Put It In The Books
BY JOHN ROSSI
Forty years ago, I began offering one of the first college courses on the role of baseball in American history, which I called “The National Game and America’s Past.”
I built the course around a handful of books. Over the years the titles on my syllabus changed as the writing and research about the sport expanded exponentially. Looking back, I note that certain books that shaped my view of baseball’s past, however, remained constant on my reading list. There were about a dozen core books that I believe are classic texts for anyone interested in the connection between how the development of baseball interacted with key events in American history.
The starting place for the serious study of baseball is the work of one man. Hemingway wrote that all American literature began with one book, Huckleberry Finn. The study of baseball’s role in America’s past likewise started with a book: Harold Seymour’s three volume history, simply called Baseball, which appeared in 1960. The first volume, The Early Years, which dealt with the origins and development of baseball, is the starting place for any serious study of how “America’s Game” developed. For the first time a major scholar unearthed the key sources for the development of what already by the 1860s was called “The American Game.” Everyone writing about the history of baseball begins with Seymour. He showed that baseball’s past could be studied without simply wallowing in myth.
After Seymour, the book that opened my eyes to baseball’s deeper significance in American life was Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times, which first appeared in 1966.
In a stroke of genius, Ritter decided to interview some of the players from the early years of professional baseball before they were lost to us. In a series of deceptively simple interviews with players such as “Wahoo Sam” Crawford, Rube Marquard, Ed Roush, and Fred Snodgrass, he let them tell the story of what baseball was like in its early years. By letting the players speak for themselves, Ritter invented a new way of studying baseball’s past: the interview book, a genre that we still have with us.
Ritter captured not only the way the older players spoke, but the sunny atmosphere of baseball’s early years when the game and the players were truly different than they are now. In the process we learn much about the heart of the game as it developed.
For example, a number of players discuss the infamous “Bonehead” play of Fred Merkle (which then became his nickname) when he failed to touch second base in the crucial September 1908 game between John McGraw’s Giants and the Cubs, a play that cost the Giants the pennant. The players interviewed note what a fine player Merkle was. Since many of those interviewed played with or against John McGraw, these interviews serve as something of a biography of him.
The players tell wonderful stories. Roush relates how he once sat out an entire season because he didn’t feel he had been offered a fair contract. Imagine a modern player doing that today. In passing, Roush also notes that he used a 48-ounce bat when he played, a figure rather mind boggling in these days of 34–36-ounce, thin-handled whippets.
Many of those interviewed say they would have played for nothing. You believe them because they convey a sense of pure joy in the game. One of the most interesting interviewees was Sam Crawford, who played alongside Ty Cobb for 13 years. Although he recognized Cobb’s talent, he could never warm up to him. The player who impressed him most was Honus Wagner.
Wagner, he says was the “greatest player who ever lived in my book. Wagner “looked awkward with his barrel chest and famous bowlegs. He had enormous hands and when he scooped up a ball at shortstop, he’d grab half the infield with it.” The first baseman got a handful of pebbles along with the ball.
After Ritter I regard Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men Out a landmark study of baseball historical writing. A solid piece of research, it set the standard for later studies of baseball’s past. Eight Men Out is the best study of the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal, when Charles Comiskey’s heavily favored White Sox threw the Series to an underdog Cincinnati Reds team. Asinof put the scandal in perspective, tracing how gambling had plagued professional baseball since its origins. Comiskey is portrayed as a tight-fished villain, but Asinof doesn’t whitewash players.
One of the writers who covered the Black Sox Series was Ring Lardner. He was a sour, hard-drinking newspaperman with a gift for caricature and he captured the era’s naivete perfectly. He had no time for the hero-worshipped athletes that typified sports journalism at that time and created one of the great sports characters, the put-upon pitcher, Jack Keefe, in You Know Me Al. Lardner possessed a keen ear for the way athletes spoke and for the mixture of bragging and whining that characterized many of them. When Keefe gave up a hit it was never his fault. As he told his confidant, Al, the batter was trying to get away from his famous “fast one” and the ball just hit his bat. Umpires were always conspiring against him because they couldn’t follow his fastball because it “hopped” so much.
