The Grandest Stage: A History of the World Series
First played in 1903, then missing a year in 1904, the World Series was held continuously for 90 years until 1994 when the Fall Classic was cancelled by a strike. This American sporting tradition has produced indelible memories for generations of baseball fans. Individual plays, memorable games, remarkable moments have become part of the sporting folklore of the nation. It has spawned monuments and trivia questions, embittered some and elated others. Heroes and villains have come out of this championship spectacle that remains the premier event on the sports calendar.
Tyler Kepner, lead baseball writer for The New York Times, captures the moments and the mystique displayed, as he terms it, on The Grandest Stage. Across seven chapters titled “Games,” Kepler has examined the 120 years of World Series history from multiple points of view and perspectives. In doing so, he has demonstrated just how and why the World Series is, The Grandest Stage.
An introduction starts with a description of the first pitch of the first World Series game, and then Kepner recalls several of the great moments and his personal memories of playoff baseball. It is a nice lively opening. Portraits of Word Series heroes such as Reggie Jackson, Jim Palmer, and Curt Schilling follow in “Game One.” All three responded successfully to the pressure of the competition. Kepner speculates on such concepts as “clutch performance” and the debate over whether there is such a thing. The chapter ends with Madison Baumgartner’s surprising definition of what pressure is and how it works.
“Game Two” recounts some of the more famous moments and outcomes of the World Series, what Kepner terms “sidebars.” Did Babe Ruth “call his shot”? Did the Black Sox throwing of the World Series really change its outcome? He recalls how Don Larson’s perfect game overshadowed the achievement of Clem Labine the following day. He revisits the circumstances of Kirk Gibson’s home run, Kansas City’s championship of 1985, Joe Carter’s home run in 1993, and several others.
In “Game Three” attention is turned to “Unlikely Heroes.” Included here are Gene Larkin of the Minnesota Twins and his role in the 1991 Twins World Series victory. Kepner is not alone when he calls the 1991 World Series the greatest ever. He lauds Larry Sherry of the 1959 Dodgers who won two and saved two games in the Dodger championship; he recalls Geoff Blum’s one at bat and home run for the Houston Astros in 2005; and he describes how Ron Swoboda emerged as a somewhat surprising Mets hero. Among teams, Kepner finds the 1906 Chicago Cubs, the “Hitless Wonders,” an interesting case study and a team that is inappropriately named.
In “Game Four,” the managers of World Series teams are put under the microscope. One conclusion that can be drawn from this group of World Series actors is that fame is more likely to find its origins in error than in wisdom. Error, too, is examined and found to be judged by “outcome” more than anything else. The source of these evaluations come as much from what a manager does not do, as much or more from what he does do. Some interesting case studies are offered in evidence.
Next up in “Game Five” are the general managers, the architects who build the teams. There have been great architects and organizational builders in all eras. Kepner’s appreciation of Barney Dreyfuss and his achievements in Pittsburgh in the first half of the 20th century is a fascinating case study. Nor does he neglect the greatness of Connie Mack and John McGraw. In more recent decades, the focus is on those who can work magic by building a World Champion on a small budget. For as much as this achievement is discussed around baseball, it happens only rarely. Kepner also identifies dynasties, the impact of expanding playoffs on the maintenance of dynasties, and the increased role of luck.
If there are heroes, then too there are goats. Kepner’s look at goats, (not GOATS) in “Game Six,” offers an unusual perspective. In the phrase, “it wasn’t your fault, kid,” Kepner shows how it often happens that those identified as goats are not responsible for losses. Case studies here are quite instructive.
“Game Seven,” does not fit into any particular category. Here Kepner rolls across a wide range of topics touching on what, no doubt, are some of his favorites. He begins with a glowing tribute to the genius of Vince Scully. From here he examines various “lists”: the greatest this, the best that, All-Star World Series teams, and memorable moments and favorite things. It is a very good way to conclude this interesting and entertaining personal walk across the history of the Fall Classic. It is also a thoughtful look at the nuances of this great game that will, for many, never be replaced by any other ball game or season ending spectacle.