Sports Collectors Digest: Great Players, Great Games

By Marty Appel

When Willie McCovey broke into the big leagues on July 30, 1959, he smacked two singles and two triples in his debut game, and by the next day, the whole nation was talking about Willie McCovey.

Almost overnight he had taken a big step towards supplanting Willie Mays as the most popular player in San Francisco, and for the rest of that season, everyone watched what McCovey did. They even revised the Rookie of the Year eligibility standards so that he could win the award. (He hit .354 in only 52 games).

There were still only 16 teams in 1959, about 400 players, and a debut like that one was stirring. I’m not sure it would be repeated today. With almost twice as many teams and players, it is possible for a debut game like that to go unnoticed by much of the nation. Most newspapers offer one paragraph summaries of all the games in a “roundup” and a story like that could get folded into such a summary which many would miss. Bo Hart of the Cardinals broke in with a bang last year; they couldn’t get him out – but it was easy to miss Bo Hart if you weren’t watching the sports news on TV in St. Louis.

This got me thinking that there was a time when a memorable game was a game for the ages, and they tended to get captured forever in “greatest games ever” books. They became part of baseball lore, supposedly passed on from generation to generation. At least that was the intent. I think my telling of the “Fred Snodgrass’s Muff” may have been interrupted by a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle special along the way. Attention spans have changed.

Lucky Fred.

In 1960, Joe Reichler,then the baseball editor for Associated Press, and his colleague Ben Olan, wrote “Baseball’s Unforgettable Games.” The Ronald Press Company, under its Ronald Sports Library division, issued the book, a year after they had put out a Reichler-driven baseball encyclopedia. According to the totally made up endorsements on the book jacket, Commissioner Ford Frick said, “It’s high time baseball had such a book.” (He was right). Mickey Mantle said, “This book is a grand-slam home run.” (I wonder how many revisions Mickey went through working that up, tearing up drafts, crumbling them into the waste basket and starting over again).

Reichler, who was a terrific baseball reporter and the guiding spirit behind the first MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia, was a great historian of the game, and the book really does capture the glory of baseball’s awesome moments. He and Olan picked an even 100. Each occupies about two pages of text, includes a photo, and, wonderfully, the complete box score of the game. The obvious ones are there: Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” Don Larsen’s perfect game, Carl Hubbell’s five consecutive strikeouts in the ’34 All-Star Game, the “Merkle Boner,” Babe Ruth’s 60th home run, the end of Lou Gehrig’s playing streak, and Johnny Vander Meer’s two consecutive no-hitters.

But there are also some treasures which have faded from memory, and it’s nice that they are at least preserved in this old book. How about Floyd Giebell’s “Moment of Glory?” Giebell was a 25-year old Detroit Tiger right-hander, who on September 27, 1940, outpitched the great Bob Feller 2-0, in Cleveland, to clinch the pennant for the Tigers. He struck out 6 to Feller’s 4, allowed only 6 hits, and hurled his masterpiece despite an unruly Cleveland crowd that was pelting Tiger players with fruits and vegetables all afternoon. It was only his second start of the season.

Giebell, reports Reichler and Olan, was ineligible for the World Series (he was called up too late in the season), and the following year was 0-0 in 17 games, before leaving the majors for good. Even the photo in the Giebell section is of…..Feller.

How about Billy Pierce’s near-perfect game making the cut!? June 27, 1958, and Pierce, the White Sox fine lefthander, went to two outs in the ninth before pinch-hitter Ed Fitzgerald of the Senators hit a double down the right field line to break it up. That was one of the 100 great moments in the thinking of the authors, but it didn’t make the cut in updated versions which Reichler continued to produce on into the ‘80s as “Baseball’s Great Moments.”

There were a couple of forerunners to the Reichler-Olan book worthy of mention. In 1944, A.S. Barnes and Company published “They Played the Game: The Story of Baseball Greats,” by Harry Grayson, (introduction by Connie Mack, foreword by Grantland Rice), which featured profiles – and memorable games of course – of more than 50 immortals of baseball, including some who have faded from memory by now – Babe Adams, Fielder Jones, Nick Altrock, Mike Donlin, and Lou Sockalexis. It is always fascinating to see such a book and discover who was considered “immortal” at the time.

A year later, Barnes published “My Greatest Day in Baseball,” as told to John P. Carmichael, the sports editor of the Chicago Daily news, which featured “first hand” accounts from 47 players. Carmichael actually wrote only 15 of them; the others were transcribed and written by an assortment of others, including Gabe Paul, the Cincinnati road secretary and later general manager, who handled Vander Meer’s section. This book also includes box scores of each game, and would also be updated and revised as the year’s went on. Although the big stars are all here – Ruth, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, Grover Cleveland Alexander – it also includes Satchel Paige, (“the 4th and final game of the colored World Series in 1942 when the Kansas City Monarchs beat the Philadelphia Homestead Grays”), a noticeable touch given that the game was still two years away from integration.

If we were doing such a book today, we might have Josh Beckett’s final-game win in last year’s World Series as a great game in baseball history. And, in 40 years, would someone find this book and say, “who?”