Ritter’s 1966 book, The Glory of Their Times, contained wonderful recollections of baseball players from the dead ball era. Golenbock’s contributions include his 1975 classic, Dynasty: The New York Yankees, 1949-1964 and his 1985 work, Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He has also written oral histories of the Boston Red Sox, New York Mets, Chicago Cubs, and a combined look at the St. Louis Cardinals and St. Louis Browns.
In Whispers of the Gods: Tales from Baseball’s Golden Age, Told by the Men Who Played It (Rowman & Littlefield; $24.95; hardback; 216 pages), Golenbock continues to provide a rich history of baseball as told by the players.
There are 17 chapters and the memories of 16 subjects. Jim Bouton, whose 1970 classic Ball Four inspired Golenbock — along with Ritter and Roger Kahn, who wrote The Boys of Summer in 1972 — has two chapters, which open and close the book.
Golenbock interviewed six Hall of Famers, two authors (Bouton and Jim Brosnan), a two-sport player (Gene Conley), one trainer (Ed Froelich) and two players who routinely are mentioned as Hall of Fame candidates but have never garnered enough support (Marty Marion and Roger Maris).
The interviews came from hundreds of hours of taped interviews Golenbock conducted in researching his other books, and they provide a treasure trove of memories of baseball from the 1940s through the 1970s. All of the subjects included in Whispers of the Gods are now dead, but they come to life in this book with vivid stories.
From my perspective, the interviews with the lesser-known subjects are much more rewarding. Froehlich talks about his time with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938 when players were razzing then-coach Babe Ruth about his pitching skills. Goaded into tossing batting practice, Ruth, after a few days of “getting his arm in shape,” allowed only 10 balls to leave the batting cage during a 10-minute stint. That silenced the critics.
Froelich also weighs in on Ruth’s “called shot” off Charlie Root during the 1932 World Series. Curious about Ruth’s actions that day, the trainer asked the slugger — did he, or didn’t he?
“I may be dumb, but I’m not that dumb,” Froehlich quotes the Bambino. “I’m going to point to the center field bleachers with a barracuda like Root out there? The next pitch they’d be picking (the baseball) out of my ear with a pair of tweezers.”
Ellis Clary played for the Browns and told Golenbock about playing for the Browns when they won the pennant in 1944. At first, the utility infielder could not believe his bad luck in being traded to St. Louis — “I felt like committing suicide” — but while he only appeared in 73 games during his three years with the Browns, Clary admitted he had a great time.
“Nobody ever had a collection of goofs like we had,” Clary told Golenbock.
Clary was critical of the Browns’ decision to play Pete Gray, the one-armed outfielder the team used in 77 games during the 1945 season. Clary believed that using Gray, who was a box office attraction, cost the Browns a second straight pennant. St. Louis finished six games behind the pennant-winning Detroit Tigers.
Clary called Gray “ornery” and hard-headed. “If you felt sorry for him, he could detect it and he resented it,” Clary said.
Gray’s presence also caused strife on the Browns, Clary believed.
“The owner figured that because he had one arm, people would come to the park,” Clary said. “Well, it worked, but we didn’t win because of it.”
Pitcher Tom Sturdivant, who put together back-to-back 16-win seasons for the New York Yankees in 1955-56, tells Golenbock what made Casey Stengel a great manager.
“He knew how to treat each player,” Sturdivant said. “It sure was funny; the sportswriters had a hard time understanding Mr. Stengel, but I never did.
“He never talked Stengelese to us. We always understood exactly what he meant.”
Ted Williams talks about regretting to meet Shoeless Joe Jackson when the Red Sox passed through the banned player’s hometown of Greenville, South Carolina. Williams believed Jackson should be in the Hall of Fame, noting that “baseball has shown it is capable of forgiveness.”
Conley discusses his dual career and the time he tried to convince Red Sox teammate Pumpsie Green to fly to Jerusalem with him in 1962.
Kirby Higbe speaks about being part of a group of Brooklyn players that went to general manager Branch Rickey and asked him not to promote Jackie Robinson to the majors.
“Not that we objected that much to playing with him,” Higbe told Golenbock, adding that “nothing really happened.” “We just told Rickey that we’d rather not do it.”
Higbe later notes that Robinson was “one hell of an athlete” who “changed baseball dramatically.”
“He was up to the task. He could handle it,” he said of the racist taunts Robinson faced.
Roy Campanella talks about his time in the Negro Leagues as a young player, and Stan Musial and Marion talk about the great Cardinals teams of the 1940s. Ron Santo speaks about being a “nervous wreck” flying in late 1963 with teammate Ken Hubbs, who had recently gotten his pilot’s license.
Hubbs died when he crashed his private plane in Utah in February 1964.
There are plenty of stories to tell. Golenbock prefaces his chapters with some background on each subject, but then the players do the talking.
If there is a negative to this book, it’s that there are not more players included. This is the type of book that captures your attention, and you want more. I certainly did, but what is included in this book offers plenty of baseball history to chew on.
Golenbock has proven his versatility as a writer through the years, as 10 books in The New York Times bestseller list shows. Wild, High and Tight, his 1994 biography about Billy Martin, is a particular favorite of mine. But Whispers of the Gods is another fine addition to a baseball historian’s shelf. That goes for the casual fan, too.