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    Bob Ryan

    How did we get to be the sports fans we are? Back then, it was because of books

    How did we do it?

    I mean, how did we, shall we say, “seasoned” sports fans get this way? How did we get to be the sports fans we are? After all, we didn’t have ESPN. We didn’t have sports talk radio. Most people didn’t get to see much on TV at all.

    And I’m talking well into the 1970s and ’80s. I was working on a book about minor league baseball in the summer of 1972. I was in such outposts as Visalia, Calif., and Idaho Falls, Idaho. I might as well have been on Mars, the news came two days late. I was with the Celtics in Madrid for the first European McDonald’s Open in 1988. It was during the Dodgers-A’s World Series. How did we keep abreast of what was going on back home? We called “Sports Phone.” Remember “Sports Phone,” and fast-talking Howie Karpin? It’s a little easier now. I was in Berlin a week ago. With my Boston Globe and ESPN apps I didn’t miss anything. Never take this stuff for granted.

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    So, how did we do it? I know this is kind of quaint, but one thing we did was read.

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    I don’t know what I would have done without the two-volume set entitled the “SPORT Magazine’s Book of Major League Baseball Clubs.” Published by Grosset & Dunlap in 1955, these books were comprised of mini histories of the then-16 major league clubs, each piece written by a distinguished journalist of the times. I’m not misusing that word “distinguished,” either. The Yankees history was written by none other than Grantland Rice himself. The Washington Senators were handled by Shirley Povich. Bill Cunningham took care of the Red Sox. The Globe sage Harold Kaese expounded on the Braves, a particular love of his. Other authors included Frank Graham (Giants), John Carmichael (White Sox), J. Roy Stockton (Cardinals), Dan Parker (Dodgers), Fred Lieb (Pirates), and Stan Baumgartner (Phillies). H.G. Salsinger took care of the Tigers, and if I’m not mistaken, he was the original Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) card holder No. 1.

    The AL book checked in at 241 pages. The NL book was a bit wordier at 244. They were comprehensive, but not overwhelming, for the eager young reader.

    Previous generations of sports fans became educated on players like Carl Yastrzemski and Ted Williams through historical annals and other sport-specific books.
    George Rizer/Globe Staff/File 1983
    Previous generations of sports fans became educated on players like Carl Yastrzemski and Ted Williams through historical annals and other sport-specific books.

    Another vital learning tool was the paperback “Baseball’s Greatest Players” by the renowned Tom Meany. His quite arbitrary list profiled 26 players in alphabetical order, starting with Grover Cleveland Alexander and ending with Denton True (Cy) Young. The chronological span was from Young in 1890 to Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, and Roy Campanella, each quite active in 1955. The forward was by baseball commissioner Ford Frick, a former baseball writer.

    Baseball reigned among American team sports. No one argued that. Another sport that ranked quite high in the pecking order was college football, and for that my instructional manual was “Football’s Greatest Coaches” by Edwin Pope. After consulting with what he termed a 56-man “jury”, Pope came up with a list of 28 coaches, again arranged in a nonargumentative alphabetical order, starting with William Anderson Alexander of Georgia Tech and concluding with Robert Carl Zuppke of Illinois. Among the luminaries profiled therein: Percy Haughton of Harvard.

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    It was quite a personal thrill for me to later make the acquaintance of Eddie Pope, who died in 2017 at the age of 88. He peaked at a time when the local sports columnist was something of a deity, and in his case the kingdom turned out to be Miami. His book remains a treasure chest of college football history.

    Then, of course, there were the biographies. There were three in particular for me, three books I read, re-read, and re-re-re-read.

    They were “Babe Ruth, The Big Moments of the Big Fellow,” by the aforementioned Tom Meany; “Lucky to be a Yankee,” the Joe DiMaggio autobiography with an uncredited ghost writer; and “Bob Feller’s Strikeout Story” by famed Cleveland scribe Gordon Cobbledick.

    In case you’re wondering, yes, all the books I have mentioned still take up residence in my office bookcase.

    The Unforgettable Season: The Story of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and the Record-Setting Summer of ‘41 was a book that chronicled the year of Williams’s .406 season and DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.
    FILE PHOTO
    The Unforgettable Season: The Story of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and the Record-Setting Summer of ‘41 was a book that chronicled the year of Williams’s .406 season and DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.

    And there’s one more I should mention. For a Christmas present on my ninth birthday, my parents gave me “Modern Baseball Strategy” by Orioles manager Paul Richards. Sample chapters: “Selecting the Right Pitch;” “Bunting and the Squeeze Play;” “Signs and Signals;” “The Infield Fly Rule;” and my favorite, “Batting Order.” It was after reading this book I decided that batting third in a major league baseball lineup was the highest calling known to man.

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    Two other publications were indispensable. The first was SPORT Magazine, which kept Americans informed on a variety of sports topics for 25 cents a month. Here are some sample stories from the June 1958 issue with Willie Mays on the cover: “How Ted Williams Became Popular;” “Six Guys Floyd Patterson Ought To Fight;” “What They Say In The Dugouts About The S.F. Giants;” “Has Success Spoiled Billy Loes?” “The Area of Warren Spahn;” “The Pirates Good Little Shortstop”; and “Billy Casper, Businessman Golfer.” There was even a story about wrestler Antonino (Argentina) Rocca.

    Finally, there was the Baseball Bible, “The Sporting News.” It came out 52 weeks a year, and though seasonal attention was paid to other sports, it was baseball, baseball, baseball all year long. How comprehensive was it? The weekly minor league coverage even included the Triple A box scores from the Pacific Coast League, American Association, and International League. No serious baseball fan could live without The Sporting News.

    My parents got it. They gave me subscriptions to both SPORT and The Sporting News when I was 9. Clearly, that was a pivotal year in my sports education.

    Yet, how stupid, how backward, we were. We thought wins mattered for pitchers. We thought batting average was a big deal. We scoffed when someone didn’t go nine. We thought strikeouts were bad. We rhapsodized about the All-Star Game. We felt cheated without two games on Sunday. When Mickey Mantle hit a tape-measure homer, we never inquired about the launch angle or exit velocity. We just said, “Wow!”

    But give us credit. We’re trying to learn.

    Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.