In 1911, the Giants returned to the World Series after a six-year hiatus, stealing a major-league record 347 bases — a mark that still stands. Eight players had stolen base totals in double digits, and Giants pitchers combined to swipe six bases. Outfielder Josh Devore led the team with 61 thefts, and Fred Snodgrass had 51. Pitching ace Christy Mathewson would win 26 games and lead the league in ERA at 1.99, and Rube Marquard would add 24 wins. The Giants went 99-54 to win the N.L. pennant by 7½ games, but would lose in the World Series in six games to the Philadelphia Athletics.
McGraw would have appreciated the meticulous and thorough approach taken by Maury Klein in Stealing Games: How John McGraw Transformed Baseball With the 1911 New York Giants (Bloomsbury; hardback; $34; 368 pages). This book gives the reader a well-rounded view of baseball — and the United States — from the 1890s until the 1910s.
On the website ratemyprofessors.com (a purely subjective site, to be sure), Klein received mixed reviews. Negative comments referenced that he was a tough grader. Yeah? So? As another poster noted, “do the work.” Still another former student characterized Klein as a “superb, thoughtful, talented teacher who knows history well and communicates it with humor and intelligence.” I’ll go with that characterization, because in Stealing Games, Klein has done his research; indeed, there are plenty of citations throughout the book.
There’s nothing wrong with a teacher holding students to a high standard. In Stealing Games, Klein sets the bar high. Klein’s writing career has mostly been tied to economic subjects, and he is Professor Emeritus at the University of Rhode Island, a college where he taught from 1964 until 2008. Klein’s books have mostly been about economics and American history. They include A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II (2013) The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America (2010); and Rainbow’s End: The Crash of 1929 (2003). Three other books were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize: The Life and Legend of Jay Gould in 1986; The Flowering of the Third America in 1993, and The Life and Legend of E.H. Harriman in 2000.
The second half of the book is a month-by-month breakdown of the 1911 season. In some cases a blow-by-blow account of a baseball season — like a season itself — can be a grind. But Klein avoids that, sprinkling the chapters with anecdotes about stars (Mathewson), up-and-comers (Rube Marquard), untapped potential (Bugs Raymond) and the eccentric (Charles “Victory” Faust). He also writes some nice time pieces, like the devastating Coney Island fire of May 27, 1911.
The subtitle of the book is sort of misleading. Without a doubt, McGraw transformed baseball. But it didn’t just happen in 1911. This was a process that began in 1904 with two great pennant winners. McGraw had to rebuild his team when it failed to win in 1906 and ’07, and by 1908 the Giants were ready to challenge again for a pennant. They missed by the narrowest of margins. McGraw continued to build and mold a championship team, and 1911 was the culmination of that hard work. It was the beginning of a three-year run of pennant winners for New York, and although the Giants lost in the World Series each year, they were certainly the class of the National League.
Stealing Games is a well-researched, pleasant read that fans of baseball history will enjoy. Klein neatly ties in the cultural changes that were emerging in the days prior to World War I, and gives some good representative accounts of baseball games without going into excessive detail. It’s a fun read.