Q&A with James E. Elfers, author of "The Tour to End All Tours"

"125 Pound fruit cake, product of the Northern Pacific bake shops, presented to World Tourists Team at Washington Hotel, Seattle, November 19, 1913, by the Northern Pacific Railway."

The man behind the book about the 1913-14 White Sox-Giants world tour answers more questions about the subject

Throughout my series on the 100th anniversary of the White Sox and Giants' world tour, the name "James E. Elfers" appeared just as often as more famous figures like "Charles Comiskey" and "John McGraw." There's a good reason -- his book, "The Tour to End All Tours: The Story of Major League Baseball's 1913-1914 World Tour," was instrumental in my understanding of the endeavor.

Tourcover_medium

I only discovered the tour's existence because there's a White Sox tour jacket and the Egypt photo on display at the Hall of Fame. When I read the caption and saw a centennial was approaching, I wrote an email to myself reminding me to write something about that photo in a year and a half.

Without his book, I probably could have summarized findings at each stop using newspaper and magazine clips, but the immense amount of context Elfers' book provides using a boatload of sources really tied it all together. There's so much more I wanted to cite from it (damn you, Fair Use!), so if you enjoyed the 100th anniversary series, I'd highly recommend picking up "The Tour to End All Tours," which won SABR's Larry Ritter Award in 2004 for the best dead ball era book that year.

But he's more than a book. In January, Elfers reached out to me to let me know that he had discovered my series, and that he could gladly offer some assistance. I took him up on it, and not only did he send me a veritable trove of photos, clips and other materials (like the picture of the fruitcake above), but he also helped me resolve conflicting information when I ran into it. If you read the comments at the right time, you might have noticed him sneaking into the comments to drop some more color under the handle "Delawheredad."

Now that the tour is over, I'm not done bothering him about it. Here are 10 Jim-to-Jim questions for everybody to see:

Margalus: Who are you?

Elfers: I have been employed by the Morris Library of the University of Delaware for the last 26 years. I literally started out as the mail room guy and I have progressed up the ladder over the years. My current title is Library Analyst. I assign call numbers to books and movies for our collection. I do many of the things a librarian does except that i do not have a Masters of Library Science. I have two grown sons here in Delaware and an ex-wife in Alabama. I was raised in the remote suburbs of Philadelphia and the lovely New jersey Shore. I have always loved baseball even though I was never more than a mediocre player myself. I have the outlook and hobbies of most "nerd" types.

Where do you rooting interests lie?

Elfers: I am a lifelong Phillies fan. I actually think that my rooting interests made me more qualified to write this book. I carried no prejudices about either team into the writing process with me. Not being a supporter of either team made me more objective about both.

How did you learn about the tour, and what was it that made you decide that you had to write a book about it?

Elfers: I discovered this tour when I did research in late 1980s at the Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown, N.Y. The project I was working on became the book "The Hurlers" authored by noted baseball writer, and English professor at the University of Delaware, Kevin Kerrane. (Among Kerrane's works is the seminal and highly influential "Dollar Sign On The Muscle," which is about the fascinating world of baseball scouting.)

In some musty files of the library I found some yellowing accounts of the tour. I had not really heard about the tour before and I was amazed at its extent and I was amazed by the fame of the players and owners who went on the tour. I copied the articles and my quest to learn all I could about the tour. My book was the result.

The tour is largely forgotten today. Do you think World War I stunted its possible effects? Did the Federal League turmoil steal some of its thunder before the war blew up?

Elfers: The tour was forgotten for many reasons. First was the onset of the World War. The Great War began in August of 1914. The tourists came home in March so there were precious few months for basking in the good feelings generated by the tour. The Federal League was the other reason that the tour vanished from history. The Federal League's war on the established majors was very costly and stole the headlines from just about every other baseball headline. A third factor which may or may not have impacted how the tour was remembered were the Miracle Braves of 1914. A ragtag group of also-rans caught fire and defeated the mighty New York Giants and the invincible Philadelphia A's. The sports media just LOVES those kind of tales. It is likely that the Braves stole some tour thunder as well.

While the travelers were abroad, the establishment of the Federal League began to gain credibility. I didn't really touch upon that parallel storyline because it didn't really transfer to a travelogue format, and the gravity of the shift didn't measurably affect the players until they returned home. How did you decide to approach it?

