Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times is the greatest book on baseball ever written. It’s an oral history of the game at the turn of the century, and it’s utterly charming. The love of the game, the sheer fun of playing shines through on almost every page.
The game was more colorful then, chaotic and raw, and it feels right. The modern world has a tendency to flatten everything, to make us into cardboard cutouts and in this book you can see what was lost, the fun and adventure of it all.
The players themselves noticed the change, and even properly diagnosed (at least in part) the cause. Here’s Davy Jones, who played in the outfield alongside Ty Cobb and Wahoo Crawford:
I was playing in the Big Leagues in 1901, when Mr. William McKinley was President, and baseball attracted all sorts of people in those days. We had stupid guys, smart guys, tough guys, mild guys, crazy guys, college men, slickers form the city, and hicks from the country. And back then a country kid was likely to really be a country kid. We’d call them hayseeds or rubes. Nowadays I don’t think there’s much difference between city kids and country kids. Anyway, nothing like there used to be.
Back at the turn of the century, you know, we didn’t have the mass communication and mass transportation that exists nowadays. We didn’t have as much schooling, either. As a result, people were more unique then, more unusual, more different from each other. Now people are all more or less alike, company men, security minded, conformity–that sort of stuff. In everything, not just baseball.
The Glory of Their Times, 35
Losing our distinctiveness, becoming flat, is a great tragedy. We need to turn away from the mass-produced, the all-encompassing, and back to the local, the slow, the weird. Leisure, true leisure, and play are key to that turning. We should start right now.