Reviewed in this essay: The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball from the Men Who Played It, by Lawrence S. Ritter. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2010.
As winter turns to spring, the sports fan’s mind turns to baseball. Arguably, it’s the most literary of all the sports, even if only by volume: authors as diverse as Philip Roth, Chad Harbach, Jim Bouton, David Halberstam (previously reviewed here) and Richard Ben Cramer have all written great baseball books.
One that stands out above those is The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence Ritter, a history of the formative years of baseball. It’s equal parts memoir and reportage, with some legend mixed in. It’s one of the best baseball books out there.
In 26 chapters, each adapted from extensive interviews, Ritter’s book covers the first half of the last century, the golden age of baseball. Moving fom Tommy Leach, who started in the 19th century, to Hank Greenberg, who played until 1947, each chapter is like an informal conversation with an athlete looking back on their career. It’s a telling record of the growth of a major sport.
Reading, you see the changes as they happen: Ray Chapman getting killed by a pitch; Babe Ruth slugging like nobody else; Ty Cobb, playing like a man possessed. This was before money and respect made their way into pro sports: hotels wouldn’t rent rooms to ballplayers and there wasn’t team health care. Not to mention the punishing travel schedule, as Sam Crawford explains in his chapter:
“In lots of ways it wasn’t the easiest life in the world. We had to travel a lot, you know, and travel conditions were pretty rugged then…We spent a lot of our lives living out of our grips, on trains and hotels. The hotels weren’t the best in the world, and the trains had coal-burning engines. So you’d wake up in the morning covered in cinders.” (65)
It’s a world far removed from the luxuries of today’s pro sports, which makes the stories important for understanding how pro sports has grown. Without Ritter’s hard work in finding these people (he travelled 75,000 miles in tracking them all down), their stories would’ve been lost to time, replaced by a rosy picture.
Speaking of pictures, the book has dozens of period photos, a visual record that helps illuminate this period of American history. One stands out in my mind: Times Square in 1919, packed with people watching a large, primitive scoreboard of a World Series game. The sheer mass of people is astounding and hammers home baseball’s popularity, even before radio and TV.
Casual fans will find a lot to like here: hearing these stories is as close you’ll get to seeing them in action. It’s a worthy and highly readable history of baseball, a must for every fan.
Note: Since it’s original release, Ritter’s book has been reissued a number of times. The expanded version published in the mid-1980s and re-issued by Harper Perennial Modern Classics in early 2010 is the one to look for.