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Book Review: "Root For The Cubs"

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Charlie Root is the Cubs' all-time leader in wins (201), games pitched (605) and innings pitched (3137.1), nearly 70 years after he threw his last pitch for the ballclub.

This new biography, cleverly titled with a play on words "Root For The Cubs", brings this nearly-forgotten figure back to the forefront. And rather than focus on the one event that made Root famous -- an event he despised and in his later years as a pitching coach, would throw at any one of his players who would mention it -- this book is mostly about the 1929 Cub pennant-winning season, which was Root's second-best as a Cub (second only to his breakout year, 1927, when he was 28 years old and won 26 games, which is the most wins for a Cubs pitcher since 1912), when he helped lead the team to their first pennant since 1918. (The Ruth "called shot" is discussed in detail in the book's epilogue.)

The book's charm comes mainly from its primary source, Root's 90-year-old daughter, Della Root Arnold, still living in California (where a family car bears the license plate "BABEWHO"), who sat down for long interviews with the book's author, Roger Snell. She gave Snell many clear recollections of events eight decades past, and apparently kept a journal through many years of her father's career. There's quite a bit of detail about Cubs spring training on California's Catalina Island, where the team trained from 1921-51 (with interruptions during World War II). They trained there primarily because the team's owner, William Wrigley Jr., had bought the island for a song not long before. The book also goes into quite a bit of detail on how Wrigley wrested full control of the team from "Lucky" Charlie Weeghman. The parallels to today's situation aren't exact, but like Tom Ricketts, Wrigley was a huge baseball and Cubs fan, spent many days at the ballpark and was always looking for ways to improve his team both on and off the field; he was one of the first owners to realize the promotional potential of radio broadcasts. Of baseball, Wrigley said:

No man is qualified to make a genuine success of owning a big league ball team who isn't in it because of his love for the game. He's sure to weaken in his support at some critical point of its development if his heart isn't in the sport. On the other hand, it is no undertaking for a man who hasn't practically unlimited financial resources at his command, regardless of how much he loves the game. If he regards it merely as a means of making money, he'd much better invest his time and capital in an enterprise strictly commercial in character.

Operating a successful big-league ball team is radically different from running any commmercial or industrial business, because you are dealing, 100 percent, in and with human nature -- and that's always a variable quantity.

There's a catch in this business at every turn, because you're playing with tricky, variable human nature, not inert physical commodities and mechanical methods.

Words, I think, for Tom Ricketts to live by as he takes over the team sometime later this year.

Wrigley also hired Joe McCarthy as manager and, like Lou Piniella today, McCarthy managed to change the team's culture. But Wrigley also fired McCarthy after blaming him (wrongly, I think) for the team's loss in the '29 World Series, where they executed what is still the biggest blown lead in a World Series game, an 8-0 seventh-inning lead in Game Four, when they could have tied the series (a game in which Root had pitched brilliantly up to that time), and a one-out, nobody-on, 2-0 lead in the ninth inning of Game Five. The Cubs had been favored to win despite the Athletics' better regular-season record. McCarthy, who never played in the majors, went on to win seven World Series with the Yankees, and although the Cubs and Root would be in three more Fall Classics... well, you know the end of that story.

This book tells about a part of Cubs history that is largely forgotten today. With only the possible exception of Mordecai Brown, Charlie Root is the greatest pitcher in the history of the Cubs. Read this biography and you'll know him better, and you'll also know more about the 1929 Cubs, one of the franchise's greatest teams.