Sports Collectors Digest: This Great Game

By Marty Appel

It was 1971, the start of Major League baseball’s 11th decade, and MLB published what was essentially its’ first “coffee table” book, a handsome volume called This Great Game.

This was a major feat for baseball, which had never been particularly astute in marketing itself. Ten years earlier, during the great home run chase of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, the Commissioner decided to do what he could to protect Babe Ruth’s single season mark, rather than throw caution to the wind and let the fans have an unrestricted grand time enjoying the show.

But by the late ’60s, as Bowie Kuhn took office and as pro baseball celebrated its’ centennial, attitudes were changing. There was growing recognition that the current players needed to be better celebrated. MLB (not yet called “MLB” like the NFL or NBA called themselves) decided on a book project.

The book would be overseen by Joe Reichler, the long time Associated Press journalist who had been tabbed to be Kuhn’s public relations director. Although some viewed the selection as “old school,” (and Reichler was not known as a marketing person at all), he was a prolific chronicler of the game not only through his AP work, but in annual magazines and season previews. He was a well known name to fans, largely through the magazine work.

Reichler met with a design group called The Benjamin Company, and worked out a publishing deal through Rutledge Books and Prentice Hall, which took charge of the distribution. This was the third year of the Major League Baseball Promotion Corporation, an entity taken very seriously by some of the newer owners on the scene, notably Michael Burke, the President of the Yankees (who many had supported as the new commissioner before Kuhn’s election).

The final product was spectacular, with a variety of paper stock, a mix of old and new stories, and a terrific variety of text, photography, artwork, and – no stats. It was baseball presenting itself in its artful best with top tier photographers like Ken Regan, Dick Raphael and Fred Kaplan contributing work, which was often spread over facing pages to give it a special magnificence.

The photography was to be complimented by the ubiquitous LeRoy Neiman who created original artwork for the book, and his work was likewise featured as two-page spreads. It was some of his best work, the action and the color splashes working together to create the “ooo and ahhh” effect the project coordinators were hoping for. Neiman painted Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Hank Aaron, Frank Howard, Harmon Killebrew, Al Kaline, Pete Rose, Juan Marichal, Roberto Clemente, Carl Yastrzemski, and Bob Gibson, a dazzling assembly of future Hall of Famers (except for Howard and, alas, Rose).

The past wasn’t forgotten, not in the pulp paper used for old photos at the start, nor in the 36-page section written by Reichler called “The great plays”, which very much resembled what Reichler used to regularly do for his annual magazines. From “How Frank Baker Became Home Run Baker” to the Miracle Mets (captured with a September win against the Cubs), readers would be very familiar with the Reichler style.

But then Joe reached out to an interesting selection of contributors. He found Douglas Wallop, whose earlier novel had been turned into the film and show “Damn Yankees,” to write “The Salaried Elite,” which was the text that preceded Neiman’s section. Roy Bount Jr., wrote a section called “Humor”. Dick Young did a section called “They call that a hit in Detroit,” about life as an official scorer.

“The Game” section was broken down into “fielding” (by Charles Maher), “pitching and catching” (by Frank Slocum), “baserunning” (by Milton Gross), and “hitting” (by William Leggett). Al Barlick (with Jim Enright) did an umpire section. Earl Weaver, fresh off his 1970 world championship season, did a section on strategy and managing, and Roger Angell, as only he could, did one called “Baseball and the Mind.” You would have guessed the author if I didn’t identify him, for it begins, “There is a game of baseball that is not to be found in the schedules or the record books. It has no season, but it is best played in the winter, without the distraction of box scores and standings. This is the inner game, baseball in the mind, and there is no real fan who does not know it….”

One believes Angell writes like that even before his first coffee of the day. So the fan who spent $14.95 for this book in ’71 got his money’s worth in Angell’s opening paragraph.

I was working for the Yankees when the book came out, and we were somewhat devastated that a work like this could so lack a Yankee presence. It was embarrassing that on a team that featured all-stars Thurman Munson, Bobby Murcer and Mel Stottlemyre, there were only two current Yankees in the book, both a quarter page black and white, unexciting photos of John Ellis and Horace Clarke batting. On pages 225 and 229, in Leggett’s hitting section. In all the ways of measuring the down years of the Yankees, this was one of them.

With extra thick linen hardcovers, and a handsome high-gloss dust jacket featuring Baltimore second baseman Davey Johnson dealing with a Cincinnati runner trying to upend him, the book was a signal that baseball was waking up to its marketing needs. It remains a handsome book more than 40 years later.