Vintage Baseball, in Their Own Words ; an Oral History Project Offers the First of a Series of Memories as Players Reminisce about Baseball in the 1930s and '40S

Article excerpt

In The Only Game in Town, the first in a multivolume oral history project conducted by former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, 10 former players recall their playing days in the 1930s and '40s. Much like watching a baseball game on a lazy summer evening, this leisurely stroll down memory lane is a mostly pleasant outing, with lengthy stretches of little action interrupted occasionally by moments of genuine excitement.

Some of the legendary players of that era - including Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Jimmy Foxx, and Lefty Grove - figure prominently in these recollections, which are as varied as the personalities they involve.

Both Tommy Henrich, all-star outfielder for the New York Yankees, and pitcher Elden Auker recount the story of Detroit Tiger great Hank Greenberg storming into the White Sox locker room after a game to confront the source of anti-Semitic remarks. (Nobody fessed up, but Greenberg made an impression). Most of the players also have at least one story to tell about pitcher Satchel Paige, one of the most storied figures in all of baseball.

The book covers a momentous period in American history. The players interviewed grew up during the Depression and all served in the military during World War II. It was a very different era from ours and a very different war that they fought.

Pitcher Bob Feller, who made it to the major leagues at age 17, spent four of his prime years in the Navy. Hall-of-Famer Warren Spahn pitched his first game in 1942, then spent three years in the Army before getting his first major league win in 1946 at the age of 25. Despite the interruption, he still holds the record for the most wins (363) by a left-handed pitcher.

None of the players complained about time spent in service to their country. Indeed, for all of them, there was no question that the war effort took precedence over their baseball careers.

Dom DiMaggio (brother of Joe) didn't wait for the off season, but enlisted in the Navy while the 1942 season was under way (though he wasn't finally called up until later that fall).

That same year, Auker surprised the baseball world by leaving baseball in order to support the war effort by taking a job in the engineering department of a manufacturing company.

The integration of the major leagues in 1947 was a watershed event, and "The Only Game in Town" includes interviews with three African-American players, all of whom played in the Negro Leagues. Not surprisingly, their experiences are among the most interesting and most weighty of the group. …