By Marty Appel
Two score and two hernias ago, Lawrence Ritter, a professor of economics and finance at NYU, set forth on a 75,000 mile journey that would lead to the publication of what is arguably the finest baseball book ever written.
Arguably? Actually, it doesn’t get much argument at all.
“The Glory of Their Times” was published in September 1966, after four years of preparation. A couple of years ago, Sports Collectors Digest readers named it the best baseball book of all time, a salute that draws little dispute in any such discussion.
Like the Beatles ill-fated trip to Decca Records, the manuscript for “Glory” was shown the door at Prentice-Hall, Houghton Mifflin and Holt Rinehart and Winston, before MacMillan decided to advance Ritter $3,000 to publish the work. The heroes in this tale include a textbook salesman for MacMillan named Stanley Holwitz, who was visiting Ritter at his NYU office, and the editor, Bob Markel, who accepted it.
“I had several influences,” says Ritter, 79, a resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, dapper as ever in a Babe Ruth tee-shirt on a winter’s day. “First there was the death of Ty Cobb in 1961. I felt that someone needed to record the remembrances of a sport that had played such a significant role in American life. The players from the game’s earliest days were all dying, and with them, the oral history of their time. Of what the game was really like.
“Then I was influenced by the father and son team of John and Alan Lomax, who traveled the country in the ‘30s and ‘40s with primitive tape recorders seeking out old and almost forgotten American folksongs, and by the book “Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya: The Story of Jazz Told by the Men Who Made it,” by Nat Hentoff and Nat Shapiro, which was published in 1955. The subtitle of ‘Glory’ became ‘The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told By the Men Who Played It.’
“Finally, there was a trip to Easton, Maryland, to meet with Bill Veeck. I had just read ‘Veeck as in Wreck,’ and felt like I knew him, so I called him up and asked if my project seemed feasible. He said ‘come on down and let’s talk about it,’ and he encouraged me to get started.”
Accompanied by a 25-pound Tandberg, reel-to-reel tape recorder (hence the two hernias), and by his son Stephen, who would operate it, Ritter visited with 33 players from the early days of the 20th century. Twenty-two appeared in the book (the others were thought to be not up to par for various reasons), with the current edition having increased the roster to 26 of the 33. (Do we hear a clamoring for “The Lost Interviews?)
Among the 22 were Rube Marquard, Harry Hooper, Sam Crawford, Joe Wood, Tommy Leach, Chief Meyers and Fred Snodgrass. (Crawford and Leach actually played in the 19th Century). The players told not only their own life stories, but tales of famous teammates and opponents so that Cobb’s personality or McGraw’s temper were revealed. Ritter omitted his own questions, and did little editing to the tapes, but his skill at turning the conversations into prose turned the book into an instant classic.
An enthusiastic front page review by Wilfred Sheed in the New York Times Book Section immediately made fans take notice, and while the book never hit the best seller list, it has been in print for virtually all of the last 35 years, selling 360,000 copies, with royalties of nearly a quarter million dollars.
It didn’t make anyone rich; Ritter divided the payments among the 22 men in the original book and their estates, and continued to write them royalty checks into the mid-‘80s when he sent everyone a check for $500 and said “this is it: the $500 represents the present value of all future royalty payments.” So Ritter has earned less than $35,000 on this classic. For most of the players however, mostly pension-less, the payment was warmly received and Ritter kept in touch with player widows for years.
Everyone in the book, and their wives, has since passed away.
An LP with excerpts from the tapes, appeared in 1966 and sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Bud Greenspan produced a one-hour PBS special based on “Glory” in 1975, which still appears occasionally on ESPN. The Sporting News marketed it as a home video in 1986.
Morrow took over publication in 1984, adding four men, and then putting out a Quill trade paperback in ’92. Other editions have been published by Collier Books, Holtzman Press, Vintage Books and Easton Press, as well as a CD of the original interviews, in 1998, from HighBridge. (There was virtually no profanity from the players on the tapes, probably owing to Ritter’s son being in the room, he believes). A first edition hard cover with dust jacket is worth about $120 today, off the $7.95 original price.
The original tapes are in the Hall of Fame library, with a copy in the Notre Dame library after the school requested them.
Ritter is a renowned and much-published economist, but his love for baseball, which resulted in his dogged pursuit of these players, gave America a book for the ages.