Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Vincent takes us Inside the Lines with latest oral history

In the 44 years since Lawrence Ritter's The Glory of Their Times shared players' first-hand accounts of life on and off the field, the oral history has become its own sub genre in baseball literature. Ritter passed the torch to Donald Honig, who gave us Baseball When the Grass Was Real in 1975. Since then, countless others have tracked down old ballplayers and recorded their tales, including former Major League Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, whose third such volume, It's What's Inside the Lines That Counts, was released this spring.

Vincent's earlier books covered the 1930s-40s and 1950s-60s. He's worked his way up to the 1970s and 80s with the new release, though several of the men interviewed, notably Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal, played significant portions of their careers in the 1960s. McCovey, a feared middle-of-the-order slugger, leads off here, talking about his early days in Mobile, Alabama, the talent hotbed that also spawned the likes of Henry Aaron and Billy Williams. McCovey recalls gathering around with other kids to listen to Satchel Paige, another great from Mobile, tell stories about life in the Negro Leagues.

Marichal shares his side of the brawl with Johnny Roseboro, one of the ugliest fights in the history of the game. The incident was actually three days in the making, tracing its roots to a catcher's interference call a couple of games before Roseboro buzzed Marichal's ear with a return throw to the mound. Years later the two combatants became friends, and the episode is understandably one that the Hall of Fame pitcher hates to talk about these days, though he did so here for Vincent.

Three of the four other players included are also enshrined in Cooperstown: Tom Seaver, Ozzie Smith, and Cal Ripken Jr. The fourth, Don Baylor, had a long and productive career as an outfielder and DH before making the transition to coach and manager. Two other legendary skippers, Dick Williams and Earl Weaver, are featured, and the book concludes with umpire Bruce Froemming and labor leader Marvin Miller.

Much of the magic of The Glory of Their Times came from introducing long forgotten heroes to new generations. While most fans who have been following baseball since the 70s and 80s are well-acquainted with players like Seaver, Smith, and Ripken, there are lots of fun tidbits here that will be new. Seaver talks about how he became the property of the Mets after his initial contract with the Braves was never ratified by the commissioner's office. Smith tells how he was so overlooked coming out of high school that his only college option was Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo, where he played on the JV squad until the varsity shortstop got hurt. And Ripken describes growing up on the road, as his family followed his father around from one minor league stop to the next.

Froemming and Miller may seem like unexpected choices for such a collection, but both have a long history in the game and a lot of stories to share. Froemming talks about breaking in under the tutelage of Al Barlick, and having the chutzpah as a minor league ump to ask the Hall of Fame arbiter if he could work the plate in his place during a spring training contest. Miller details the formative years of the players' union in the 1960s and how he won approval as the head of the union despite nearly unanimous voting against him by the first four clubs polled.

The Miller chapter is the tightest and most direct-flowing of the book. His story unfolds in chronological order, making it easy to follow from start to finish. Most of the others tend to loop around and double-back in places, reflecting the way people generally talk. Unfortunately, that makes for jumbled reading at times, with 180-degree topic changes and no transition between thoughts. The concept of an oral history, all the way back to Ritter's project, is to let the players tell their story with no filter. There are places, however, where you may wish an editor had intervened, either adding a transition or cutting and pasting text to put like topics together.

Despite that complaint, it's hard to go wrong with a book like this. Most of us will never get the opportunity to sit down with Hall of Fame players and listen to them talk about breaking into the big leagues or playing in the World Series. Vincent uses his access to bridge that gap for us. The concept may not be new anymore, but it's tried and true and fun to read.

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