Sports Collectors Digest: Ken Smith/ SCD Vintage Books

By Marty Appel

When we watch the sensational fielding in Major League Baseball today, perhaps all the more remarkable because of the risk players throw themselves into despite their guaranteed contracts and enormous wages, we have to wonder, “Can it get any better?”

We can imagine a time when fields were rockier, walls not padded, gloves smaller, players less fit, and of course, when the game was all-white, and it is likely that a flashback to one of those games would leave us shaking our heads over how many balls got through the infield that would never do so today, or how many balls hit the outfield walls that would be caught today. I am guessing that if we watched an entire game from the 1930s, we would say that even the best fielders of the day would seem inferior to our average fielders today. (And by the way, how do pebbles find their way onto the infields of Fenway and Wrigley; do they “grow” there after 90 years?)

How much better can fielding get?

It is my belief that it will only get better with a larger percentage of players becoming extraordinary. The best in the game today – Jeter, Ichirio, Pudge, Rolen, Edmunds, Andruw, A-Rod, will eventually spawn players of equal abilities so that the lummoxes who somehow find their way onto the diamond will one day fade away, as have no-hit shortstops.

We bring this up because this column is about evolution, especially as we find it in the game’s literature.

The first book ever written about the Baseball Hall of Fame was published in 1947 by A.S. Barnes and Company (a loyal publisher of baseball books), and it was called Baseball’s Hall of Fame, and written by Ken Smith. (It would be updated many times over the years with new member’s brief bios tagged on, and its most popular editions were issued by Grosset & Dunlap’s “Grosset Sports Library”).

The Hall of Fame was only eight years old when Smith’s book was published, and to many, it existed as just a hallowed museum in an unreachable location. With the reduction of recreational travel during World War II, and the induction ceremonies being a shade of what they are today (there were years when the inductees didn’t even show up for their own day), the Hall was more of a statement than a destination. If they had three visitors on a weekday afternoon in November, it was a normal day. In fact, after the 1939 gala induction, there wasn’t another one until after the war.

(There were, however, annual Hall of Fame games between Major League opponents, even during the war years, except for 1945. Of the 1943 game between Brooklyn and the White Sox, Smith writes, “Because of the ban on gasoline, 4000 folks managed to make it afoot, by horse, bicycle, bus and hitch-hike.” The Dodgers in fact, arrived by horse drawn wagons from the train station in Utica, NY.)

But the spirit of Cooperstown swept across the baseball-crazed nation, and I was especially struck by a sentence in Smith’s book, right on page two, in which he calls baseball “the greatest common denominator that the nation has ever known.”

I am not sure what qualifies today as the great common denominator that the nation has ever known – but I strongly suspect we wouldn’t write a sentence like that anymore. We are just too fragmented a society, too departmentalized, too populated by immigrants, too divided over social issues, to imagine anything having such a lofty status short of life functions like eating and breathing. Why, there isn’t even a style of music that we would call a “common denominator.”

But Ken Smith wasn’t reaching for praise that wasn’t true. In 1947, you could write such a thing and people would nod in agreement. And while fans at ballgames were mostly white, blacks loved baseball too, followed the Negro Leagues, and embraced Jackie Robinson’s entrance into the game in ’47 without having to learn how the game was played.

Ken Smith was born in Danbury, CT in 1902, and was a batboy for his local team in the New York-New Jersey League in 1913. He went to Trinity College and then worked on a variety of New York and Connecticut newspapers before landing at the tabloid New York Mirror in 1927, always a weak competitor to the Daily News. His was primarily on the New York Giants beat during his career, covering John McGraw, Bill Terry, Carl Hubbell, Mel Ott, and on to Willie Mays, Monte Irvin and Bobby Thomson before the Giants left for San Francisco.

Kenny was a popular figure among his colleagues, a bit disorganized (it was said you could always tell what he had for lunch by looking at the stains on his necktie), but for 15 years he directed the production of the annual New York Baseball Writers dinner/extravaganza, and for 19 years served as Secretary-Treasurer of the Baseball Writers Association of America, handling the tabulation of Hall of Fame balloting. When the Mirror folded in 1963, he became Director of the Hall of Fame, and in 1976, its public relations director until his 1979 retirement. That was also the last year in which his Hall of Fame book was updated. That was his only book, but it was the standard Hall of Fame reference book for many years, even as the updated bios became just a sentence or two in Ken’s declining years.

Smith died in 1991 and received the J.G. Taylor Spink Award as an inductee into the writer’s wing at the Hall of Fame in 1983.

He came from an era of “golly-gosh” journalism, at least in terms of sports coverage, but it was reflective of the way the fans felt about the national pastime, and he could get away with a sentence like the “greatest common denominator” one. I am sure that readers of his 1947 book would have nodded in agreement, never anticipating that the nation would grow so fragmented that such a sentence would be impossible today.