Books: The Farmers’ Game

The Farmers' Game (Photo / JHU Press) 
The Farmers’ Game (Photo / JHU Press)

In The Farmers’ Game, Baseball in Rural America, Texas A&M history professor David Vaught takes a studied look at baseball in its country context.

In each of its six chapters, The Farmers’ Game visits a new location where the game develops; each stands as an individual essay and cohesion comes through their common agrarian setting and, of course, their baseball.

One of the most compelling of the essays is on Milroy, MN and its 1954 amateur state champion Yankees.

The town of Milroy was built by, and for, the railroad in the early 20th century. The idea was to have a town, and most importantly its railroad station and grain elevator, accessible by wagon to farmers seeking to deliver their crops to market. It was a concept town based on a simple, commercial notion. Unfortunately for Milroy, it was preceded and followed by competing towns conceived on the same premise, and as such, “began to die as soon as it was born.”

The economically competitive nature of the towns spilled over to the area’s baseball diamonds. Through skill, some creative recruiting, and a town fully behind its team, Milroy miraculously rose above 700 amateur teams in the state to capture the 1954 Minnesota Amateur Baseball Association (MABA) championship.

The book’s pervading strength is in describing both the commonality and diversity of farm life. At its core, farming is difficult in a way that few in the early 21st century have experienced first hand (including this reviewer). Vaught describes well six places where the look of the farm is slightly or significantly different, yet similar in its requirement of toil and cooperation from both temperamental markets and the weather. Without establishing what constitutes farm life, any discussion on its relation to baseball would rest on decidedly shifting sands.

Then there is the baseball itself. Gaylord Perry and Bob Feller, both Hall of Famers, provide the focus for two chapters and give readers a ‘new’ look at familiar topics. Feller in particular is well-covered ground, but Vaught describes how that ground is laden with the well-cultivated efforts of Feller and his father to associate the phenomenal talents of “Rapid Robert” with a newspaper-worthy life on the farm.

Perry, like his infamously effective spitter, is more of an enigma, despite his half century in the public eye. He, out of the many farmer/ballplayers in the book, is most clearly enamored with the farm. He also is a product of rural Southern culture in the mid-20th century, and is an interesting witches’ brew of traits: skill, perseverance and ingenuity marred by a measure of racism.

Living a mile from the western end of Wilkens Avenue, the one-time home of St. Mary’s Industrial School and its most famous student, Babe Ruth, I’m well familiar with the sport’s most famous city-boy-makes-good story. The Farmers’ Game offers a new, compelling look at another source of baseball’s diverse wellspring of talent. – TF

Tom Flynn is the author of Venable Park and Baseball in Baltimore and has contributed to the New York Times and Wall Street Journal