SSTN Interviews Author JB Manheim
SSTN: Today we are here with JB Manheim, who is Professor Emeritus at The George Washington University. A published and award-winning author many times in journals and books, Dr. Manheim recently had his baseball themed novel This Never Happened: The Mystery Behind the Death of Christy Mathewson published.
You can learn more about Jerry and about his book on his website: jbmanheimbooks.com.
This story is capturing the imagination of so many. I am eager to discuss this story and so much more. Jerry, it is great to have this discussion with you. Thanks for coming to Start Spreading the News.
Hey, Paul, it’s my pleasure. I’m delighted to have the chance to chat with you and all of your readers.
Please begin by telling us about your novel. The premise just fascinates me…
It’s actually a book I never set out to write. I was minding my own business one evening, watching one of those Antiques Roadshow programs where they bring back treasures they appraised fifteen or twenty years earlier for a second look. There was a fellow on who was a collector of military items, and he had brought in a box of old papers from some World War I training camp in Georgia. I think he might have just recently bought the box at a garage sale without knowing what was inside. Now this was back in 2003, and I was seeing the rerun in 2018.
The box turned out to have several papers from this base, Camp Hancock, just outside Augusta, that pertained to an training company that included no less than seven future Hall of Famers. Now, the Hall was still twenty years in the future, but we’re talking Home Run Baker, Max Carey, Frank Chance, Ty Cobb, Honus Wager, and Ed Walsh, and the officer in charge was Christy Mathewson. Davy Jones was there as well. Now, that got my attention. But it also seemed… not right. I had read some baseball history, and I’d even read a few player biographies over the years, and I had never seen any reference to this unit. In fact, what I knew about Cobb and Mathewson in particular was that they had joined the Army months later, in the fall of 1918 after the season had ended, were made Captains, and were shipped off to France, where there was some kind of training accident. Mathewson was exposed to poison gas that eventually led to his early death in 1925 of tuberculosis.
The more I thought about this, the more it began to bother me, and after a few days, I decided to look into it somewhat systematically. But the more I read, the more I found that what I thought I knew was exactly what all of the biographies and the histories showed. And none of them made any mention of Ordnance Company #44, this group at Camp Hancock.
Yet, here were these official military documents, apparently authentic, that told a very different story.
So I started reading about baseball and the military during WWI, only to discover that the general in charge of the Chemical Warfare Service had expressed a desire to use prominent baseball players for propaganda purposes — to attract young men to enlist in his division. And he had followed up on that by naming yet another future Hall of Famer, Branch Rickey, as a Major, tasking him with finding willing players. It was Rickey who recruited Cobb and Mathewson.
There’s a lot more to the history, as you can guess. But the question that forced itself into my head was this: If the Army put together a unit to train on poison gas ordnance for propaganda purposes, as a recruitment mechanism, and if they attracted eight future HOF inductees (if you count Rickey), and if, as the documents show, they all trained together in June of 1918… then why has no one ever heard of this unit? A propaganda, or show unit, yet no propaganda and no mention of any kind, anywhere. Added to that, some of these same individuals are also listed in a different set of official documents, the official box scores of Major League ballgames that were played on the very same days they were training in Georgia! There had to be a way to explain this.
In my book, I develop a fictional tale that does just that — it makes sense of this fully, and dually, documented historical anomaly. I think of it as a working hypothesis in the form of a novel. It is apparent that something must have happened to produce this strange set of “facts.” I employed fiction almost as a scientific technique to work that out. I’ll be the first to admit my story-cum-hypothesis might be wrong. But if This Never Happened, I’d love to know what did.
Your novel is historical fiction which means it is based on fact and is entirely believable and possible. The story leaves the reader wondering, “If this didn’t happen, what did?” Can you tell us what you think?
I guess I beat you to this one. I spent many years studying propaganda, persuasion, and strategic communication. It is that background that enlightens my interpretation of events. I believe the story I have set out is very close to what actually did happen — not in the specific details, certainly, which are purely fictitious, but in the broad outline of the chain of events that would have led to the secrecy and the conflicting official accounts of the activities of these men. Some readers have focused on this as a conspiracy theory, and I confess there is a certain element of conspiracy involved. But really, it is just a story about how three major institutions, the government, the Army, and professional baseball, would have very naturally reacted to an unexpected turn of events that had the potential to convert a propaganda triumph into an unmitigated disaster. In that sense, it is a very contemporary story, the sort of thing that happens all around us today.
