THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN
Baseball Stars of the 1930s and 1940s Talk About the Game They Loved
By Fay Vincent
Simon & Schuster. 243 pp. $26
Four decades ago a professor of business and finance at New York University named Lawrence Ritter published one of the most remarkable books in the literature of baseball. It was called The Glory of Their Times , and it contained the tape-recorded reminiscences of two dozen surviving players from the game's early days. If ever there was a labor of love, this book was it. Ritter had spent five years researching it and traveled some 75,000 miles to track down the old men -- Rube Marquard, Fred Snodgrass, Chief Meyers, Babe Herman, Lefty O'Doul et al. -- who eagerly and happily talked about the days of their youth.
The Glory of Their Times came out of nowhere, surprising readers with the vividness and clarity of the ballplayers' recollections and the depth of their love for the game. I reviewed it for the paper in North Carolina for which I was then working. The review has long since vanished into the great newspaper morgue in the sky, but I know that it was unconditionally ecstatic. I was scarcely alone. Red Smith called it "the single best baseball book of all time," and Roger Angell described it as "an almost perfect new baseball book," sentiments that were echoed in review after review. Readers responded similarly; to date some 400,000 copies have been sold -- an astonishing figure for any book, let alone one about old-time baseball players -- and the two-disc audio CD of Ritter's interviews continues to enjoy lively sales.
Others attempted to replicate the success of The Glory of Their Times , including Ritter himself in collaboration with Donald Honig in writing The Image of Their Greatness (1979), but the original remains the gold standard. The Only Game in Town is the latest effort to mine this territory, and though it certainly has its moments, it too falls short. Fay Vincent, who served a short term as baseball commissioner in the early 1990s before resigning in September 1992 after receiving a "no-confidence" vote from the game's loutish owners, loves baseball dearly and knows it intimately, all of which shine through here, but the interviews with these players from the 1930s and '40s simply lack the depth of those that Ritter conducted.
The Only Game in Town is a direct result of Vincent's passion for the game and his awareness of the hugely important part that Ritter played in documenting its history. Inspired by Ritter's example, he persuaded the Baseball Hall of Fame to establish a "systematic oral history project," and set about, with the help of others, conducting the interviews of which this is the first collection, with future ones promised. It is an estimable undertaking, but this volume has the feel of a rush job.
To an extent that is understandable. The men with whom Vincent and/or his associates spoke aren't getting any younger, and in fact one of them -- Larry Doby -- died three years ago. Lawrence Ritter was aware of a racing clock -- he started his research after the death in 1961 of Ty Cobb -- and so is Vincent. When he began his own interviews, he realized that these men "were growing older and their stories would soon be lost forever," so it's no wonder he felt a certain urgency, but one wishes that these men had reached a little deeper into their memories and had talked at greater length about their days in the game.
They were, as Vincent well knows, crucial days in baseball history, for in these two decades the lords of the game came under pressure to open it to African Americans and then very reluctantly acceded to that pressure. The desegregation of the game is the central theme here, and virtually all of those who address the question, whether black or white, express enthusiasm for the changes it brought about. That many players fiercely opposed integration is acknowledged from time to time, usually with regard to the insults endured by Doby, Jackie Robinson and other pioneers, but the voices of those players are not heard here. It was too late to hear from, say, Enos Slaughter or Pinky Higgins, but plenty of others who resisted blacks are still around, and in the interests of historical accuracy (as opposed to nostalgia), a few of them should have been included.
Monte Irvin, one of the many players who made it out of the Negro Leagues into the Major Leagues before their skills declined, knows better than most just how much baseball denied itself, not to mention players and fans, by excluding black players. He says:
"They missed the cream of the crop. When I say the cream of the crop, if they had taken the fellows say around 1932 or '33, they would have had some outstanding players. They would have got the chance to see Cool Papa Bell run. And they would have had the chance to see Oscar Charleston play. Oscar Charleston was the Willie Mays of that era. Feared no pitcher, just a wonderful, wonderful all-around baseball player. So they missed all that. . . . it is just too bad that they didn't start earlier."
By all means it is too bad, yet the integration of baseball came at a cost to the black community. Toni Morrison has repeatedly written about how much of that community's identity and singularity were lost with integration, and the great Negro League player John "Buck" O'Neil echoes that sentiment. At the time he and his fellow players welcomed the Dodgers' signing of Robinson "because we thought if they integrated baseball, they were going to start integrating other things," but it didn't quite work out that way. Another two decades passed before the country started to address segregation in a serious way, yet as integration slowly came about, the black hotel owners and restaurateurs who catered to blacks were shoved aside by whites, just as the Major Leagues shoved aside the Negro Leagues.
So The Only Game in Town isn't quite as sunny as The Glory of Their Times (Ritter interviewed no black players), but there's some straight talk about how the game changed, and there's plenty of affection for the game itself. The players interviewed include Bob Feller, Warren Spahn, Ralph Kiner, Dom DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky. They talk a lot about Hank Greenberg, who had to face anti-Semitic insults for a decade and a half before Robinson joined the Dodgers; about Ted Williams ("the best hitter I ever saw," according to Feller); about Robinson, who "wasn't the best ballplayer we had in the Negro League," according to O'Neil, "but the right guy"; and about Satchel Paige, of whom Doby says: "Supposedly I roomed with Satch while he was with Cleveland, but I roomed with his luggage." And of course they talk about baseball. Here's Dom DiMaggio:
"As far as baseball goes, it's a clean-cut game. Everything is right there before you. You see everything. And the integrity of the game had been unblemished and outstanding during our days. I'm not overly pleased about what has happened in recent years, with the labor strikes and strikes which should never have happened. The fans took what happened previously. But I don't think they'll take another one. And I believe management and employees should be able to get together and iron this thing out. The game was a national pastime for all those many years, and those of us who played it years ago, played really, specifically, first, for the love of the game."
It's a different game now, and a different country. Love of the game still counts for a lot -- witness those players for the Washington Nationals who play their hearts out despite all the lousy deals they've gotten from the lords of baseball and the politicians of this city -- but big money has weakened players' loyalty to teams and cities, and drugs have taken a nasty toll on the public's respect for the game. It's still baseball, though, and as this book reminds us, it still has a powerful hold on the national imagination. ·
A footnote: Readers interested in the Negro Leagues certainly should look up Only the Ball Was White , by Robert W. Peterson, who died this February. Originally published in 1970, available now in an Oxford University Press paperback, it is the definitive history of those leagues. Like Ritter and Vincent, Peterson interviewed many players, with the result that his book is vivid, immediate and authoritative. Like The Glory of Their Times , it is one of the relatively few absolutely essential books about baseball.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.