Sports Illustrated writer Tim Layden in this week's issue of the magazine gives an intriguing look at old-time baseball and the vicissitudes of fame and life. Layden's piece is an examination of his great-uncle Johnny Evers, the middle man of the famed Tinker to Evers to Chance double play combination. The heart of the Chicago Cubs' only world championship team, they stand among the most celebrated players of baseball's early years.
The article evoked one of the great figures of New York's newspaper heyday at the turn of the 20th century, Franklin Pierce Adams. FPA, as he was popularly known, wrote "Baseball's Sad Lexicon," the brief poem written in 1910 for the New York Evening Mail that lamented the Chicago Cubs infielders' penchant for turning New York Giants hits into double plays. Adams, a mainstay of the Algonquin round table, later wrote the Conning Tower column in the New York World. A look at his work shows that he was a wonderful light poet, as shown in the line from "A Baseball Lexicon," "Ruthlessly pricking our ganfalon bubble."
Evers, pronounced E-vers instead of Ev-ers, was one of the most interesting characters of baseball's dead-ball era. Layden, who says he knew little about his great article until doing the piece, builds a fascinating mosaic of Evers' life and times. Along with the poem and his key role on several world championship teams, Evers is famous for triggering the Fred Merkle incident in 1908, which led to the Cubs winning the pennant over Merkle's Giants. Layden's account of what happened to the ball from the play in which Merkle was declared out for not touching second base after his team had apparently scored the winning run over the Cubs in a key game, reminded me of Don Delillo's epic novel "Underworld," in which Bobby Thompson's home run ball is a major theme.
Layden also looks at Evers being one of those Hall of Fame members cited by sabermetricians as being unworthy of Cooperstown. While acknowledging that Evers' career stats don't measure up to those of the most exalted hall members, Layden points out that Evers rang up some fine offensive years and was the top player in the 1908 World Series. Also, baseball is a game of myth and poetry as well as numbers. Evers is one of the great mythical players of early baseball, and deserves his place in Cooperstown.