“Whispers of the Gods:
Tales from Baseball’s Golden Age,
Told by the Men Who Played It”
The publishing info:
Rowman & Littlefield
Released March 15, 2022
The review in 90 feet or less
Nostalgia tends to make us both remember and forget.
What we do recall, regardless of how accurate it may be, creates a fantastic illusion of making us young again. When we go back to look it up what we just said, searching for details we’ve possibly misremembered, we slump into feeling older.
So we try to get that nostalgic fuel ignited all over.
Misty water-colored memories are what makes baseball, more than any other sport, perhaps more than any other activity from birth to death, always tempting the fan’s nerve to tap into it – from playing catch with dad, your first pair of metal cleats, a Little League trophy, putting on the high school uni for the first time, coaching your son’s team …
Fandom is a reason why a story last month in the Toronto Globe and Mail as the lockout was still stuck in a rut seemed to hit a nerve because of the headline: “Baseball fans are mostly to blame for the MLB lockout.”
The reason is because, no matter how overlooked they are, fans keep the game alive, pushing aside any messiness that caused them to be irritated by lockouts, money matters and ownership greed, back to buying tickets, trinkets and taquitos in plastic helmets at the ballpark so they get back on track toward feeling a little better about their lives.
Laying out his premise, Cathal Kelly proclaimed: “Along with the owners and players, (MLB commissioner Rob) Manfred does understand one thing about the fans – that they are suckers. It is not just that games have become interminable, that money and numbers are coring the soul from baseball, that the worse a team is the more it costs to see it, or that MLB schedules the World Series as though its target audience is ‘avid bar-hoppers just getting home from the club.’ … people keep coming back. The 2020 pandemic season fully clued the owners in to how feckless their customers are … What do you do with an audience that undemanding? You start working them over a lot harder.”
The Great Distraction is back on TV, in the ballparks, highlighted in the media, avoiding all the consternation behind how it got there. We didn’t care for it as a distraction during the 2020-‘21-‘22 COVID pandemic, which is still a thing in our book, because of how it seemed to be a way to forget all the unnecessary death and mental health-related issues that were sending us in a spiral.
We were melancholy for how it, and life, used to be much easier to get our head and health around.
Part of what kept our sanity were books, like the golden nuggets mined from Golenbock’s files, that remind us of a different time.
The premise for “Whispers” by the prolific author of more than 60 books — the 1984 “Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers” was a 464-page Casey Award winner for its efforts, and it was Golenbock who also helped Bobby Valentine with his autobiography just reviewed – was that he had a collection of recorded interviews for a variety of projects he had done.
And many, if not all of them, had passed away.
Golenbock always admired the staying power of Lawrence Ritter’s 1966 “The Glory of their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It” that transcribed reel-to-reel taped interviews with those who played in the 1910s and 1920s such as Rube Marquard, Sam Crawford, Joe Wood, Lefty O’Doul, Goose Goslin and Babe Herman – 26 men in all. That book title came from Ecclesiastics 44:7 — “All these were honored in their generation, And were the glory of their times.”
Golenbock, who turns 76 this summer, notes that as Ritter’s book turned 50 in 2021 (actually, 55 if we do the math, along with updates in 1984, 1992 and 2010). The summer of 2019 passing of Jim Bouton, the author of “Ball Four” and all its revisions/updates. He was someone who Golenbock curiously notes as a great family friend over the years (is that something to brag about as a writer?) and what ended up pushing him into collecting his materials as a pandemic-related exercise and start transcribing to see what nuggets were left behind.
If only we could hear the audio instead of just read the stenography.
Bouton becomes the alpha and omega of Golenbock’s clearing house featuring 16 players from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. He is Chapter 1 in talking about how he came into baseball from the amateur level until his playing days with the Yankees. He becomes Chapter 17 in reflecting upon all the reaction to his 1970 classic book that shook up the establishment.
We suspect both interviews were done for Golenbock’s 1974 book “Dynasty: The New York Yankees 1949-1964” but it isn’t clear. Whatever the case, if there is more to know about Bouton, we’re all in, as we wrote once about his passing and what it meant to our literary life to smoke ’em inside.
These were men who seem to know what they accomplished now that it was years in the review mirror, and they could also assess success and regrets.
One very compelling chapter focuses on Rex Barney, the one-time Dodgers’ 18-year-old phenom pitcher in Brooklyn who overlapped with The Boys Of Summer but was never really connected to them in an historical sense. Two years in military service where he won two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star Medal and brought him back in 1946, starting games in the ’47 and ’49 World Series. He posted a 15-13 record for the ’48 team, was second in the NL with 138 strike outs, threw a September no-hitter against the Giants, and even got some MVP votes.
By age 26, his MLB career was done. One hundred and fifty five games, a 35-31 record.
There were times in my life when I was having so many problems – I can admit it now – I thought of committing suicide. I thought the world was over. I was 28 years old, and I was finished. I really don’t know what keeps you together. Mr. Rickey sent me to a psychiatrist. I went to two of them .. I would talk to them for an hour and they would say, ‘Christ, you’re saner than we are.’”
