When the Grass Was Greener
By Robert W. Creamer
The Washington Post, Book World
Sunday, July 7, 1996
The latest issue of the Wodehouse Society's quarterly, Plum Lines, mentions a P.G. Wodehouse story called "How's That, Umpire?" in which Wodehouse pokes fun at the Marylebone Cricket Club, the holy of holies of cricket, and the "aged aficionados" who spend their time talking about cricket in the old days and the heroes who used to play the game.
Wodehouse in fact liked cricket, which he played and played well when he was young, just as he came to like baseball when he was an old man living on Long Island and rooting for the New York Mets. But his point strikes home, because he might just as well have been writing about us baseball fans, whose appetite for the past is insatiable. How else to explain the almost unceasing flow of books of baseball history and nostalgia -- it's difficult to separate the two -- that kindly publishers keep sending our way?
When The Boys Came Back by Frederick Turner and This Side of Cooperstown by Larry Moffi overlap to a certain degree. Turner's book concentrates on the really extraordinary year baseball experienced in 1946, its first full season after the end of World War II. Moffi's is subtitled "An Oral History of Major League Baseball in the 1950s," but the stories it tells range from the 1930s to the 1970s.
When the Boys Came Back begins with a preface that captures the essence of early 1946. It describes a sailor just discharged from the Navy who was unwilling, in that overcrowded spring, to wait several days for the next available seat on a bus or train (a seat on a plane was out of the question). So, like many other servicemen, he went out to a highway, stuck out his thumb and hitchhiked home to Pittsburgh. The sailor was Stan Musial, who before going into the Navy played in three World Series for the St. Louis Cardinals, won a National League batting championship and one year was named Most Valuable Player. How would such a baseball hero come home today, in an age when a batter gets high-fives in the dugout for grounding out to second base? But that's the way it was then.
Musial visited with his family for a few days and then left for spring training. His job with the Cardinals was secure, but for most players that year spring training was a time of strain, uncertainty and intense competition. The baseball camps were crowded with returning servicemen trying to show they were as good as ever (some weren't), with wartime players trying to prove they were talented enough to stay in the big leagues (some were), and with an exceptionally large crop of aspiring rookies.
The plethora of players meant that for team owners it was a buyer's market. Despite postwar inflation salaries remained low, sometimes astonishingly low. The Brooklyn Dodgers' Gene Hermanski got all of $4,000 only after arguing with General Manager Branch Rickey. Players, some of them established stars, were tempted by Jorge Pasquel's offer of better pay in his independent Mexican League and jumped to that so-called outlaw competition. Some returned, but even so the assault on baseball's status quo was momentous. In April 1946 a labor lawyer named Robert Murphy began his attempt to organize the players into a union or "guild." He failed, but his efforts brought about changes in the player-owner relationship that continue to echo today.
Turner also notes the 1946 arrival of Jackie Robinson in the high minor leagues, but he blends the sociological impact of baseball's racial and economic changes with sheer on-field excitement, of which there was plenty: Ted Williams going four-for-four in the All Star Game, including two home runs; Bob Feller's 348 strikeouts; the Boston Red Sox' domination of the American League pennant race; the down-to-the-wire pennant battle in the National League between Musial's Cardinals and Leo Durocher's Dodgers, which the Cardinals won in the first pennant playoff in big league history; the Cardinals' subsequent upset of the Red Sox in the World Series.
More subtle things are also touched on. 1946 was Durocher's last full season as Brooklyn's manager, and Turner's account leaves an indelible picture of Leo's relentlessly aggressive, offensive, antagonistic personality, which surely contributed to his stunning suspension for a full season the following spring and the effective end of his career with the Dodgers. There is also a depiction of Williams as a less than perfect player who was not terribly admired by his Red Sox teammates that season.
Moffi's This Side of Cooperstown is the latest in the baseball oral-history genre inaugurated so brilliantly by Lawrence Ritter in his 1966 masterpiece, The Glory of Their Times. Old-timers talking about their days in the sun are almost always fun to listen to, as most of those in this book are. Moffi chose 19 players whose careers were not quite long or distinguished enough to warrant election to Cooperstown but who were good enough to play nose-to-nose with those who were. For example: Marty Marion, considered the best shortstop in the National League during his peak years; Virgil Trucks, who won 20 games once and 19 twice and who threw two no-hitters in the same season; Mel Parnell, a 25-game winner one year for the Red Sox; Roy Sievers, who hit 42 homers in 1957 to beat out Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle for the American League home run title. They could play.
One or two want you to appreciate how good they were, but most of the 19 seem happy just telling stories. Closest to the warm tone and flow of The Glory of Their Times is Trucks, who talks with obvious pleasure and engaging humor about his life in baseball, including the time he got his club to give him a $1,000 raise because a player he had always won money from playing golf had been traded away. And Milt Bolling, a white Southerner, remembers going to a game between two black teams in Alabama when he was still in college and seeing an amazing throw by a young center fielder he had never heard of. "We looked at our scorecard," Bolling recalls, "and all it said was Mays."
I enjoyed both of these books. Wodehouse might have too.
Robert W. Creamer, the author of several baseball books, is now writing a historical novel.
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