I read all I could get my hands on about baseball’s past, as books—especially biographies—began to appear in the 1970s and 80s. One of the best biographies I came across was Ed Linn’s book on Leo Durocher. Appropriately entitled, Nice Guys Finish Last, Durocher’s famous description of Mel Ott, the book captures the flavor—some would say odor—of his brilliant but irascible baseball mind. When Durocher retired from managing in the mid-1970s, nine men who played for him or coached for him were managing major league teams. The book is filled with portraits of players and executives he served with, men like Larry MacPhail, “the Roaring Redhead.” He hired Durocher to create a new Dodger team and the two fought and argued constantly, including with their fists.
The finest portrait in the book, other than of himself, is of Branch Rickey, “the only man I never lied to” according to Durocher. When a team was in trouble Rickey would call Durocher in: “The arrow is pointing down with our club…Stop the arrow…and try to turn it around. Try to get it going the other way.”
The first book written by a ballplayer without the assistance of a ghost writer was Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season, his diary of the 1959 Cincinnati Reds. There have been many baseball autobiographies, most of them useless, but Brosnan broke new ground. For the first time the reader saw the game from inside and not just through a series of anecdotes, many of which were made up. Brosnan, a talented relief pitcher in the early 1960s, was the first player to break the code of “what went on in the clubhouse stayed in the clubhouse.” But the book doesn’t suffer from meanness.
While there were people he didn’t like, such as his manager Solly Hemus and announcer Harry Caray (whom he considered a blowhard), Brosnan was hard on himself. He revealed how scared he was at times and how he made mistakes. Hemus brought him into a game to pitch to Willie Kirkland, the slugging San Francisco outfielder. Brosnan realized warming up he didn’t have his best stuff. But he couldn’t tell Hemus that; that was the baseball code. So, he pitched to Kirkland—who won the game with a home run.
Like Lardner, Brosnan possessed a keen eye for the way ballplayers talked and behaved in the bullpen, such as trying to fill a coffee cup by spitting tobacco into it or trading baseballs to the bleacher fans for hotdogs. When his fellow bullpen mates saw him reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover, they asked him to read the dirty parts aloud.
The success of The Long Season led to what can only be described as a plague of exposés by former players who tried to copy Brosnan’s concept, but with little charm or success. Most of these books had a phony quality about them because they were actually the work of ghost writers (ghastly writers, as someone described them). The process still goes on, but the exposé aspect has not worn well—perhaps because players are more careful about their behavior now.
Jim Brosnan in Chicago in 1964. “The Long Season,” his groundbreaking 1960 book, began as a diary. (Credit: Associated Press)
My final basic books were directly related to baseball history. In 1969 Macmillan published the first Baseball Encyclopedia that truly deserved that designation. The work of baseball stats guru Joseph Reichler, it rendered all past attempts to organize baseball statistics obsolete.
The Baseball Encyclopedia contains the records of every baseball player going back to the organization of the game in the mid-19th century. It also provides a yearly profile of each league’s standings as well as a list of every top hitter and pitcher in every major category. The Encyclopedia quickly became popular with fans who could spend countless hours looking up players’ records and statistics.
Later editions contained more sections, including a list of all-time leaders in batting, pitching, and fielding. There is a home-vs-road section, a register of the Negro Leagues, the results of every World Series, as well as a list of every trade in baseball history.
My personal favorite section, “The Teams and Their Players,” provided a year-by-year order of finishes beginning in 1876 for every team plus each team’s lineup. Leaders in hitting, pitching, and fielding are also provided with appropriate stats. I love browsing through this section discovering esoterica such as: the National League leader in saves in 1915 had a total of five saves—or that when Lefty Grove won 31 games in 1931, he completed 27 of them while saving five others. In 1937 Joe DiMaggio led the league in homers, total bases, slugging percentage, and runs scored, while finishing third in batting average at .346. I looked it up: he then asked for a salary of $45,000 for the next season, a figure considered outrageous; and he thus had to sign for $25,000—all the while being accused of letting the team down by his demands.
The next section becomes more evocative to me from 1946 on—the period when as a 10-year-old, I first began to follow baseball. As I page through these years, the memories flood back: watching Tommy Henrich beating the A’s at Shibe Park with a homer, Dale Long hitting one of his eight home runs in eight consecutive games against the Phillies in 1956, Cass Michaels (real name Casimir Kwietniewski) pivoting around second base making a double play.
Portrait of statistician Bill James during photo shoot at Royals Stadium. View of runs created equation on scoreboard screen. James is an author and the founder of Sabermetrics. Kansas City, MO 5 / 4 / 1981 (Photo by Lane Stewart / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images / Getty Images)
The Baseball Encyclopedia for thirty years was a must possession for every self-respecting fan; but with the rise of the computer and the ease of access to any and all stats, it went out of print. I have three copies, including the first edition, and I still look things up occasionally.
