The Magazine

Rough Diamonds

How baseball was played in the late 20th century.

Jul 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 42 • By DAVID GUASPARI
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It’s What’s Inside the Lines That Counts

Rough Diamonds

Credit: Corbis

Baseball Stars of the 1970s and 1980s Talk About the Game They Love (The Baseball Oral History Project, Volume 3)
by Fay Vincent
Simon & Schuster, 328 pp., $25

It is no criticism to say that the third installment in Fay Vincent’s oral history of baseball cannot compete with the classic that inspired it, Lawrence S. Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times. Ritter, a professor of finance at NYU, spent the first half of the 1960s tracking down players from the early decades of the 20th century and recording their stories—capturing a wonderful slice of American history that would otherwise have been lost. 

In those early days, the business of baseball was not yet rationalized. Independent teams and leagues flourished. There was no panopticon of sports media to scour elementary schools for talent, no conveyor belt to trundle boys to the majors through youth teams and a system of captive minor leagues. Sixteen-year-old Rube Marquard hopped a freight train and, five days later, presented himself to the Waterloo club in the Iowa State league, where a friend of his was playing. “Keokuk is here tomorrow,” the manager said, “and we’ll pitch you.” (He won the game and then hopped a train back when they wouldn’t immediately give him a contract.) 

Off-season, players barnstormed; and during one tour the mayor of Oxnard, California, insisted that Hans Lobert, reputedly the fastest man in the majors, put on a postgame show by racing a horse around the bases. (The horse won, but cheated.) The trainers, said Wahoo Sam Crawford, “didn’t know any more about health or medicine than the man in the moon.” One had a single all-purpose remedy, a rubdown with a mixture of Vaseline and Tabasco sauce, which he called “Go fast.”

Roger Angell, the most celebrated of baseball essayists, has said that an interview with an athlete consists basically of one question: What is it like to be you? The baseball lives recounted here—from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s—seem an awful lot like those of today. The romance of the world that Ritter uncovered could charm anyone with a fondness for Americana, but the baseball gossip of What’s Inside the Lines is for fans: Juan Marichal’s “incident” with Johnny Roseboro, Earl Weaver’s never‑ending grudge match against the (now-dead) umpire Ron Luciano, Ozzie Smith’s first back flip, Bobby Richardson’s positioning when Willie McCovey lined a screamer at him to end the 1962 World Series. Which is not to say that these stories lack insight into the human condition. The umpire Bruce Froemming, for example, brilliantly and succinctly defines the point at which an argument crosses the line: “Profane is anything with ‘you’ in front of it.”

Seven of Vincent’s subjects are in the Hall of Fame: Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Tom Seaver, Ozzie Smith, and Cal Ripken as players; Earl Weaver and Dick Williams as managers, their careers validating the conventional view that marginal players make the best skippers. Bruce Froemming will be there soon, joining nine other umps. Marvin Miller, first executive director of the Baseball Players Association, should be—in the category “Executive/Pioneer”—but won’t. The selection committee seems to have been gerrymandered to keep him out. The tenth entry, completing the lineup card, is Don Baylor, an excellent player and successful manager, though not quite one of the game’s gods. (Miller, who may be unknown to non-fans, has had an enormous impact on the game and on the most conspicuous difference between then and now: money. The average salary of a major league ballplayer in 1965, the year before Players Association was formed, was a bit more than $14,000. The average salary in 2010 is a bit over  $3 million.)

Like many fans, I’ve taken a marginally informed, plague-on-both-their-houses stance toward the players and owners during strikes and drug scandals. (Two years before he died, Lawrence Ritter, presumably better informed, told the New York Times, “I don’t like the players, I don’t like the umpires, I don’t like the owners. But I love the game.”) There is no doubt, however, that before their union was formed, players were little more than chattel. Team owners colluded to sign every player to a contract containing the so-called reserve clause that bound him to a single team until it chose to release or trade him. Years of turmoil produced the current system—too complex to summarize here—that allows players with a certain seniority to become “free agents” and shop their talents around. Hence the multiyear multimillion-dollar contracts.

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