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From Ink-Stained Hacks to 'Dopesters': How Sportswriters Brought Baseball to Life

February 25, 2018

Frank Chance was deemed the Peerless Leader, thanks to a local sportswriter.

 

Charles Dryden loved to hand out nicknames. Frank Chance, the imposing player-manager of the Chicago Cubs, was forever known as the “Peerless Leader.” Charles Comiskey of the crosstown White Sox became “The Old Roman,” presumably for his protruding schnoz. The lumbering but prideful Sox pitcher, Ed Walsh, or “Big Moose,” Dryden also liked to describe as “the only man in the world who can strut standing still.”

 

Some of Dryden’s epigrams were Oscar Wilde worthy: “Washington, first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League,” was his most famous and lasting quip.

 

As the baseball beat writer for the Chicago Tribune, Dryden was the first and probably the best humorist in the nascent craft of sports journalism, which, in the first decade of the twentieth century, was not so much a profession as a boneyard for ink-stained hacks. Increasingly, however, sports pages were becoming a way station for young urban strivers seeking literary fame. Their early bylines included names like Rice, Lardner, and Runyon. 

 

< Charles Dryden, circa 1907

 

Dryden’s daily narratives of Cubs games were a map of his oddball mind. In one dispatch from June 1907, he was describing how Chance had helped push across the winning run in a 2-1 squeaker against the Boston Doves. When the Peerless Leader came to bat in the seventh inning, the score knotted 1–1, with two outs and two on base, the Doves’ fresh-faced pitcher, Irvin “Young Cy” Young, suddenly looked shaken. Dryden watched with a gimlet eye as Boston’s catcher walked to the mound to calm his rattled hurler. Here is the curious rendering of their “conversation”:

 

Said Tom to Cy: “These champs of the N.L. and breakers of the world’s record are up against it hard. We are too swell for them. To date they have eleven swats, mostly solid smashes, and one run. If we do not use force they will lose.”

 

“Just as you say,” replied Mr. I. Young, better known as Cy. Thereupon he walked Chance and Randall and forced in the winning run. Clever idea.

 

Sports reporting came into its own at the same time that Cubs and Sox brands of “clean” baseball were resuscitating the image of the national game. One phenomenon fed the other. The eight or nine daily newspapers variously published in Chicago, led by the penny Hearst Examiner’s circulation of 170,000 on weekdays and 650,000 on Sunday, and the two-cent Tribune’s 162,000 and 320,000, could capture an audience that far outstripped the few thousand fans at any home game.

 

New printing presses made it possible to add photographs and editorial cartoons to game coverage. More people, including young children, could read and write. And, as a result, the practitioners of the sensational yellow press looked to spectator sports as a ready source of daily drama. Publishers realized that baseball stories in particular—packaged with scores, statistics, photos, and illustrations—sold newspapers. Papers would even print mid-game scores in their late-afternoon editions.

 

Wisecracking reporters like Dryden didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. Among his antecedents in the 1890s was a group of literary-minded writers who had broken away from their elders in the staid Chicago Press Club. They formed their own association, which ringleader Charlie Seymour and some buddies called the Whitechapel Club, named after Jack the Ripper’s neighborhood in London. Among Seymour’s compatriots were Finley Peter Dunne, whose “Mr. Dooley” sketches were filled with trenchant observations on society and culture, and George Ade, the future humorist and playwright in the mold of Mark Twain. Whitechapel members were “wild and erratic geniuses,” said one contemporary. It “was young with hope, and it was bizarre.”

 

The Whitechapel Club lasted only five years, but it shaped the image of the Chicago newspaperman well into the twentieth century. In 1907, however, no one had the circulation reach or the editorial freedom of Charles Dryden.

 

A modest and reclusive man, Dryden was an unlikely superstar. His daily dispatches always carried his byline—a rarity before his day—and the Tribune even bought large billboards at the ballparks touting his daily column. Dryden protégés included Ring Lardner, whom Cubs players called “Charley’s Hat” because they only saw him at Dryden’s side in those years, and a young Damon Runyon. Both went on to national fame as a literary satirists and short-story writers, though Lardner would always insist that he was a baseball writer first and last. When New York critics once complimented Lardner for his humor-filled columns, he replied: “Me, a humorist? Have you guys read any of Charley Dryden’s stuff lately? He makes me look like a novice.”

 

Many of Dryden’s contemporaries developed their own followings, taking advantage of the reams of column inches now afforded them. “The papers of Chicago in those days were unlike any printed anywhere else,” explained Hugh S. Fullerton, one of the other Chicago beat writers of the era. “They were written largely in the language that the wild growing young city understood. . . . They were boisterous, at times rough; they lacked dignity, perhaps, but they were readable, entertaining and amusing.”

 

Hugh Stuart Fullerton III was a case in point. His brand of baseball reporting combined narrative journalism with statistical analysis. He was known in his day as a “dopester,” or a reporter of detail and behind-the-scenes gossip. “To have the correct answer one must know Fullerton,” said Grantland Rice, who rose to pre-eminence in their craft in the decades to follow.

 

Hugh S. Fullerton >

 

Fullerton is remembered today mostly for sniffing out the 1919 Black Sox scandal, but he made his mark a decade earlier when the Cubs and White Sox met in the first crosstown World Series of 1906. The Cubs had just come off a juggernaut season, winning 116 games—a record to this day. The Sox stumbled into first place in the American League, backed by a stellar pitching staff but a woeful offense, nicknamed (by Dryden, who else?) as the “Hitless Wonders.”

 

Fullerton, who covered both teams during the season, assessed their respective strengths and weaknesses and then stuck his neck out: He said the Hitless Wonders might surprise everyone.

 

Well, he tried to say as much. Shortly before the first game, Fullerton typed out a column with the unflinching forecast that the White Sox were going to win four of the first six games. He compared the two teams point by point: their talents at each position, their psychological makeups, even the impact that overflow crowds might have on fielders’ range of motion—all of which led him to conclude that the White Sox actually had an advantage. This was an outrageous analysis, contrary to all conventional wisdom. City editor Jim Keeley refused to publish the column. He was afraid readers would think the Trib staff was insane.

 

The Sox went on to win the series in six games, as Fullerton had (secretly) foretold. A contrite city editor eventually published the original column, as written, a week after the series had concluded.

 

Read more about Charles Dryden, Hugh Fullerton and other sportswriters of the era in Tinker to Evers to Chance: The Chicago Cubs and the Dawn of Modern America.

 

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