My father in law has a huge collection of radio programs that he has taped and cataloged over the last two or three decades, and several years ago he gave me a couple of interesting tapes from the late 1980s. They contain a recorded performance of a baseball-themed show put on by the late baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti and one of my favorite essayists, New Yorker staffer and renowned baseball writer Roger Angell.
The show, which is about two hours long, consists of readings of baseball essays, stories, and poetry. The work of John Updike is represented as is that of Garrison Keillor, but when I listened to the tapes, I was most interested in an excerpt from a book called The Glory of Their Times: The Story of Baseball Told By the Men Who Played It, a book that was put together by Lawrence Ritter, a former economics professor at NYU who died in 2004. Ritter was also a big baseball fan, and shortly after Ty Cobb’s death in 1961, inspired by the outpouring of myth and legend that occasioned Cobb’s passing, Ritter decided to record for posterity an oral history of the early years of professional baseball. Over the next several years, Ritter traveled 75,000 miles, crisscrossing the country, tape recorder in hand, seeking out the game’s oldest living veterans, men who played in the decades leading up to and after World War I. The result, first published in 1966 and updated and expanded in 1984, is among the most cherished baseball books around.
With the baseball season hitting its sweet spot, I cracked the spine of my tattered copy of Ritter’s compilation, and what I found within was a look into a lost period of time – before radio, before TV, and before even the prevalence of still cameras – brimming with color about the game’s rough beginnings as America’s national pastime.
To give just a sample of the gems contained within the Glory of Their Times, this is what I learned reading Fred “Snow” Snodgrass’ chapter, a representative sample of the sorts of details in the book that are sure to amaze any fan of today’s game:
- Christy Mathewson “never pitched on Sunday, or even dressed in uniform,” but “he made a good part of his expenses every year playing poker.”
- Snodgrass wore a baggy uniform to try to increase the chances of getting hit by pitches, and, failing that, he would dive for the ground on an inside pitch and pinch his arm to raise a welt so he could show the ump where he got “beaned.”
- There was more than one deaf and dumb ballplayer during this era, and, judging by this book, they were all nicknamed “Dummy.” Dummy Taylor, who played on the Giants with Snodgrass, “took it as an affront if you didn’t learn to converse with him,” and consequently everyone on the team learned sign language.
- A mysterious man named Charles Victory Faust emerged from the stands before a game in 1911 and told the Giants that a fortune teller had told him that if he pitched for the team, they would win the pennant. Superstitious manager (and baseball legend) John McGraw took Faust on the road with the team, and “every day from that day on, Charles Victory Faust was in uniform and he warmed up sincerely to pitch that game.” Of course, he never actually pitched, but the Giants did win the pennant in 1911. Faust joined them again in 1912, and again the Giants won the pennant. By 1913, Faust had become a fan favorite and McGraw let Faust come in and pitch an inning, much to the fans’ delight. Needless to say, the Giants won the pennant again in 1913.
- In 1908 Fred Merkle lost the pennant for the Giants because of a famous, “bonehead” play. He was on first and Moose McCormick on third in the bottom half of the ninth inning in a 1-1 ballgame against the Cubs in the last week of the season. Al Bridwell hit a single to center and McCormick scored from third. The fans rushed the field and Merkle sprinted to the clubhouse to avoid the madness – without stepping on second. Cubs shortstop Johnny Evers (of the famous Tinkers, Evers, Chance infield) noticed this, found the ball in the crowd, got in a tussle with the Giants third base coach, tagged second base for the force out, and then convinced the umps to come back out onto the field to reconsider the play. The umps overturned the win, ruling in the Cubs favor.
- There was a rumor that as a nervous habit, Phillies pitcher Harry Coveleski, “always carried some bologna in his back pocket and chewed on that bologna throughout the game.”
- In 1914, the Boston Braves went from last place on July 4th to contending for the pennant by season’s end. Interest in the team was so great that “they put ropes up in the outfield and thousands of people were sitting and standing and standing behind the ropes, right on the playing field.”
- Snodgrass, playing the outfield, got into a shouting match with the Boston fans, and the incensed mayor of Boston got out of his box seat and marched onto the field and demanded that the umps remove Snodgrass from the game.
There is a sense that the modern game has lost much of its charm, that it is all spectacle. The game 100 years ago was certainly charming, but, as The Glory of Their Times makes clear, it was perhaps more the spectacle back then, a game of colorful characters and nicknames, brawls and backroom dealings, and fights over money with capricious owners. Some things just don’t change. It’s also true that for a game that we seemingly know so much about, the book shows just how little we know about professional baseball’s formative days.
Ritter’s amazing chronicle of the early years of baseball is essential for anyone with a deep interest in the game.