The Krank–Baseball’s Rarest Book
In baseball literature, this little book–sixty-four pages, dimensions two inches by two-and-a-half inches, printed on “blood parchment” and “bound in the skin of a baseball”–is the rarest of the rare. The New York Public Library has a copy, and so does the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library. Three other copies appear to exist, also held by institutions, and another, the sixth, was sold at auction nine years ago. Its author is Thomas William Lawson, who would go on to fame as a wizard of Wall Street, but who at this time was the manager of a troubled publishing firm in Boston, Rand Avery Company, which printed the book and sold it to the public for twenty-five cents.
The Krank: His Language and What It Means is a humorous glossary of baseball terms. Many of these are highly picturesque to the modern imagination (a strikeout is “cutting a hole in space,” “ smashing the wind,” or “compressing the atmosphere”). Others are fascinating for their etymological clues. What we today call a “pop fly,” for instance, is defined and depicted as a pot fly–the household insect that traces lazy circles over a steaming pot in the kitchen. The book begins:
The Krank is a heterogeneous compound of flesh, bone, and base-ball, mostly base-ball. He came into existence along back in the early seventies. He came to stay.
The Krank is purly American. He is found in no other country.
The Krank is of the masculine gender. The female of the tribe is known to science as a Kranklet.
The Krank has reached a high state of cultivation. The Kranklet is at present only partly developed.
The Krank has a shell, into which he crawls in the month of November. He does not emerge from it until April. While in his shell his only article of food is stray newspaper articles on deals. During the Krank season, from April to November, he subsists on air, and waxes strong.
“Krank” surely derives from the German word for sick as well as the British dialect meaning of “cranky,” which is “feeble-minded.” Baseball devotees at the turn of the century were also called “bugs,” thus casting another aspersion on those who were simply mad about the game.
As a boy Thomas William Lawson had been a “candy butcher” on the New England trains, which meant that he sold candy, tobacco, and newspapers in the aisles. He was a rabid baseball fan–even before that term replaced the older “krank”–to such an extent that in 1884 he took the profits of his candy business and poured them into a baseball-card game of his own invention. Then he wrote The Krank, and contracted with 18-year-old Boston art student Sears Gallagher–who would go on to win fame as an illustrator, etcher, and painter–to illustrate it with silhouettes.
Next for Lawson was a stint on Wall Street during which he became seriously wealthy through stock-market manipulation. He became a yachtsman and a full-fledged financier of the Amalgamated Copper Company, one of the trusts that enraged Teddy Roosevelt and Judge Landis. In 1904 and 1905 Lawson confessed to his stock-market swindling and bared the whole Wall Street mess in a famous book called Frenzied Finance, which was first published serially in Everybody’s magazine. Then he became a novelist, writing Friday the Thirteenth for publication by Doubleday in 1907, and after that turned to satire under the nom de plume of Thomas W. Roastem.
Quite a career, this Baseball Leonardo. A recent profile of him may be read here: http://scituate.wickedlocal.com/article/20150807/NEWS/150808579. For a discussion of his parlor game, see: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2011/10/17/fathers-of-fantasy-baseball/.
All but truly a handful of you have ever seen the pages of this book. My xerographic copy is by now some thirty years old, and a bit furry, but it would be ill grace to complain–The Krank has not been reproduced at all to now.