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Q&A: David Rapp on Tinker to Evers to Chance

Poetry immortalized the Cubs’ legendary infielders, who brought the team a World Series victory when a rough-and-tumble sport was emerging as the national pastime.

Joe Tinker, John J. Evers, and Frank LeRoy Chance   Photos: Courtesy of Jay Sanford; New York Public Library; Courtesy of Mark Braun, Old Timers' Baseball Association of Chicago

David Rapp, who grew up listening to the Cubs in Madison, Wisconsin on his dad’s car radio, retired in November 2014 from a lengthy career covering politics, and he went to work almost immediately afterward on a book he had wanted to write for several years.

Tinker to Evers to Chance: The Chicago Cubs and the Dawn of Modern America was released on April 2. Rapp carefully details the lives of the three Cubs infielders who were immortalized in Franklin Pierce Adams’ 1910 poem “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon” and known to Cubs fans for steering the 1907 and 1908 championship teams. Rapp said the idea for the book first came to him years before the Ricketts family bought the team, when he began to try to understand his own dedication to a franchise that had not rewarded its fanbase with a title for a century. His book vividly details the lives of all three players, weaving together how they converged in Chicago at the beginning of the 20th century. Along the way, Rapp tells the story of a changing America that became suddenly and almost inexplicably gripped with baseball fever.

Below, a Q & A with the author about the process of researching and writing his book:

Your writing career for many years was solely in politics. What was your sportswriting background?

I started out as a sportswriter in high school. I got my first job with my local city newspaper, the Evansville Press in Indiana, and that’s what I thought I was going to do. I got a scholarship from Vanderbilt called the Grantland Rice Scholarship for Young Sportswriters, and then I got waylaid after that; I got into politics. My first job at a newspaper after college was in Memphis on the city desk. I thought if I took a job there I might be able to get back on the sports desk, but I just never did. So I stayed covering politics, first in newspapers in Memphis, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh, and then I went to Washington, and I went to work for Congressional Quarterly, where I was for about 25 years working as a reporter and an editor. So I’m finally back to sports after I retired from that. This was my long, long desired to return to sportswriting.

Was the idea to write about these three players (Tinker, Evers, Chance) born out of your own fandom?

I became a Cubs fan when I was 10 years old rooting for Ernie Banks back in the 1960s, and it was about six or seven years ago, when the Cubs were in one of their troughs, that I just asked myself, “What is the grip this team still has on me? I’ve been rooting for them all these years, and nothing.”

So I started looking into the history of the team, and I found my way back to this period when the Cubs were an actual dynasty. I tried to get as much information as I could, reading everything I could get my hands on, and there just wasn’t very much, not enough to quench my curiosity. So I decided I’d better write the book myself.

The 1908 team carried an almost mythological status for such a long time. What gave you the idea to take such a unique angle on this team?

Obviously, Tinker, Evers, and Chance are famous because of this poem that Pierce wrote. Well, their names are famous, the poem doesn’t tell you anything about them. So I started looking at the three of them and what would be an interesting literary conceit because they each came from different parts of the country: Evers from Troy, New York, Tinker from Kansas City, and Chance from Fresno, California.

That gave me three different regional cultures of the late 19th century, and then they all came together in Chicago in 1903, and Chicago had its own transformation taking place. It gave me a device to describe all these different things that were going on around the country at the turn of the century using those three guys, and also Frank Selee, who was the manager.

Photo: University of Chicago Press

For this time period, to do the research for something that was over 100 years ago—what is that like?

It’s very hard to get personal papers or those kinds of primary sources that a lot of these stories rely on, but I had a couple of advantages. I live six blocks from the Library of Congress, so I had all kinds of resources available to me there that I could ride my bike over and get any day of the week.

And what’s happened recently is that old newspapers have been digitized and put online, so I could dive into these newspapers and do keyword searches on them. I was able to find things that you would never be able to find if you were scrolling through microfilm day after day. And right around the turn of the century, there was a big interest in the United States to write local histories, so there were a lot of books in the first decade of the 20th century that were about the 19th century, so you could glean a lot of descriptions of the period.

Naturally, research like this is going to involve some rabbit holes. What was the biggest one?

I got fascinated by the Irish national game of hurling, and I was trying to find a connection between hurling and baseball. I went down that rabbit hole for a long time, and I was able to find a connection to Troy, New York and this group of Irish athletes who came. I had seen advertisements about them coming, but there was no article that described them actually getting there until I finally found it in the Troy Public Library. I had gone through all the microfilm they had except for one paper. According to my Library of Congress guide I had, the library had this bound volume of the Troy Telegram from 1888, and I found inside this thing a newspaper article about the Irish athletes who had just come to Troy the day before, and I’m in this little room in the library dancing a jig over this discovery.

In a similar way, what did you come across in your research that most surprised you?

I’ve been covering Congress for all my career, and legislative history is a big issue, and covering that is all about precedence. And what I didn’t realize is the 1908 Merkle’s Boner play where Fred Merkle didn’t touch second base, and Johnny Evers was able to nullify a winning run in a crucial game.

I discovered there was actually a game a few weeks before where Evers did the same thing and was unable to convince the umpire to cancel the run, but he made such a fuss about it that he was able to force the umpire and the president of the league to say that if it happened again Evers would be right. And of course it happened again, which made the difference in that game.

Along with that, I found a quote from the umpire a few years later saying that it wasn’t about Evers getting him out at second, it was that the New York coach ran out onto the field to get the ball and try to throw it away, so he called the play dead because of that interference. It helped answer the debate that’s been going on about this play for 110 years.

What’s the takeaway you hope people get from this book?

Like I said, I wanted to understand the grip this team had over me and has over so many other people like me. I wanted to understand what it is about sports in America that makes us attach ourselves to a team. It’s a phenomenon that was new to the 20th century. People in the 19th century used to get this excited about politics, they’d go out to political rallies and things like that, but they didn’t go to sports events, not in the mass numbers that they started doing in the early 20th century and like they do today. That’s what I’m hoping to show, that something happened in this period, that these guys wanted to play baseball at a time when it wasn’t a respected profession, and it made people like us want to go watch them do it.

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