One Summer: America, 1927
By Bill Bryson
509 pages, $28.95.
By Edward Cuddihy
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Not much remains today of the summer of 1927.
There’s the huge bat with Babe Ruth’s name under it at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown to commemorate the 60 home runs Ruth whacked that summer as a member of the greatest Yankee team ever to take the field.
Teammate Lou Gehrig hit 47 homers that season, and between them, Ruth and Gehrig hit as many home runs as the total of the next two teams combined. Of course, that was before performance-enhancing steroids.
Then there’s the Spirit of St. Louis. Today it hangs by thin wire threads from the ceiling of the Air and Space Museum in Washington. Tens of thousands of visitors each year wonder how anyone – no less a lanky kid from Minnesota – could have flown that glorified motorized canvas kite from New York to Paris.
The boyish-looking Charles Lindbergh’s life would never be the same.
After that, what remains of 1927? Al Capone is gone, nearly forgotten except in old Hollywood movies. The Tommy gun is a relic of a bygone era. So is Italian immigrant Charles Ponzi. Only his name survives in reincarnation through Bernie Madoff.
Few can tell you with certainty who won the Tunney-Dempsey fight that year, and fewer yet can describe the controversial long count.
Henry Ford shut down his Model T assembly line that summer, and Americans awaited the arrival of the new Model A. Zane Grey novels were all the rage, and radio was climbing toward the height of its popularity. Television – yes, TV in 1927 – was proven to work, even if the flickering screen was only slightly larger than two commemorative postage stamps.
Best-selling author Bill Bryson – your humble critic is reluctant to use the word “historian” – has a plethora of material to work with, and he milks it for more than 450 often exciting, always enticing pages.
Bryson appears to lean heavily on the electronic morgues of the New York Times and New Yorker magazine. One wonders what popular historians did before you could plug the name “Babe Ruth” into the Times archive and come up with tens of thousands of hits?
Bryson often stretches the summer of ’27, notably backward, to flesh out his story. For example, a little-known court decision of 1927 is his jumping off point for a treatment of the Teapot Dome scandal and President Warren Harding’s alleged dalliances in a White House closet.
Of course by 1927, Harding was dead and his successor Calvin Coolidge was about to turn the Oval Office over to Herbert Hoover.
Similarly, the 1927 death of Wayne Wheeler is the embarkation point for a full treatment of our nation’s great failed experiment in legislating morality. Wheeler, head of the Anti-Saloon League, often is credited with having more to do with the institution of Prohibition than any other single person.
Bryson’s prose always is snappy, quick-witted and bright, even if at times it sneaks over the line into what might be described as marketing-speak. Some would describe Bryson’s work as “history light,” but it’s fun just the same.
This type of popular social history, while painted with a wide brush, lends itself to indulgence in broad generalities and oversimplification. Here are just two examples:
The Great Depression, according to Bryson, was hatched at a clandestine meeting of four internationally known economists in a mansion on Long Island’s Gold Coast. The collapse of world markets stemmed from their conspiracy to manipulate interest rates.
And Bryson’s Henry Ford was a simple-minded mechanic, an ignoramus who never read a book, knew nothing of current events, and very little about business. But as one wag put it: There were thousands of simple-minded tinkerers working in garages and machine shops throughout the country in the 1920s, but only one of them founded Ford Motor Company.
“One Summer” is a treasure trove of trivia. Much of it is baseball trivia like thumbnails of that season’s entire Yankees’ starting lineup, but it doesn’t end there.
Who threw the pitch that turned into the Babe’s 59th homer? Here’s a hint: Ruth was the first major league batter he ever faced. And after the Ruth blast, he struck out Gehrig to end the inning (Paul Hopkins). And Ruth’s 60th? (Washington Senators’ pitcher Tom Zachary).
Ruth was sold to the struggling Yankees by a Boston Red Sox owner (H.H. Frazee), who couldn’t make his payroll. The price was $100,000 and a $350,000 loan.
Ruth was paid $1,350 a week during his record season. The Yankees’ radio announcer (Graham McNamee) pulled down slightly more than that. And Hollywood cowboy star Tom Mix averaged $15,000 a week that year.
A Danish-American sculptor (Gutzon Borglum) began blasting away at Stone Mountain in the summer of ’27 in what would become Mount Rushmore.
The call letters WGN in Chicago, one of the nation’s widely heard radio stations, stood for the “World’s Greatest Newspaper,” and referred to Col. Robert McCormick’s Chicago Tribune. This was an era when high-powered radio station call letters were significant. Here in Buffalo, WKBW was “Well Known Bible Witness” and WBEN was “Buffalo Evening News.”
Despite its warts, Bryson’s book has a great deal going for it. His description of the race for the $25,000 prize for the first person to fly from New York and Paris is exhilarating. We have forgotten how many fliers were fished from the ocean, or worse, disappeared, never heard from again.
Lindbergh’s plunge from popularity, which took several years to coalesce, actually began in the fall of ’27. By 1940, he was describing Hitler as “undoubtedly a great man,” even if a little fanatical. And a 1941 national radio address from Des Moines, Iowa, which most considered racist, effectively ended America’s love affair with their flying hero.
It is difficult to imagine so many headline events, some frivolous, some hugely important and some merely tittle-tattle, occurring in the same year.
Bryson says it best when he writes: “It could reasonably be said that the summer of 1927 marked the moment when America discovered its own importance.”
Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.