The first thing to be said about Fred Lieb is that—to borrow from the argot of the game he has covered for nearly seven decades—he is a phenom. He is 89 years old, and still writing about baseball with as much vigor and enthusiasm as when he joined the New York Press in 1911. At his ripe old age he is something of a national resource, a man who was witness to the sunny days of baseball's youth, who remembers them with stunning clarity, and who writes about them with humor, insight and affection.
Which is exactly what he does in Baseball As I Have Known It (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, $9.95), a memoir that quite literally spans the history of baseball in the 20th century. Like most old-time sportswriters Lieb is no great shakes as a prose stylist, but since he has no pretensions in that direction there's no real reason to criticize him for this shortcoming. What matters is that his memoir is thoroughly delightful, entertaining and, for the fan, informative. It is loaded with anecdotes, many of them published for the first time, and it contains some fascinating, occasionally surprising, observations about several great and not-so-great figures in baseball history.
Lieb is, by his own account, one of those rare people who has gotten almost exactly what he wanted out of life. He might have preferred to be a famous player rather than an outstanding journalist, but he has no regrets: "...bad moments and small triumphs on the diamond are part of the memories of millions of American boys and men. I was glad I played some baseball and just a bit sorry I wasn't better at it. But to watch it as paid work and to write about it, as I have done for sixty-seven years, has more than made up for any unrealized fantasies I may once have had."
Indeed, Lieb's career itself seems, from the vantage point of 1977, a fully realized fantasy. He has been a friend, or in some cases a friendly acquaintance, of men whose names live in American legend: Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth. He was there when the Black Sox threw a World Series, when Ruth "called his shot," when Gehrig said his emotional farewell. Fred Lieb was witness to them all—and more—and has he ever got stories to tell.
Here, for example, is one about Eddie Collins, the great second baseman who starred for Connie Mack on the A's and then played for the White Sox. Collins was the first real, live, big-league ballplayer Lieb interviewed, and what did Collins have on his mind? Not base hits but razor blades. He had been given a new safety razor just on the market, and when young Lieb confessed that he still used a straight razor the future Hall of Famer weighed in with this solemn advice: "Take it from me; get rid of it and buy one of the new safety razors. You'll never regret it. You never have to be afraid you'll cut yourself; it really makes shaving fun."
And then there's this one about Babe Ruth. In 1920 Ty Cobb came out for James M. Cox, the Democratic presidential candidate. That sent the GOP into a tizzy, and Lieb was called in for emergency relief:
"Warren Harding was waging a front-porch campaign from his Warren, Ohio, residence, so I was asked to bring Babe there for an appearance. If I could bring it off, there was $4,000 in it for Babe and $1,000 for me. It didn't mean much whether Babe was a Democrat or Republican so long as he would have lunch and sit on the front porch with the candidate. At the time Babe had no agent. The offer was the equivalent today of $16,000 and $4,000, respectively—almost totally tax-free. So I broached the matter to Babe, who replied, 'I'm a Democrat, but I'll go to Warren for the money.' "
And then there's the one about...well, there are lots of other ones about lots of other people. There's a Cobb-Ruth anecdote that recalls Cobb's virulent racism. There's an inside account of how Judge Landis investigated reports that Carl Mays, the Yankee pitcher, had thrown a game in the 1921 World Series. There's a rueful recollection of the career of Hal Chase, the brilliant first baseman whose mind was twisted by avarice. And there are tales about the three other young journalists who, along with Lieb, were New York press-box rookies in 1911: Damon Runyon, Grantland Rice and Heywood Broun.
It would be unfair to spill the beans and reveal what was Lieb's "greatest thrill" in all these years; suffice it to say that the choice is a surprise, and a pleasant one. But it discloses no state secrets to note that the player Lieb remembers with the most affection is Honus Wagner, the immortal Flying Dutchman, and that the book closes on a wistful note: "Before I lay down my scorecards, I would like to see another master shortstop who is the equal of Honus Wagner for all-around play, hitting, fielding and base running.... Grand and marvelous will be the day when his equal arrives."
Unfortunately, that's a wish not likely to be granted. But Lieb has his memory to console him, a memory that embraces Wagner and Chance and three-quarters of a century of baseball summers. The rest of us must make do with his book, and it's a fine substitute.