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The Glory of Any and All Times

Not long ago, I had no idea who Red Barber was, and truth be told, most of what I know about him now could be said in fewer words than this opening sentence. He was a sportscaster, one of the greats. I’ve read almost nothing that he wrote, nor ever heard one of his broadcasts, but according to him, it is the “single best baseball book of all time.” High praise indeed, the highest possible, in fact, and perhaps that is why I picked up this particular volume on three separate occasions in three separate book stores, only to put it down again. I tend to be suspicious of accolades, especially when they are splashed across the top of a front cover, and I did not want to be disappointed by hyperbole. Had I bothered to read the reviews on the back, two other, more familiar names that I found there the fourth time I picked up the book would probably have convinced me sooner to part with the fifteen dollars that were required to add the “single best baseball book of all time” to my library of lesser titles. It is hard to argue with the likes of Bob Feller and the Splendid Splinter. In hindsight, it is also hard to argue with the judgment of Red Barber.

Yet I managed to get just halfway through the page count before I set the book aside. The seventh inning stretch was taking place before the starting pitcher had even earned a quality start. When I put my mind to finding the best words to explain this decision, my thoughts initially settled on a bland, culinary analogy: If you rush a fine meal, you risk indigestion. Only this was not wholly accurate, since as I turned page after page, I found that the stories contained within the softcover wraps were losing their effect rather than having an adverse one. On which note, it occured to me that my rampage through the stories of the bygone players whose recollections comprise each chapter was more evocative of a trip through a gallery than dinner. I call the phenomenon “Museum Fatigue,” a peculiar lassitude that affects even the most interested mind after about an hour or two in any of the world’s great, public treasure houses of culture or science, when having paid minute attention to the early exhibits, later wonders attract only a passing glance.

So it was with Lawrence S. Ritter’s magisterial work, “The Glory of Their Times,” reprinted for the fourth time in a 2002 paperback edition. Everything about it is a masterpiece. The story of its inspiration, the difficulties that the author surmounted in finding the men whose stories comprise its content, those very stories, their lasting significance as historical documents, and of course, the character of the men who told them as each player emerges through his own memories and those of his peers, each element of this book merits our approbation.

What Ritter did was deceptively simple. He took a tape recorder and went looking for old men hoping that they would talk with him. We should all be grateful that he found them. We are that much more fortunate that they agreed to speak, witness his conversation with the great Sam Crawford, who by all accounts kept a remarkably low profile in his later years. Wahoo Sam shared the Tigers outfield with Ty Cobb in an era known by its principal feature, the dead ball, a time when a man would be forever nicknamed “Home Run” for the remarkable feat of hitting two long balls in a single World Series. Babe Ruth changed all that, and it is a matter of baseball gospel that the game has ever been the better for the transformation he wrought. Read this book, hear these grand old men, and you actually begin to wonder if this was necessarily the case.

Normally, when reviewing a book, it is assumed that you will give your readers a reason that they should or should not read it, to provide some measure of the contents. I have purposely done so only in passing, allowing the players to speak to you for the first time when you stop to listen. They do not need any surrogate voices, and it is enough for you to know that you ought to pick up this book because I had to put it down. Rest assured that it I am looking forward to picking it back up again, but part of Ritter’s genius was that he wrote a book that does not to be consumed in a single sitting, or even several. The latest edition contains 26 interviews. I devoured thirteen of them before it occured to me that when you hit a home run, you do not need to sprint around the bases.

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In the midst of the cold snap your fingers instead, kick your heels!

Can you feel it? The sedge is withered from the heath and no birds sing, but the brown grass poking through the hardened snow and the cackle of crows signify something more than cantankerous weather and sore throats. Persephone is making her way back from the realm of Hades. The telltale signs of her passage can be found in the broken branches and footprints of the publishing world. Walk if you can, drive if you must, only travel to your local bookstore or news stand, there you will find proof that summer’s daughter is making her way back to the land of the living. Look to the periodicals, where the carefully tended furrows of the sports section are bearing their annual fruit, and this year’s crop of fantasy baseball guides and 2009 season prospectuses have bloomed on the racks. The harvest is almost upon us, rejoice!

