Book Review: Addie Joss on Baseball

Joss on Baseball: Collected Newspaper Columns and World Series Reports, 1907- 1909  – By Addie Joss

Compiled and Annotated by Rich Blevins (2012)

349 Pages (including biography and appendices)

Publisher pageAmazon page (kindle version)

Or in truth, an expansion of my previous review of the book. I originally reviewed this collection of Addie Joss’s newspaper writings at Let’s Go Tribe in 2013, and all of my comments back then still hold true, but I want to dive in a bit deeper now that I have the leisure to spend more time on it.

Addie Joss has been a fascinating player to me in part because there is so little information about him. He died suddenly in 1911 at age 31, while professional baseball was still growing into the national pastime it later became. Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times, a ground-breaking collection of reminiscences by former players that sparked a rush to record the history of early baseball, was first published in 1966. By that time practically all of Joss’s immediate family were no longer alive. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1978, but by that time, as Blevins writes in his preface, it was “almost like an afterthought.” His contributions had been recognized despite his brief career, but almost nothing of his personality could be passed down.

Joss was hired in 1906, without any previous writing experience, to be the Sunday edition sports editor of the Toledo News-Bee. Joss had moved to Toledo in 1900 when he signed with the Mud Hens, and still made the Northwest Ohio city his offseason home. The hiring was designed to help win readers over from the established Toledo Blade, and it paid off in spades. Joss not only wrote articles about baseball, but edited and wrote articles about other sports. That he was able to quickly learn a business he had no prior knowledge about was quite a feat, and that would lead to him writing a weekly column as well as covering covering three World Series (1907-1909) for the Cleveland Press. By the end of his brief writing career, he was known nationwide as not only a great pitcher, but also as a baseball columnist.

 The collected columns are arranged thematically, not chronologically. There is a chapter about Joss’s personal friendships in baseball, one entirely about humorous incidents on and off the baseball diamond, and one on great feats and plays. There are sections devoted to dealing with fans, “inside baseball” (or would be called strategy today), the way baseball was played in the decades before his time, and his game reports from the 1907-1909 World Series. The collection ends with some columns about larger issues within the sport.

You get a sense of Joss’s generosity and good nature through some subtle touches in his columns. For example, the first column in this collection deals with his debut, made in 1902 against the St. Louis Browns. After a couple of innings, the Browns hurled a series of insults (“long legged toothpick,” “human sign post,” et. al) his way, then later gave him looks that “would have made a saint want to fight.” But it was all a test, and Joss passed with flying colors. Later, after the game, Emmet Heidrick of the Browns shook hands and congratulated him on the well-pitched game. Joss ends the column with “And from that day to this I have not had better friends than that same bunch of ball players, the St. Louis Browns.”

Some of that generosity is only learned once you learn the context, which is why Blevins’ annotations are so valuable. He wrote two columns about his friend Win Mercer, who committed suicide while on the 1902-03 barnstorming tour of the West: the first of which talks about Mercer’s career as a star pitcher and “matinee idol,” and the second of which is about the events that took place just before his death. There were allegations that Mercer attempted to steal the barnstormer’s pot to pay back gambling debts, but Joss, who was on the tour, recounts a more generous version of those events, in which the note to the hotel clerk to send the money was not written by Mercer but was a forgery.

Source:Wikipedia/ Western Reserve Historical Society

Joss was a tall (6’3″), skinny (185 lbs) man with long arms, hence nicknames like the Human Hairpin and the other less generous ones noted above. His sidearm pitching motion, a delivery that hid the ball from hitters, his stuff, and impeccable control was why he was so successful as a pitcher, and Joss goes into some of these concepts in his columns, though never in a boastful fashion. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to tell that he was one of the best pitchers in baseball by reading his columns. That even extends to the columns he wrote on his specific accomplishments, like his 1908 perfect game, in which he downplays as much as possible his role in it. Note the date from the article, which was one day after his masterpiece:

About the seventh inning I began to realize that not one of the [White] Sox had reached first base...I did not try for such a record. All I was doing was trying to beat Chicago, for the game meant much to us, and [Ed] Walsh was pitching the game of his life. (10-3-1908)

Although Joss was writing in a time that we now might think as the distant past, there are many columns that have just as much relevance today as they did back then. Witness this piece of introspection:

One constant worry to a ball player is the fear he has of losing the strength of his arm. A ball player's arm is a peculiar thing. There is never any way of telling when it is liable to go back on him. (12-9-1908)

The section on “inside baseball” also has many timeless baseball thoughts. For instance:

Numberless instances could be related by all players who have been playing the game for any length of time, but they would only tend to strengthen the opinion that luck is an essential factor in a team's pennant aspirations (1-27-1907).

One thing that has changed considerably since the first decade of the 20th century are the baseball terms used, and that did take some getting used to. Joss uses “twirler” often in place of “pitcher” and “sphere” as often as he uses “ball,” and though at first those terms seemed rather bizarre and forced, after a while they started to become familiar, and I could begin to understand why they were so popular. Heck, I’ll probably start referring to pitchers as twirlers here and there just to liven things up.

Joss loved to relate humorous anecdotes in his columns, including one about how Connie Mack once had to resort to tricking Rube Wadell (who was famous for being…um…eccentric) to stop throwing his “slow ball” back when they were both in Milwaukee:

Mack realizing the probable result became desperate and leaving the bench went over to a policeman on the bleachers and held a whispered conversation with him....

.....Just as the big fellow was winding up to pitch the next one, a fog horn voice shouted: "Get out of there you big stiff, you're all in! You've lost your arm."

You can well guess how Rube responded to this heckle, which played right into Mack’s hands.

Joss stopped writing for the News-Bee in early 1909, instead choosing to spend his winters running a pool hall and singing in a vaudeville quartet. He still would pop by his old workplace from time to time, and that he was still beloved by his former co-workers is evident by the way the paper covered his death.

Toledo people will feel a keener loss, for they knew Joss as a man and a citizen and knew nothing but good of him. His personal friends will long miss the ready smile, the kindly word, the cheerful optimism that were his constant companions and made his company a delight. He was a big man, mentally, morally, professionally. (4-14-1911, Toledo News-Bee, page 8)

Tributes also poured in from around baseball, one of which captures exactly the impression that I got from reading his columns:

"He was studious and ambitious and serious, but when I say serious I do not mean sober, for had that rare and divine gift, a sense of humor. He was always cheerful. He seemed always to have some good news for you. He never whimpered or complained; he could smile even over the injury to his right arm last season - the arm that meant so much to him."
- Brand Whitlock (4-14-1911, Toledo News-Bee, page 1)

His teammates threatened a strike if their game in Detroit was not postponed so that they could attend his funeral in Toledo. And there was the proto-All Star game held in Cleveland later that year to raise money for his widow, which is a fascinating topic in and of itself.

There are biographical profiles on Joss, such as the one in the Deadball Stars of the American League, and there is one full-length biography of Joss available (Addie Joss: King of the Pitchers). But this collection of columns is the closest we’re going to get to any sort of understanding about Joss the person, as it’s written in his own words. Blevins writes in his preface:

I like to think Addie's baseball writing as our own direct line to one of Cooperstown's most disappeared inductees. The extant articles are Addie's first-person observations of the game and its players, many of them baseball immortals and most of them his good friends, from the first decade of the American League.

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