Christy Mathewson was one of baseball’s true “good guy” superstars. He is famous, in part, because of his skills, his dignity, the fact that he was college educated, and because he used to smile for photographs in an age when most baseball stars gave the camera serious (if not harsh expressions). What can you tell us about Christy Mathewson? What drew you to him?
I guess you could say Christy Mathewson found me. It was the inconsistency between the delivered history of Mathewson in WWI and the Camp Hancock papers that first drew me to this story. But more importantly, for the very reasons you state, Mathewson was the engine that drove the story itself. Christy Mathewson was the single most important force in making baseball respectable in those early years. In the words of one Hall of Fame publication, he was the “first first face of baseball.” And, at least in my view, he was the single most important player in this not-so-little drama. Because he was so important, we know a great deal about him. And because of what we know, or think we know, about him, the inconsistencies at the heart of this story are all the more glaring and more important as well. If these events hadn’t involved Christy Mathewson, would they even have occurred? Arguably, they would not.
Ty Cobb also plays prominently in your novel. There are recent books and articles that state that Ty Cobb’s reputation deserves to be relooked at. Some say he wasn’t the bad person he is remembered today as. What can you tell us about TY Cobb and his reputation? Is he portrayed accurately today?
Great question. I learned a lot about Ty Cobb while I was researching this book. In addition to reading, I spent some time in Augusta, which was not only the site of Camp Hancock, but was also Cobb’s home for many years. I had a chance to confer with a local baseball historian who specializes in Cobb, and even to tour the private home he once lived in. I came away from all of that with a more nuanced view of Cobb than I had at the outset. There is a thumbnail bio of Cobb at the end of the book that I think reflects that.
I believe that Cobb was a very intelligent individual who understood the value of intimidation on the diamond. There is, for example, the old story about how he made a point, visibly, of sharpening his spikes before every game. But there is a question: Are those the spikes he actually wore in the games? Then there is the story of the “Krauthead incident” in which Cobb, a runner at first, yelled over to Honus Wagner that he was about to steal second and Wagner, whom he called Krauthead (it was a different time), had better watch out. Wagner caught the throw to second and stuffed it in Cobb’s face for the out, by one account loosening a tooth. Yet Wagner accepted a post-season invitation that same year to go hunting with Cobb in Georgia, i.e., trusted him with a weapon. And, one of the things that makes my story work is that Cobb and Mathewson were apparently good friends. Having said that, I do think we need to be careful about engaging in revisionist history. We have to give some credence to the ways Cobb’s contemporaries characterized the man, which were generally in unflattering terms. Putting that another way, if Cobb did set out to construct a fearsome personae for himself in order to enhance his effectiveness on the field, a lot of accounts from those days suggest he succeeded.
How closely do you follow the game today?
That is a particularly interesting question. I have been a lifelong baseball fan and, when I could afford it, a season ticket holder. But today I would describe myself instead as a baseball lover, and no longer a fan — at least at the big league level. Over the last couple of years, the intrusion of partisan politics into the game, the imposition of some ridiculous rules — I mean, how did that guy get to second base — and finally, the bloodless, corporatist takeover and restructuring of the affiliated minor leagues this year have taken away the romance of the game, at least for me. I no longer find it entertaining, and I don’t watch it any more. But I do still follow the institutional goings on, the behind-the-scenes power grabs and such. Once a political scientist, I guess, always a political scientist.
There’s a lot of talk about baseball needing to be “fixed.” Is baseball broken? If you were the Commissioner of Baseball what change(s) if any would you make to the current game?
First, I would resign in disgrace.
Beyond that, there seem to be two related core issues — the length of the games, and the failure to bring in new generations of fans. I would hope that my successor would address the first by reducing commercial breaks between innings to one minute, and if that wasn’t enough, eliminating the walk-up music, which may be popular with some, and certainly with the players, but is not essential to the game. If the games are worth tuning in to, advertisers will pay more for the fewer available advertising slots. And no one goes to the game to hear fifteen or thirty seconds of… anything.
I would address the second by acknowledging the sheer stupidity of having converted minor leagues with long and storied histories to mere regionalized subsidiaries of the giant beast that is Major League Baseball. And I would restore affiliations to teams in the two baseball deserts that were created by this move — in the Mountain West and up through Appalachia. If the game cannot attract young kids through its localism, enduring loyalties, and occasionally funky history, it is lost.
What is your next writing project? Do you have more baseball themed books coming?
