Baseball Stars of the 1970s and 1980s Talk About the Game They Loved

By Fay Vincent

Simon & Schuster. 301 pp. $25

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Reviewed by Allen Barra

It's What's Inside the Lines That Counts

is the fourth book by former Major League Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent - and his best. Volume three of

The Baseball Oral History Project

, done in conjunction with the Baseball Hall of Fame, the book offers an exciting mix of former players, managers, and even an umpire, Bruce Froemming, and a labor leader, Marvin Miller.

Vincent's premise is so simple and appealing one wonders why no one thought of it before. Well, actually, someone did: Lawrence S. Ritter and Robert Creamer, in their great 1966 oral history The Glory of Their Times. Shortly after Ty Cobb's death in 1961, Ritter, armed with a tape recorder, searched the country and tracked down numerous Cobb contemporaries and let them tell the story of baseball in the early 20th century. Smokey Joe Wood, Babe Herman, Wahoo Sam Crawford, Lefty O'Doul, Rube Marquard, and many other great players might not be remembered today had Ritter not induced them to tell their stories.

Why it took someone so long to realize there were an additional eight or nine decades worth of baseball memories waiting out there is a mystery. Fortunately, once the bug bit him, Vincent, inspired by The Glory of Their Times, worked quickly. In 2005 he hit upon the marvelous idea of videotaping interviews with ballplayers with the hope, he writes, "that over time fans of our wonderful game will be able to see these fine players tell their story. By preserving these tapes, we preserved the essence of what makes baseball unique."

In 2006, the first batch of interviews, of '30s and '40s players, appeared in book form: The Only Game in Town. Two years later came We Would Have Played for Nothing, interviews with '50s and '60s stars.

Despite its subtitle, It's What's Inside the Lines That Counts includes key figures from the 1960s and the next 20 years - but that's fine with me. My favorite interview is with one of my all-time favorite pitchers, high-kicking San Francisco Giants righthander Juan Marichal, who has fond memories of his great pitching opponents. Bob Gibson, for instance, whom Marichal remembers as tough: "I always say that if Gibson . . . had to face his mother, he didn't care. He'd knock her down."

On his work ethic: "I didn't want to be just a baseball player. When I heard the names Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Warren Spahn, all those big names, I wanted to be the same level as those guys, and to do that you have to work hard. You have to be dedicated to our profession. I never was a person that loved to go to a disco."

Marvin Miller, who started the players union and won the players free agency, recalls talking to reporters about "antiunion propaganda, about how unions like strikes, etc. - nothing further from the truth . . . all income stops. Anybody that tells you that people like strikes is crazy."

Major-league ballplayers, Miller tells Vincent, "are the most competitive people I've ever met, and the owners always made the mistake of trying to face them down. You don't do that with major-league players. I think you can do all kinds of other things, but you don't challenge them and don't face them down."

Like Vincent's two previous oral-history volumes, It's What Inside the Lines That Counts isn't just welcome baseball reading - it's essential.