Vintage baseball, in their own words

An oral history project offers the first of a series of memories as players reminisce about baseball in the 1930s and '40s

In The Only Game in Town, the first in a multivolume oral history project conducted by former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, 10 former players recall their playing days in the 1930s and '40s. Much like watching a baseball game on a lazy summer evening, this leisurely stroll down memory lane is a mostly pleasant outing, with lengthy stretches of little action interrupted occasionally by moments of genuine excitement.

Some of the legendary players of that era - including Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Jimmy Foxx, and Lefty Grove - figure prominently in these recollections, which are as varied as the personalities they involve.

Both Tommy Henrich, all-star outfielder for the New York Yankees, and pitcher Elden Auker recount the story of Detroit Tiger great Hank Greenberg storming into the White Sox locker room after a game to confront the source of anti-Semitic remarks. (Nobody fessed up, but Greenberg made an impression). Most of the players also have at least one story to tell about pitcher Satchel Paige, one of the most storied figures in all of baseball.

The book covers a momentous period in American history. The players interviewed grew up during the Depression and all served in the military during World War II. It was a very different era from ours and a very different war that they fought.

Pitcher Bob Feller, who made it to the major leagues at age 17, spent four of his prime years in the Navy. Hall-of-Famer Warren Spahn pitched his first game in 1942, then spent three years in the Army before getting his first major league win in 1946 at the age of 25. Despite the interruption, he still holds the record for the most wins (363) by a left-handed pitcher.

None of the players complained about time spent in service to their country. Indeed, for all of them, there was no question that the war effort took precedence over their baseball careers.

Dom DiMaggio (brother of Joe) didn't wait for the off season, but enlisted in the Navy while the 1942 season was under way (though he wasn't finally called up until later that fall).

That same year, Auker surprised the baseball world by leaving baseball in order to support the war effort by taking a job in the engineering department of a manufacturing company.

The integration of the major leagues in 1947 was a watershed event, and "The Only Game in Town" includes interviews with three African-American players, all of whom played in the Negro Leagues. Not surprisingly, their experiences are among the most interesting and most weighty of the group.

Larry Doby and Monte Irvin both played with the Newark Eagles in the Negro National League. Irvin, who was widely expected to become the first black player in the majors - a historic role that later fell to Jackie Robinson - had some excellent years with the New York Giants, although he spent his peak years behind the color line.

Doby became the first black player in the American League when he joined the Cleveland Indians a few months after Robinson's debut with the National League Brooklyn Dodgers.

All of Buck O'Neil's years as a player and manager were spent in the Negro Leagues, mostly with the Kansas City Monarchs. A famed raconteur as well as a celebrated baseball man, O'Neil's recollections are among the highlights of the book.

But much of "The Only Game in Town" makes for rather listless reading. The book was inspired by Lawrence Ritter's 1966 classic "The Glory of Their Times," an oral history conducted with players from the earliest days of baseball. Not all the players in Vincent's book are gifted storytellers, and "The Only Game in Town" would have benefited immeasurably from the sensitive editing and shaping that Ritter must have imposed upon his transcripts to achieve the seamless narrative flow that makes "The Glory of their Times" so enjoyable.

Reproducing the players' many digressions, repeated phrases, backtrackings, and oral tics may be faithful to the original tapes, but it doesn't necessarily make for good reading. Some of the players skim so lightly over the events of their lives that it's hard to generate much interest in what they have to say.

One of the best chapters is Ralph Kiner's. A nonpareil slugger from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s, mostly with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Kiner has been a broadcaster for the New York Mets since 1962.

No doubt 40-plus years in the broadcast booth have afforded him the opportunity to polish his stories and his delivery. Whether he's telling of his first meeting with Hank Greenberg, batting at age 17 against Satchel Paige, or recounting a hilariously disastrous date with actress Elizabeth Taylor, Kiner's recollections are among the most consistently interesting, substantive, and well told in the book.

Too bad there aren't more like them.

David Conrads is a freelance writer in Kansas City, Mo.

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