouthers led his circuit in runs scored, hits, doubles, home runs, and RBI. Although his 107 career home runs ranks only fourth among nineteenth-century players, he lost many would-be round trippers to local ground rules. Brouthers also drove the ball harder and farther than any other player in the nineteenth century, hitting the longest home runs ever in many of that era's ballparks. Kerr meticulously describes many of these prodigious blasts in his narrative and again in a separate appendix. He devotes two full pages to one tremendous circuit clout made in 1894 that Kerr concludes was the longest ball ever hit in a game in the nineteenth century.

Kerr has convincingly delineated his thesis. And that is this book's most egregious shortcoming. By recounting Brouthers's basic annual and career batting statistics and providing nearly game-by-game accounts of his slugging feats, along with sacrifices and stolen bases, this book far too often reads more like the back of a baseball card or a newspaper box score than a serious piece of historical scholarship. This book follows the standard McFarland baseball-biography formula: a nonprofessionally trained historian consults the player's files at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Library, some contemporary newspapers, and a handful of secondary works to re-create the player's life and performance on the baseball diamond, without any attempt to place that life in the broader perspective of American history. For example, Kerr writes that Big Dan was one of the first players to join John Montgomery Ward's Brotherhood and that he served as the vice president of this nascent labor union. Brouthers recruited players from his and other teams for the Brotherhood, but Kerr does not identify these players and makes no mention of Brouthers's methods for encouraging them to join. Moreover, Kerr treats the Brotherhood and Brouthers's role in it in a vacuum, failing to recognize that the players' strike against the National League and formation of the Players League transcended baseball and was one of several important episodes in the rise and emergence of the American labor movement during the Gilded Age.

Big Dan was sensitive to criticism of his play, may have had a drinking problem, and was tight with a dollar. Unfortunately, Kerr does not explore these character traits in any detail. As a member of the 1894 champion Baltimore Orioles, the venerable veteran Brouthers mentored the young Irishmen on the team, players like John McGraw, Hughie Jennings, Joe Kelley, and Willie Keeler. But Kerr fails to indicate what wisdom he passed on or how he influenced these brash hotheads. Although Brouthers batted with his accustomed gusto and stole 38 bases, the most in his career, team officials released him the following year because his style of play differed so markedly from that of his teammates. Kerr fails to explain the apparent incongruity of how Brouthers could be a mentor one year and an outcast the next.

Kerr's study of Brouthers is the first book-length biography of this Hall of Fame player. It rescues Big Dan from obscurity; but unfortunately, it tells us little more than his many nicknames, his long home runs, and his hits, runs, and errors.
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Title Annotation:BOOK REVIEWS
Author:Fenster, Kenneth R.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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