Elfers: The Federal League was THE story of 1913. It had impact on the tour and the tourists in ways both small and great. Comiskey and McGraw, probably the two most powerful men in baseball, could not focus on battling the Feds while planning or taking part in the tour. No one left behind in the states, save perhaps Ban Johnson, understood that the Feds were poised to entirely upset the baseball universe. Because of the fame of the tour and the tourists the Federal League actually sent agents to Europe with offers to players that boggled their minds. Callahan had to kick Federal agents out of some of the team hotels. To keep Tris Speaker from jumping to the Feds. the Red Sox made him the highest-paid athlete in the world. The Federal League's biggest impact was a cumulative one. Halfway around the world all the players realized that they were all worth much more than they were being paid. Some of the good feelings between ownership and the players began to erode in the wake of that news. Things got so bad Jimmy Callahan accused Tris Speaker of being an agent for the Federal League!

That the tour was quickly overshadowed leads me to wonder -- was there a better time to do it? I don't think they could've done it much earlier, because the game hadn't quite matured enough. And they tried it another European excursion in 1924, but there wasn't nearly the level of interest, and they pared it down considerably after poor turnouts in England. Then there's the Depression, World War II, and by the time the Cold War kicks in, the world's a lot smaller and a lot more complicated. It seems to me that baseball had a pretty small window where they had the ambition, idealism and organization required to pull it off. What's your take?

Elfers: I think the only other window for the world tour would would have been around 1905 or so. It was also a  time of relative world peace and general good feelings towards America and Americans. That combination has rarely existed since 1914. But really it is a miracle that the tour got off when it did at all. The year chosen, 25 years after Spalding's tour was significant to both McGraw and Comiskey. In a sense they wanted to steal Spalding's thunder! During the tour the U.S. press sometimes ran stories about the Spalding tour's anniversary, but nearly ALL of the coverage was about the great endeavor of McGraw and Comiskey.

I do imagine that a similar tour could have been funded by the CIA during the Cold War, whether it would have been seen as anything more than American cultural imperialism however is highly doubtful.

Who was your favorite character on the tour (and if you're going to say Germany Schaefer, pick somebody else)?

Elfers: My favorite would be hard to pin down. The most underrated player would have been Hans Lobert. He raced a horse around the bases in California and was in the thick of most of the adventures. His memory as fantastic as he could recall accurately details of events that occurred five decades earlier. The most important tourist was without question Jim Thorpe. He was one of the most famous men in the world even before the tour began and his fame drew crowds to what might have otherwise been empty stadiums. Thorpe was shy and reserved and bitter over the loss of his medals. The world reaction Thorpe was greeted with soothed over his bitterness a bit. He saw that the rest of the world saw things HIS way.

(Note from Margalus: Lobert indeed seemed like a sweet guy from Ritter's interview with him:)

Who was the figure you found least appealing?

Elfers: The least appealing tourist was easily Ted Sullivan. He was Comiskey's best friend but no one else could stand him. A pompous, racist, xenophobic windbag. He was every negative cliché foreigners held about Americans in one package. The players were, by and large, well behaved on the tour although I did find evidence that some of the single players probably visited a brothel in Shanghai. There was however no concrete proof. If true I would love to have had an account of those going on!

Were there any people on the tour who surprised you one way or the other (liked him/her more than you thought, or he/she "disappointed" you)? What did they do that swung you?

Elfers: I came away from my book liking Charles Comiskey far more than I expected to. Yes, he could be overbearing and pompous at times but he DID put up a considerable part of his fortune to pull the tour off. Having been raised in the political machine of Chicago (his father was a city alderman), "Commy" could often sweet-talk domestic and foreign dignitaries when needed. I had gone into my research believing that the picture of Comiskey painted in "Eight Men Out" was gospel. It is a lot more complicated than that, however. The shame of it is, had Comiskey been just a bit more of a "people person" and understood his players a bit more, the Black Sox scandal might never have happened. I ALMOST felt sorry for Comiskey!

As for disappointments, McGraw was more of a jerk than i had expected. The way he treated Jim Thorpe both on the tour and at home is downright criminal. If you were casting "Muggsy" in a movie you would give him the physique of Joe Pesci and the personality of Larry Bowa. He was the classic example of "short man syndrome" writ large.

How much would you pay for a copy of Frank McGlynn's movie?

Elfers: To see Frank McGlynn's  movie I would gladly sell my soul to Beelzebub, consign all of my co-workers to be tossed into an active volcano and sell state secrets to any enemy power under the sun. In other words i want that film bad!

(Elfers pieced together a possible outline of McGlynn's movie based on what the director and other sources said cameras caught, which gives you an idea of how valuable that film would be.)

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