By Fay Vincent
"It's What's Inside the Lines That Counts" is former commissioner Fay Vincent's fourth book and his best. Volume three of The Baseball Oral History Project done in conjunction with the Baseball Hall of Fame, the book offers an exciting mix of former players, managers, and even an umpire, Bruce Froemming, and a labor leader, Marvin Miller.
Vincent's premise is so simple and appealing one wonders why no one thought of it before. Well, actually, someone did - Lawrence S. Ritter and Robert Creamer in their great 1966 oral history, The Glory of Their Times. Shortly after Ty Cobb's death in 1961, Ritter, armed with a tape recorder, searched the country and tracked down numerous Cobb contemporaries and let them tell the story of baseball in the early twentieth century. Smokey Joe Wood, Babe Herman, Wahoo Sam Crawford, Lefty O'Doul, Rube Marquard, and many other great players might not be remembered today if Ritter hadn't searched them out and induced them to tell their stories.
Why it took someone so long to realize that there was another eight or nine decades worth of baseball memories waiting out there is a mystery. Fortunately, Vincent, who was inspired by The Glory of Their Times, worked quickly once the bug bit him. In 2005 he hit upon the marvelous idea of videotaping interviews with ballplayers with the hope, he writes, "that over time fans of our wonderful game will be able to see these fine players tell their story. By preserving these tapes, we preserved the essence of what makes baseball unique." In 2006, the first batch of interviews appeared in book form, "The Only Game in Town: Baseball Stars of the 1930s and 1940s talk about the Game They Love." Two years later brought "We Would Have Played for Nothing: Baseball Stars of the 1950s and 1960s Talk About The Game They Love."
Contrary to its subtitle, "It's What's Inside The Lines That Counts" actually covers some of the key baseball figures of the 1960s as well as the next twenty years - but that's fine with me. My favorite interview is with one of my favorite all-time pitchers, San Francisco Giants high-kicking right-hander Juan Marichal, who has fond memories of his great pitching opponents. Bob Gibson, for instance: "(He) was tough, tough. I always say that if Gibson ... had to face his mother, he didn't care. He'd knock her down." On his work ethic: "I didn't want to be just a baseball player. When I heard the names Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Warren Spahn, all those big names, I wanted to be the same level as those guys, and to do that you have to work hard. You have to be dedicated to our profession. I never was a person that loved to go to a disco."
Marvin Miller, who started the players union and won the players free agency, recalls talking to reporters about "anti-union propaganda, about how unions like strikes, etc. - nothing further from the truth ... all income stops. Anybody that tells you that people like strikes is crazy."
Major league ballplayers, Miller tells Vincent, "are the most completive people I've ever met, and the owners always mad the mistake of trying to face them down. You don't do that with major league players. I think you can do all kinds of other things, but you don't challenge them and don't face them down."
A former staff writer for the Chicago Reader, Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal. His latest book, "Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee," is now available in paperback.