Book Review: "Chicago Cubs Yesterday & Today"
Any new addition to the collection of Chicago Cubs anthologies, encyclopedias and coffee table books is faced with the elemental problem of distinguishing itself from the dozens of other works competing for your beer money. In the case of Steve Johnson's Chicago Cubs Yesterday and Today, published by Voyageur Press, the pitch is twofold. First, instead of a chronological ordering that begins in the past and proceeds linearly towards the present, Johnson organized Yesterday and Today topically, juxtaposing pictures from different eras in Cubs history for side-by-side comparison. Hence the title. Second, Johnson presents an extensive and diverse selection of historical photos, many in color, from the archives of the Chicago Historical Society, the Hall of Fame, and private collections. While the execution of the whole "then and now concept" was about as consistent as a young Kerry Wood - full of promise, if alternatively brilliant and off target - the photo selection is more Greg Maddux - consistently great.
Topically, Johnson covers most every imaginable facet of Chicago Cubs history from the present back to the inaugural Chicago White Stockings team from 1870. Owners, G.M.s, Managers, each position, all of the distinctive elements of Wrigley Field, as well as earlier ballparks all get their own section. Then there are the more idiosyncratic sections, like "The Curse of the Billy Goat" or "Hard-Luck Players," Bad Boys" and "Game Day Snacks." Really, the only imaginable topic that could have been included but was lacking would be on the ballpark employees. Such pictures can be found throughout the book in different sections, most prominently the vendors in the Game Day Snacks section. But a fully fleshed out section specifically on ushers and grounds crews and vendors and whatnot could have made for a fun "yesterday and today" comparison. Kasper, Len gets an index entry when Kawano, Yosh, and Massman, Heinie, do not.
The topical organization tends to work against the creation of a continuous historical narravtive, and there are pretty big disparities in the execution of the different sections. The first few sections read very much like a conventional history of Chicago baseball, focusing pretty exclusively on the "Yesterday" part of the title. That conventional history comes to a quick halt, however, with the first of the truly distinctive topical sections, "The Curse of the Billy Goat." We get an overview of the relevant history - Billy Sianis and his goat, the 1945 World Series curse, the 1969 and 1984 collapses, the more recent attempts to reverse the curse, and Bartman. The accompanying pictures feature two of the Sianis family's got from 2003, neither particularly relevant or memorable, and a picture of Ryan Dempster turning a grounds crew hose on a Cardinals fan holding a pro-curse sign in the bleachers before the start of a 2006 game. Are there really no photos available from 1945? Or of the black cat from 1969? What purpose does the Dempster picture serve?
There are similar limitations to the concept's execution in several other sections. In the "Hard-Luck Players" section, does the paragraph and photo on Mark Prior, or the blurb on Jerome Walton as he "fell into the ranks of "also-rans" really belong in the company of Charlie Hollocher (career cut short due to depression, suicide at 44), Edde Waitkus (shot in the chest by a deranged fan, nearly dying from the wounds) or Ken Hubbs (died from crashing his airplane)? They had too much of the taste of forced "Today" add-ons for a section that would have been better served in limiting its focus to "Yesterday." Likewise, the insertion of a "Hit Men" section focusing on single-season and all-time base hits leaders between an otherwise continuous series of sections on the different defensive positions seemed arbitrary, and the corresponding Juan Pierre photograph and discussion another rough "Today" add-on.
The topical coverage of the positions mostly is solid, if again a bit beholden to the "Yesterday and Today" concept. It works best for a position like second base, where Johnson runs through Ross Barnes' .429 average in 1876 to blurbs on Johnny Evers, Rogers Hornsby, Billy Herman, Ken Hubbs, Glenn Beckert, and finishes with Ryne Sandberg, each with an accompanying photograph. Johnson appropriately concludes with "Nobody has been able to fill Sandberg's shoes since he retired, at second base or anywhere else on the field." Compare that to his entry on relievers, which includes important fore-runners to the modern reliever like Don Elston and Lindy McDaniel, aces like Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith, Randy Myers and Rod Beck, but also includes from the 2007 Cubs not just Ryan Dempster, but also Michael Wuertz and Will Ohman. Did Ohman really need three sentences? Things like that will quickly date the book. Or quickly justify a second edition, I suppose.
