Scott H. Longert. The Best They Could Be: How the Cleveland Indians Became the Kings of Baseball, 1916-1920. Dulles VA: Potomac Books, 2013. 280 pp. Cloth, $27.50.
That half decade has recurred, in many different forms, in Cleveland as well as in other cities. The owner of the 1915 Indians must seem familiar to many fans today when he is described as having "too many interests outside of baseball" (3), making him "underfunded and overextended" (4). Many current fans, especially in Cleveland, can identify with having an owner who reduces payroll by releasing--or trading with little return--the team's best players (Nap Lajoie and Joe Jackson, respectively).
On the other hand, the subsequent owner of the Indians will also seem familiar. Jim Dunn went from messenger boy at a bank to successful, self-made contractor and developer, using his accumulated capital to buy the Indians in 1916 and to begin to build a pennant-winning team. In many ways, this book is his story. He will win over fans now as he did in 1916, when he explained, "I made up my mind to buy the Cleveland club . . . because I believed Cleveland was a grand baseball town" (27). He will evoke a fond longing among today's fans when they read of his decision to atone for the sins of his predecessor by adding Tris Speaker, the one player who could make up for losing Joe Jackson. Readers will note that Speaker's joining the team was also significant because, then as now, teams tried to be solid up the middle, with "a corking good catcher, a star at either short or second, and one in center field" (34). Dunn also signed players who would not necessarily have a high batting average or hit for power but who would "harass the pitcher, wear down his strength, and exhaust his patience" (45) by working the count and drawing walks. This, too, will resonate with modern fans (and moneyball acolytes). Dunn will earn renewed respect from a new generation of fans when they read how an owner preferred to forgo higher revenues during a crucial series against the Yankees--then as now a big draw--in order to honor his promise to give sixteen thousand children a free ticket to these games. Reversing a decision by his own front office not to honor those free passes, Dunn said, "When I gave those tickets to the school children there were no strings attached to the gifts" (166). And he will embody, to modern fans, that longed-for but seemingly chimerical owner: a hands-on and benevolent leader who refers to team members as "my boys" (185).
From a hundred years ago to today, fan reactions have continued to demonstrate how an individual owner, by connecting with a team's fans, contributes significantly to the team's success. Longert thus recounts Cleveland's climb to the throne of "the kings of baseball" by describing the team's fans. These were the fans who, inspired by Dunn's buoyancy, snatched up tickets before the 1917 season and made tickets to the home opener scarce--so much so, that five hundred tickets were set aside for Cleveland fans to travel to Detroit to see the Indians open the season. These were the fans who waited in line all night for tickets while one fan, a young girl named Emma, made money bringing them coffee. And these were the fans who maintained a level of enthusiasm in 1920, enough to make Damon Runyon comment favorably and effusively. They included the eleven-year-old boy who sat for hours, perched in a tree, so that he could see the first ever World Series game held in Cleveland. They included the principal of Akron Central High School, who worked language and math lessons into World Series updates. Fans responded to Dunn's commitment to them, and he reciprocated, for example, by making sure that World Series tickets ended up in the hands of true fans. He went to great lengths to prevent scalping during the World Series--even catching Brooklyn pitcher Rube Marquard allegedly trying to scalp tickets.
Some baseball histories chronicle a unique period in order to demonstrate how baseball has changed or to explain why that particular period was aberrant. In contrast, Scott Longert has used unique events in order to remind readers of baseball's timeless and universal aspect. Amid the brief biographies of players and descriptions of games, Longert chronicles a love story between fans and their team's owner, a timeless story that will resonate with today's fans. Some fans and owners currently enjoy a similarly positive and mutually rewarding relationship. Other fans still dream of an owner who will change their fortunes. Longert reminds those readers that their own Jim Dunn may very well come along one day, to make their beloved team The Best They Could Be.
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|Title Annotation:||BOOK REVIEWS|
|Author:||Ressler, William Harris|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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