Thursday, March 06, 2008
Baseball’s Sordid Past, Shaky Present
The Dark Side of the Diamond
Gambling, Violence, Drugs and Alcoholism in the National Pastime
by Roger I. Abrams
Rounder Books, 2007, $24.95, Hardbound, ISBN -13:978-1-57940-156-6
Review by Zvi A. Sesling
Hall of Fame baseball players who have been held up as icons for America’s youth are, in fact, among the very flawed. Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and other diamond legends whose images are dropping faster than a Dice-K splitter are just the latest in a long line of racists, cheaters, alcoholics and gamblers, not to mention fighters.
Adrian (Cap) Anson, according to author Roger I. Abrams, is single handedly responsible for the segregation baseball endured from the 1880s until 1947 when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Anson had it put in his contract that his teams would not have to take the field against black ballplayers. As a result, before Robinson broke the color line
Moses Fleetwood Walker was the last black to play major league baseball.
Abrams also notes that it wasn’t long after baseball became more or less organized that gambling began, as did game fixing, in which players deliberately threw games in order to make more money. Gamblers were often in the seats yelling out bets and even sending or receiving signals from ballplayers. Abrams lays out a picture that makes Pete Rose seem like a piker compared to late 19th and early 20th century ball players, and there are plenty of Hall of Fame players who placed bets. It wasn’t until Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned the 1919 Black Sox from baseball that a lid was finally put on gambling.
But nothing stopped fighting or alcoholism. Ty Cobb was one of the best known battlers, once going into the stands to pummel a disabled fan, while two of baseball’s greatest heroes, Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle were notorious for their affinity for alcohol.
Abrams, who is a professor of law at Northeastern University and a Major League Baseball salary arbitrator for more than 20 years, lays out baseball’s entire dark underside with the passion of a true fan, the eye of a lawyer and the knowledge of a real insider.
If you think the Clemens affair is something new, read this book. It will educate you about often bizarre attempts to enhance athletic ability, from gross concoctions to testosterone (find out where it came from) to early steroids.
Abrams covers not only gambling and steroids, but drugs and alcoholism, including Pete Browning’s statement that “I can’t hit the ball unless I hit the bottle.” Babe Ruth’s exploits with the bottle are also visited, as is Mickey Mantle’s ultimately fatal encounters with booze.
Amphetamines, recreational drugs, cocaine, heroin and even LSD are all covered – Pittsburgh pitcher Dock Ellis is quoted revealing that he couldn’t remember pitching his no-hitter because he was high on LSD.
Abrams shows how the history of baseball is a microcosm of American society not only with gambling, but regarding drugs, alcoholism and violence.
Abrams was given access to 25,000 documents by the Baseball Hall of Fame. He has made excellent use of them with a sharp eye for facts and a keen sense of selection.
If you are interested in more than the myths circling around baseball, The Dark Side of the Diamond is a must read.
*Zvi Sesling is a member of the "Bagel Bards," and the winner of the International Reuben Rose Poetry Award-- 2007.