The Only Game In Town: Baseball Stars of the 1930s and 1940s Talk About The Game They Loved
The professional ballplayer of 60 years ago was a man of mythic decency—humble, hardworking, fair, patriotic, and magnificent on the field. That’s the impression gleaned from the The Only Game in Town, the first—hopefully of many—collection of interviews conducted by former Major League Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent under the auspices of the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s newly conceived Baseball Oral History Project.
The players selected for this volume—a roster of 10 that includes Elden Auker, Johnny Pesky, Warren Spahn, and Dom DiMaggio—came from an era when being a professional athlete was a “good job” for a talented few, an opportunity whose salary and security more closely rivaled a steelworker than an oil baron. Baseball was a gospel passed from father to son via games of catch and small-town double-headers. Those sons grew to pack ball team rosters of the ’40s and ’50s with the jagged consonants—Schoendiest, McKechnie, Gehrig, Narleski—of their immigrant family names.
The men’s recollections are presented simply, stripped of the interviewer’s prompt questions and organized in digestible paragraphs that preserve the speaker’s verbal idiosyncrasies. Strikingly, the men’s memories focus less on RBIs and historic moments and more on a personal, palpable pleasure in the game and the meditative pursuit of perfection of form—the perfect stance, the perfect hit, the perfect grace of a sphere’s unimpeded flight. Each chapter is supplemented with photos of the players in action, their solid but unpretentious physiques contorted in hitting or pitching postures like statuary of baseball nobility.
As this era abuts on Jackie Robinson and the integration of the major leagues, there’s a special emphasis on the stories of players like John “Buck” O’Neil and Monte Irvin whose careers transitioned from the Negro Leagues to the majors—a shift that is not the unambiguous boon history remembers. O’Neil puts it simply: “A lot of people said, ‘Buck, you were just born too soon.’ I said, ‘No, no, no, no, man, I played with and against some of the greatest ballplayers ever lived. . . . Had I been born earlier, I wouldn’t have played against Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige. No, no. I was right on time.’”
Most of these men’s careers were interrupted or truncated by voluntary military service during WWII, a selfless action unthinkable today. Modern fans sickened by the cancerous excesses of professional ball will find these recollections a baptismal tonic, and a reminder of the essential goodness of the American game.