My favorite sections come near the end of Yesterday and Today. The "Bad Boys" piece tells us about the booze problems of King Kelly, Pete Alexander and Hack Wilson. Hornsby's gambling is mentioned, as is Gabby Hartnett's chat with Al and Sonny Capone at a 1931 charity game. The pictures of Hack Wilson's Home Run Club and Harnett grinning as he chats with Capone are real treats. While we also get blurbs and pictures on the Derrek Lee-Chris Young and Dodgers-Right Field Grandstand fights, the only photograph of Carlos Zambrano-Michael Barrett is a generic pitching-mound conversation. At least the next section, "Windy City Rivalry," compensates with a beautiful photograph of Barrett clocking A.J. Pierzynski.
The "Yesterday and Today" format is most useful for illustrating changes in the physical tool of the game, like uniforms, catchers' equipment and ballpark design. While there's a separate section for "Uniforms and Equipment" that includes nice pictures of catchers' gear, the best illustrations of these changes come in the sections on the different defensive positions. "Second Basemen," for instance, does the best job of illustrating the progression of uniforms from huge cotton dress pajamas to the nasty artificial stuff of the 1970s to Sandberg's jerseys from the 1990s. Johnny Evers looks like he can barely hold onto a bat as large as he is, in 1910, whereas Sandberg's bat looks like a toothpick in comparison. Similarly, the entries on "Early Ballparks," "Wrigley Field," "The Outfield Wall," "The Scoreboard," "The Playing Field," "Dugouts and Clubhouses," "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and "Spring Training" are all terrific successes in illustrating the historical progression of modern baseball, even if some of the sections (especially Out to the Ballgame) seem a bit redundant.
The second calling card of Yesterday and Today is its archival photographs, which are uniformly excellent. Again, the most visually impressive and historically interesting photographs are of Wrigley Field and its predecessors. I am not sure that I have ever seen photographs of the old West Side Grounds, home of the Colts/Cubs from 1894 to 1915. I have a long-standing interest in the place of mob violence or the threat of mob violence in the early history of the game, and these pictures really bring out the close proximity between players and thousands of fans that at once made the early player-fan relationship intimate yet potentially menacing. A photograph on page 126 shows an overflow crowd from 1912, with maybe twenty rows of people sitting in foul territory and throughout the outfield - including in front of the dugout and maybe just five or ten paces behind the left fielder. Another shows a Pinkerton walking the line of rope separating the on-field spectators from the players in a 1907 contest. Even with the move to Wrigley, a photo from the 1930s shows fans leaving after a game by walking across the playing field. Although Johnson does not bring it up in the text, these pictures really illustrate how the sort of mob mayhem made most famous from Merkle's boner, but also found in countless other incidents, could routinely occur. They also reveal a historical point on which I had been ignorant: that the tradition of viewing ballgames from makeshift risers and rooftops across the street, and the effort to end those wildcat bleachers, goes back one hundred years to the West Side Grounds. Very neat.
The pictures of Wrigley Field, then and now, are equally revealing. There is a great black and white photo of the groundskeepers planting the ivy in 1937, with fantastic color pictures of Sammy Sosa leaping into the luscious green ivy, and Lance Berkman and Hunter Pence raising their hands by it, on the next two pages. There is a similar progression shown for the scoreboard. My favorite, however, has to be page 135, which features an army of popcorn vendors in an undated photograph, a toothsome woman identified as "Cigarette girl," also undated, and one of "Beer vendor," a jowly, pasty guy from 2002. Promotional photographs and illustrations from the White Stockings teams, official programs from the 1960s, turn of the twentieth century buttons and postcards, and a close-up picture that explains just why he was called "Three Finger" Brown are just some of the other unique treats Johnson presents. Voyageur was kind enough to provide me with a .pdf of some of these particular pages, which you can check out here. (The .pdf really doesn't do justice to the Sosa picture.)
Ultimately, Chicago Cubs Yesterday and Today does fill a couple of important holes in our Cubs library. It works as a coffee table book (if only I had a coffee table... perhaps it can be the focus of our next fund-raiser, Rob?) and as a general encyclopedia of Cubs history. While the "Yesterday and Today" concept stumbles here and there, the successes are impressive and illuminating enough to make the concept pay off. And the photographs are pretty darn cool. I'd recommend it form the new Cubs fan in the family, the fan who is just starting to become interested in Cubs history, the fan of the material culture of Cubs history, and the fan with a coffee table. Even though I personally only fit one of those four categories, I still give Chicago Cubs Yesterday and Today a solid rating of 37 Steve Trachsels for readability, 13 Shawon Dunstons for photography, 18 Chuck Raineys for historical content, and 9 Jose Cardenals for novelty.
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