12 June 2006

The Only Game in Town, by Fay Vincent

The Only Game in Town: Baseball Stars of the 1930s and 1940s Talk About the Game They Loved
by Fay Vincent

In an era in which it seems like the game of baseball has been abused and scandalized, its name dragged trough the proverbial mud, a new book by the former Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Fay Vincent, harkens back to a time when the game was more than a little bit purer. The Only Game in Town includes interviews with some of the stars of that era, both from the major leagues, which were segregated at the time, and from the Negro leagues. Each inerview comprises a chapter in the book, ten in all. These are, in order: Elden Auker, Bob Feller, Tommy Henrich, Buck O'Neil, Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, Warren Spahn, Larry Doby, Ralph Kiner and Monte Irvin. And these men really were stars in their era. Half of them (Feller, Spahn, Doby, Kiner and Irvin) were eventually elected to the Hall of Fame, and Henrick, DiMaggio and Pesky all made All-Star teams at some point. Auker wasn't really a star, per se, but he won 130 games as a LAIM for a decade with the Tigers, Red Sox and Browns.

The title of the book is a rather ironic one, as the major leagues really were not The Only Game in (most) Towns, with Negro league teams barnstorming through regularly. Certainly the major leagues were exclusive to Black players, but in many ways the Negro Leagues were quite competitive with them, and the book contains some interesting stories about exhibition games and barnstorming tours from both black and white players. Some of the more interesting stories in the book relate to the annual barnstorming tours that Bob Feller and Satchel Paige arranged and Feller indicates that he and the other players made more money in that venture than they ever did in the majors.

This book is part of the Baseball Oral History Project, which Vincent describes in the Introduction to the book. It's an effort, a collaboration with the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, to get some of the stories of these great players down on paper, for posterity. The men who played in the 1930's and 1940's are now in their 80's and 90's, those who are still alive, anyway, and they've really got some great stories to tell.

The book's style, therefore, varies because it essentially consists of these mens' stories in their own words. Vincent interviewed the men in person, but none of his questions are included in the book, so it reads as though the player being interviewed is just telling his story at his own will, stream-of-consciousness style. Because of that, the Bob Feller chapter reads quite differently from that of Elden Auker. Johnny Pesky's recollections sound pretty different from Dom DiMaggio's, which sound different from Tommy Heinrich's memories, and etc.

Among the ten interviews in the book, Vincent has chapters on Negro League icons Buck O'Neil, Larry Doby and Monte Irvin. In truth, Doby didn't play in the Negro Leagues very long, as he was playing in the majors in 1948, the first Black player in the American League, at age 24. Irvin did not break into the majors until 1949, when he was already 30 years old, but both he and Doby were eventually elected to the Hall of Fame. O'Neil, despite his status as an icon and the prominance he's gained since Ken Burns' Baseball documentary featured him over 10 years ago, was not a Hall of Fame caliber player in any league, but he sure tells great stories.

Warren Spahn tells some good stories, too, as does Ralph Kiner. Of course, with over four decades in the Mets' broadcast booth, lots of Kiner's stories have been heard in venues other than this one, but a story about his disastrous date with Elizabeth Taylor, for example, is pretty interesting to read even if you've heard it before. Bob Feller tells us that "Josh Gibson couldn't hit a curveball with an ironing board." Elden Auker recalls how someone told him, after he'd struck out Babe Ruth, that the Bambino was all bent out of shape because "that was the first time a woman ever struck him out!" (Turns out that was a fib, but it sure got Auker all fired up.) Tommy Henrich relates the circumstances under which Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis declared him a "free agent", over 30 years before Curt Flood would make waves and change the game forever. Warren Spahn talks about his arguments with Ted Williams over whether or not pitchers are stupid, pointing out that, "if pitchers are all stupid, how come you only hit .406? Fifty-percent is .500 and you never hit that." Most of these guys, if not all of them, served in the military during World War II, and they all have interesting stories about those experiences.

In all, this book is a lot of fun. They're great stories, from great players. It's a quick, easy read, and sheds some light on a time when the game, and this country, were both a lot less complicated. Hopefully Vincent is working on another volume, either with more stars from the same era, or maybe some from the 1950s. This book would make a great start for a series of similar works. It would be a shame if The Only Game in Town were the only book of its kind.