Sports Collectors Digest: Putnam Team Histories

By Marty Appel

Shortly after Lou Gehrig’s tragic death in 1941, sportswriter Frank Graham approached G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a New York-based publisher, with an idea for a Gehrig biography. The result, “A Quiet Hero,” was one of their major successes for the next two decades, went to more than 20 printings, and was practically required reading for schoolboys.

Unfortunately for Graham, Paul Gallico’s “Lou Gehrig: Pride of the Yankees,” also published in 1942 (Grosset & Dunlop), was the book chosen to base the Gary Cooper movie upon. It could have gone either way, but Gallico was better connected to Hollywood.

Still, Graham wasn’t quite through. With the success of his book assured, he and Putnam agreed on a team history of the Yankees, called simply, “The New York Yankees.” Graham, then 50, had been on the New York baseball beat since 1915. He had a historian’s eye for his subject and his prose went down easily. The Yankees book was published in 1943, and was likewise a success.

Thus began a wonderful series of team histories, which Putnam would issue over the next dozen years, when they did their 16th and last, the Baltimore Orioles. (One, called “Connie Mack: Grand Old Man of Baseball,” was of course, a history of the Athletics, but it was the only one that did not bear the team name).

Between Graham (Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants), and Fred Lieb (Phillies, Tigers, Red Sox, Pirates, Athletics, Cardinals and Orioles), ten of the 16 were accounted for. Warren Brown did the Cubs and White Sox, Lee Allen the Reds, Shirley Povich the Senators, Franklin “Whitey” Lewis the Indians, and Harold Kaese the Braves. All but Lewis are in the writer’s wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Povich was the last of the group to die, passing away in 1998, after writing a column about Mark McGwire and David Wells for the Washington Post.

Allen, later the historian at the Baseball Hall of Fame and a much beloved writer, was working for the Reds when he saw the series unfolding. “I wrote to Putnam and offered to do Cincinnati,” he said, “and they wrote back and said ‘we never heard of you, but okay.’ I was only 33 at the time.”

That was young. For the others, part of the joy of these books was that the authors went back themselves to the early part of the century, or at least knew people connected with the team’s early days. In fact, that is what makes these histories so important – the writers had access to people, either first or second hand, who lived through the early decades of the franchise’s history.

Lieb was born in 1888 and began covering baseball in 1910. Graham was born in 1893 and could talk to Clark Griffith about managing the original Highlanders. Brown was born in 1895, Povich in 1905. Brown had access to Cap Anson. Povich was pals with Walter Johnson. Their writing bears much credibility today as an important, if somewhat mild view of each team’s development, and can never be dismissed simply because they came from a more benign era of writing. The profiles offered of star players, managers and owners were generally based on first hand familiarity. Long-forgotten names are given due justice in these pages. The writing style is reflective of its time, when there were 400 players on 16 teams, and no one said anything worse than “shucks” when they lost a poker hand on a Pullman, or “darn” when hit on the funnybone by a pitch.

Lieb’s “St. Louis Cardinals” was the second book in the series, published in 1944, with Graham’s “Brooklyn Dodgers” following in 1945. In order, the list then read Tigers and Cubs (’46), Red Sox (’47), Reds (’48), Braves and Pirates (’48), Indians (’49), White Sox and Giants (’52), Phillies (’53), Senators (’54), and Orioles (’55). A number of the books had updated editions issued from time to time, which should be more valuable than the originals, because they have more information, but are not because of collectors’ appreciation for “first editions.”

Lieb snuck the Connie Mack book in in 1945, and Graham did “McGraw of the Giants” in 1944 to hold Giants fans at bay until his New York Giants book.

The Phillies book was co-authored by Stan Baumgartner, while R.G. Lynch did an updated version of the Boston Braves book once the team moved to Milwaukee. (Some call “The Umpire Story,” published in 1953 and written by James Kahn, the 17th book of the series).

The Orioles book is a history of the turn-of-the century Orioles, the International League Orioles, the St. Louis Browns, and the modern Orioles.

SABR members have, in recent years, compiled indexes for all 16 volumes, and now, after all these decades, comes news from Southern Illinois University Press, that the books will be reissued, (including indexes), in the original type (including any errors). New introductions are being prepared by writers who knew the original authors. This year, the Cubs and Cardinals editions are launching the softcover series, with introductions by Jerome Holtzman and Bob Broeg, respectively, and all new covers. All three New York teams are due next spring, with Leonard Koppett introducing the Yankees, Jack Lang the Dodgers and Ray Robinson the Giants. The project was the brainchild of Richard “Pete” Peterson, head of the school’s English department, who knew how well respected the books are by collectors and book dealers.

“We started with the Cubs and the Cardinals, because we are in the midwest,” he says. “We hope to continue to issue 2 or 3 a year until the set is complete.”