July 28, 2021

The Glory of Reading The Glory of Their Times

June 1, 2015 by · 4 Comments 

GloryAsk any baseball bibliophile which tomes on the National Pastime he or she would bring to the proverbial desert island, and Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory Of Their Times (Macmillan, 1966) will usually be at or near the top of the list.

And deservedly so.

In August of 1961, Tyrus Raymond Cobb, The Georgia Peach, Hall of Famer, American Leaguer 1905-1928, some say the greatest ballplayer of all time (Although some may say Honus Wagner and this writer opts for G. H. Ruth, and you can make good cases for Mays or Aaron, among others), passed away in Atlanta, Georgia.

This set Lawrence Ritter to thinking. Ritter was chair of the NYU finance department and a fan of the game. Gone with Cobb was an unmatched treasure trove of baseball memories, anecdotes, vendettas, grudges, strategies, and know-how, never to be recorded, other than in the relatively circumspect memoir written with Al Stump and published in 1961.

Surely history would be much the richer if some of Cobb’s contemporaries could have their memories of their lives and careers set down for posterity. Not coincidentally, Ritter’s own father passed around the same time, and it was this expression of mortality that proved the stronger impetus for Ritter’s project to get off the ground, although the Professor himself came to this realization only belatedly.

More prosaically, Ritter noted that Cincinnati outfielder ‘Wahoo’ Sam Crawford, later to star in the Detroit garden alongside Cobb and Davy Jones, (another player featured in Glory) , began play in the Big League in 1899 (only
one league then, remember), a fact which Ritter (and this writer too) found fascinating. This was really the genesis of the book that ignited widespread interest in the early history of the game and paved the way for a plethora of oral histories. (Aptly, Jones likened playing in the outfield in between such giants of the game as Crawford and Cobb to being a member of the chorus onstage with two divas!)

Starting in the summer of 1963, Ritter, his thirteen year old son Stephen, and lady friend Barbara Neuwirth, crisscrossed the country interviewing old time ballplayers (along with front office personnel, umpires and others who did not appear in the book), most of whom were happy to share their reminiscences, if perhaps a bit skeptical that anyone could be interested in tales of diamond daring from half a century past.

How wrong they were!

The Glory of Their Times has rarely been out of print since its first appearance in the fall of 1966 and at least three of its subjects directly credit the book’s influence with their subsequent elections to the Hall of Fame. It spawned a host of oral sporting histories and it might even be said that this format has become the standard for books on the
history of baseball, or indeed any sport.

But Oh! What a wonderful trip down memory lane! It’s not so much the too-numerous differences with today’s corporatized, hyper-monetized version of MLB as the quality of the storytelling and the gracious good nature of the men who make up the subject matter. And there is variety in that, while most of the players profiled enjoyed relatively long careers, some are Hall of Famers (Crawford, Goose Goslin, Stan Coveleski, Marquard, Roush, Paul Waner), some were very good players although less remembered today (Bob O’Farrell, Sad Sam Jones, Heinie Groh), and some are known mostly to us amateur historians (Al Bridwell (who got the base hit that proved Fred Merkle’s undoing), George Gibson).

It is this very mix of stars and role players that gives the book much charm, as the different perspectives between a player who has to earn a job every spring versus a star who is pretty well assured of a spot in the starting lineup both make for very entertaining and enlightening reading. Either way there was a long, long line of prospects itching to take a job in the majors away from those already there, and that pressure, somewhat lessened today, never ever let up.

Hall of Fame pitcher Stanley Coveleski: ‘Lord, baseball is a worrying thing.’ In the era before widespread scouting and the player draft, it was very much a matter of luck that might enable a promising player to have a chance at a
professional career. Many a time simple good fortune was the main factor. In the years before World War II most cities, towns, and villages of any size at all had a town baseball team.

There was great local interest in municipalities playing one another and eventually monetary considerations, fueled mainly by lots and lots of betting, led to player movement, shifting loyalties, and the emergence of ‘semi-professional’ teams, so called because most of the players had regular jobs, played ball as a sideline and generally were paid by passing the hat. Spectators were also known to rain money down onto the field after a particularly clutch play.