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In the Beginning was the Card

If I were wont to believe such things, I’d say that there is a strong case to be made for the Almighty being a baseball fan. Certainly, the world is a better place for the game, or at least a livelier sphere, and its rotation through the heavens a snappier curve than it was before. I knew this once, but for many years I lost sight of the ball in the sun.

My earliest surviving memories of the game consist of a white bucket filled with baseball cards that magically appeared sometime in the summer of 1978. I can only assume that my father bought them, hoping that he could transfer my enthusiasm for the previous year’s recurring series of Topps Star Wars cards to another more practical outlet. This was no mean feat and probably a lost cause since a baseball bat was hardly a light saber, and given the choice between assuming the robes of a Jedi Knight or donning an All-Star uniform, there was no competition. Who needs to keep his eyes on the ball when they can deceive you? 20/20 vision was already out of the question, but the Force seemed to be within the grasp of fingers aged seven and an imagination that has not progressed much further whatever the span of years since.

As for the valiant but hopelessly outclassed baseball cards of ’78, the only one that I remember with any clarity was Eddie Murray’s coveted Topps rookie card, and this only because I sold it along with the rest of them nearly a decade later during my junior year of high school. It was the single one of their number that really grabbed the attention of the unscrupulous trader who ran my local comics and sports card shop, so it remains in my mind like a pebble that could not be shaken from my shoe.

Years earlier, what mattered more to me than the names of the players and the entirely unrecognized financial value of their cards were the names of their teams, names that were fresh to me, yet which seemed to have existed forever, as did everything in my emerging awareness of the world outside of my immediate family. Baseball might have been something new, but the group I already understood. Predictably, I especially prized the roster portraits, not because they were better value for your money than the individual pictures, but because I enjoyed checking off the boxes on the back of each team picture that signified just how many of those other cards I actually owned.

Unconcerned with individual photographs, what I remember most about the cards was their reverse side. The statistics and the biographical information found there meant little to me, none of the players were even born in my own state of Alaska, but the brown and blue print that told their stories marked the beginning of my admittedly undistinguished baseball career. On the right side of each card, a baseball game played out before my eyes within a cartouche that contained a diamond and the results of a single at-bat: a strike out, single, pop fly, groundout, extra-base hit, or coveted home run. On this particular playing field, the Star Wars cards were outmatched. They had better pictures, and in an era before videos, they kept the movie fresh in my mind’s eye, but I couldn’t play with them, or at least did not.

Eddie Murray and a Strikeout!

Eddie Murray and a Strikeout!

By contrast, the baseball cards were interactive, and I would craft teams according to the line-ups available to me. The rest of the cards would remain in the bucket, a cornucopia of potential, the unknown sum of nine innings of play. Card after card, pitch after pitch, the crack of the bat replaced by the shuffling sound of my hand fumbling amidst the unseen deck. No numbers man or statistician, I kept no records of the games, nor box scores or league tables. That wasn’t the point. I simply delighted in watching nine innings or five or even three unfold before me in Bedroom Stadium, and even more so, in knowing that I had passed through the turnstiles of a larger world. The Star Wars cards had delighted me because it was not necessary to read in order to understand the messages that they conveyed. The baseball cards, on the other hand, appealed because I had to read them in order to appreciate their worth. This was written language in its purest sense: representational images that conveyed a greater purpose to the enlightened reader, not that your humble correspondent understood them as such. I was, after all, just a rookie when it came to literacy, and while baseball hardly taught me how to read, those cards were undoubtedly batting practice. Even though the cards that read “home run” were rare, each one I lifted out of the bucket was a swing for the stands.