The penultimate of my foundation books also broke new ground when it first appeared. Bill James’ Historical Baseball Abstract first appeared in 1988 and was the book that introduced many baseball fans to the concept of sabermetrics. The emphasis was not on batting average but on on-base percentage and slugging percentage as key stats for hitters; while ERA, batters reaching base per nine innings, and strikeouts and walks per nine innings were argued by James as better ways of evaluating pitchers than win-loss records.
For an historian, James’ decade-by-decade sections analyzing the game according to the way it was played are invaluable. Someone once said that sex is one arena in which amateurs are better than professionals. That’s often true of baseball history. James does a better job of analyzing historical trends in the game than most professional scholars do.
Each decade has a special category along with a detailed analysis in which James isolates interesting themes: hardest thrower, best outfield arm, best looking player, most outstanding sportswriter, baseball odd couples, and even best baseball movies. For the 1940s decade these were in order: Whit Wyatt, Joe Medwick, Lou Boudreau, Red Smith, Branch Rickey, and Leo Durocher, and Pride of the Yankees. Things like this enliven what could otherwise be a boring book on baseball statistics.
Some sections of the book are all but useless and have a cranky quality to them. A long section on Player Ratings with his comments is idiosyncratic. Listing the hundred greatest players only opens you to an argument. Was Joe Morgan a greater player than Lefty Grove; Mike Schmidt better than Rogers Hornsby? How about trying to sell the opinion that Craig Biggio was a superior player to Carl Yastrzemski. Better not try to sell that view in any Boston drinking establishment. Yet sometimes he hits the mark. James compares Peter (“Pistol Pete”) Reiser with Fred Lynn as players who failed to live up to their potential. Reiser because of all his injuries; Lynn because he seemed to lose interest in the game after five years.
Despite this, James’ book broke new ground. No one writing seriously about baseball and especially its past can neglect James’ influence.
Author Curt Smith. (Photo via National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)
My final basic book is highly personal but meaningful for any older fan. Curt Smith’s The Voices of the Game, which first appeared in 1987, provides a gold mine of information about one of the most important aspects of baseball’s popular appeal: listening to the game on the radio. Smith’s book is padded with unnecessary information about when Hitler died or who ruled Japan or when The Glass Menagerie premiered; but how can you get angry with a book that contains these gems:
Mel Allen, Yankee broadcaster during a meaningless September game, spots a couple necking in the bleachers and remarks to his partner Phil Rizzuto: “I figured it out. He is kissing her on the strikes, and she is kissing him on the balls.”
Dizzy Dean after being criticized about his syntax: “Sin tax? Are those jokers in Washington putting a tax on that too?”
By Saam, longtime Phillies announcer, during a late West Coast game “And now for all those guys scoring in bed, here’s the rundown.”
Gems like these are scattered throughout the book. Smith does an excellent job of tracing the development of baseball broadcasting from its origins in the 1920s to the deep role it has played in American life. He makes an interesting observation: all baseball broadcasters basically fall into two broad categories, respectively represented by Red Barber, the longtime Dodger announcer, and Mel Allen.
Barber was the cool, analytical broadcaster: “Never raise your voice. Never yell. When the crowd yells, shut up.” Allen was the garrulous fan, a homer in every way. “When the crowd shouted, you would too.” Both men were talented wordsmiths, coining memorable phrases that defined baseball for years: Barber’s “sitting in the cat bird seat,” or “the bases are FOB, full of Brooklyn’s.” Allen coined nicknames: “the Yankee Clipper” for Joe DiMaggio; “Old Reliable” for Tommy Henrich. Home runs were “Ballantine Blasts.”
Smith notes that many of great announcers came from the South or Southwest, men with soothing, melodic voices: Barber, Allen, Saam, Lindsey Nelson. Their voices were perfectly suited to radio as was baseball, a slow sport with long pauses that encouraged the re-creation of the play in the listener’s mind.
On a personal note: I am sorry for anyone who didn’t grow up discovering baseball on the radio. It bound you to the game. Once hooked, you could never escape it.
Over the years, I added many other readings as the serious writing about baseball expanded. But in fact, you could argue that the golden age of serious writing about baseball dated from these books that first appeared in the 1960s and early 1970s. To which I simply say, thank God for these books and their authors.