So a typical way for a ballplayer to be ‘discovered’ was to play a fast brand of semipro ball and be seen by someone with a connection, however tenuous, to a club in Organized Baseball. Such was the case with George ‘Specs’ Torporcer, St. Louis Cardinals infielder of the 1920s, who incidentally was the first position player to take the field in the big leagues while wearing spectacles. Specs was playing a fast brand of semipro ball in Orange, New Jersey under manager Billy Swanson, who had had a cup of coffee with the Red Sox (20 AB in 1914).

Eventually Torporcer signed a contract with the Syracuse, New York Stars who then became a farm team of the Cards. Thus invited to the St. Louis club’s spring training, Specs had a great spring and was the starting second baseman for the 1921 Redbirds. Can you imagine a player going directly from the sandlots to the big leagues? Specs or no, Specs must have been some kind of player.

Must have also been a fast semipro league indeed. A similar tale illustrates many of the stories of advancement to the majors but many of the stories have a poignant side as well. George Torporcer underwent three operations to save his eyesight after he retired as a player which unfortunately were unsuccessful and the matter of fact grace with which he tells of what must have been an unbearable circumstance is indicative of the outstanding quality of these narratives. Torporcer and several other players were not included in the original printing of the book but have been added to subsequent printings.

For the literate baseball fan with a strong sense of history, the charm here is what the stories have in common as well as where they differ. As noted, each player had a lucky break, or sometimes several, to make it to the top of the
mountain in the first place. Just as quickly, a bad break could cause the entire edifice to crumble in an instant. The players relate their ups and downs in a charming, compelling way, only very lightly edited by Ritter.

Interestingly, excerpts from the audio tapes made by the Ritters and Ms. Neuwirth have been commercially released on at least two occasions, and a hearing of these not only gives a sense of the charm and grace in their telling but also attests to the minimal editing and shaping done by the author, mostly amounting to nothing more than eliminating his own questions. A savvy interviewer, Ritter early on recognized the value of simply putting his subjects at ease and letting the conversation flow where it may.

And for amateur historians of the National Pastime like this writer, how illuminating to read several different eyewitness accounts of the Merkle incident, the ‘$30,000 muff’ of Fred Snodgrass, the 1919 fix, and much more. The fact of the matter is that The Glory Of Their Times is a great book, even if one is not a red-hot baseball fan. But it is not solely about baseball; there are a lot of life lessons contained in its pages as well.

Everyone should read this book, fan or not. But don’t think there aren’t similarities to today’s game as well–arguing with umpires, struggling with the decision to keep playing or retire, haggling with ownership on salaries, the loneliness of the road, the fickle nature of fame and fandom, the constant pressure to perform–it’s all here.

But when all is said and done, the common denominator present in these accounts is the passionate, single minded devotion to the greatest game of them all—baseball.

Published by Macmillan, 1966 as well as a companion LP, a one hour
documentary produced by Bud Greenspan, 1970, and a cassette/cd from 1998.

Comments

4 Responses to “The Glory of Reading The Glory of Their Times”
  1. Gary Growe says:

    “The Glory of Their Times” is indeed the greatest baseball book ever written.
    Anyone seriously interested in the game owes Ritter a debt of gratitude for providing us with a portrait of the early days of baseball. Thanks to Ritter for preserving the voices of the men who played. Thanks also for the review of this most wonderful and important history.

  2. mike says:

    Thanks for the kind words, and thanks to everyone reading the article, hope you enjoyed it!

  3. Dennis Alstrand says:

    I’ve read the book probably 3 times and listened to some CDs of the book a few times. This has got me yearning to go read it/hear it again. I see its on audible.com now.
    I love the CD version as Ritter adds more memories of the interviewees including some great ones of Chief Meyers.
    Thank you for this excellent review (it took me 3 years to read). I found it by searching for that quote “Lord, baseball is a worrying thing”. I had remembered it to be Waner, but am corrected that it was Coveleski.

  4. David Plump says:

    Not sure if all realize, but I purchased this as an audio book expecting a narrator to be reading the interviews. BUT NO!!! This is the actual audio of these players from the turn of the century discussing playing with Cobb, BATTING against Ruth, playing for John McGraw and Connie Mack. Batting against Walter Johnson and Grover Cleveland Alexander. If you have just read this and not gotten the audio book. YOU ARE MISSING OUT ON BASEBALL GOLD!!!!!

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