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Book review: “No Money, No Beer, No Pennants: The Cleveland Indians and Baseball in the Great Depression”

Fill some time in the offseason with this excellent story of the depression-era Cleveland Indians.

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“No Money, No Beer, No Pennants” is an historic book about exactly what the title implies: The Cleveland Indians in the depression and their lack of a championship in that time.

The story, as told by baseball historian and author Scott Longert, begins in 1928 and ends in the mid-1930s. The way that Longert sets up the first year, there is a constant feeling of dread knowing what is about to happen to the world economy in 1929. Baseball’s pockets were getting fat, and teams — including the Indians — had money to spend. But it didn’t last.

Longert takes readers through the struggles the Indians went through to play in, and eventually (temporarily) abandon, Cleveland Municipal Stadium throughout the depression era. He tells of how the Indians, who at the start of the story were just eight years removed from a World Series win, could not recapture the magic of 1920.

Everything about “No Money, No Beer, No Pennants” is very detailed and very dense. Unless you are have intimate knowledge of the depression-era Indians, you can likely flip to any page within the book and learn 20 or more things in just a few short paragraphs. It’s clear that Longert has done a lot of research, and he gets as much of it as he can into every sentence, which can sometimes make the book feel hard to digest.

While “No Money, No Beer, No Pennants” is absent any interviews or first-hand quotes, for obvious reasons, a lot of research was pulled from Cleveland newspapers, such as the The Cleveland Plain Dealer. It gives you an immediate idea of what Cleveland was feeling at the time, as told through its local reporters.

The book is packed with information, but also very focused. Longert references the Great Depression and its overall effect on the game of baseball, but he never loses sight of the Indians. Each chapter is more or less broken into two parts: the goings on between seasons, and how the Indians performed on the field, mostly focusing on what changes happened in the previous offseason and how they effected the team.

Off the field, the story revolves mostly around Alva Bradley and the City of Cleveland working to build, use, and get profit out of Cleveland Stadium. Which, of course, had the unfortunate timing of being approved in 1928, one year before the Great Depression began.

In the middle sections of the book, Longert also places heavy emphasis on the All-Star game, which I found particularly interesting. We really take it for granted now, but prior to the inaugural game at the 1933 World’s Fair, seeing the best players all over the country come together was a pipe dream. But the All-Star game made it attainable.

This ties into the Indians as well — Cleveland was the third city to host the All-Star game, following Chicago and New York. The 69,812 fans that packed Cleveland Stadium on July 8, 1935 are the second-most to ever attend an All-Star game, trailing only Cleveland (again) when the city attracted 72,086 in 1981.

“No Money, No Beer, No Pennants” does a great job putting you into the era of 1920’s and 1930’s baseball. Longert does not spend much time away from the Indians, but Babe Ruth is frequently mentioned, and you can feel the weight of his impact on the game with just how much influence he had in every city he appeared in. Other star players are mentioned and noted as they travel through Cleveland, but Longert does a careful job to never put too much emphasis on players not involved with Cleveland baseball.

A lot of the between-season sections of the books also focus on player holdouts, as they await their checks with pay cuts the deeper they get into the depression. Without free agency, a proper player’s union, or any protection from owner manipulation, general mangers were free to dictate how much a player made. If they decided you should get a 15 percent pay cut, it would come in the mail and there was not a lot as you, as a player, could do. You could either sign or, as some players like Wes Ferrell did, frequently hold out for more money.

On the field, the depression-era Indians were a mess. Throughout the years covered in the book, they never finished with more than 87 wins and they never made it to the playoffs. Longert introduces readers to hometown heroes and Indians legends such as Earl Averill, Dick Porter, Wes Ferrell, Mel Harder, Joe Vosmik, Hal Trosky, and others as the Tribe front office tries to piece together a championship team. Each is given their own proper introduction, with the bigger stars having full pages dedicated to backstory into their life on and off the field.

The Indians could just never seem to get everything clicking at once in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. They consistently had a fantastic outfield, but one year the pitching staff would be excellent while the hitting struggled, or vice versa.

The seemingly endless cycle of a team having a player’s coach followed by a hard-ass coach is present, even the 90 years ago when this book takes place. Roger Peckinpaugh standing in as the player’s coach in roughly the first half of the book, and Walter Johnson (yes, that Walter Johnson), taking over as the hard-ass in the second half when fan outrage eventually lead to Peckinpaugh’s firing and the famous line from Alva Bradley: “The owner hires the manager and the fans fire him.”

Johnson is painted as a pretty awful manager throughout his chapters. Both with in-game decisions like walking in the tying run in the ninth inning, and his managing of personalities and the arms of his pitchers. He had very public disputes with Oral Hildebrand, and nearly ruined the arm of several pitchers in his two short years as manager.

One of the things I enjoyed most about Longert’s style is that he did not dwell too long on individual game recaps. He highlights the important moments and the biggest games, but he doesn’t drown you out with second-hand descriptions of what happened in every single game — which I really appreciate. It moves the book along at a nice pace, while still getting you all the relevant information. I really enjoyed pulling up the Baseball-Reference page for each season after I finished a chapter and seeing how Longert’s descriptions lined up with the raw numbers.

* * *

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I noticed when it came out that review copies were available, and the Ohio University Press was kind enough to send me a paperback copy (and another one by mistake that I’ll be giving away somehow soon). But I would have definitely picked this up regardless, and I will absolutely be reading Scott Longert’s other books on the Indians — one leading up to the 1920 championship team and another on Addie Joss — before long.

I will say, though, I am not exaggerating when I say this book is dense. It took me months to finish its 276 pages — mostly because I sort of forgot about it and got caught up in the World Series run, but also because it’s a lot to take in for long sittings at a time. But if you love history, the Indians, or both, you cannot go wrong with “No Money, No Beer, No Pennants.”

You can find it on Amazon and the Ohio University Press website.