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Thursday, August 07, 2003

Baseball Primer Reviews: Grace, Grit, and Growling

Jon reviews David Arcidiacono’s in-depth look at the Hartford Dark Blues

When most sports fans think about Hartford, Connecticut, they probably think about the Hartford (nee New England) Whalers.  Despite making it to the Stanley Cup semifinals following the 2001-2002 season, the Carolina Hurricanes would probably have been better off staying in Hartford and remaining the Whalers.  The NHL’s migration to the Sunbelt during the 1990’s may prove to be a big mistake.  But the definitive history of the Hartford Whalers has yet to be written.

While they may be the best-known team, the Whalers are not the only major sports team that used to call Hartford home.  Mark Twain’s favorite team, the Hartford Dark Blues played baseball in the National Association and the National League from 1874 to 1877.  This spring, David Arcidiacono self-published Grace, Grit, and Growling - The Hartford Dark Blues Base Ball Club, 1874-1877; his second book.  The title may appear archaic to the modern reader.  Yes, base ball is two words.  That is how it was written during the early days of the game.  The term growling, in the parlance of the late 19th century translates loosely into today’s “######## and moaning.”  The Dark Blues were not without their share of dissension, much of it directed against their iron-fisted captain Bob Ferguson.  While Grace, Grit, and Growling garnered a mention in the April 13th New York Times, I believe that this may be the first review of this book.

Arcidiacono is a full-time engineer, but he is also a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and has been researching early Connecticut baseball history for over a decade.  His first book was Middletown’s Season In The Sun: Connecticut’s First Professional Baseball Team; also self-published back in 1999.  His knowledge of the subject is clearly demonstrated in Grace, Grit, and Growling.  The 135-page paperback is documented well, in the academic style.  It is annotated, has an index and a bibliography, as well as several appendices that cover the post-Dark Blues lives of the players, game results, statistics, and the story of Tommy Barlow; possibly the first professional athlete that suffered from addiction to narcotics.  Several photographs and illustrations are included, among them a few from the wonderful Transcendental Graphics library.  It also uses an eye-pleasing font.  (This point, while seemingly minor, is an improvement over Middletown’s Season In The Sun.)

Grace, Grit, and Growling was a two-nighter for me.  The writing flows easily and I was reluctant to put it down the first night that it was in my hands.  I easily finished it the second night.  After an inauspicious start in 1874, the Dark Blues followed up with three third place finishes, the last as the Brooklyn Hartfords.  Like the Whalers, the Dark Blues moved on to supposedly greener pastures.  Any time I hear an old Brooklyn-ite bemoan the flight of the Bums to Los Angeles, I am less apt to shed a tear for them.  After one season in Brooklyn, the team folded.

The 1870’s were far from a perfect era in baseball.  In fact, through reading Arcidiacono’s book, I could see many parallels between then and now.  As mentioned, drug addiction existed and franchises shifted.  Additionally, Arcidiacono recounts an incident where two members of the New Haven Elm Citys were accused of stealing from a hotel where they were staying.  The issues of small market teams versus large market teams were around back then as well.  Another problem that plagued baseball back then was game fixing.  Grace, Grit, and Growling briefly discusses the story of several Louisville Grays who were accused of throwing games.  Fortunately, this is not a problem today (knock on wood).

All in all, Grace, Grit, and Growling makes for a good yarn.  I am no literary critic, but I have several criteria that I use in judging baseball history books.  One is readability, which this book meets.  At no point did I find myself rereading the same paragraph repeatedly before I realizing that I was spinning my wheels.  Nor was I tempted to skip over pages looking for something more interesting.  Accuracy is an important attribute.  Arcidiacono spent several years researching the book and documented his sources well.  Another factor that I consider is whether or not a book tells me something that I don’t know or, at least, reminds me of something that I had forgotten about.  Save for a few years of military service, I have been a life-long resident of the greater Hartford area.  I have also been a baseball fan since 1975.  But I was only dimly aware of the Dark Blues prior to reading this book.  So, Grace, Grit, and Growling passes this test two.

This portrait of a long-forgotten team proves that baseball history does not begin and end with mid-century New York City.  Nor is it the sole province of professional authors and historians.  Citizen-authors such as David Arcidiacono and fellow Nutmegger Bill Ryczek have made fine contributions towards the understanding of early baseball history.  Another amateur baseball historian who deserves mention is Joseph Overfield of Buffalo, New York.  Rob Neyer did an excellent profile of him in Bill James’s The Baseball Book: 1991.  Some information that Arcidiacono gathered came from Overfield’s works in various SABR journals.  I would be remiss if I didn’t mention SABR itself.  The efforts of Arcidiacono and other authors would be more difficult without SABR’s resources.

As a Connecticut native, I was attracted to this book more than other baseball fans might be.  The old Hartford Ball Grounds where the Dark Blues played are just a few minutes from where I live.  But I think that Grace, Grit, and Growling will prove interesting to other fans of 19th century baseball and perhaps could convert others into baseball history buffs.  While it wasn’t the most important baseball book to come out this year (that honor probably goes to Michael Lewis’s Moneyball with Jim Bouton’s Foul Ball and Andrew Zimbalist’s May The Best Team Win also appearing on the podium,) I found it to be a fun trip back in time.

Since Grace, Grit, and Growling is self-published, you won’t find it at Barnes and Noble or an Amazon.  You can order it either directly from the author at Darcidiacono@SNET.NET or online at the Vintage Base Ball Factory website (www.vbbf.com).  If you decide to do so, I wish you happy reading.

Jon Daly Posted: August 07, 2003 at 06:00 AM | 5 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Shredder Posted: August 07, 2003 at 02:33 AM (#612506)
I'm pretty sure the Hurricanes were in the finals in 2002.
   2. Mike Emeigh Posted: August 07, 2003 at 02:33 AM (#612508)
The Canes were indeed in the 2002 finals.

-- MWE
   3. Dan Szymborski Posted: August 07, 2003 at 02:33 AM (#612515)
I follow the NHL so little that I didn't even *know* there was a team called the Hurricanes.
   4. Repoz Posted: August 07, 2003 at 02:33 AM (#612523)
Good job Jon.....Now get to work on Burt Standish's Lefty O' series.
   5. Jon Daly Posted: August 07, 2003 at 02:33 AM (#612524)
Thanks, for the kind words Repoz. I've never read the Lefty O' series. Is it on parchment or stone tablets ;)? I would like to post a review on "Dem Little Bums." It's the story of the 1946-49 Nashua Dodgers that Campanella and Newcombe played on. I'd also like to post a historical article about a 19th century night game that I've been working on. We'll just see how well received my stuff is first.

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