We Would Have Played for Nothing: Baseball Stars of the 1950s and 1960s Talk About the Game They Loved (Baseball Oral History Project)
Simon & Schuster, 2008
336 pp., $25.00
It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over: The Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book
Basic Books, 2008
480 pp., $15.95
We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball
Jump At The Sun, 2008
96 pp., $19.99
by Michael R. Stevens
The Story That Numbers Can't Tell
I'm sitting in front of a west–facing window, looking roughly in the direction of Lake Michigan, and it is snowing and blowing. My driveway was under six inches of slush yesterday, and today the last 50 feet to the garage was like driving across icy moguls. But, ah, to the south, in the lands of cacti and palm trees, men are squatting in catcher's gear, feeling the whump! of fastballs tossed by other grown men 60 feet and 6 inches away. Baseball has stirred from its ursine slumber and crawled out into the bright sunshine. For lovers of the pastoral game, it is high time.
Not only has it been a long winter here in the north country, but we've suffered through the incessant bad news of substance abuse, the release of the Mitchell Report, and the sleazy drama of the congressional hearings. Ugh.
So what is the path back to some measure of unmitigated, un–asterisked love of the game? One way, not without its risks, is to hear stories of the past, of baseball's "Golden Age." The danger of nostalgia is that we might cover over one set of problems in order to escape from our own present woes—so, for instance, the racial struggles and tyrannical management of the Fifties and Sixties might easily be downplayed. And since the players themselves are not always the best historians, I approached We Would Have Played for Nothing: Baseball Stars of the 1950s and 1960s Talk About the Game They Loved with a bit of a skeptical eye. This second volume of The Baseball Oral History Project, compiled by none other than former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent (yes, there was life before Bud Selig!), has some of the recurring drawbacks of oral history—the stylistic weakness of the interview/monologue, the rambling nature of reminiscence, some unwieldy repetition. Vincent's desire is to match the tremendous liveliness of Larry Ritter's interviews from the early Sixties, of players from as far back as the Teens and Twenties, that became the book The Glory of Their Times. Ritter's work was groundbreaking— he had to hunt down many of the old–time players he interviewed in the depths of their retirement obscurity—and the first–person accounts of fighting with Ty Cobb or breaking a young Babe Ruth into the fraternity were pricelessly delivered by the likes of Smokey Joe Wood and Goose Goslin on the still available original recordings that predated the book. The Glory of Their Times is a true and lasting piece of Americana.
But if Fay Vincent has been unable to measure up to his exemplar, he is not to be much maligned. He has delivered some good interviews, a few great ones even (especially the chapter with quirky Braves ace Lew Burdette—just in the nick of time, it turns out), and a scattering of wonderful anecdotes. The lineup moves roughly chronologically from Ralph Branca, Dodger pitcher and the victim of Bobby Thomson's 1951 "Shot Heard Round the World," up to figures such as Frank and Brooks Robinson. If the volume is a little Yankee–light for my liking (only Whitey Ford chimes in for the Pinstripes), Vincent has nevertheless caught up with players who were in the midst of many of the significant events of their era, so the individual stories intertwine with lore and generally known history in illuminating ways.
One of the threads that I tried to follow throughout the interviews was the presence, as teammate and nemesis and hero and even enemy, of Jackie Robinson in the lives of these ballplayers. The interview with Branca, who won 21 games at age 21 in 1947, the year Robinson's came to the Dodgers and broke the color–barrier in baseball, reveals the kinship and adoration of one who witnessed Jackie's daily travails firsthand. Branca relates how Robinson got after black fans who naively cheered on his every move that year: "He popped up and they screamed and yelled. He turned and he got on their case, said, 'What are you yelling at? I popped up. Learn this game. Stop acting like fools.' And that would be Jackie."
Another Dodger—and another rookie from that famous 1947 team—whom Vincent interviewed was Duke Snider. Patrolling Ebbets Field while Willie Mays took charge uptown at the Polo Grounds and Mickey Mantle did the same across the river at Yankee Stadium, Snider helped make New York City in the 1950's the world capital of centerfield excellence. Duke offers a deeper history than most on Jackie's wonderful athleticism, since he was a high school student in L.A. at the time Jackie starred in three sports at Pasadena Junior College and UCLA: "He could stop and start faster than anybody I've ever seen. He had a kickoff [return] one time against Compton in football when he was at Pasadena, and he reversed his field twice, and the third time he came around he went for a touchdown, 80 some yards, but he actually ran about 175 yards, because he dodged everybody." Duke notes that, those first weeks of their mutual rookie year in Brooklyn, "I wasn't prepared to see what Jackie had to go through." Yet, that suffering so close at hand seemed to bond the Dodger team, and Jackie was the undisputed catalyst and leader of that team's maturation into a perennial contender. Snider recalls that reckoning simply: "I will tell you the one thing that I remember more than anything else: Jackie comes into the clubhouse, goes to his locker, disrobes, and puts his baseball uniform on. And when he put that baseball uniform on, he put his game face on with it. You could see it in his eyes. You could see it in his eyes that he was ready to go out there and beat somebody. And that I think helped a lot of us in realizing what the game was all about."