By Marty Appel
We recently caught up with the man who may be the most prolific of all baseball authors, Donald Honig.
He has written 39 baseball books (plus two baseball novels), the first of which,
Baseball When the Grass Was Real, was published in 1975, and the last of which, shadows of Summer: Classic Baseball Photographs 1869-1947, was published in 1994.
Nineteen years, 39 books.
But where have you gone Don Honig?
“I’m still here,” laughs Honig, now 70, and residing in central Connecticut. “I’m still a baseball fan and if the right project came along, something that really got me inspired, I’d do it. But I’m a novelist at heart – I started as a novelist, and went back to it after ’94. The last baseball books I did, I felt sort of detached. My head was drifting to other subjects, to fiction.”
And so for nearly the last decade, he has returned to reading Dante, reading Tolstoy, reading and researching, living the life of a writer. This high school dropout still pounds out his work on one of his three Royal standard typewriters, keeping eight ribbons in the refrigerator (“I’m told they last longer”), and maintaining contact with a man who will always be able to get new ribbons for him. “That’s what he says, anyway.”
Honig began his baseball writing as a disciple of Larry Ritter, inspired by The Glory of Their Times. He wanted to continue Ritter’s oral histories – with Ritter. “I kept bugging him, but Larry wasn’t interested in doing more, so he gave me his blessing, and I dedicated the first book to him. Like him, I began trekking around the country, doing face to face interviews. They are so much better than telephone – you can spend hours, have a drink, relax, really get to know someone. I could have done Ted Williams, but only by phone, so I passed on it. And Ted told me ‘we could make an appointment, but chances are, I wouldn’t show up.’”
So Honig recorded scores of interviews and published them in his first four books. “Real Grass” was followed by Baseball Between the Lines, The Man in the Dugout and October Heroes. And from them came long and sincere friendships with the likes of Bucky Walters, Monte Irvin, Wes Ferrell, Charlie Gehringer, Bob Feller, and his favorite Dodger as a kid growing up in Maspeth, Queens – Pete Reiser.
“I should have done more….. could have done more,” he reflects. “It was a great experience. But I began as a novelist and I was eventually lured back there.”
Actually, Don began as a sandlot pitcher who had spring training trials with the ’48 Red Sox (at age 16), and ’51 Reds before drifting into prose. Baseball book collectors latched onto his penchant for “themes,” all of which are still open-ended due to revolving editors and agents. One editor’s passion doesn’t necessarily pass on to a successor. His oral history quartet was followed by a series of handsomely illustrated team histories, including Brooklyn, Los Angeles, the Yankees, the Mets, the Red Sox, Reds, Cubs, Phillies and Cardinals. There was a volume each on the American and National Leagues. There were ultimately two collaborations with Ritter – The Image of Their Greatness and The 100 Great Baseball Players of All Time, and then The World Series, The All Star Game, Baseball in the ‘30s, Baseball in the ‘50s, The Greatest Pitchers, First Basemen, Catchers and Shortstops of All Time, (four separate books), and other beautiful picture books like Baseball: The Illustrated History of America’s Game. For a time, there weren’t enough coffee tables in America to keep pace.
His two baseball novels were The Plot to Kill Jackie Robinson and The Last Great Season.
For all his books, few know what Don Honig even looks like. He never used author photos, and appeared ever so briefly in the HBO and ESPN specials on Babe Ruth, Bobby Thomson and Bob Feller.
Honig laughs at the observation. “I had my picture in one of my early novels,” he says. “About ten years later, I was with a woman and showed her the book in a bookstore. I think she liked the younger version better, and so I decided no more pictures of me getting older.”
Rare is the personal appearance, although he did a signing show in Connecticut a few years ago arranged by Yankees’ traveling secretary David Szen. “Sure enough, a guy shows up with about 30 of my books to sign! And I thought, ‘Ah, one of my people!’”
A search of alibris.com, a used book site, shows 41 pages worth of Honig books, baseball and otherwise, with most reasonably priced in the $13-$50 range. While the failure to complete his team histories is a void that we wish had been filled, the pure body of Honig’s work will forever make him an important man of letters for the game of baseball.
* * * * * * *
Less prolific, more an academic than a full time writer, is Dave Voigt, whose baseball histories under the more formal David Quentin Voigt, began appearing in 1966. Now 75 and residing in Reading, PA, Voigt graduated from Albright College (in Reading), in 1948, received a Ph.D. from Syracuse, and taught high school in Manhasset, Long Island, NY, where one of his students was Jim Brown.
“Brown would take time out from track to play baseball then,” recalls Voigt, whose middle name came from his mother’s attraction to Teddy Roosevelt’s son Quentin. “First base and pitcher. A good kid. I had nothing to do with his going to Syracuse, but I always liked him.”
Voigt’s father, a minister and English professor, died when Dave was 10. He and two brothers went to live at the Hershey Industrial School, run by the “chocolate family,” where his love for baseball grew. He kept scrapbooks – one on the American, one on the National League – and began the methodical record keeping which would one day make him qualified to be called a historian. His doctoral thesis at Syracuse was on baseball in the last decade of the 19th century. He returned to his alma mater, Albright, to teach history, sociology and anthropology
His books have always been published by university presses, and he has surely never been in it for the money or the sales. He never received an advance. But his three-volume American Baseball began in 1966 with From the Gentleman’s Sport to the Commissioner System and includes a foreword by one of his Syracuse inspirations, the American cultural historian and Pulitzer Prize winner, Allan Nevins. The book was immediately recognized by students of the game as an important entry into the game’s origins, many feeling it was on a scholarly par with Harold Seymour’s first book, published six years earlier.
“Professor Seymour tried to kill this off,” says Voigt. “He claimed intellectual ownership of the subject. “But I went ahead anyway. There was room for others.”
Volume two, in 1970, went through expansion, and volume three, in 1983, went through the baseball strike of 1981. The third volume was published, along with reissues of the first two, by Penn State Press, which in 1987, published a single volume, Baseball: An Illustrated History.. His most recent book, The League That Failed, was published in 1998 and dealt with the American Association, the early National League rival.
And what is Voigt up to now?
It was the answer we hoped we would hear.
“Volume four!” he says. “I’m using a working title of Crossing the Century Bar, a phrase from Tennyson, and it takes the game to the present. I’m hoping to get it out in another year, but we don’t have a contract yet. I’m talking to Penn State about it.”
Here’s hoping it sees the light and takes its place with the first three volumes as a historian’s look at the era we’ve just lived through.