Larry the Cleveland Baseball Dog! Did you know there was such a thing? It sounds like an unwelcome character in one of those Disney Air Bud movies about dogs playing basketball and going to the moon and running for president… but it’s not. Larry was real, he was the Cleveland Baseball Dog, and his story is a heartwarming, beautiful tale about friendship.
I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about baseball history, yet I’d never heard of Larry either. But there he was, on the shelf at my local library – in my favorite section – “new juvenile fiction.” By all rights, this thin trade paperback with the black and white cover should have been lost amongst all the new, colorful MG books, tucked between offerings by Adam Rex and Gary D. Schmidt – yep, it wasn’t even shelved in the right spot – but somehow it caught my eye, and I’m so glad that I found Jack and Larry.
We live in a world where there are no more baseball dogs. Maybe we’re better off in a world where we take our sports seriously, but there’s something to be said for the days when people wore a shirt, tie, and an awesomely cool hat to a ball game. There’s something to be said for the days when baseball really felt like a national pastime, when ballplayers loved the game so much that they spent the winters barnstorming their way through the southern states, and the game was full of characters like Max Patkin, the clown prince of baseball; Bill Veeck, the king of the publicity stunt; and Eddie Gaedel, the 3’ 7” pinch hitter.
Jack and Larry takes you back to those old days. I enjoy baseball books for that very reason. They can be a time machine – not entirely unlike Dan Gutman’s Baseball Card Adventures – but this is a very different sort of baseball book. Jack and Larry is not so much about strategy, statistics, or standings so much as it is about the relationships we form in sports. As a coach of youth sports, as well as a middle grades reading teacher, I’m required to love this type of story.
As a baseball fan since before she can remember, Barbara Gregorich seems to be drawn to the game’s unique stories. Her previous book is about a women’s baseball league in the 1940s and this tale, given to her by a friend from the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), is about a baseball dog. Really, a baseball dog.
You see, Jack Graney was the Cleveland Naps’ (this is before they were the Indians) left fielder and leadoff hitter. The team was bad. Real bad. Jack felt a great deal of that was because of the lack of camaraderie on the team. That all changed in 1912 when the team’s trainer won a bull-terrier in a card game and brought the dog, Larry, to the ballpark. Suddenly, a team that had no identity and no spirit began to rally around a dog.
Slowly, Larry brought the team together. He became Jack’s dog, but the Naps were Larry’s team. They started to play like more of a unit, more like a real team. It took some time, but they got better, and, with help from Larry, Cleveland went from perennial cellar dwellers to a respectable ballclub.
This book is about the team while Jack and Larry were there – from 1912 until the early 1920s, how they fared during that time, and the relationship between man and dog, but it also goes beyond baseball to be, according to Gregorich, a “story of what it means to love, to be a teammate, to build a team, to fight on despite horrible losses.” Larry’s presence in the clubhouse and on the practice field seems to have had a huge impact on the players, but it’s not just the dog or the famous teammates like Nap Lajoie, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Tris Speaker, and Ray Chapman that make the story. It’s Jack.
Jack Graney wasn’t a superstar, but he was one of those hard-nosed, blue collar type players that the fans love, but not only was he an important part of the Cleveland team – Jack was living baseball history: he was the first batter to face Babe Ruth, the first to wear a number on his uniform, and the first former player to become a big league broadcaster.
Anyone who’s read Gutman’s Baseball Card books has heard of Joe Jackson and Ray Chapman and the tragedies that awaited them, but that gut wrenching fore-knowledge adds to the power of Gregorich’s beautiful verse. This isn’t your typical baseball book, replacing box scores and statistics with emotion and feeling, and written in a series of free verse poems that feels like a baseball historian is, in the author’s own words, “having a relaxed, almost playful (but serious) conversation with the reader.”
It truly is a remarkable book. Let’s take a second to make a list of all the books written for middle graders that tell a forgotten piece of history, include memorable characters, grab reluctant readers with a great baseball story, and do it with perfectly crafted free verse.
- 1. Jack and Larry
That’s a short list.
Fittingly, I found this lost story of baseball and friendship tucked in between two much more famous and successful books, almost lost to the glitz and glam of bigger publishers – just like Barbara Gregorich found Jack and Larry’s story amidst all the pages in the history books about Babe Ruth and Joe Jackson. Somehow that story reached out and grabbed her heart, just like her book did for me. I’m so glad it did.
Mike Curtis is a 6th grade English teacher in one of those tiny little Illinois farm towns you’ve never heard of. He’s proudest when he sees a book that’s he’s recommended in his students’ hands the next day. You can find his MG book, How the Horse was Lost, on Amazon.com, and find Mike on Twitter @MCLiterature.