The latest entry in the sports-nostalgia sweepstakes is a book called Baseball When the Grass Was Real (Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, $12.50), the work of Donald Honig, a novelist and short-story writer. At a time when a lot of schlock is being passed off in the name of the Good Old Days, it's nice to be able to report that this amiable, low-keyed book will give you your money's worth.
The inspiration, as Honig gracefully admits in the first line of his introduction, came from Lawrence Ritter's work of nine years ago, The Glory of Their Times. Ritter had taken a tape recorder around the country to capture the recollections of men who played baseball in the game's formative years; the result was not merely a splendid baseball book but a historical document of rare mood and feeling, one that deserves to be read together with E. L. Doctorow's masterly novel about the period, Ragtime.
Honig admired Ritter's book and urged him to do a sequel, covering baseball from the '20s through the '40s. Ritter, instead, suggested that Honig take on the project, and this is the result.
Eighteen ballplayers are interviewed, ranging from Wes Ferrell to Billy Herman to Bob Feller to James (Cool Papa) Bell, the star of the Negro Leagues who was voted into the Hall of Fame last year. By and large they are an articulate and good-humored lot and, like Ritter's book, Honig's is packed with good anecdotes.
Rip Sewell, for example, tells how his famous "eephus pitch" came into being, and how it was that Ted Williams hit his equally famous homer off the eephus in the 1946 All-Star Game. My favorite story, however, is told by Billy Herman. It involves being in Havana for spring training in 1942, and running into Ernest Hemingway, and setting off with him and a few other ballplayers for an evening that ended with Hemingway, for once, thoroughly getting his comeuppance.
There are plenty of laughs in Honig's book, and there is a strong sense of a hard era in which many young men went into baseball to escape the hopelessness of the Depression. But The Glory of Their Times possesses a magical quality—I've often thought it should have been titled The Magic of Their Times—that Baseball When the Grass Was Real cannot match. Ritter's is a hard act to follow.