The 20th Century Baseball Chronicle
When I was growing up, my grandmother used to tell me my grandfather did the work of three men running a farm. I always respected that, and I understand it more now as a freelance writer and editor. Being self-employed is tough, though my grandfather seemingly always excelled at it. Born to a Depression-era farm family, he became the man of the house when his father died a few days before his fourth birthday in 1936. I remember hearing stories about how my grandfather installed an electric milker when he was nine to save time before school.
Years later, around the time my grandfather wrapped a successful career running two ranches, he gave me the baseball book that changed my life. I was eight or so, and the book was The 20th Century Baseball Chronicle, a 576-page tome covering every season between 1900 and 1990. The book wouldn’t crack my top 25 for great baseball books were I introduced to it today. Much of the information it contains is easily accessible now on Baseball-Reference.com. And I gravitate more these days toward baseball history narratives and books about Sabermetrics. But this book changed my life because, over the course of about three months, I read it cover to cover.
I’ve always had an unusual memory. My mom tells this story about how, when I was four, I got a calendar as a present and memorized it. Thereafter, when I’d meet people, I’d ask their birthday and say things like, “That was a Tuesday last year.” In a sense, my grandfather got me the perfect book. The 20th Century Baseball Chronicle consists of 100-word blurbs about notable players, award winners, and World Series results. In all, there are 5,000 pieces of info listed in timelines for each season and 1,200 pictures. While other kids played Nintendo, I got a wholesale course in baseball history, learning about players like Johnny Podres and Sandy Amoros, heroes of the 1955 World Series, and Mickey Owen, goat of the 1941 Fall Classic. I memorized a lot of it.
My grandfather knew what he was doing. Aside from hard work, he has always placed a premium on intelligence, putting himself through University of California at Berkeley before going on to his farming career. I think he thrived in his work, in part, because he figured out ways to do things better than his competitors, some of whom could barely read. Even just shy of his 84th birthday and long since retired, he can be a formidable opponent in debate. He has a keenly logical mind and an insistence that anyone he converses with know what they’re talking about. He wanted me to apply myself in reading this book. He’d seen my already-burgeoning collection of baseball cards. He wanted me to use this book as a basis to learn more.
The 20th Century Baseball Chronicle served as the foundation for my love of baseball history, my introductory course. It also shaped how I viewed the game for a long time. There are no Sabermetrics whatsoever in the book. I only started learning them in recent years after I began writing about baseball history online. The book also didn’t have much use for baseball before 1900, with the foreword claiming the game was essentially the same in style in 1990 as 1900. It took years before I understood how much baseball has changed every decade or so pretty much all of its existence and how it continues to change. Sure, there’s some basic degree of continuity, and the game’s long history is part of its lure. Otherwise, baseball is constantly reinventing itself.
But I’ll forgive the authors of the book for this misstep and for giving short shrift to nineteenth-century baseball, which is a lot of work to make sense of and appeals to maybe a niche of a niche of baseball fans. I only got into nineteenth-century baseball recently after I realized that the rise of online newspaper archives has created a goldmine for research that can be done from home. I can see where the authors of The 20th Century Baseball Chronicle might not have wanted to troop to libraries and slog through microfilm in putting together their book 25 years ago. There just couldn’t have been that much of a payoff. The authors more than make up for it though, with all the contemporary info in the book.
I’ve since read so many other baseball books that have changed my life in smaller ways. The accompanying book for Ken Burns’s 1994 PBS documentary Baseball offered a deeper look at the game, and I eventually discovered that its bibliography listed many of the best baseball books ever written. Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times and David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49 made me want to talk to old players. Bill James’s The Politics of Glory inspired me to dig deeper into the Hall of Fame’s history. Every year or two, I read a baseball book that impacts me and adjusts my thinking in at least some small way.
It’s been a long time since I laid on my bed reading The 20th Century Baseball Chronicle, its spine now almost broken and bits of its cover missing. I’m 32 and establishing myself as a baseball writer. I’d like to write a book of my own before too long. I recently looked at the names of the eight authors who contributed to The 20th Century Baseball Chronicle and discovered I email regularly with one of them, David Nemec, a highly knowledgeable baseball historian who has authored a bunch of other books and is great about answering my questions. It’s funny how life comes full circle.
My love of baseball history started with The 20th Century Baseball Chronicle, and it makes me a little sad that the Internet has created less call for such books. But every so often, I’ll come across a kid as crazy about baseball history as I was, and it makes me smile. Maybe they have someone in their life like my grandfather.
Source: Graham Womack
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