Monday, June 23, 2014

old-school baseball: Lawrence Ritter's "The Glory of their Times"

Apparently, Lawrence Ritter's compilations of interviews is often considered one of the best baseball books of all times. (I'd add George Will's Men at Work to a short list.) It is an excellent (and easy) read-- at least for baseball fans with a modest interest in the sport's history. (Again, a h/t to Reason's Matt Welch who mentioned this book briefly in his discussion of Jackie Robinson's similar book. I've also reviewed Fay Vincent's book which is a cousin of both.)

Originally published in 1966, these are edited transcripts of Ritter's interviews with old-time ballplayers. He observes: "Of course, this book was really not 'written' at all. It was spoken. And, as spoken literature, it is characterized by simplicity and directness...My role was strictly that of catalyst, audience, and chronicler. I asked and listened, and the tape recorder did the rest." (p. xvi)

Ritter traveled 75,000 miles, "searching for the heroes of a bygone era" (xi). The audiotapes are in Cooperstown (ix)-- and he says that "it has even been suggested that publication of the book helped some of the men get elected to the Hall, because it stimulated interest in the early days of the game..." (ix).

One of the recurring questions addressed in the book: whether modern players are better than the old-timers. I was surprised to read that most of the old-timers thought the moderns were better (e.g., see: p. 125, 270). Although direct comparisons are impossible, they noted that we easily assume this in other sports-- that the athletes are generally bigger, faster, better-conditioned, etc. (And sometimes we can measure it: when there is an objective standard for individual athletes-- for example, as in track and field.) In baseball, one can add that the (white) old-timers were not allowed to play against "colored" players.

Continuing with that theme, the players describe a lot of discrimination. (Of course, Jackie Robinson's book of interviews with his commentary is very helpful on this.) Al Bridwell credits local sports for breaking down some of those walls, as players sought the challenge of playing the best (126). Chief Meyers shared stories about Jim Thorpe and (socially acceptable) discrimination against Native Americans (183-184). And as a coach after his playing days, Paul Waner benefited from an odd form of statistical discrimination, since he was so small. Given his success, ballplayers assumed from his size that he must know a lot about hitting (345)!

Hank Greenberg said he experienced anti-Semitism but it spurred him on rather than hurting him. He said it was nothing like what Robinson faced (329). And he never worried about it much until he had the opportunity to purchase the White Sox from Bill Veeck (whom he worked with and admired)-- and worried about the owners messing with him, if he became financially vulnerable (328). But years later, he figured out that he had inadvertently been a role model for many Jewish youth (330). He said that people remembered that he wouldn't play on Yom Kippur, but that it only happened once.  

The players tell a lot of great stories. Starting with Greenberg: a scout told him that Lou Gehrig was washed up-- in 1929! (310); his first game back from World War II with a home run and a standing ovation (324); and him calming down Ralph Kiner by noting that a hitter gets about 1200 swings per year and only needs to hit 35-40 out of the park. Greenberg also says that he thinks he's the only MVP to have played two different positions (321).

Other stories: Rube Marquard setting up his own trade (16-17); Germany Schaefer stealing first base from second base (43-45); the origins of umpire hand signals for deaf baseball players (54); the shenanigans that were possible when there was only one umpire trying to keep track of everything (55); the newspaper invention of the term "bonehead" for Fred Merkle (108); the grandfathering of spitball pitches for 17 pitchers (123); Joe Wood getting his start with a girls' team that used four guys wearing wigs (157); a century ago, the Indians were known as the Naps after Nap Lajoie (235); Sam Jones was excited to receive three new baseballs per year as a fringe benefit (245)

Specs Toporcer had a bunch of interesting stories: reading Western Union ticker tapes as a teenaged radio announcer of sorts (261-262); the first infielder with eyeglasses, taking over for Rogers Hornsby (262, 265)-- a rare occasion until plastic lenses appeared after World War II (267); later in life, after five operations, he lost sight in both eyes (269); getting paid to turn the lights on at the synagogue during Shabbat (263); the only player he'd heard about who jumped from sandlot ball to the big leagues in one move (265).

