It’s What’s Inside the Lines That Counts

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.

Of the bitter strike that wiped out the middle third of the 1981 season, Miller says, “Major League ballplayers are the most competitive people I’ve ever met and the owners made the mistake of trying to face them down.” He claims to believe in “basic economics, a balance between demand and supply”—meaning by “balance” (a euphemism presumably uttered with a straight face) a strategy that limits the number of new free agents each year so that scarcity will keep their salaries high. 

The stories of the nonplayers seem more interesting than those of the players, perhaps because what they do is less well known. Who would have guessed that someone floated a plan to have the union represented by a balanced ticket consisting of Miller and the law firm of Richard Nixon? Froemming makes it clear that umpires don’t just call the plays; they control the game. And he exudes confidence in his ability to project the moral authority needed to do that, and his ability to handle himself and others in tense confrontations. Froemming also confirms one’s most painful imaginings about the doggedness needed to umpire in the minor leagues: During the season he could never afford to go home for a visit; he had to drive himself from game to game, including the 800 miles from El Paso to Tulsa; and in 1968, after a decade in the minors, he was making a salary of $3,200. (Umpires now have their own union.)

Dick Williams and Earl Weaver are notoriously prickly and sharp-tongued, just what the reader wants. Williams took three different teams to the World Series but never lasted longer than five years with any of them; he “rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.” Weaver, by contrast, spent his entire career with the Baltimore Orioles. Holder of the American League record for being ejected from ball games, he directed much of his energy to intimidating umpires and opposing players. It’s amusing to try disentangling the mix of spin, bonhomie, and moonshine when he says that “almost every time I got thrown out I deserved it” and “the umpires were so good it’s almost impossible that I could disagree with them that many times.”

Both Weaver and Williams complain that an emphasis on “fundamentals” was a key to their success and is now a thing of the past. That has more in it, I think, than old-guy crankiness. Some nonobjective evidence: In the summer of 1981, recovering from an illness, I would drift in and out of sleep with an Orioles game on the radio and seemed always to awaken as they grabbed a defensive out with a cut‑off play. The cut-off, an opportunistic way to settle for half a loaf, is the most bourgeois play in baseball: It must be set up hundreds of times a season, for the one time in 10 or 20 it can be sprung—and redirect a throw to catch a trailing runner. I might add that Ritter’s players, reflecting on how baseball had changed, regularly said that their game called not for power but, preeminently, for quick wits.

Clearly, none of these men is unintelligent. And none has false modesty, which someone at the top of a difficult profession can hardly afford. Marichal thinks, plausibly, that there must be something wrong with the Cy Young Award since he never won it. Seaver revels in being the center of the action, when there are 50,000 people in the park and he alone knows what pitch is coming next. Ozzie Smith, a dazzling defensive shortstop who made himself into a capable batter, offers this portrait of Cal Ripken, his mirror image: Smart, positions himself well, a great hitter, and “defensively, he’s not going to hurt you.”

The modern players emphasize their pride in how hard they work at their difficult craft. A cynic might call that a ploy, conscious or not, to defuse resentment at their astronomical pay. I think the pride is justified, the dedication admirable, and give the last word to Ripken, one of the most widely admired—one of the most blue-collar—of baseball’s multimillionaires: “First and foremost, I was someone who loved the game of baseball, was absolutely crazy and passionate about the game of baseball.” And of that brief, consuming career lived between the lines, “You know, it’s just a phase of your life.”

David Guaspari is a writer in Ithaca, New York.