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Bill Werber, a living legend passes into legend

“Lo there do I see my lead off hitter. Lo there do I see my manager and my fans and my announcers. Lo there do I see the line-up of my team, back to the beginning. Lo, they do call to me, they bid me take my place among them, in the Halls of Balhalla, where the brave may play… forever.” [With a tip of my hat to Viking spirits, Norse nationalists, and other mainstays of the Ragnorak Leagues]

Whenever I pick up a newspaper, I read the obituaries page.  I feel no need to apologize for what some might consider to be a ghoulish preoccupation with the dead.  Such critics are missing the point.  Obituaries are not a guilty pleasure, they are, at worst, bitter irony, at best, studied reflection.  Where else can we, the run of the mill, life’s .235 batters, discover a worthy life or an interesting character that has run its course and returned not only to home plate, but the earth itself, or the sky, or the water, depending on one’s fancy?  The obituaries page is our memento mori, a reminder of the inevitable, but also a clarion cry to achieve, to make something of this mortal coil – preferably for the good. 

Your humble correspondent first began reading the obituary page with any regularity during my first years at St. Andrews when life as a resident of Dean’s Court included a subscription to several leading dailies.   You could tell a lot about a paper’s editorial slant by the remembered dead in the closing pages of each edition.  The Daily Torygraph featured stalwarts of the Empire, heroes of the World Wars, and other such worthies.  The Grauniad favored literary eminence, political activists, and humanitarians.  The Times showcased giants of industry and scientists of breathtaking attainments.  Each of these disparate news periodicals were united, however, in their memorialization of athletic prowess.  Sport, it seems, transcends politics.  The Olympian ideal writ large on a headstone carved in newsprint. 

I suppose that it is fitting and just that the inaugural post of this forum be dedicated to the life, now ended after 100 years, of the man who until less than 100 hours ago, was the oldest living major league baseball player alive.  I speak of Bill Werber, whose place in the annals of the national pastime was unknown to me until the announcement of his demise.   He was a native of North Carolina, played for the Yankees and Red Sox both, but won a World Series with the Cincinnati Reds.  As such, I rely on the obituaries that appeared for him in Charlotte, Gotham, and Boston. Remarkably, there is nothing about him to be found in the Cincinnati Enquirer.  A pox on their house!!! At any rate, those other worthy newspapers can tell his story better than I can, but to their tributes let me add some small wisdom for my readership. 

The oldest surviving major leaguer today is Tony Malinosky, a utilty infielder who played in 35 games for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1937, a season that saw the Bums finish in 6th with a 62-91 record.  You can find out more about him on the wiki list of oldest living players, updated with ruthless efficiency this weekend.   I wish him long life, which given his 99 years of age, he has certainly achieved, but with all due respect to Mr. Malinosky, Bill Werber was an oldest living player whose uniform was cut from a different cloth.  It is not merely that he played with the greats, could claim the uncertain honor of having been peed upon by Babe Ruth, and the more obvious accolade of being at least one of the 2,213 RBIs that put the Bambino in 2nd place for career totals.  No, Bill Werber was not merely a witness to history, he helped make it.  Look at his stats and you will see a reasonably good career, eleven years in the majors, and a lifetime .271 average, amounting to 1,363 hits. If you’re appealing to a Baseball Encylopedia, as I am, you will also see the rare bold faced numbers that indicate a season or career leader.  In the early 30s, at the height of his athletic prowess, Werber led the National League in steals on three separate occasions in four years (1934:40, 1935: 29, 1936: 35. In 1936 he managed a respectable 23 stolen bags).  On top of which, after being disappeared by Connie Mack from Philadelphia to Cincinnati, he demonstrated his worth with a league leading 115 runs and a .370 batting average when it counted most, during the 1940 World Series.  No small achievement, but his speed soon outpaced him, and he never managed more than 19 short hops again.   

In closing, let us dwell on irony, not in bitterness, but in achievement.  Bill Werber, you began your career as a Yankee and ended it as a Giant. Your eleven years in professional baseball amounted to a mathematically precise 11% of your life.  During that time, you were renowned for your speed, but in our modern era of scruffy baseball players, “a grubby bunch of caterwaulers” to use your phrase, we remember you on account of the slow passage of years. Your story is one of Hall-of-Fame tortoise and All-Star hare. Their race is run.

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