Thursday, May 08, 2008

Alpha Slugger Before the Big Time: When Boston Still Had the Babe, the new book on the World Champion 1918 Red Sox Edited by Bill Nowlin

Alpha Slugger Before the Big Time: When Boston Still Had the Babe,
the new book on the World Champion 1918 Red Sox

Edited by Bill Nowlin
Associate Editors: Mark Armour, Len Levin & Allan Wood
Rounder Books Burlington, MA

Review By Michael Todd Steffen

When we picture Babe Ruth it’s usually from one of the old newsreel clips of the great slugger in a New York Yankee uniform holding a bat or trotting around the bases after hitting a homerun. Not all of us remember how differently the destined hall-of-famer appeared at the onset of his career, known primarily as a pitcher in a 4-day rotation and, not as a Yankee, but in a Boston Red Sox uniform. (Fewer go back as far as to know that Babe was a native of Baltimore.)

Great events make great people. In April of 1917 the United States entered the First World War, a national commitment that touched the lives of most Americans and of most American institutions, including Major League baseball.

Editor Bill Nowlin comments that by spring training of the following year, "Assembling a team was far more difficult than usual, given the number of players…either gone to service or likely to be called," in the new book When Boston Still Had the Babe: The 1918 World Champion Red Sox (Rounder Books, 2008). Associate editor Allan Wood notes, "of the eight regulars in Boston’s Opening Day lineup, only two were holdovers from the previous year."

Initially Red Sox manager Ed Barrow tried to compensate for the absence of top athletes by filling in with little-known players who got their brief chance:
Eusobio Gonzalez (seven plate appearances over three games),
Red Bluhm (one at-bat as a pinch hitter), George Cochran (.117
average), and Jack Stansbury (who slugged .149 in 20 games).

Though a pitcher Babe Ruth it was known could outhit the amateurs trying to find their confidence, and in May Ruth went into the daily lineup, to have his first season as the dynamo of baseball that would make him a legend. By that year’s close the statistics and his achievement were staggering. Almost all of the players who pitched and played the field in the early 1900s either had very short careers or their performances were unexceptional.
In contrast, Babe led both leagues in slugging average by a wide margin in 1918…
Ruth’s 2.22 ERA was eighth best in the AL…In the World Series, Ruth beat the Cubs in Games One and Four,setting a new World Series record of 29.2 consecutive scoreless
innings, a streak he began in 1916.

When Boston Still Had the Babe comes out at a good time, 90 years after the 1918 season, the year of Ruth’s rise to superstar status with an invitation he could not refuse (he was traded by Red Sox owner Harry Frazee) to go play for the New York Yankees the following year.

After the 2004 and 2007 World Series championships, Boston fans may have proven themselves at last beyond the famous curse of 1918 marking the Red Sox’ last twentieth century Major League title. If this was a curse from beyond the grave, as some fans believed, it lasted 86 years. To write about the phenomenon before the Sox had a chance to vindicate themselves may have been unthinkable. Today it is palatable and timely. The book is a gem for true Boston fans with an appreciation for the city’s and the team’s history and tradition.

It features not only the story of Babe Ruth’s incipient greatness and the challenges of holding the team together during the war, but includes ample background on each of the 32 players of that year’s team, a Day by Day of the 1918 season, and a detailed account of daily events of the 1918 World Series between the Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs.

There are even 2 ½ pages dedicated to Harvey "Red" Bluhm who only stepped up to the plate once that year as a pinch hitter on July 3rd. His at-bat was lost to official records for 44 years, only to be corrected in the November 17, 1962 issue of Sporting News by sportswriter Lee Allen, who soared to the muses for a complimentary verse:

There once was a player named Bluhm.
To pitchers he symbolized doom.
Record-keepers insist
He belongs on the list.
But just when did he play, and for whom?

Michael Todd Steffen/Ibbetson Update/Somerville, Mass.

contact: Jennifer Sacca at (617) 218-4503, email

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