Saturday, December 09, 2006

Book Review - The Only Game In Town, edited by Fay Vincent

The Only Game In Town, aka "Baseball Stars of the 1930's and 1940's talk about the game they loved".

This is yet another baseball oral history book, and the fact of the matter is that no baseball oral history book will ever live up to Lawrence Ritter's "The Glory of Their Times", which is the original and defining book for the genre.

What The Only Game In Town tries to do is focus more on the integration years of baseball -- when the Negro league players were coming into the MLB. Though, to be fair, while every player in the book talks a little bit about that, only maybe a third of the stories are only about integration, mostly the ones told by the former Negro league players themselves.

I think there are two major weaknesses of this book, though.

The first is minor; it's that there are too many pictures in it. Pretty much each story is a deceptive 25 pages long or so, as compared to the 10ish pages that each ballplayer's story would take up in previous oral history books I'd read. The reasons the chapters appear longer is spacier typesetting and a metric ton of photographs. Photographs in general are a great thing for history books, but most of the ones in this book are not well-chosen. Some of them aren't very good pictures, and then many of them seem pretty random, like "Oh, he mentioned Lew Burdette in a sentence, let's plaster a picture of Lew Burdette in here."

The second is major. The editing is inconsistent and ranges from godawful to merely non-intrusive. I almost didn't continue reading this book after the opening chapter, which was Elden Auker's; the fact that he'd mention how so-and-so player did in such-and-such year and there'd immediately be brackets to correct it, or lots of brackets all over the place with these helpful little titles for people which mostly just detracted from hearing the player's voice.

As if to compensate for completely interrupting Auker's voice, they mostly didn't do that in other places in the book. Instead, there were times where they kept so strongly to the players' voice that the meaning is either obfuscated or obscured. At one point in Johnny Pesky's story he remarks how Ted Williams told him, "For crying out loud, Johnny, why can't you get this? You've got a high school diploma not like me," and I'm sitting there thinking "Wait, what the hell does that mean? Ted Williams didn't graduate from high school, or Pesky didn't?" Or in Buck O'Neil's story, he says how his dad said he was going to take him down to see some "other great baseball players", which sounds like a great leadin to a story, only there's no story there.

Another big issue with this book is that almost all of these players have been interviewed in other books. I'm pretty sure I'd heard almost all the stories in here before, mostly even from the players themselves, either in their own autobiographies or in various other oral history books. A lot of the stories in this book were pretty bland, too; I thought Ralph Kiner's and Dom Dimaggio's chapters were probably the most entertaining, and Buck O'Neil's was good to read just because of the timing.

If you haven't read any oral history books at all before, and don't know much about the players of the 1930's and 1940's, this might not be a bad book to read, but if you've read a lot of baseball books and the prior oral histories by Lawrence Ritter and Donald Honig, you won't really be missing out by not reading this one. It does make a good bus book, though, as oral histories usually do. I finished it at a rate of one chapter per ride, so it took ten rides or so.

Supposedly this is the first in a series by Fay Vincent, too, so hopefully the upcoming volumes will be more groundbreaking and more entertaining.

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