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
Friday, April 21, 2006


Some ten years ago a friend gave me a copy of the audiotapes that were the basis of Lawrence Ritter's book The Glory of Their Times. I was enthralled to listen to those old-time ballplayers talk about their experiences in our game around the turn of the twentieth century. Ritter made such a wonderful contribution to my understanding of the game in those days that I thought about emulating him with players from the 1930s and 1940s, who came along after those whom Ritter featured. One day I idly mentioned my idea to my good friend the estimable investment banker and great baseball fan Herbert Allen, who instantly encouraged me and pledged financial support if I would go out and do the interviewing. This book was born of that conversation.

In checking with the National Baseball Hall of Fame, I learned there was no systematic oral history project being supported by that superb organization and so I undertook to fill that void. I was keenly aware that some important figures in the history of the integration of baseball, such as Larry Doby, were growing older and their stories would soon be lost forever. With that as motivation, I began this project. Herbert and I set up a tax-exempt foundation to provide some structure for our work, and we each gave money to support the interviewing and the necessary archival work at the Hall of Fame. (My thanks go to Steve Greenberg, treasurer of the foundation, for handling these financial matters.) We were joined by a third major contributor, George Cooney, whose video company, EUE Screen Gems, has provided gratis the camera crews and technical support to videotape every interview we have done. His help has been extraordinary and our gratitude is every bit as enormous as his generosity.

In the years since we began this project, we have done close to forty interviews, and we have dozens more planned. For this book, we have selected players who were among the oldest of those we interviewed. The focus of this volume is on the integration of the major leagues. We chose interviews with Buck O'Neil and Elden Auker, two remarkable men who played their careers prior to integration, and we include Larry Doby and Monte Irvin to capture the coming of players of color to their rightful place in the game.

The stories of Bob Feller, Dom DiMaggio, and Warren Spahn cover the World War II years and remind us of the amount of time those men and other ballplayers lost in their baseball careers by serving their country. Tommy Henrich is one of the few ballplayers alive from those great Yankee teams of the 1930s and 1940s, while Johnny Pesky recalls his years with the Boston Red Sox, playing alongside Ted Williams among others. Ralph Kiner tells of baseball in the glory days right after the war, when integration took hold.

In conducting many of the interviews, including our first one with Larry Doby, I was the partner of the gifted baseball writer Claire Smith, whose contribution to this oral history project cannot be overstated. She has been a thoughtful and wise counselor and I thank her with all my heart. Others have done some interviewing and I thank them as well. They include the late Leonard Koppett, Ed Randall, John Pessah, Mark Hyman, Dick Crago, and James Salisbury.

To put together this book - which I hope will be the first of several volumes of baseball history - I was ably assisted by my Simon & Schuster editor, Bob Bender, who combed the transcripts of the interviews I conducted and arranged the ballplayers' comments into a narrative that I then edited. The Hall of Fame generously provided the photographs in this book, for which I thank Hall of Fame president, Dale Petroskey, and his colleagues Bill Burdick and Pat Kelly. Additional thanks to Jim Gates at the Hall of Fame. We paid a modest fee to each of the ballplayers whom we interviewed, and by agreement with them, any royalties earned from this book will go to the Hall of Fame, in recognition of its fine work in preserving and disseminating the history of baseball.

In many ways this endeavor has been a labor of love for me. I have enjoyed hearing these great players describe their lives in baseball. In each interview, my first question was always the same: "Who got you interested in baseball? Who gave you your first ball and glove?" Inevitably, the next twenty or so minutes were filled by a delicious conversation. As the interviews grew, I was fascinated to discover that certain key events of the 1930s and 1940s were told - sometimes with small but significant differences - by more than one ballplayer. For example, both Elden Auker and Tommy Henrich tell the story of what happened when Hank Greenberg walked into the Chicago White Sox locker room after a game in which Greenberg had been insulted by anti-Semitic slurs from the White Sox bench. Because Auker was Greenberg's teammate at the time, his is the longer version of this story, but Henrich's account agrees in the key details. Compare Dom DiMaggio's and Johnny Pesky's accounts of Enos Slaughter's famous "dash to home" in Game 7 of the 1946 World Series. Each of them played a key role in that famous event, as you'll see. Warren Spahn tells the story of giving up Willie Mays's first hit on a pitch he was told Mays couldn't hit - but did, for a home run. Monte Irvin, Mays's teammate, tells the story from his vantage point. Everyone, it seems, has at least one Satchel Paige story (or one about Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio), all of them colorful.

It is my hope that you will enjoy these stories as I do because I am convinced that it is these stories that keep the history of baseball alive.

- Fay Vincent

© 2006 The Baseball Oral History Project Foundation