01 September 2015

Oral Histories

Lawrence Ritter, The Glory of Their Times. NY: Macmillan, 1966.
Danny Peary, We Played the Game. NY: Tess, 1994.
John Carmichael, My Greatest Day in Baseball. Lincoln: U.Nebraska, 1996.
Michael Fedo, One Shining Season. NY: Pharos, 1991.
Mike Bryan, Baseball Lives. NY: Pantheon, 1989.

Oral history is about collecting a record of events from the participants, about passing on the important stories, and about creating a shared tradition. Famous examples include Beowulf, The Iliad, and The Odyssey -- the “prehistoric” basis of Western literature. These titles don’t go back quite that far, but they are an important part of what creates baseball’s common memory.

The Glory of Their Times is one of my five most important baseball books (the entire list is below). Somehow it wasn’t baseball’s first collection of oral histories; that might have been Carmichael, originally published in 1945. Yet Ritter’s dedication to tracking down the stars of his youth and recording their stories -- largely transcribed as spoken -- struck a chord with the public. In sessions with twenty-two men, all of whom played between 1899, when Wahoo Sam Crawford’s big-league career began, and 1945, when Paul Waner’s ended, he captured stories spanning the game’s history, from before the American League existed through the replacement players of the Second World War. These are the memories of a life in the game, the great plays, players, games, and characters that make the sport so fascinating, as told by the players themselves. Even better, an audio edition is also available, collected from Ritter’s original reel-to-reel recordings, allowing us to actually hear Fred Snodgrass laugh while remembering Victory Faust.

We Played the Game picks up where Ritter left off, with sixty-five players from between 1947 and 1964. This was the period of racial integration and Westward expansion, featuring the Baby Boomers and their heroes: Brooks Robinson, Ralph Kiner, and Don Newcombe are among the stars Peary sought out for interviews.

The eleven men in One Shining Season, however, were not stars: each only had one season in the Major Leagues. Their stories are no less interesting for the short stays, though, and the men perhaps remember more vividly what they did see.

The speakers in Baseball Lives are even more obscure, providing the view from baseball’s back stage. Bryan talks to everyone from the owner to the bus driver; from pitching instructor to orthopedist; player agent, grounds crew, and bat factory employee. This book creates a deep and vibrant backdrop for the game by foregrounding the support that makes our on-field entertainment possible.

These books are My Greatest Day’s legacy. Published in 1945 by collecting columns from among the Chicago Daily News archives, it is full of Hall of Famers remembering their greatest exploits. This one has an “as told to” approach, so it is doubtless heavily edited, but Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Hans Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson -- the entire first Hall of Fame class -- are among the forty-seven stars sharing stories here, describing some of the most famous moments from the game’s early history.

What is most appealing about these books? Each is preserving an individual, personal piece of history and introducing us to a real human who took part in what is, for most of us, as foreign and fantastic an experience as ancient Greece. These stories bring us closer to the game and help us remember that history goes beyond the record of numbers.

Everett's five most important Baseball Books (in alphabetical order)
  Ball Four
  Baseball Before We Knew It
  Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract
  The Glory of Their Times
  Maybe I'll Pitch Forever

Honorable Mentions to the Seymours, The Babe Ruth Story, and Moneyball

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Blogger Everett Wiggins said...

Embarrassed to have missed Commissioner Fay Vincent's Baseball Oral History Project from Simon & Schuster. Inspired by Ritter's original tapes, Vincent produced three volumes: The Only Game in Town, with stars of the '30s and '40s; We Would Have Played for Nothing, with players from the '50s and '60s; and It's What's Inside the Lines that Counts, with players from the '70s and '80s.

It seems like this Baseball Oral History Project should become an official project of either MLB, SABR, or the National Baseball Hall of Fame, one which reaches out to every player upon filing retirement papers, and which brings out new volumes on a somewhat regular basis. Regardless, we are due for a selection of stars from the '90s and '00s.

3:40 PM  

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