By Kevin Guilfoile
This is a story about the way one book--an old-fashioned, ink-on-paper kind of book--saved a really cool piece of history.
A few months ago, I was asked to appear on a local television program to talk about literature and baseball (I actually wrote about that discussion in a previous post). Prior to the taping of the show, I was visiting my parents and I noticed a number of old (in some cases very old) baseball-themed novels on my father's shelves. I asked him if I could borrow them, and he said of course. They sat in a stack on the floor of my office until the morning of the taping, at which point I started to leaf through them, hoping to mine them for some interesting talking points. Many were books I had already read--Malamud's The Natural, some anthologies of short fiction, a number of YA books (The Kid From Tompkinsville, The Fifth Base) I'd devoured as a kid. And then there was one really old volume that stuck out, specifically because of the author.
The book was called Pitcher Pollock, it was published in 1916, and the author was Christy Mathewson.
Christy Mathewson was one of the great Major League pitchers of the first part of the last century. He won more than 350 games for the New York Giants and was one of the five original inductees into baseball's Hall of Fame. He didn't actually write Pitcher Pollock. It was one of a series of novels, targeted at boys and ghostwritten by a New York sportswriter, with Mathewson's name on the cover. I thought it might be worth mentioning and so I fanned the pages, and as I did, a small piece of pink cardboard, attached to a string, fell to the floor.
I picked it up and turned it over, and as I read the words on it, I couldn't believe what I was holding--an almost perfectly conserved press pass to Game 2 of the 1929 "World's Series" at Wrigley Field in Chicago. The Chicago Cubs vs. the Philadelphia A's.
It didn't take very much detective work to figure out what had happened. The name of the reporter who used the pass that day (October 9, 1929, just the second World Series game played at Wrigley Field) was written across the face of it in pen. Ken Smith of the New York Graphic. Ken had been a friend of my dad. He had also been a good friend of Christy Mathewson. I imagined him returning home to his New York apartment after a long train ride from Chicago, putting away his clothes and his notebook, looking for a place to stick this worthless piece of cardboard he had tied to his jacket button, and absent-mindedly sticking it between the pages of Pitcher Pollock. Fifty years later, as Ken had no children or grandchildren of his own, he gave the book to my father, who had three boys. And it sat on a shelf for another 30 years, until this artifact dropped to my office carpet.
We often treasure books, not for the stories between the covers but because a book itself can be a story. Ken Smith saved Pitcher Pollock, maybe, because it had been a gift from his friend Christy Mathewson. My dad saved Pitcher Pollock because it had been a gift from his friend Ken Smith. It survived more than 80 years, through countless moves and disruptions, without ever having been read, or even opened, and never letting on that there might be a secret between its pages.
My second novel, The Thousand is due out August 24. I'll have more to say about it then, but you can read an excerpt from the book and check out the preliminary tour schedule. You can also enter to be one of ten people who will win a free advance copy of The Thousand just by following me on Twitter.