The Echoing Green by Joshua Prager is a thinking man’s book about baseball – and I’m not just saying that because I read it. The book takes its name from a 1789 poem by William Blake. Each chapter begins with a relevant quote by the likes of Eugene O’Neill, W.H. Auden, Langston Hughes, James Joyce, Shakespeare, Charles Bukowski, etc. And that’s just the first hundred pages.
Prager’s book goes deep inside the fabled “shot heard ’round the world” in the 1951 NL playoff between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants. The book expands on a story that Prager broke in the Wall Street Journal in 2001. Through old-fashioned shoe leather journalism, Prager found the evidence to show that persistent rumors that the Giants had stolen signs over much of the ’51 campaign were true. He found the family of the electrician that installed a buzzer at the Polo Grounds for relaying the signals. He was shown the telescope that was used to spy on the catcher’s signals from the club house in center field. He had even found the old men who were finally willing to clear their consciences. He had the smoking gun. Which isn’t to say that a “crime” had been committed. There was no rule against stealing signs.
Prager explores the history of stealing signals in sporting contests in general, and the nuanced ethics of baseball specifically, a game of rich unwritten traditions regarding how the game should be played. And though the book provides an in depth look into a single season and its implications, it also highlights a game on the verge of tremendous change.
Willie Mays was a young new player for the New York Giants; Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Many of the players on both teams took off-season jobs or played in barnstorming exhibition games in order to support their families on their (generally) modest professional baseball salaries. Even though this one game would leave an indelible imprint on a generation of New Yorkers, both teams would relocate to California within a decade. The game completely overshadowed the World Series that followed, which has largely been forgotten. (The Giants would go on to lose to a Yankees Team that fielded Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Phil Rizzuto).
The players at the center of the controversy, Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson, would become linked for the rest of their lives as hero and goat, pitcher and slugger. They’ve appeared together regularly in those roles for more than half a century. Prager shows us how that relationship changed over time and how the revelations of sign stealing has changed the relationship to more equal footing. He also explores how his revelation has changed the popular perception of the iconic game (not much).
Prager walks the reader through the entire ’51 season of both teams and the careers of Branca and Thompson in rich detail. I loved learning an endless amount of great trivia. for example, Thomson was forced to make way in the outfield in his career, first for Willie Mays on the Giants and later for rookie Hank Aaron of the Milwaukee Braves. Thomson would also be the first man to strike out against a new Dodger pitcher named Sandy Koufax. He also determined that Jackie Gleason did drunkenly throw up on Frank Sinatra’s shoes during the game (causing Frank to miss the shot). Contrary to Don Delillo’s masterful account (and others), J. Edgar Hoover was not at the game. That’s just good stuff.
The scholarship of the book is incredible, and it is very easy to believe the reports that it took Prager five years to research and write it. The acknowledgments at the end of the book are almost a Cooperstown roll call, and I am green with envy that he got to interview so many legends of the game. (As a remedial typist, I also appreciated that Prager thanked his thumbs and index fingers for their hard work). The Notes and Bibliography are exhaustive, and this should be the definitive work on the subject. Yet, Prager asks in his Author’s Note for people who know more of the story to come forward, correct him where he was in error, and share their stories of the mythical game
It’s an endlessly fascinating book, and one that I highly recommend if the subject matter appeals to you at all. I’ve bought two additional copies for gifts – if you’d prefer a root canal to painstaking detail on a long baseball season, my advice is to run the other way. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll mention that Prager is a friend of a friend – which is how I first heard of the book. I’ve never met Prager, so I don’t think that influenced my appreciation of the book at all. I’ve discussed the origins of my fascination with this subject at length here.
Last week, Prager had another great story in the Wall Street Journal. He located a photojournalist who won the Pulitzer in 1979 as “anonymous.” The picture was of a firing squad executing blindfolded Kurds in a field during the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The picture was published anonymously to protect the photographers life, and the origins of the photograph became shrouded in mystery. Read that story on Prager’s web site, or listen to Prager tell the story on NPR’s Weekend Edition.
Since Prager seems to have a gift at getting to the bottom of historic mysteries, I propose that he take on some or all of the following subjects for his next scoop: the Lindberg Baby, the whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa, Cheney’s undisclosed location, Osama’s undisclosed location, and/or why Paris Hilton is famous.