IMAGINE HOW pleased a sports car afficionado would be if British Leyland brought back one of those wonderful spoke a wheeled MG's and included better mileage to boot Similar ecstasy has arrived for any person who cares a wit about baseball in the form of a revised edition of Lawrence Ritter's The Glory of Their Times. Moreover, the best book ever written about the grand old game also appeals as a vivid depiction of a fascinating slice of American culture.
As the author states succinctly in his preface. The Glory of Their Times is the story of the early days of baseball told by the men who played it. This is the age of people like Cy Seymour and Zack Wheat playing ball in places like Wahoo Nebraska and Marlin Texas. Taking time out from his position as professor of Finance at New York University and board member of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Ritter traveled some 75,000 miles lugging his tape recorder around America in search of some of the shortstops of yesteryear. Some were easy to find Others, like Hall of Famer and former Tiger star Sam Crawford--who has no telephone and tells no one where he lives were not Ritter tracked these men down and talked with them about their game, their lives and their country. The results are almost verbatim accounts, with some editing to enhance the book's readability. The results are also incredible, for not only was Ritter able to evoke the passion that is so unique to this sport, but he was also able to evince lively tales leeming with anecdotes, brimming with poignant memories and some homespun thought in the bargain.
One need only open the book's cover to become immersed in this early America. The two pages consist of a collage made from period New York Times clippings. Advertisements for 1912 roadsters, electrical engineer training courses endorsed by Thomas Edison, and a notice that Macy's Department Store will be moving to Herald Square accompany notice of a Washington Senators victory. Rube Marquard and Smokey Joe Wood no-hitters, and boxscores full of names like Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb and Fred Merkle. Indeed, Ritter introduces many players with excepts from Spalding's Base Ball Guide circa 1909, John J. McGraw's My Thirty Years in Baseball, a scene from The Great Gatsby, or a snatch of Carl Sandburg poetry.
Whether it was Ritter's adept questioning, or just a collection of exceedingly articulate athletes most probably a combination of both each chapter seems better than the last. Paul Waner, Rube Marquard, Edd Roush, Goose Goslin and Hank Greenberg have much to tell and tell it well. They talk of an America when baseball, like Jazz music, was not a respectable profession. It was difficult for Jimmy Austin to rush off to Dayton Ohio to play ball in a factory league for forty dollar's a month. It was equally difficult for Harry Hoper to overlook a good job as an engineer to try his luck as a center fielder. It was also trying for Marquard to listen to his father warning him never to return home as he embarked upon his career as a pitcher. This notion that they were participating in a somehow unacceptable profession one that didn't pay much, was full of steaming hot train cars crawling from steaming St. Louis to steaming Chicago and filthy uniforms donned day after day--bred a kind of unity that's not apparent when the writer talks to contemporary ballplayers in this age of designated hitters, designated contract negotiators and designated stadium grass.
THE JOY amidst the hard times of baseball, and for the hard times of the Great Depression, came from the game. Jimmy Austin, an old Cine the Great Depression, came from the game. Jimmy Austin, an old Cincinnati third baseman, speaks for most when he says, "Golly, if I had it to do all over the only thing I'd do different would be to start sooner and stop later. It was great." It's almost hard to imagine a player today saying "golly," unless he said something like, "golly, I really think I'm worth 1.5 million a year," or, "golly, forget the team, I just hope I play well." Strange stories of great players with phenomenal names like Addie Joss. Willie Keeler, Bugs Raymond, Chick Golloway--names that sound like baseball players' names--are told with great enthusiasm, and recall a bygone, homegrown age when sore arms were treated with a mixture of vaseline and tobacco sauce.
The best players hold abiding interest for everyone. There is endless dispute over which pitcher threw the hardest; Lefty Grove, Walter Johnson. Bob Feller, and Joe Wood are the leading candidates. Babe Ruth stories abound. The Bambino had "a heart as big as a watermelon, and made of pure gold." He also had a rather large appetite: "He'd stop along the road when we were traveling and order a half dozen hot dogs and as many bottles of soda pop, stuff them in one after the other, give a few big belches, and then roar,'ok boys, let's go... Another original Hall of Famer, Honus Wagner, "just ate the ball up with his big hands, like a scoopshovel, and when he threw it to first base you'd see pebbles and dirt and everything else flying over along with the ball the greatest shortstop ever. The greatest everything ever." This nostalgic sense of a greatness lost runs throughout the book.
The Glory of Their Times is laced with splendid photographs, many taken from the player's personal collections, and others dug up by Ritter at library and newspaper archives across the country. Such illustrations as an early Coca Cola advertisement and the moving endpiece depicting John J. McGraw and Honus Wagner reveal photography at its moving best. The illustrations are worth the price of the book alone.
This is a book that is destined to be passed on to generations of sons and daughters who will thumb through it on sultry summer evenings after it has grown too dark outside to play any more pepper that day The Glory of Their Times so vividly captures the spirit of a nation and a national game that anyone reading it need not worry about ever forgetting the past.