miracle collapse

Reviewed by Tim Morris, University of Texas at Arlington

SEPTEMBER 12, 2006       archive

Unless one is talking about Samson and the pillars at Gaza, the words “miracle” and “collapse” rarely occur together. They come yoked in the title of a new book about the 1969 Chicago Cubs. Doug Feldmann’s Miracle Collapse is a painstaking recreation of the 1969 baseball season that may inform, appall, or exhaust readers.

Count me somewhere between the exhausted and the appalled. Miracle Collapse is a thick dossier of information about every aspect of the 1969 Cubs. But it does not meet its ideal reader in me. I don’t need to read it, actually. The 1969 baseball season is still evilly present in my life. I have never quite gotten over it.

I must have been a sponge of transaction news as a ten-year-old, because I remember the minutest roster moves that Feldmann reports. The signing of Hank Aguirre, the arrival of Dick Selma, the trades that landed Nate Oliver and Paul Popovich – I was the man, I suffered, I was there. I embarked on the dizziest bouts of premature chicken-counting when the Cubs took a nine-game division lead in mid-August. And it broke my infant heart when they lost that division by eight games to the New York Mets.

The appalling thing about Miracle Collapse is that it chronicles the day-by-day hopes of the Cubs and their subsequent evaporation. There is no respite from impending disaster. The book is basically a slow digest of newspaper and magazine accounts of the ‘69 season, assembled as a You-Are-There album of game stories and anecdotes.

But Feldmann wasn’t there -- or if he was, he suppresses the personal perspective. Sportswriter Rick Talley offered a first-hand account of the collapse several years ago in The Cubs of ’69 (Chicago: Contemporary, 1989). Miracle Collapse amounts to an accompanying timeline for Talley’s more vivid story-telling. (Indeed, Feldmann quotes some of his tastier material from Talley, like Randy Hundley’s depiction of being held together by adhesive tape and Demerol during the stretch drive. [199-200])

Feldmann does not intrude on his chronicle, or attempt to give it dramatic shape. But he does pad it. He snaps up any excuse for a digression. The weekend military service of several Cubs triggers a page about Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rocky Bleier (40). August 1969 in Feldmann’s telling starts with a full three pages on football’s College All-Star Game (185-187). This stuff provides not context so much as random association. A book that contains 250 pages of text needs no padding; a sharper, brisker narrative is somewhere in this raw material, waiting for someone’s pen to release it.

So most readers will find this book simply exhausting. The problem is not so much forest-for-the-trees as it is Feldmann’s decision to line up all his facts like a Christmas-tree farm. I can imagine a future historian harvesting Feldmann’s farm for data, but here is another problem with the book: it is devoid of documentation. Feldmann mentions newspapers briefly, but cites no specific articles. His bibliography is perfunctory, and there isn’t a footnote in sight. Any future researcher will need to reassemble Feldmann’s primary sources as a basis of his or her own work. Miracle Collapse manages to fail as both story-telling and archival research. But then, why should a book about the Cubs succeed?

Doug Feldmann, Miracle Collapse: The 1969 Chicago Cubs. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006. xviii + 280 pp. 0-8032-2026-X $24.95 cloth.

Copyright © 2006 by Tim Morris.

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