This is an old story and I'm not sure Lefty O'Doul is the only one to tell it, but he gets credit for it here (276): A kid asked him what he thought "Cobb would hit today". He replied .340. The kid asked "Why do you say Cobb was so great if he could only hit .340 or so?" O'Doul repled: "Well, you have to take into consideration that the man is now 73 years old!"
Goose Goslin is one of the most likely late-inductees that people credit to Ritter's book. Goslin recounts a number of cool stories: hitting into four double plays in one game and then being upset that someone tied his record a few years later (282a); his batting title battle with Heinie Manush in 1928 (including his dilemma in whether to play the last day of the season) and then getting traded for him two years later (282b-284a); and then his noting that the Senators won their only three pennants when he was a member and that he played every inning of their World Series games (in 1924, 1925, and 1933). 

Of course, a book on baseball will have a lot of interesting stats

-The Red Sox won four pennants and four World Series in seven years, from 1912-1918 (144). The A's won three World Series and four pennants in five years, from 1910-1914 (199)-- and then finished last seven years in a row after Connie Mack broke up the team (202). 
-Smoky Joe Wood and Walter Johnson each won 16 in a row in 1912. (Wood won 34, including 10 shutouts.) But Rube Marquard won 19 in a row (147-149). Wood's arm woes were sad (166-169), but he and Ruth hold the distinction of playing as a pitcher and an outfielder in the World Series (150-151). 
-Games used to be under two hours routinely, since pitchers didn't "waste so much time" (176, 208). 
-Except for Connie Mack, Hans Lobert was in the game longer than anyone else (185). 
-Lefty O'Doul had a lifetime average of .349, surpassed only by Cobb, Hornsby and Joe Jackson-- and at the time of his interview with Ritter, he had the highest batting average of any living player (273). 
-Willie Kamm was the first $100,000 player (295). 
-Heinie Groh claimed that "there was a period of 15 years...[where] if anything real big happened, I was [there]." (299). Beyond that, in a nine-year period, he played in five World Series with three different teams-- and a sixth World Series in 1912, "probably a record for anybody who never played with the Yankees" (302). 
-In 1927, Paul and Lloyd Waner combined for 460 hits (338). 

Some miscellaneous observations: 
-Baseball players were originally viewed as "low-lifes". Davy Jones tells an endearing story about being turned aside from a girlfriend by her father-- and then ran into her again 50 years later, marrying her, after each had been widowed (38). 

-As today, baseball players held a number of odd religious beliefs about the supernatural (superstitions): ladders and butterflies flying across the field (63); a "cross-eyed bat boy" (65); and black uniforms (180). And Fred Snodgrass shares a crazy story about Charles Victory Faust (101-105).

-Connie Mack never raised his voice or used profanity (199). And John McGraw gets a ton of time-- mostly positive. Players expressed admiration for his ability to handle people (131) and his passionate defense of his players, but his demand that they never lie to him or themselves (174). Only Edd Roush didn't care for his style, including a lot of profanity (224). 

-I enjoyed what Harry Hooper said about Babe Ruth (145)-- probably a good way to wrap this up: "You probably remember him with that big belly he got later on. But that wasn't there in 1916. George was six foot two and weighed 198 pounds, all of it muscle...[but] he could eat more than anyone else...Lord, he ate too much...But sometimes I still can't believe what I saw: this 19-year-old kid, crude, poorly educated, only lightly brushed by the social veneer we call civilization, gradually transformed into the idol of American youth and the symbol of baseball the world over-- a man loved by more people and with an intensity of feeling that perhaps has never been equaled before or since. I saw a man transformed from a human being into something pretty close to a god. If someone had predicted that 1914, he would have been thrown into a lunatic asylum."


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