Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence Ritter

Photo: book's cover, from its Wikipedia Page

Outstanding collection of first-person observations of many ballplayers--mostly from the New York Giants, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Cincinnati Reds--from those who began their careers in the late-1890s / early 1900s (Tommy Leach and Sam Crawford) to those who finished their careers in the 1930s and 1940s (Paul Waner and Hank Greenberg).  I really liked this book because it initially talks a lot about many of the players I have in my 1909-1911 T206s, who I didn't know a lot about, outside of their names and stats.  It's nice to be able to put a personality to the face on the card.  It was also interesting to hear about what baseball was truly like in the early 1900s by those who played it, and about what they thought about their contemporaries.

Some of the things I learned:

--Though they were called "the minors," such teams were not like the minor league teams today.  The starkest difference is that these teams were not in existence to feed players to the parent team, like such teams are today.  (For example, the Pawtucket Red Sox is the AAA team for the Boston Red Sox.  The Pawsox's sole purpose is to provide a place for players to play so that Boston can call them up if it needs to.  If Boston did need a player, a phone call brings him to Boston.)  But in the early 1900s, smaller teams were not there to just supply players to the big-league team.  That type of farm system didn't exist until the 1940s.  Instead, a team in the Pacific Coast League, or the Mid-Atlantic League, or the Triple-I League, or the Southern League, or the Tri-State League--or in tons of other amateur, semi-pro or professional leagues--had to be paid for the player.  The players interviewed said that these teams were often helpful to the player's chance to make the majors--but they didn't have to be.  A few players said the smaller team's owner would involve them in the transaction process--and often take a lesser deal to grease the wheels for the player.  But the insinuation was that the team could hold on to the player for a year or two more than today's minor league teams would, thereby making their big-league careers shorter. 

--Many players said the pay between the smaller team and the big league team were almost the same.  In many cases, the big-league team only paid about $50 more per month--and the player wasn't always crazy about receiving more money, but playing much less often, at the big-league level.  A few were happy to be sent down so they could play more often, even if they were paid a little less.

--Managers played a much bigger role in the contracts and finances of the team and player than they do today.  The manager signed players to contracts and haggled over salaries.  Players often went directly to the owner when they were annoyed with the manager--but they had to deal with the manager first.

--Players frequently jumped from one team to another, often in the middle of contracts.  Many HOFers jumped to the Federal League (in the mid-1910s) mid-contract simply because someone from that league offered them more money--often a few thousand more, which was a lot back then.  They didn't hesitate to do this because teams would unceremoniously dump players with no notice, or lower their salaries despite career years, or trade them at any time, or send them to a lower league at any time.  For example, as late as the 1940s, the Detroit Tigers just flat-out sold Hank Greenberg to the Pittsburgh Pirates, for $75,000.  Greenberg had 44 homers and 127 RBIs the previous year.  Anyway, nobody was loyal to anybody.

--And the owners were very, very cheap.  Because they could be.

--The consensus was that Honus Wagner, and not Ty Cobb, was the better player 1900-1920.  After that, everyone agreed it was Babe Ruth.  The players were clearly in awe of Wagner and Ruth--even the other HOFers.

--Honus Wagner was apparently a Gold Glove-caliber player at any position at all on the field.  Even if Cobb was slightly the better hitter (which was not a given), Wagner was the much better defender.  Players were just as impressed with Wagner's defense as they were with his offense.

--Hall of Famers got traded shockingly often.  Managers, too.

--Supposedly the earlier players were uneducated, right?  Not so, say these players, and they knew tons of examples of ballplayers and the colleges and universities they'd attended.  They all said that the percentage of all players being college-educated was much, much higher than the percentage of college-educated people amongst the general public.

--Having said that, there were a tremendous number of hicks and "rubes" as well.  Literally, like Rube Waddell, and Rube Marquard, and...

--Most of the ballplayers didn't mind receiving slightly-lower pay on the smaller teams because even that pay was light years ahead of what was waiting for them outside of baseball.  Lots of miners and other hard-laborers amongst the ballplayers, and those players did that kind of work during the off-season.

--Players barnstormed as often as possible outside of the baseball season.  And they would go anywhere, even to very small towns and sparsely-populated areas.

--Most players loved John McGraw.  A few didn't.  Sometimes they seemed to be talking about different people.  Same thing for Ty Cobb, except most said Cobb was "very hard to get along with."  But they all respected his fire and passion.  A few said Cobb was okay to be around.

--All of the players cared a lot about their peers being nice guys.

--If you were injured, you lost your job.  Period.  And no play equaled no pay.

--Quite a few of them, such as HOFer Sam Crawford, had careers outside of baseball that lasted 25-35 years after they retired.  And, surprisingly, players lasting beyond age 40 was common.

--Most of them said that the ballplayers playing while the book was being put together (50s and 60s) were much better, overall, than were their peers.  And they all said that Willie Mays (not Mantle, Aaron or anyone else) was the best present-day player.

--But they all also said that their peers were much more baseball-smart than were the present players, mostly because the present-day players just wanted to hit homers, while their peers had to scratch and scrape for runs, because homers could not be hit in such huge ballparks with such a dead ball.

--Many pitchers between 1900-1930 blatantly marked up the ball.  Emory boards, tacks, spit, powder, and--most often--tobacco juice were loaded onto the baseball to make it harder to hit and to see.

--All of them said baseball life was lonely.  Which made nice people so important.

--Because only one umpire worked a game in the early-1900s, if there was a play at the plate (where the one empire therefore had to focus), baserunners would often not come anywhere near second or third base as they rounded the bases.

I could go on and on.  If you're into history, or baseball, or the history of baseball, you'd find this fascinating. 

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