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Ghosts of baseball past – ‘Whispers of the Gods’

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Few American athletic endeavors are as aware of their own history as baseball. No professional sport is as devoted to the past as baseball, a pastime that spans a century-and-a-half at this point; this is a game that draws direct connections between the players of today and the stars of yesteryear.

Of course, this means that there is a wealth of writing about the game past. Biographies and memoirs, books laden with legends and statistics. As a lover of the game, I dig them all, but I’ve always had a particular affinity for oral histories, the books where the players of bygone times offer up the stories from their mind’s eye. Memories of how the game once was from the men who once played it.

Peter Golenbock’s new book “Whispers of the Gods: Tales from Baseball’s Golden Age, Told by the Men Who Played It” (Rowman & Littlefield, $24.95) compiles a wide assortment of these memories as dictated by the men who were there. Players remembering their time on the field during the tumultuous and triumphant stretch from the 1940s to the ‘60s – acknowledged by many to be the titular Golden Age of the sport.

All told, there are 16 men whose stories grace these pages, ranging from iconic all-time greats to the men who simply played the game. Each of them had their own stories to share; this book compiles those tales, culled from hundreds of hours of interviews that took place over the course of decades. Some of these stories are celebratory, others are sad, but all of them are evocative of the very particular time and place that was midcentury baseball.

The biggest names here are ones that will be familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the game. We get to hear from Ted Williams, talking about his experiences in his own words. We spend some time with Stan Musial. Hall of Famers like Ron Santo and Phil Rizzuto get their say as well.

We also hear from some players who were prominent in their day, but who perhaps aren’t as widely remembered in the present. Guys like Gene Conley and Marty Marion get to tell their stories. And that’s not even mentioning the players whose names will almost certainly ring unfamiliar to all but the most devoted student of baseball history – Tom Sturdivant and Rex Barney and Ed Froelich. The list goes on.

Oh, and it is definitely worth noting that “Whispers of the Gods” is bookended by Jim Bouton, the man whose revolutionary book “Ball Four” pulled back the curtain and gave people a look at what big-league life was really like.

Perhaps the most striking aspects of the book are when Golenbock speaks to players who dealt with the early years of integration. Roy Campanella makes an appearance, as does Monte Irvin – both great players who earned their place in Cooperstown’s hallowed halls. However, it is when the white players active during that time offer up their memories that things get a bit hazy. One gets an almost revisionist sense from some of them, a feeling that they are perhaps underplaying the realities of the fracture of the color line and their own reactions to it.

I’m not going to delve too deeply into the stories that are ultimately shared here – you’ll have to buy the book for that – but it’s worth noting that to a man, all of these players carry deep-seated and powerful memories about their time in the big leagues, however long or successful that time might have been.

Oral histories like “Whispers of the Gods” are engaging reads for those of us who seek to connect our fandom of the now with the deeds of the past. Baseball history is a long and tangled thread – sometimes frayed, sometimes knotted, but never broken. One can draw a line from the earliest days of professional baseball to today – something that can be said about relatively few institutions.

As things stand right now, baseball is in flux. The current circumstances surrounding the game leave many of us yearning for a return to the simplicity of the past (though it is worth noting that many of the sport’s current wounds are self-inflicted by those who would run the show). And while the game was far from perfect back then, marred by bigotry and other tribulations, it was still a time when legends took the field.

The men who share their stories here were far from perfect. They were flawed people whose choices and ideas don’t always reflect well with the benefit of hindsight. And yet, their tales fascinate, taking the reader back to a time when the game, for all its institutional issues, was at the very center of American culture.

Yes, the title of the book is “Whispers of the Gods,” but these men were men. Nothing more. And yet, when they took to the field with their cannon arms and mighty swings, they did, in their own way, approach a kind of divinity.

Last modified on Wednesday, 09 March 2022 06:56

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