This Never Happened was finished back in 2019, and just as I was going out to find a publisher the Covid-19 lockdowns started. Since I had nothing better to do, I started writing, and by the end of 2020 I had three more baseball novels done in draft. The first one continues the story of the Camp Hancock papers, but takes it in what may be an unexpected direction. All three of the new books, like This Never Happened, are rooted in baseball events from the Deadball Era, and all three explore some dark corners of baseball history with a blend of reality and fiction. I guess you could call them a series. Next up is finding a publisher, which, as I have learned, can take a while.
In looking at the history of the Yankees, or baseball in general, what person or event would you like to see a book written about?
I’m going to answer this one in very general terms. There are hundreds of nonfiction books about baseball — players, teams, games, seasons, and so forth. And there are fewer, but still a great many, baseball novels — almost all about the very same topics. But I believe there is a vast middle area, a space for books that are grounded in reality but developed through fiction, books that explore aspects of the game itself, of Baseball with a capital “B”. I think of it as a new genre of baseball fiction. That’s the space I am writing to, and I hope others might do the same.
In the book and the movie The Natural, the main character wants nothing more than to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.” Who was the best baseball player you ever saw?
You know, I always loved that movie, but I had never read the book. So one thing I did in undertaking this project was to go back and read The Natural, as well as several other prominent pieces of baseball fiction — some W.P. Kinsella books I had missed, The Celebrant, and others. And what really struck me about The Natural was what an unpleasant fellow Roy Hobbs was in the first telling. Whether it was the screenwriting or the Redford treatment — and surely it was both — the Hobbs we see on the screen is not the Hobbs Bernard Malamud created.
As for the best I ever saw… it’s an impossible choice. I saw Mantle and Berra and those Yankees teams, but also Musial and Kaline and Doby and Colavito and on and on. Plus all the more contemporary players. But I will tell you one player who stands out in my memory, not as a player but as a broadcaster, was Dizzy Dean. I grew up in flyover country, and the CBS Game of the Week on fuzzy B/W TV was our one contact with big league baseball. Dean was the heart and soul of those early broadcasts, and I can still hear the language he invented (the runner “slood” into second on a steal), his way with descriptions (he once oberved that Ted Kluszewski of the Reds, a notoriously slow runner, left second sometime on Tuesday afternoon and arrived at third on Wednesday morning), and the way he would break into verses of The Wabash Cannonball whenever the action slowed.
Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…
What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
I hate to disappoint you, but it wasn’t the Yankees. I am descended from a long line of Cleveland Indians fans, and I was indoctrinated at an early age. I stuck with them through thick and thin — actually it was almost all pretty thin for the first few decades — until the Nationals came to DC in 2005.
Who was your favorite player?
Early on I would say there were two — Larry Doby and Al Rosen. What is your most prized collectible?
All of the 1950s and 1960s baseball cards my mother threw out during a later move! Between those and my collection of 45s, which she also managed to “lose”, I barely spoke to her for years. I’m afraid it’s a too-familiar story. Beyond that, though not classic collectibles, I have three small prized paintings by Baltimore artist John Payne depicting three stages of a brushback pitch. I liked them so much, I commissioned John to do the illustrations that are in my book. (Thanks to Summer Game Books, famed baseball illustrator Gary Cieradkowski did the cover art for my book, which I really like.)
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
Here’s one you won’t hear from anyone else. Robin Bullock. Robin is a much-recorded Celtic-style guitarist. One of the other ways I spent time during the lockdowns, besides writing, was taking some one-on-one Zoom lessons from him.
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?
Good guess. But I married a baker, and we make our own, from the fresh dough to the toppings, and we bake it outdoors on a stone — at least in season. I like pepperoni sliced off the stick in chunks and peppers marinated in apple cider vinegar. No mushrooms, please.
Please share anything else you’d like with our audience –
Hey, thanks so much for your interest. And double thanks if you actually read this far. I hope you’ll take a look at my book, This Never Happened: The Mystery Behind the Death of Christy Mathewson, and then post a review on your favorite site or just let me know what you think. There is an email address on my website, jbmanheimbooks.com, where you can contact me. On the site, you will also find some additional and really interesting information about the conflicting histories regarding Mathewson and Cobb. And if you think I got the story wrong, I encourage you to find a forum and tell us all what you think really happened.
Again, thank you, and thanks Paul!
It was my pleasure.
Keep up the great work! Please keep in touch!