Sports Collectors Digest: Robert Smith, John Rosenberg

By Marty Appel

This is a little column about two baseball pictorial history books I always liked. There is a lot of repetition between them, but you can only tell the story in so many ways. The best part for me, certainly, were the wonderful photos – hundreds of them, all black and white – that defined early baseball for me.

I never met, nor spoke with either author, which was unusual, because in the course of my working in the Yankees’ public relations department for many years, it seemed as though eventually I came to know most authors. They would have magazine assignments and needed a pass to interview a player, or just enjoyed coming to the park on occasion to sit in the press box and chat with the local media.

Not so with Robert Smith or John M. Rosenburg. Never met either one. And I would have enjoyed a call from either, just to tell them how much I enjoyed their books while growing into a baseball fan, and how many times I turned through the pages and wondered what it would have been like to see a game in the teens or the twenties or the thirties.

(Once, sitting with Larry {“Glory of their Times”} Ritter at Yankee Stadium, I said, “Larry, when did you first start coming here?” He answered, “In the early ‘30s.” So I said, of course, “And the game was still played in black and white then, right?”).

Robert Smith wrote a fine history of baseball called, “Baseball,” but the one I really liked of his was a 1961 book called “Baseball in America: An Illustrated History of Our National Pastime.” It was 278 pages in hardcover, 8 ½” x 11” in size, and cost all of $8.95 new. A gentleman named Ralph Miller, Director of the Museum of the City of New York, handled the photo selections and layout, and since that is what I loved most about the book, credit for Ralph Miller must certainly be herewith bestowed.

Miller’s connection to the world of museums and photo research led him to uncover some remarkable photographs, seldom repeated since that book was published. I was especially fond of one showing boys bicycling up to Hilltop Park to take in a Highlanders game (a rare view of the main entrance to the park), and a great shot of President Taft, robust (okay, fat), and heroic looking, throwing out a first pitch before a specially designed “wide” seat. There are even some terrific action photos from an 1890 Brotherhood game, when photography was still primitive and action photos nearly impossible to capture.

The text of course, borrows heavily on Smith’s acclaimed history of baseball, which he had published in 1947. Not to worry however, for this is a lighter look at the game’s history, complimenting the photos, taking anecdotal note of equipment changes, and bringing us up through the 1960 World Series and Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off home run in Game Seven. (Of course, we didn’t call it a “walk off” then).

Smith loved baseball and was truly a great fan of the game. Born in 1905, he and his brother managed to sit on the Red Sox bench before games when Babe Ruth was on the club, and he remembered players chasing Ruth with caterpillars, Joe Bush making up limericks about him, and Ruth himself dropping lit cigars into the back pockets of baggy flannel uniform pants. And a common prank, apparently, of ripping open button flies on unsuspecting teammates, sometimes in awkward social occasions.

Smith died on a fishing trip in 1997 at the age of 91, a few years after his last book, “Baseball in the Afternoon,” a warm collection of stories about players of old, some famous, some not quite. He was 87 when he wrote that one.

“The Story of Baseball” by John M. Rosenburg was a Random House book for young readers (like me) published in 1962. It stayed in print forever it seemed, and I came to see it in many, many homes I visited. It would be updated every couple of years, the last revision coming in 1977. I hope Rosenburg made a lot of money from it, because he gave young readers a lot of pleasure with it. He took the game from its early origins to essentially the same time period as Smith’s “Baseball in America” did, with hundreds of different photos which we think of today as “classics.” By the grace of good timing, Rosenburg got the Roger Maris home run record in just before the book was completed. The book, he notes in the preface, took three years to complete, and he is quite modest in quoting many writers whose works preceded his, including Smith.

Here too are great photos of Roger Bresnahan in early catcher’s mask and chest protector, fans perched in trees watching a Giants game in the Polo Grounds around 1900, and a full page photo of Albert Spalding’s traveling baseball tour, its players posed on the Sphinx, in 1889.

It was 27 years later – 1989, that I was rather shocked to see a new book by the same John M. Rosenburg, called “They Gave Us Baseball,” which featured biographies of prominent founders and craftsmen of the game. I remember being amazed that it could have been the same person, but it was, for “The Story of Baseball” was cited in his author bio. And in 1996, Rosenburg appears again with a Civil War novel. Apparently sportswriting was just a small pastime for John, who, it says in his 1962 book, was a general news correspondent for UPI and PR manager for Bell Telephone in his native Pennsylvania.

For many young fans it’s baseball cards, for others, perhaps “The Baseball Bunch” and for today’s fans, possibly “Baseball Tonight.” For me, those picture histories really helped to nurture my love for baseball history.