Explores a delirious moment in American history through the stories of three men: Karl Muck, the German conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, accused of being an enemy spy; Charles Whittlesey, a Harvard law graduate who became an unlikely hero in Europe; and the most famous baseball player of all time, Babe Ruth, poised to revolutionize the game he loved.
Ruth’s legend is one of the most overplayed in American lore: the carousing overgrown boy who changed the game with his prodigious power. In the context of war and pandemic, however, his story gets a fresh scrub.
The passages on Muck’s internment and the Lost Battalion are among this book’s best, but on the whole War Fever remains less than the sum of its too-many parts. In fact, only the war connects our headliners. Baseball certainly doesn’t. Beyond that, there are enough false notes to give a careful reader pause ... There are odd sins of omission and many other little gaffes, such as a reference to 'derbies and bowlers.' One need not be Roger Stone to know that derbies are bowlers. Baseball fans may learn from War Fever, and even be edified and entertained, but should pass through its turnstiles expecting to see a .250 hitter, not a Triple Crown winner.
Though it’s hard to find good fortune in the midst of a global pandemic, War Fever authors Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith have been given the gift of relevance. Their book is about a disease that is suddenly an apt historical parallel, about baseball when we are starved for sports, and about xenophobia and ginned-up controversies at a moment when people in power are demonizing outsiders and decrying real news as fake. But if serendipity can make a middling book timely, chance can’t raise an okay one to greatness ... While the authors capture what made each man extraordinary, they don’t bring these stories together to explain what the affection or disgust for their triumvirate says about America at large ... We’re a long way from the end of this pandemic, but the Ruth sections of War Fever made me wish for a different book written sometime in the future, using these catastrophes to examine the particularly American symbiosis between sports and our sense of national strength ... for all the diversions War Fever offers in the Muck and Ruth sections, the weakness of the authors’ approach to their undertaking becomes clear in their treatment of Charles Whittlesey ... Muck, Ruth and Whittlesey were iconic figures, and they were chosen as subjects for the book because of their fame. Yet War Fever has little to say about the emergent nature of celebrity in 1918 and what America’s approach to the people it venerated said about the nation, even though the juxtaposition of these men raises fascinating questions ... Maybe with a little historical distance, Roberts and Smith will have a different book to write about the two moments in American history when baseball and xenophobia met up with a pandemic. In the meantime, War Fever, like a lot of diversions available to us right now, is good enough, if no Ruthian home run or Wagnerian masterpiece.