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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

We Would Have Played for Nothing

Edited by Fay Vincent
(Simon & Schuster, 327 pages, $25)
Ex-Baseball Players Recall Life
In the Big Leagues of the 1950s and '60s
Fay Vincent was the Herb Score of baseball commissioners, a man who brought presence and brilliance to the game only to be struck down by an outside force. In the case of Score, the Indians' sensational lefthander, it was a line drive off the bat of Gil McDougald in 1957 that curtailed his career. In the case of Mr. Vincent, who became the commissioner in 1989, it was a 1992 power play by team owners who wanted to pick a fight with the Players Association and felt that he was too accommodating to the union. Two years later, the owners got their confrontation. A strike forced cancellation of the 1994 postseason and, some would argue, helped usher in the steroid era.
Fortunately, Mr. Vincent has not abandoned the game that abandoned him. With the financial assistance of investment banker Herbert Allen, he has been conducting the Baseball Oral History Project, the fruits of which are two books of remembrances: "The Only Game in Town" (2006), in which stars of the 1930s and '40s told their stories; and now "We Would Have Played for Nothing," a gathering of pull-up-a-chair conversations with 11 players from the 1950s and '60s.

Ralph Branca willingly reopens the wound from serving up the Shot Heard Round the World at the Polo Grounds in 1951. Bill Rigney, who died in 2001, regrets not shaking Jackie Robinson's hand to welcome him to the major leagues. ("Why I didn't do that, I don't know, because he was standing right there.") Robin Roberts traces his pitching career, most of it spent with the Philadelphia Phillies, from dreams to dominance to desperation. Duke Snider talks about what it was like, as a Brooklyn Dodger, to be the third member of New York's centerfield triumvirate, along with the Giants' Willie Mays and the Yankees' Mickey Mantle.
The simple eloquence of Carl Erskine is on full display -- whether he is chatting about staying at the Brooklyn YMCA as a rookie pitcher with the Dodgers or describing what it was like to raise a son born in 1960 with Down syndrome, a year after his retirement. Erskine credits Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier with helping to make society generally more accepting of people who are different, including "mongoloid" children who might have been ostracized in earlier generations: "There's a momentum in life and in sports. And I think Jackie kicked off a momentum of change that had a sweeping effect."

There are no lurid or scandalous revelations in "We Would Have Played for Nothing," although Whitey Ford does reveal that he and Mantle won a big bet with Giants owner Horace Stoneham when Ford struck out Willie Mays in the 1961 All-Star Game. Lew Burdette credits Burleigh Grimes, the last legal spitball pitcher, with teaching him the value of making the other team think you're throwing a spitball. Harmon Killebrew recounts how an actual senator, Herman Welker of Idaho, talked the Washington Senators into signing him. Brooks Robinson speaks glowingly of his friendship with Frank Robinson, and Frank Robinson circles the bases again in describing the inside-the-park homer that he hit in 1975 in his first at bat as the Cleveland Indians' player-manager -- and baseball's first black manager. And Billy Williams relives the day in 1959 that the Cubs sent scout Buck O'Neil down to Mobile, Ala., to talk him out of quitting baseball.
Jackie Robinson, Casey Stengel, Ted Williams, Yogi Berra, Mays, Mantle -- they're in the book, too, as recurring characters. Whitey Ford recalls that, unbeknownst to him, Mantle called the pitches in one particular game, signaling them to Berra from centerfield. Turns out that Mantle had been kidding Berra about how easy it was to call a game and Berra dared him to do it himself. So Mantle did just that for seven innings. And Ford pitched a shutout.

Certain themes also run through the personal narratives: racial integration, westward expansion, the growing resentment at the take-it-or-leave-it salaries that players were offered before free agency. All the players recall, with surprising detail, the first professional contracts they signed. Roberts goes back to a three-day tryout he had with the Phillies in Chicago, when the offer kept escalating: "Well, when the signing bonus got to $25,000, I said, 'Is that enough to build a house?' And the guy said, 'Yeah, that'll build it.' I said, 'That's enough.' " Despite earning what now seem laughable sums for putting on the uniform, the former players each express a deep sense of gratitude to the game and to the people who helped them along the way. Erskine relates how a thoughtful minor-league manager named Jack Onslow on an opposing team told him that he was tipping off his pitches. To his sorrow, Erskine says, "I never thanked Jack Onslow."

With Mr. Vincent's assistance, he now does. But that's just one of the services that the former commissioner provides. He is donating his proceeds from the books' sales to the Hall of Fame, which will also get the tapes of the interviews. In his introduction to "We Would Have Played for Nothing," Mr. Vincent pays tribute to "The Glory of Their Times," Lawrence Ritter's 1966 collection of reminiscences from baseball players in the early 20th century. Mr. Vincent's own volumes are worthy sequels, time machines that allow the players -- and us -- to relive their days on the diamonds.

Don't assume that their era was any simpler than ours; these men had to deal with war, politics, racism, alcohol abuse. Perhaps in future years, someone will produce a similar volume on the stars at the turn of the 21st century who had to wrestle with the dilemma presented by performance-enhancing drugs, a struggle that might have been eased by a commissioner willing to work with the union. Oh, well.

As gentle and as loving as this volume is, Mr. Vincent does use his dedication to jab at the people who have closed the doors of the Hall of Fame to a certain union leader: "To the estimable Marvin Miller -- whose contributions to baseball continue to be ignored by those blinded by their own ignorance."

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