Review of “The Chalmers Race”

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A new year usually means organizing and looking to see what to keep and what has been just laying around – including books.  This is a book I had been provided by the publisher some time ago, so it became my first piece in my organizing for 2022.  Here is my review of the 2014 book “The Chalmers Race”

 

Title/Author: “The Chalmers Race: Ty Cobb, Napoleon Lajoie and the Controversial 1910 Batting Title That Became a National Obsession” by Rick Huhn

Rating: 4 of 5 stars (good)

Review: One of the closest, and most controversial, baseball batting titles took place in 1910 when two future Hall of Fame hitters, Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers and Napoleon Lajoie of the Cleveland Naps (later Indians, now Guardians) battled for the title down to the last day of the season when Lajoie, thanks to some help by the St. Louis Browns, collected eight hits in a double header to edge out Cobb for the title – or so it appeared.  The stories of these two men as well as others and the craziness of the entire episode is captured in this well-researched and detailed book by Rick Hahn.

The title is so stated because 1910 was the first year in which the hitting leader in each major league would be awarded a new automobile from the Chalmers Motor Company, a generous offer by Hugh Chalmers who saw the tremendous advertising potential by donating a car to the winner.  The book starts off with short biographies of Chalmers, Cobb and Lajoie, followed by how both of the players fared for most of the 1910 season.  This part of the book is informative and very detailed, requiring careful reading to fully understand the complexities of all three men.

Once the final week of the 1910 season comes, which is about a third of the way through the book, that is when things get more interesting and Hahn’s attention to detail really assist the reader in gaining a clear picture of not only what happened on the field, especially in that St. Louis-Cleveland doubleheader but also why Cobb really took the last two days off instead of playing.  He was accused of doing so in order to not lose the title to Lajoie, but that was not what he or anyone else was stating.  While that was part of the interest and controversy, that was minor compared to Lajoie.

Hahn here does his best work in the book, taking the reader to the field that day when the Browns let Lajoie bunt down the third base line as the rookie third baseman played deep on each at bat so that Lajoie would easily reach base on a base hit.  Immediately it was questioned if Lajoie, the Browns players or their manager Jack O’Connor, were part of a plan to make sure that Lajoie won the Chalmers.  There was also some bad history between O’Connor and Cobb (something both men denied) that fueled this speculation. 

More good writing is done when the final determination after gathering all official scorekeeper sheets is done when American League President Ban Johnson, who at the time was considered the most powerful man in baseball, declared Cobb the winner of the title.  That didn’t end the controversy, however, and it lasted well into 1912, when O’Connor sued the Browns over his dismissal following the 1910 season when he contended that his contract stated he would have the job in 1911 as well. Some felt he was fired because of the Cobb-Lajoie batting race controversy, and the court case did nothing to dispel that even though the judge ruled in O’Connor’s favor. 

Hahn finishes the book by showing that this was not the only time at batting title ended in controversy, most notably the 1976 American League title won by George Brett of Kansas City over teammate Hal McRae, who claimed that racism played a factor in that title.  There was also a study in 1981 by the Sporting News that questioned some of the calculations and concluded that Lajoie was indeed the batting title champion.  However, this again was never fully concluded and today, more than a century later, the 1910 American League batting championship is still cloudy.  Also, it should be noted that thanks to the generosity of Hugh Chalmers and his wish to put any controversy aside that would tarnish his or his company’s name, both players received automobiles.

A book that illustrates not only the batting title but the state of baseball in the early twentieth century, this is a book that requires careful reading but will leave the reader much more knowledgeable about the entire controversy.

I wish to thank University of Nebraska Press for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Links: The Chalmers Race : Nebraska Press (unl.edu)

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