In the section of Bill James’ Historical Baseball Abstract (one of the best baseball books ever written), that discusses the 1960’s, he mentions the best baseball books of that decade. Of Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times it says “often imitated, never excelled.” I know why he wrote this about the book – it is glorious in many ways.
The book is really a history book. The author’s poignant introduction states that his motivation was to write about the stars of the early era of Major League Baseball before they were forgotten, or dead. Ritter traveled the country with what we would consider today archaic recording equipment and interviewed people like: Rube Marquard, Sam Crawford, Joe Wood, Chief Meyers, Rube Bressler, Specs Toporcer and Lefty O’Doul. The most recent interviewee (Hank Greenberg) retired from playing baseball in 1947 and died in 1986.
Most of the players were not stars (Bill Wambsganss?). This regular guy flavor makes the book seem like walking into a time warp. The men were farm boys and country boys mostly. Greenberg’s youth in the Bronx stands out as most of the chapters start with the humble beginnings of boys in rural America or small town America. The men came from families where the father worked, usually self employed and the mothers mostly stayed at home. We hear of dad being a lawyer or a farmer or anything in between. Most of the men had little growing up in terms of money but lots of life experience.
This was a time that according to today’s Intellectual Elite, today’s Guardians of Established Opinion, could not have existed. Why? The way my mind works, I thought about all of the things that were going on in the early 1900’s when these people were growing up. There was no FED. The world (until 1914 and the USA until 1933) was on a gold coin standard. There were no unions to speak of, the federal government was minimal, the EPA, OSHA, minimum wage, welfare, and Department of Education didn’t exist. Were a person to suggest abolishing all of those things today he’d be considered dangerous. Hand wringing and wailing would ensue: “what would happen to the poor – who would care for the downtrodden? Yet there is not a spec of evidence that life was miserable. On the contrary, they all talked about how they had immense freedom and exciting amounts of opportunity.
While reading about the young lives of these men, I kept waiting for some social commentary about how awful things were before the New Deal, or before American Empire post WWII. It never came. The interviews take you back to an era of communities and people that took care of themselves. Parents who allowed their children to read and work and think for themselves. Multiple times in the book dad tells the young baseball player that he’d rather he follow in his footsteps as a lawyer, or a shopkeeper (advice I have to admit I would probably give my child) but eventually tells him to go after his passion. A few of them got seed money, but most hopped trains, hitched rides and slept in barns to get to the minor league town that sought them. Re read that last sentence and think about the reaction from one of today’s Caring Adults who Manage America’s Youth.
The historical, first person accounts are rich in detail and will give you a snapshot of early 1900’s America. The baseball information is first rate, from the style of uniforms to the style of play. Interestingly the former players are realistic about the amazing increase in skill and speed of the current (at the time 1966) players. One might expect a biased lamenting about great the past player were and how overrated the new guys are. But no, these seem like honest honorable men and they all realize that Willie Mays is a talent that exceeds just about all of the turn of the century players.
There is a look back to earlier times by Chief Meyers, a grizzled, tough American Indian catcher who didn’t mind being called ‘Chief’. He talks about how things have gotten worse with regard to the money and the business of baseball and what happened to Jim Thorpe, but this snippet from page 184 caught my eye. Remember, this is from 1966:“The world seems to be turned all upside down today. Progress, they call it. The radio and the television and all, brainwashing the children and teaching them to cheat and steal and kill. Always violence and killing. I think it’s an awful bad example for the youngsters. Why can’t they teach people about the good things in life instead?”
The Glory of Their Times is a wonderful book of great depth and character. I highly recommend it.