13 November 2013

Reviewing Steve Rushin's The 34-Ton Bat

Available at Amazon
Baseball is America.  Well, Baseball is America from probably about 1880 until maybe the 1980s.  At least, that is a perspective on history one can take as America's game impacted and reflected culture.  Steve Rushin, the 2006 National Sportswriter of the Year and long-time writer for Sports Illustrated, uses this concept as the foundation of his new work, The 34 Ton Bat: the story of baseball as told through bobble heads, cracker jacks, jock straps, eye black and 375 other strange and unforgettable objects.  With that topic, you can see how Rushin took the well tread concept of Baseball is America and turned it into a different sort of exploration of baseball's material culture.  This book is a humorous and hyperbolic collection of essays that provides unconventional perspectives in recounting the history of baseball.

Each chapter is a rough and tumble collection of facts providing a skeletal thesis with just enough flesh to provide context to those facts as well as supporting various ideas of how baseball is American and America is baseball.  It has a fact to written page ratio of 1.32, so the information comes at you in a blur.  For instance, the first chapters weaves a garment, with the quality of burlap (effective, yet much of the story unexplored), about how baseball acts on warfare.  Of the many stories so briefly discussed, several struck me as well worthy of a longer rumination.  A Captain Hamilton Fish in the French Foreign Legion wrote a letter home to his father mentioning how the American boys trump the French ones in the act of throwing a grenade in large part attributed to their experience playing baseball.  It is further mentioned that one of the first questions an American was asked upon joining the Legion was whether he played baseball.  It is implied that such a question would quickly lead a new American recruit on the path to becoming a grenadier.  Finally, the Phillies' Johnny Evers mentions that while on a baseball good will tour of Europe that he met with French and American troops serving in the French Army.  The longest distance a Frenchman could hurl a grenade was about 75 feet by using something akin to how the discus was thrown then while Americans would throw about 250 feet.

That sounds like an amazing research project to me that probably is worth 30-100 pages depending on the amount of information out there.  It seems so little is spoken or written of World War I.  In fact, this past Monday was Armistice Day and it would not surprise me if many of our readers have no clue what that means.  World War I is one of those overlooked wars where the cliches of class conflict and out of touch royalty as well as the failure of diplomacy.  There is so much more than that.  The human experiences of the actual war seem lost to the mainstream and a non-fiction book about the experiences of American ball players in the French Foreign Legion seems like it would be fascinating.  Perhaps this book has already been written and I need to seek it out.

This is what this book does so well.  It makes you ask questions.  It makes you want to know more beyond the paragraph or two of a story you might be treated to.  Interested in eye black?  You will find yourself with the tools to explore more into the subject if you wish.  However, if you are content with the 45 second history of eye black and its effectiveness; well, this book provides that.  When it is all said and done, the 34 Ton Bat is an excellent book in developing your cocktail skills.  It is a frenetic collection of facts, a skeletal presentation of the history of baseball with enough flesh to the bones to provide some context to that history.  Yes, you will have to seek out secondary sources to drill deeper into the stories glossed over here, but without this book you would have never known about these stories that are so incredibly interesting and rich.

Some of the tidbits related to Baltimore:
  • In 1884, the Orioles fenced in their field with barbed wire.  What?
  • In 1953, there was  a major civic movement to prevent the Orioles from selling beer at Memorial Stadium.
  • Orioles' catching great Gus Triandos was one of the pioneers of batting gloves.


Steve Rushin's The 34 Ton Bat can be found at Amazon.

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