Another baseball season begins, and the book of the hour is Game of Shadows, about the depraved Barry Bonds and the corrosive impact of steroids on the sport. Commissioner Bud Selig, baseball’s Fisher King, waited until the last few years to determine that steroids are bad, and he has launched an investigation into the Bonds book’s allegations, to be led by former Senator George Mitchell. No doubt Mitchell’s investigation will produce a report laden with moralistic prose akin to that of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, but with little else of import, because Bonds has gotten away with it. Unless Selig suspends him for violating rules that did not then exist, he’s free to play. He’ll pass Babe Ruth’s home run total in the next two weeks, and eventually Henry Aaron’s.
Selig and his officials will privately mourn this state of affairs, but only because public opinion has finally awakened to the doping behind baseball’s power hitting of the last decade, and only because people don’t like Barry Bonds. If one or the other of those two factors were not present, Selig might be as gleeful as he was during Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s home run fraud-a-thon of 1998.
It may be that baseball can never go back to what it was, after this era of juicing. The damage to the record book seems impossible to remedy, and for baseball, records and history are what help distinguish it from its faster-moving, more contemporary peers. Take this reliability away, this feeling of permanence in the midst of change, and you’re left with what George Carlin called “a 19th century, pastoral game,” one that is trying in embarrassing ways to remain relevant in an age that has little use for games of subtlety and incremental progress.
With such a gloomy backdrop for a new season, what better time to read what legendary broadcaster Red Barber called “the single best baseball book of all time,” Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told By the Men Who Played It. This year happens to be the book’s 40th publishing anniversary, and if there is a perennial among baseball books, this is it. It collects the first-person testimonies of 26 old-time ballplayers, from the turn of the century to the 1940s, and from the time it appeared to now, there has never been anything quite like it. (Note to American Spectator readers of Mark Gavreau Judge: his grandfather Joe Judge makes a few cameo appearances.)
Ritter got the idea for the book in 1961, upon the death of Ty Cobb, but eventually came to believe his work was inspired by the death of his father, who had died the same year. Ritter traveled 75,000 miles around the country looking for men who had been away from the cheers for a very long time, who had played in an era before television and sometimes before radio, and who in some cases were difficult to find. Most difficult was Sam Crawford, who shared an outfield with Cobb in Detroit for many years, and later a spot in the Hall of Fame. After being given only cryptic hints about where he might find Crawford — drive about 200 miles north of Los Angeles, Crawford’s wife told Ritter, and you’ll be “warm” — Ritter ended up in Baywood Park, where his inquiries yielded nothing. After several days, he sat in a laundromat watching his clothes spin beside an old man.
Ritter asked him if he knew anything about Sam Crawford. The man replied, “Well I should hope so. Bein’ as I’m him.”
One of the beauties of the book is the way famous incidents in baseball history are re-told by more than one figure: for example, Merkle’s boner or the Snodgrass muff. Multiple accounts, however, do not yield different factual versions, just different perspectives. More than one teller makes the point that, for all the mythology of Merkle’s base-running mishap costing the New York Giants the 1908 pennant, the event would have been forgotten if the Giants had been able to beat the Phillies’ Harry Coveleski in any of three games he pitched against them during the season’s final week. We get that on the authority of Harry’s kid brother, Stanley.
The chapters unfold like short stories, each told in a distinctive voice. The period detail is precise and evocative, the personal observations often uncanny. The life of a traveling ballplayer back then is best summed up by Lefty O’Doul:
You’d get on a coal-burning train with the old wicker seats, carrying your own uniform and your own bats and everything, and ride from Des Moines, Iowa, to Wichita, Kansas. All night and part of the next day. If you opened the window, you’d be eating soot and cinders all night long. If you closed the window you’d roast to death. Get off in the morning either filthy or without a wink of sleep. Usually both.
In the Pacific Coast League, later on, I used to play Sunday morning at Stockton, grab an egg sandwich, ride 60 or 70 miles on the bus, put the wet uniform back on, and play an afternoon game in Sacramento. Play in Oakland on Sunday morning, wolf down a bean sandwich and rush over on the ferry boat, carrying your own equipment, to play an afternoon game in San Francisco. Same clammy uniform again…. And you know what? I loved every minute of it.
About the legends of the era, most of the voices in the book are consistent. Of Babe Ruth there is barely a discouraging word. The players marvel at his hitting ability and love him for the flawed, rambunctious, inherently sweet man he was. Christy Mathewson comes across as a baseball saint; “We’d break our necks for that guy,” says Chief Meyers. Crawford rates Honus Wagner as baseball’s greatest player and “sweetest disposition ever.” Ty Cobb comes off less well, but not as poorly as you might expect; more than one player says he had no trouble getting along with him, at least off the field. John McGraw, an early version of Cobb as a player and then as manager, also comes out with a split decision. Several players rave about his fairness and his baseball genius, while others could barely stand playing the game under his leadership.
Several Cincinnati Reds players — Edd Roush, Rube Bressler, Heinie Groh — take pains to declare that their team was better than the Chicago White Sox in the 1919 World Series, and would have won the series even if there had been no fix perpetrated by several Chicago players. They make a good case. But then, everyone in this book makes a good case. The men come across as tougher, from leaner backgrounds, less corporate, more individual — but also more cultured as a group than the stereotype of early century ballplayers would suggest. Harry Hooper recites a considerable list of players who had college backgrounds, and many went on to interesting careers when their playing days were done. Listening to how deftly some of them turn a phrase or tell a story, it is clear they did not spend their post-baseball lives reading only their press clippings.
That said, history mattered to these men, as is evident from their detailed re-creations of events from bygone days. For them, the past formed a continuum with the present, in a way that a disposable, media-driven culture now makes more difficult. One recalls the infamous television interview with Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox in 1997, during the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s entrance into the major leagues. Thomas, in comments he later claimed were taken out of context, said that Robinson did not mean much to him or his contemporaries because the events were so long in the past. It was the kind of statement that would have left men like Hooper or Crawford breathless, to say nothing of Chief Meyers, who concludes his chapter by telling Ritter:
I guess I’m like the venerable old warrior Chief of the Great Six Nations, who announced his retirement by saying, “I am like an old hemlock. My head is still high, but the winds of close to a hundred winters have whistled through my branches, and I have been witness to many wondrous and many tragic things. My eyes perceive the present, but my roots are imbedded deeply in the grandeur of the past.”
Of all our sports, baseball has always been the one most rooted in the grandeur of the past, most stalked by shadows of what has gone before. It is our misfortune that the shadows now hanging over the game are thrown more by scandal than by great deeds or characters. Among other things, however, The Glory of Their Times is a reminder that the game’s history is long, and that it has weathered storms before.
Paul Beston is a writer in New York.
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