I am researching the great baseball pitcher Walter Johnson for a book I’m writing. This involves reading Henry W. Thomas’ Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train, which is the only really good biography of Johnson. The book relates some newspaper accounts of his early years that seem to amuse Thomas, but which are pretty typical of newspaper reporting then and now.
When Walter Johnson was 19, he went to play for a professional team in Weiser, Idaho. Even though Walter was immediately the star of the team, the Idaho Daily Statesman was only interested in the team’s catcher, a 53-year-old, 250-pound former ball player named E. Cornelius “Foxy Grandpa” Uhl. In his first game, Johnson lead the Weiser team to a 17-1 victory over the Boise Senators. Here is how the Statesman covered it:
It was all the fault of “Foxy Grandpa” [Uhl], who did the backstop act for the visitors. There was a time, so the old-times in the baseball world assert, when Foxy Grandpa used to play ball regularly. But some 15 years or so ago, he felt his bones stiffening and he concluded to stop the strenuous life. He moved out to sunny Idaho, and established himself on a farm near Weiser. Just as a reminder of the old times, Foxy Grandpa went to town last Sunday, and saw the game between Boise and Weiser. He was disgusted to think the Weiser team would be beat by such an aggregation as that from the capital. “Huh,” he said, “I am old and fat and grey-headed, but I can play ball enough yet to beat that bunch.” And Monday morning he began training, with the result that he was given a place behind the bat in yesterday’s game. He coached up young [Johnson] until the latter kept his head all the way through. Every time a Boise man got on a base—and there were very, very few—Foxy Grandpa would pull off some sort of an unexpected play and catch the runner napping.
Just to be clear, there are two new players on the Weiser team. One is the best pitcher to ever play in MLB, just one year before he does so. The other was a talented amateur in his day 20 years earlier, who was now old and fat. The Statesman chose to highlight the one who had the cool name.
I don’t blame that Stateman for this. For one thing, the article sounds as though it were written before the game. I’ve never known a journalist to do a major rewrite of a completed story. This sort of thing is very common today, especially among opinion columnists. They will write a whole article about how, say, the “Fast and Furious” program is an Obama administration conspiracy. A fact checker will read it and note that the program was started by the Bush administration. Instead of starting over, the writer will add a paragraph about how, yes, it started as a Bush program, but there were major (unstated) changes to the program that make the rest of the column valid. This is generally put at the end of the column so that most people won’t even read it. Hallelujah! One hour’s work saved!
Of course, there was more than just this at work at the Statesman. It continued its fascination with Foxy Grandpa to the end of Johnson’s 7-1 season. Part of this is still the laziness of the reporter. Try an experiment some time. Read all the articles by a particular reporter for a week. You will see that they recycle a lot of material. Few people even notice who writes news articles, so this works out pretty well. The main reason the Statesman continued to focus on Foxy Grandpa was something else, however.
There is a difference between a good story and the truth. Foxy Grandpa had two things going for him. First, there is his name. All things equal, you would rather write a story about a guy with such a cool name. Second, Foxy Grandpa was a local guy; Johnson was a ringer. So it is natural that you would try to push the local guy story. What’s more, there weren’t supposed to be ringers so it was bad for the game to introduce this kind of controversy. To write about Johnson would have required making up a back story for him. And that sounds like an awful lot of work.
Thomas is wrong to think that the reporter at the Statesman was foolish. He was just doing his job as a sports reporter with at least as much integrity as modern political reports do.
Just to be clear, Satchel Paige was almost certainly better than Johnson. Unfortunately (evilly), he was only allowed to play in MLB very late in his career. And at that age (42), Paige was the better pitcher.