Greatness is the ostensible subject of “War Fever,” which explores how Americans rejected the genius of conductor Karl Muck out of xenophobic panic, embraced the exuberance of Babe Ruth’s home runs and reinvented World War I hero Charles Whittlesey without regard for the man himself. While the authors capture what made each man extraordinary, they don’t bring these stories together to explain what the affection or disgust for their triumvirate says about America at large.
The most revealing part of “War Fever,” which follows three very different men during the pivotal year 1918, is Roberts and Smith’s exploration of the case of Karl Muck. The maestro of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Muck fell victim to a xenophobic controversy ginned up by Providence Journal editor John Rathom, a yellow journalist and a fervent German-hater.
In an effort to paint Muck as anti-American, Rathom published an editorial in the Journal arguing that there was something suspicious about the fact that a classical conductor wasn’t including American patriotic anthems in his programs. Rathom demanded that the ensemble play “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a BSO concert in Rhode Island. He then ran a second story asserting that Muck had bluntly refused to add the song to the program. But Rathom never provided evidence that Muck had even seen the editorial or that BSO leadership had passed along to the conductor similar requests from patriotic local organizations to alter the program. There was no way for the maestro to win: Once Muck finally conducted the song, Roberts and Smith note, he was condemned for offering up a “contamination of our national hymn” and leading the tune with “manifest ill will.”
Readers, rather than Roberts and Smith, will provide their own parallels between Rathom and contemporary partisan journalists, or between efforts back then to rename hamburgers and sauerkraut “liberty sandwiches” and “liberty cabbage” and attempts today to rebrand the novel coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus.” In the same vein, under normal circumstances, a list of remedies for the Great Influenza, including turpentine, Vaseline, red peppers and nudity, might seem like a mere historical oddity. But during the coronavirus pandemic, revisiting a previous strange moment does provide some consolation that we might make it through another.
The second figure in Roberts and Smith’s account is Babe Ruth. Ruth’s role in transforming baseball from a game of small hits and steady advances to one punctuated by mammoth home runs is hardly new territory. But in the absence of Major League Baseball, the marvelously hyperbolic descriptions of Ruth’s home runs that the authors quote make for a pleasant diversion. One dinger reportedly “not only cleared the right field wall but stayed up, soaring over the street and a wide duck pond, finally finding a resting place for itself in the nook of the Ozark hills.” Another was reputed to have “sailed on and on over the garden wall, messing up a war garden and scaring a mongrel pup half to death.”
But the Ruth sections of “War Fever” suggest that serendipity can cut against a book as well as in its favor. Ruth’s outsize presence benches a 1918 debate about whether baseball players were doing essential work. With World War I underway, team owners rebranded themselves as patriotic enterprises to avoid losing their players to military service, or to the teams fielded by shipbuilding companies and other firms engaged in the war effort.
In Ruth’s day, treating routine baseball games as part of the home front was an attempt to keep players on the field and out of combat. Today, insisting that sports are essential to society and must resume puts players at risk of contracting the coronavirus. According to recent reports, the Department of Homeland Security has dubbed National Hockey League players essential in order to get them back on the ice. We’re a long way from the end of this pandemic, but the Ruth sections of “War Fever” made me wish for a different book written sometime in the future, using these catastrophes to examine the particularly American symbiosis between sports and our sense of national strength.
And for all the diversions “War Fever” offers in the Muck and Ruth sections, the weakness of the authors’ approach to their undertaking becomes clear in their treatment of Charles Whittlesey, a lawyer who led a World War I brigade that captured American imaginations when the troops survived a standoff behind German lines. That’s not necessarily the authors’ fault: Whittlesey was a bit of a cipher to his contemporaries and doesn’t emerge much more clearly here, maybe because there wasn’t a lot to draw to the surface.
Muck, Ruth and Whittlesey were iconic figures, and they were chosen as subjects for the book because of their fame. Yet “War Fever” has little to say about the emergent nature of celebrity in 1918 and what America’s approach to the people it venerated said about the nation, even though the juxtaposition of these men raises fascinating questions.
What nudged Americans from esteeming fastidious high-culture figures like Muck to idolizing personally crude pop-culture stars like Ruth? And where did the efforts to rewrite the relatively staid Whittlesey into the hero who cursed out the Kaiser’s troops fit into that schema? How did Americans manage the moral acrobatics involved in condemning Muck for his personal failings while lauding the hard-drinking, adulterous Ruth — or for that matter, simultaneously embracing Ruth and Whittlesey, even as one dodged essential service while the other embraced it? And what does the American capacity for reinvention — even without the consent of the person being reinvented by the public imagination — say about our national character?
Maybe with a little historical distance, Roberts and Smith will have a different book to write about the two moments in American history when baseball and xenophobia met up with a pandemic. In the meantime, “War Fever,” like a lot of diversions available to us right now, is good enough, if no Ruthian home run or Wagnerian masterpiece.
Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War
By Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith
Basic. 344 pp. $30