As I make ready for the 2015 season, fate drops a couple of great baseball books into my lap. I happen to work near a Half Price Books shop, and their clearance shelves offer occasional treasures for guys like myself, who love the heft and scent of massive old tomes.
A few weeks ago I happened upon a paperback copy of The Glory of Their Times. I once owned a hardcover edition, and after aging it on my bookshelf for a few years, I passed it along to its next owner, having never cracked it open. Much later, when I started this blog, I found repeated references to it as “The single best baseball book of all time.” (Red Barber, repeatedly.)
“Hey, I think I own that book,” I thought, and scurried happily into “my library” to peruse the crowded stacks. No such luck; a dusty empty slot on the shelf (between Roth’s Great American Novel and Neft’s Baseball) was all I found, which I dutifully filled with regret.
But, like a harbinger of spring, I came across a very nice paperback copy of this a few weeks ago, and, with the season just around the corner, I jumped in. I don’t think I’d call this the greatest baseball book of all time, but it’s certainly one of the best. Lawrence S. Ritter got the idea of tracking down old ballplayers and getting their stories on tape, and then spent five years and traveled 75,000 miles doing just that. It wasn’t easy; there was no reliable source of information back then on old ballplayers, and Ritter spent a lot of time at the library, looking through phone books, and just talking to folks, trying to track these players down.
It doesn’t really say how he chose the players. (Or else I missed that.) But he’s found some good ones here. My paperback is a 1984 “enlarged” edition, and thus includes four more players than the original valuable and probably rare and priceless ’66 hardcover edition. Ritter talks to legends and lesser-knowns, including Rube Marquard, Davy Jones, Smokey Joe Wood, Specs Toporcer, Chief Meyers, Babe Herman, Stan Coveleski, Goose Goslin, Willie Kamm, Paul Waner, and Hank Greenberg. He does a great job of letting the ballplayers tell their stories in their own words – it’s very much like Studs Terkel’s work, where you get only the players’ voices. About the only time we hear from Ritter is in the introduction, where he he talks about how he came to write the book, and relates this story about how he found a particular player:
A long drive and inquiries at post offices, real estate agencies, and grocery stores placed me, two days later, in the small town of Baywood Park, California, half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco. For the next two day, however, I made no further progress. On the morning of the fifth day, frustrated and disappointed, I took some wash to the local laundromat and sat disgustedly sat watching the clothes spin. Seated next to me was a tall elderly gentleman, reading a frayed paperback. Idly, I asked if he had ever heard of Sam Crawford, the old ballplayer.
“Well I should certainly hope so,”he said, “bein’ as I’m him.”
I would have enjoyed hearing a few more tales about his searching for these guys.
The ballplayers, of course, have got great stories, about their backgrounds and the game. I’m about halfway through the book, and I’ve found out that Stan Coveleksi started working in the Pennsylvania coal mines when he was 12 years old. He was working from seven in the morning til seven in the evening, six days and 72 hours a week. For which he got paid $3.75 a week, about 5 cents an hour.
What was strange was that I ever got out of there. Like I said, I never played much baseball in those days. I couldn’t. Never saw the sunlight. Most of the year I went to work in the dark and came home in the dark. I would have been a natural for night baseball. Never knew the sun came up any day but Sunday.
There was also Davy Jones’ great story of how Germany Schaefer stole first base in a game against Cleveland in 1908, and Joe Wood talking about his great year of pitching and how he couldn’t give up the game after his arm injury, and how he got the chance to come back and play outfield. It’s one great story after another, the players are all well-spoken, and you can tell how they cherish these memories and enjoyed playing ball. I’ve heard a lot of stories about how rough the players were in the early days of the game, and this book is kind of a counterweight to that. Players speak with great appreciation and empathy about other players, and talk about who gave them the chances to get in the game, who impressed them, and who got unlucky breaks.
Well, it’s late. More on this later, and also on my other great discount bookstore find.