Introducing “1927: The Diary of Myles Thomas”
This is an essay I wrote for ESPN’s new project, “1927:The Diary of Myles Thomas,” which launches today. While it appears on the project’s site (espn.com/1927DMT), by posting it here as well I am hoping to reach those who read me regularly.
I’d like to tell you about a new project coming from ESPN to which I have been invited to pull up a chair. Debuting today, it has utterly gripped me.
After a long career, it’s no fun to step again in old footprints, so I’m always on the lookout for something new. I am certain there has never been anything quite like this — the story of a team and a season expressed through what is essentially a historical novel formed by a diary, letters, and tweets; an exploration of not only a ball team but a peak year of the Jazz Age — all of it released cross-platform in real time over the course of this summer, with an outcome that is unknown not only to its protagonists but also its creators.
It is a tale told by a bit player on the ’27 Yankees — pitcher Myles Thomas. In true life, Thomas was an insignificant member of the team, and for the purposes of this work the creators are using only his baseball statistics. They are creating his diary and letters, through which Thomas will introduce us not only to his teammates but also to luminaries of the day who cavorted with the ballplayers, from Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke to Barbara Stanwyck and Al Jolson. Lesser lights may play major roles: Myles’s Penn State teammate Hinkey Haines, still the only man to play for a championship team in the NFL and in MLB; Fred Merkle of “bonehead” fame, a coach with the ’27 Yanks; Gertrude Ederle, who swam the English Channel that year; Paul Robeson, who was once Lou Gehrig’s baseball coach; Ty Cobb, John McGraw and Rube Foster. Truly, the cast would do justice to a Sol Hurok gladiator epic.
But first and last, in 1927 and perhaps in all of American legend, is Babe Ruth, the Sultan of Swat, the Beatified Bambino, the Paul Bunyan of Baseball. Had he not lived, we would have had to make him up. The embodiment of the Jazz Age, “he was a parade all by himself,” wrote Jimmy Cannon, “a burst of dazzle and jingle. Santa Claus drinking his whiskey straight and groaning with a bellyache caused by gluttony…. Babe Ruth made the music that his joyous years danced to in a continuous party….” In the summer of ’27 Charles Lindbergh would briefly eclipse Babe Ruth as the one-man parade and darling of the newsreels, but by season’s end Ruth had retaken his pedestal.
“1927: The Diary of Myles Thomas” never strays far from the Babe. It is a tale of jazz and speakeasies, bucket-shop brokers and movie stars, Lucky Lindy and the Great White Way. It’s about elevator boys offering stock tips, gamblers and mobsters mingling with athletes and entertainers, and socialites at Harlem nightclubs in search of thrills.
The Jazz Age was a normless bundle of contradiction — the sale of alcohol was prohibited by the Volstead Act, yet in the cities, it was readily available and saw greater demand than before it was banned. As the federal income tax had begun to make America a nation of accountants, the Prohibition era made it a nation of lawbreakers. With America’s immigration spigot shut tight by the 1920s, the melting pot had begun to boil, as the nation’s popular culture — film, music, and radio programming — bubbled up from former denizens of the bottom.
The Great War had made young people newly conscious of their mortality and impelled them to seize the moment, to live life improvisationally, to kick over their parents’ plans for them. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tales of the Jazz Age and Colleen Moore’s film Flaming Youth provided the map to fly-boys and flappers, giving them new paths to personal freedom, led by the music of a legion of jazz pied-pipers.
“This was different, shifted the lay of the land… guys, playing and singing, writing their own material… opened up a whole world of possibilities.”
Bruce Springsteen said that about The Beatles’ impact on his life and career, but it could have been said about Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven. Where in the 1960s, it had been hip to be cool, back in the ’20s everyone was looking for hot. It was no accident that the first big talking motion picture was named “The Jazz Singer.”
Myles Thomas’s diary will not be telling merely the story you think you know — about Babe Ruth and his 60 home runs, Lou Gehrig and his 173 RBIs, Murderers’ Row and their famous five o’clock lightning — instead, it will provide a peephole into the past, a view of what it was really like to be young and a Yankee in the greatest city in the world, at maybe the greatest time to be alive. In “1927: The Diary of Myles Thomas,” there will be booze, sex, drugs, and, while no rock ’n’ roll, plenty of jazz.
In the sports year 1927, the New York Giants would win the NFL title. The New York Rangers would begin their rush to capture their first Stanley Cup in their second season of existence. The New York Celtics would be champions of the American Basketball League. In New York, this was certainly the Golden Year of Sports. And it might have been fairly called that even if the Yankees had been the city’s only champion; that’s how extraordinary a team they were.
The greatest baseball team of all time? There was only one answer: the 1927 Yankees, the team that scored nearly two and a half runs per game more than their opposition — a figure surpassed only by the Yankees of 1939, and never again — and the team that coasted to the pennant, 19 games ahead of runner-up Philadelphia; who swept the Pirates in the World Series. Maybe the 1998 Yankees could have given them a run for their honors, or maybe sabermetric analysis may send you back for another look at the 1902 Pirates, but among 99 percent of baseball fans today, the legendary status of the 1927 Yankees is secure: They won 110 games and lost only 44. Their batters finished first in home runs, batting average, and RBIs — a team triple crown — yet had the fewest strikeouts in the league. Their pitchers were first in ERA and shutouts while allowing the fewest hits and walks.
What is my role in this exciting project? My goal is to play spiritedly in the principal writers’ sandbox, to scribble alongside them every now and then and, as Major League Baseball’s official historian, to assure readers that our crew’s flights of fancy will not veer far from known fact, and will never contradict it.
The goal of the project, says its creator, Douglas Alden, is “to create a work of real-time historical fiction that explores the nexus of baseball, jazz and prohibition, a deeply personal exploration by one fictional ballplayer from the 1920s of race, sex, and the meaning of heroes and greatness.” My role as historian, in short, is providing a bevy of story nuggets to the principal writers, as well as a personal “Seal of Plausibility” for all of the incidents and adventures.
And part of what makes this project so much fun is that we’re constantly discovering new facts about the 1927 real-life cast of characters that astonish us, and we’re sure will astonish you — to the point where the project will include online citations and links to our discoveries, as some of them are so hard to believe.
When imagination is thrown into the mix, well, that’s where the fun lies.