More mental health issues come up in the discussion with pitcher Jim Brosnan, best-known in the game, like Bouton, as an iconoclast who set the table with authorship of two well-known books about the game himself, “The Long Season” in 1959 and “Pennant Race” in 1962 (a quick turnaround about the ’61 season as a member of the Cincinnati Reds that went to the World Series, where he pitched in three games).
Coming up in the Chicago Cubs’ organization in the late 1940s and through the 1950s afforded him time at their Catalina Island spring training facility as well as playing for the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League.
Brosnan, who died in 2014, talks about playing in the lower minor leagues and “when I lost a game, it was suicide time. I went into deep depressions … they couldn’t figure out a way to handle that, so he finally got rid of me. I probably had what they call bipolar, but just recently was called manic depressive. I was subject to mood swings, and being in the business I was in, the sport I was in, I could easily go from elation, almost manic elation when I won, no matter whether it was a good win or one pitch in relief. If I had lost, the depressions were always more severe than the ups. And they never heard of lithium.” Soon he was receiving psychiatric help in Chicago.
He had his first callup with the the Cubs – with fellow rookie Ernie Banks – in 1954, sporting a 9.45 ERA in 18 games.
Back in L.A. for 1955, at age 25, Brosnan said he lost a game in Oakland in the 11th inning on a disputed play and he was beside himself. On the team trip him, “I got so drunk on Gibsons they had to give me oxygen on the plane. … Everyone got off the plane (when we landed) except me and the two players helping me off. My wife said it was the most embarrassing moment of her life.”
He had an 8-7 record for the Angelenos at that point, and a stomach full of onions. He somehow went 9-2 the rest of the season and said he manager was convinced his success was because he “went from a sociopathic loner always by myself to suddenly one of the guys, especially the guys who drank. The social guys. All of the sudden, I was everybody’s friend.”
That got him back with the Cubs for good in ’56 and one of the team’s top-played players and an Opening Day starter, until he was traded to St. Louis in the middle of the ’58 season.
Soak in the highlights with the Hall-of-Fame caliber Ted Williams, Roy Campanella, Stan Musial, Monte Irvin and Phil Rizzuto. Listen up to stars like Roger Maris and Marty Marion. But the real gems are the new-to-us-discoveries of the non-so-well-known such as Ellis “Cat” Clary and Tom “Snake” Sturdivant.
A classic tale comes from a non-player — trainer Ed Froelich, who worked for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938 when Babe Ruth was a coach. Ruth, who often would outshine the Dodgers players during batting practice, was getting tired of the razzing by the players about his pitching abilities of long ago. Ruth got Froelich to work out with him to get his arm in shape. That let him “lay in the weeds” and wait for his moment. It came when the Dodgers’ Dolf Camilli, Ernie Koy, Babe Phelps and Cookie Lavagetto egged him into throw them batting practice. Ruth simply overwhelmed them.
Not bad for a 43-year-old southpaw who’d been out of the game for four years at that point and was still making his pitch to be a big-league manager.
How it goes in the scorebook
Wait, people still know what a scorebook is, right?
This seems to confirm the premise that Brad Balukjian executed in his 2020 book “The Wax Pack.” If our baseball cards could talk, let’s ask them a bunch of stuff before they go away.
And talk it up now with your dad to make sure he’s good for this as his upcoming Father’s Day gift, lest there be any doubts he fits the demographics of this.
Also let him know in the forward, MLB historian John Thorn laments as well about how so many the Hall of Famers we followed in our youth are now going to the great beyond, their own field of dreams. They had been in some way our life lines to our nostalgic proclivity.
“Baseball is a backward-looking institution,” he writes. “It pleases us to think that giants once strode the earth and their like we will not be seen again. This is baloney of course. But serve it up between two slices of bread, with a shmeer of nostalgia, and count me in.”
You can look it up: More to ponder
== Our favorite back-of-jacket blurb: “The heartfelt and honest remembrances of Phil Rizzuto’s years with the Yankees and Ron Santo’s years with the Cubs are more than worth the price of this book.” — Pat Jordan, author of “Tom Seaver and Me” which we reviewed in the summer of 2020.
== Bravo as well to Golenbock as well for his helping craft the 2020 gem, “American Nero: The History of the Destruction of the Rule of Law, and Why Trump Is the Worst Offender.” With Richard Painter, Golenbock pulls together, from the book blurb, a “clear description of rule of law — arguably the single most important principle underlying our civilization. They also describe the abuses of power that have occurred throughout our nation’s history (Salem Witch Trials, The Red Scare of the 1920s, Japanese-American internment, the McCarthy Era, and President Trump’s attempt to violate the First Amendment by banning Muslims from entering the U.S.) … This is not a book about right vs. left — instead, it is about the rule of law, a principle that transcends partisan politics, and how vital it is to the survival of our country. This book serves as a call-to-action, looking ahead to a brighter future for our country, one where citizens and officials alike protect our rights and honor their responsibilities.”
== Golenbock talks about the book for the always swell Pandemic Baseball Book Club with Jason Turbow: