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Book Review: "The Original Curse"

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The title of this book is misleading.

"The Original Curse", written by Sporting News writer (and Chicago-area resident) Sean Deveney, isn't really about curses or anything of the sort. The huge letters spelling out the title on the cover -- who knows? Maybe selected by a marketing director to increase sales.

The sub-head: "Did the Cubs throw the 1918 World Series to Babe Ruth's Red Sox and incite the Black Sox scandal?" is a bit misleading, too. If you've read baseball history from that era, you know that gambling by players on ballgames they were involved in was rampant in the late 1910's. The Black Sox scandal was simply the event that finally blew the whole thing up in the faces of baseball moguls and made them realize that they had better do something to clean up the sport or it might cease to exist. (Or become like professional wrestling is today, a staged event where the result was preordained.) Seen in that light, the thought that the 1918 Cubs threw the World Series to the Red Sox and thus gave players a year later the idea that "hey, we could do this, too", is a real stretch.

Further, the author, in my opinion, doesn't really prove his thesis, which came about because the Chicago History Museum recently received a large archive of previously unknown papers regarding the Black Sox scandal. He goes through, in detail, all six games of the 1918 World Series and picks out various incidents that he says might have "proven" that the Series was thrown. But as in 1919, there were players who performed well and who were still in on the fix. In that case, who knows? As I was reading it, I thought, "If the players really wanted to make more money, why didn't they try to make sure there was a seventh game, for more gate receipts?"

We do know that players in that era were (at least in their own minds) underpaid, and the author does present evidence that the Cubs and Red Sox players were likely going to wind up with less money for the 1918 World Series than they had been promised -- but this wasn't due to any scurrilous owners' plot, it was because the attendance at the six games, due to factors you'll read about in the book, was far lower than projected (the Chicago games in the series were moved to Comiskey Park, which had a capacity of almost 30,000 at the time; the Cubs' Weeghman Park, which had no upper deck in 1918, could seat only about 19,000).

Having said all that in criticism of the author's position, I'll go on to say that this book is well worth reading.

Why? Because it is a fascinating history of the time, an era in baseball which is largely forgotten, 90 years later. You'll learn more about "Lucky" Charlie Weeghman, who got ownership of the Cubs in 1916 in the agreement between the NL/AL baseball owners and the Federal League (the author's claim that had this not happened, the Cubs would likely still be playing on the city's West Side, is probably true), and how he finally had to give up control of the team to William Wrigley.

The author also writes about World War I and its effects on baseball, which ran far beyond the drafting of players into the Army. You probably know that the 1918 season was shortened (to about 125-130 games; there was no attempt to have every team play the same number of games, they simply ended the season on Labor Day) and the World Series played in early September. But you'll find out how that came about and how public attitudes toward baseball, army service and what role baseball should play in society have changed.

The subhead of the book title on the cover talks about "Babe Ruth's Red Sox". That's a bit of a stretch, but you'll also find out in the book why money wasn't the only reason Ruth was sent to the Yankees.

In all, though I didn't think the author proved his hypothesis, there is some fascinating detail about this era in baseball history that I hadn't known before -- the book is worth reading for that alone.

In compliance with the soon-to-be-implemented FTC guidelines, this is my disclosure that the publisher of this book sent me a copy for review purposes.