Baseball at the Abyss:
The Scandals of 1926, Babe Ruth, and the Unlikely Savior Who Rescued a Tarnished Game
rowman & littlefield, 220 pages, $36
The 2023 season of Major League Baseball will begin on March 30, less than a week away. And as I write, baseball lovers around the world (including this lifelong fan) are still basking in the afterglow of the 2023 World Baseball Classic, which culminated with Japan’s victory over the U.S. in a superb championship game Tuesday night. This hardly seems an opportune moment, then, to tell you about a new book called Baseball at the Abyss: The Scandals of 1926, Babe Ruth, and the Unlikely Savior Who Rescued a Tarnished Game.
But in fact, I can’t think of a better choice for baseball reading just now. Dan Taylor (not the Daniel W. Taylor whose books I’ve written about here on a number of occasions) tells a story that is admonitory and inspiring in equal measure. Whether you’ve already read a couple of biographies of Babe Ruth plus a book or three on his record-setting season in 1927 and the Yankees of that era more generally, or you are coming to the subject with just a smidgen of background (you know who Babe Ruth was, at least), you will be entertained by Taylor’s narrative, surprised by some of its revelations, and left with some questions to ponder about the future of baseball just now.
One caveat. While Taylor, whose background is in TV sportscasting, is the author of six books, he is just passable as a prose stylist. But he is an indefatigable researcher with a keen sense for the evocative detail, and he tells a story that grabbed and held this reader’s unflagging interest.
Taylor sets the scene with an opening vignette from Game 4 of the 1927 World Series, in which Ruth led the Yankees to victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. He interweaves that narrative with reflection on how radically the fortunes of MLB had changed in just a year. That will come as news to many readers, even among longtime fans. Pretty much everyone who follows baseball even casually knows about the “Black Sox” scandal of 1919, when several members of the Chicago White Sox conspired (in cahoots with a gambling syndicate) to throw the outcome of the World Series, in which they were playing against the Cincinnati Reds. Although they were acquitted in a 1921 trial (a trial itself marked by chicanery), Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who had been appointed as the first commissioner of MLB as a result of the scandal, ruled that the players involved would be banned from organized baseball for life.
Again, that’s old news to most baseball fans. Not nearly so well known is the scandal that followed the 1926 season, when two of baseball’s greatest players, Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb, both nearing the end of their long careers, were implicated in fixing games. These weren't World Series games, but Speaker and Cobb were nonetheless tainting the sport just a short time after the Black Sox disaster. MLB papered over this affair, but there was a stench in the air when the 1927 season began.
The rest of Taylor’s book is focused on that legendary year, weaving together three narrative strands. One strand follows the Yankees, and Ruth especially, on the field, with context from the 1927 season more generally; one is concerned with Ruth off the field (Ruth in Hollywood is great fun); and the third emphasizes how Ruth and the fortunes of professional baseball across the board were transformed by Christy Walsh, “whose newspaper syndication service helped to enhance Babe Ruth’s reputation as the most popular man in America.” Indeed, Taylor shows that it is hard to overstate how Walsh affected Ruth—not least, by persuading him to get in better physical condition and stay that way.
There’s a wonderful section touching on Ruth’s many years at St. Mary’s, a Catholic orphanage (though he wasn’t an “orphan”) where he first played organized baseball. Throughout his life, he made donations to various Catholic causes and institutions. This is one of many aspects of the book that gave me a sense of visiting another world, roughly a century ago, in some respects similar to ours but in other ways radically different: time-travel on the cheap.
If, like me, you watch MLB-related programs on TV or on your laptop or (heaven forbid) on your phone, you will have noticed in the last couple of years the torrent of invitations to bet on this, that, or another aspect of the day’s slate of games: not just the final outcome of a particular game (so mundane!) but all sorts of arcane combinations of circumstances. Aggh. Reading Taylor’s book, with its cautionary tales, it was impossible not to brood about the gambling plague. Even so, I finished Baseball at the Abyss with a sense of gratitude. If you check it out yourself, let me know what you think.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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Image by Wikimedia Commons on GetArchive and Jim, the Photographer licensed via Creative Commons and Creative Commons. Images combined and cropped.