Sports Collectors Digest: Book of Baseball

By Marty Appel

It’s been 96 years since baseball had its first “coffee table” book, a term that didn’t even exist during the Taft administration. Today, coffee table books about baseball are turned out all the time, but it was a breakthrough then and it was called “The Book of Baseball: From the Earliest Day to the Present Season.” It featured an illustration of Honus Wagner preparing to bunt on the cover and it was bound in hard cardboard.

In good condition, the book is valued at up to $500 today, making it one of the most expensive of vintage baseball books to acquire.

With 159 pages of text and photos, it was printed before the era of acid-free paper, but the paper that was used has held up remarkably well, and it was a treasure trove of baseball photography for its time. The pictures came from the Pictorial News Company, the American Press Association, private collections and other sources, and feature some of the best action photography available to that point. If you were a fan in those pre-Babe Ruth days – a “crank,” as some were still called, what a find this book was!

Collectors generally call it the “Collier Book” for it was published by P.F. Collier & Son, and in the foreword, says, “The editorial staff of Collier’s frankly confess to a weakness for this great sport, with the rest of outdoor America. During the last few years we have printed a good many live baseball stories and still livelier pictures. The cream of this invaluable material has been drawn upon for ‘The Book of Baseball,’ and in addition we have ransacked the country for the best new stories and action photographs covering the game at every angle. It is not a mere portrait gallery; there are not much more than a baker’s dozen of posed pictures in the whole work; but it is a complete review of the game in action , and includes the star players from every section of the country as they actually appear in the infield and outfield, at the bat, and throughout the progress of the game.”

Collier’s was a national weekly magazine of general interest published from 1888 to 1957. Like its sisters, Saturday Evening Post, Look, and Life, it thrived in the years before television filled America’s thirst for the visual image. Norman Hapgood was the editor during the time The Book of Baseball was published, and those were big years for Collier’s, with circulation scaling a million.

The title page of the book says “Edited and Compiled by William Patten and J. Walker McSpaden,” who were two Collier’s staffers assigned to assemble the book, but who are not generally referenced when the book is mentioned. A shame. Patten (1866-1945), was the fellow who under the pseudonym Burt L. Standish, wrote the popular Frank Merriwell “dime novels”, and things like “Lefty O’ the Blue Stockings” and McSpaden wrote a popular U.S. edition of Robin Hood in 1904. They undoubtedly devoted countless hours to the strong text and elegant layout of the book, which measures 11″x14″.

The very first picture, although small, captures your attention at once: a New York Highlander batter, taking a cut at a pitch during a game against the New York Giants, dated October 19, 1910, with a capacity crowd visible in Hilltop Park. A stocky, unidentified Giants catcher is behind the plate (probably Chief Meyers), and the home plate umpire is observing. We learn in this book, in fact, that an annual post-season series between the Highlanders and the Giants was a huge New York event.

In fact, we learn at lot! This is no quick overview of the game. It is the book for fans who really want the inside scoop on the game. Of Cubs’ star pitcher Ed Reulbach, for instance, the writers note, “….it would seem that he has all the material accomplishments of a successful pitcher, but lacks the something which, for want of a better name, might be called baseball sense.

“This missing quality in Reulback is very pathetic and sometimes his removal from the box when he begins to let go in a game is almost a tragedy. So hard did Reulbach work to overcome this lack of head that he once started keeping a book and marking down every batter’s weakness in it as it cropped out, and then studying the record on the night before he was expected to pitch.”

How about this, of a long forgotten Highlander star named Russell Ford (no relation to Whitey of later years): “I put Ford in to pitch against Mathewson in the first game with the Giants,’ said {manager Hal} Chase reminiscently. ‘That meant the championship of the biggest city in the country to me, and it was one of my first acts as a big League manager. If we had won the first game we would probably have won the series. Much depended on the choice of pitchers. I thought that Ford could beat ‘Matty.’ I didn’t think Mathewson was as good as he was. If I had worked my pitchers differently we might have pulled the series out.'”

The book’s contents is broken down into The Early Days, the National League, the American League, (with team by team histories), a Review of the 1910 Season, the Art of Pitching, Star Plays and Players, Making a Championship Club, the Troubles of an Umpire, Chasing the Pennant, The Minor Leagues and the Season of 1911, which would indicate that the book was published in time for Christmas of 1911, and a wonderful gift it was!

In “Chasing the Pennant,” there is a section on Big Salaries, saying “Mathewson’s salary isn’t a matter of public record, but a safe estimate might not be far under $6,000. On the other hand, Wagner at the last report was said to be under a short-term contract for a yearly sum exceeding $8,000.” We learn in this chapter that a club should figure to spend between $150,000 and $200,000 on salaries, money invested in grounds, etc., to win a championship, and that an average Major League franchise was valued at nearly $400,000. The New York Giants however, were thought to be worth $2 million or more. “About $20 million a year is spent by the American public on professional baseball,” it is written.

Even in less than good condition, a book collector will enjoy The Book of Baseball for its handsome and informative content, and the remarkable way in which the pages have endured.