Sometimes when I’m reading a baseball book I have to stop and ask myself, “Is this book actually good or am I only finding it interesting because it’s covering a subject I’m not familiar with?” When this happens I hem and haw while actually reading the book and then have to spend at least a few days thinking the book over. Most of the time my final opinion of the book ends up being more of a coin flip or anything else. I believe it’s time to flip the coin for The 1937 Newark Bears: A Baseball Legend.
Ronald A. Mayer’s book covers a team and a time period of the minor leagues that I am not all that familiar with. Add in the fact that the Newark Bears were, at the time, a New York Yankees affiliate and there’s even less chance I’d know a lot about the characters within its pages. One of my personality quirks, says the guy who has latched onto covering unaffiliated baseball, is that I tend to not like the big obvious powerhouse. In the case of the Yankees, I learned what I needed to about them and followed that by pretty much ignoring them as their story of winning and winning all the time bored me. Plus, they’re from New York and I’ve always pushed back against East Coast baseball media bias.
The point being, I knew next to nothing about the Bears or the personalities covered in the book prior to starting Mayer’s work. The only two people whose names instantly jumped out at me were Joe Gordon and Willard Hershberger, for very different reasons. That meant the tale of the Bears was started fresh and without the baggage that typically accompanies a book about well-trod territory. Coming from that starting point The 1937 Newark Bears: A Baseball Legend is a legitimately interesting book. I found Mayer’s approach to these players, coaches, and executives to be engaging. He made me care about what happened to and around the team for the entirety of the book’s almost 300 pages.
At the same time, it was clear from the onset that Mayer viewed baseball very differently than I did. Most of his talk about success on the baseball field was centered around achievements that didn’t matter to me. I’m not saying I need statistics to care about a player’s accomplishments, but when the statistics you’ve glommed onto are Batting Average and Wins/Losses, that’s not really cutting it. To be fair, I understand why Mayer went with the shorthand of conveying a pitcher’s quality via their Wins and Losses. At the time such an approach was widely accepted, and if you told a reader in 1980 that Atley Donald went 19-2 in 1937 then the only takeaway would be that Donald was a world-beater. That being said, I wanted to know more about the power of the hitters, their speed on the basepaths, the stuff of the pitchers, etc. I’d take that over Wins, Losses, and Batting Average every day of the week.
It’s clear from the onset that Mayer constructed his book with one idea in mind, to convey to the reader that the 1937 Bears were the best minor league team of all time. For the most part, Mayer gets this point across, but there are a few moments when he falters. Notably, he introduces talk of the 1920 St. Paul Saints and 1921 Baltimore Orioles, but they get a quick mention at a bare minimum. When it came to the idea of the 1937 Bears being the best of all time I would have loved to have seen a chapter comparing them to those teams as well as the 1934 Los Angeles Angels, etc. That, for me, would have really helped to drive home the narrative more than Mayer’s actual approach of simply stating a lot that they were the best minor league team ever, without question.
Ultimately, I had my issues with The 1937 Newark Bears: A Baseball Legend. It’s not a perfect book by any measure, but it is an interesting jaunt. More than anything Mayer’s book should appeal to hardcore fans of baseball history. Other fans likely need not apply as this isn’t the sort of subject matter that appeals to anyone outside the hardcore historian mindset. The coin landed on heads, which means The 1937 Newark Bears: A Baseball Legend is actually good, but not great, or for everyone.
Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – Rutgers University Press