I still remember when I first read The Glory of Their Times. I was taking a flight to Portland, Oregon, and I expected to read a couple chapters in between watching something or closing my eyes for a bit. Instead, I read almost the whole book over the four-hour flight and had to stop at Powell’s to find something to read on my way home.
In the foreward to Peter Golenbock’s new book, Whispers of the Gods, he tells a similar story about how Lawrence Ritter’s baseball classic made an indelible impact on his life. Today, Golenbock’s author page on Amazon lists dozens of sports books, including some great baseball books like The Bronx Zoo and Bums, a testament to how Ritter’s work influenced his career. But if imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then Whispers of the Gods is nothing short of a love letter to Ritter.
Whereas Glory was a collection of oral histories from baseball players that primarily played in the dead-ball era, Whispers collects the stories of players from the 1940s to ‘60s. And where Ritter set out on a 75,000-mile journey to collect his interviews for Glory, the collection of interviews for Whispers came from Golenbock’s decades of reporting and writing. These differences don’t make one book better than the other by themselves, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each. But Whispers is a derivative work, which I only mean as a fact, not a criticism, and anything derivative of something deemed a “classic” necessarily suffers by striving for the loftiest heights.
But if Whispers of the Gods ranks below The Glory of Their Times in the canon of baseball literature, that doesn’t mean it’s not a damn good read.
One of the advantages Golenbock has in this collection is that he’s able to present, with minimal editing, the voice of long-gone stars telling their story firsthand. Hall of Fame players like Stan Musial, Ron Santo, and Ted Williams each get their own chapter, several thousand words of their own that have never been shared at this length, and the result is a remarkable read.
Like Glory, though, some of the best passages come not from the big-name players, but rather from the bit players. Lesser-known baseball players like Ed Froelich, Marty Marion, and Gene Conley have incredible narratives because their positions in baseball were more precarious, they moved around and saw different organizations, and played with different people. Perhaps because of their lower profile, their accounts are more nuanced and detailed and the anecdotes are richer.
Perhaps the most fascinating story is that of Roger Maris, which is not the same oral history as the rest of the book, but instead presented as a narrative interview. Because of Maris’s treatment by the press and the Yankees, he was very reluctant to give interviews, and Golenbock gives his story extra care and presents it wonderfully. Like Maris’s chapter, some of the best sections come late in Whispers, specifically accounts from Santo, Roy Campanella, and Monte Irvin. Given the time period covered in Whispers of the Gods, specifically the integration of baseball, it is especially interesting to hear about players’ experiences with the Black pioneers like Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks, and Willie Mays. To hear it first-hand from Black players like Campanella and Irvin is especially interesting, particularly when the history of the sport and the time period covered is so dominated by white narratives.
Irvin in particular, despite his general optimism, does not mince his words, telling Golenbock, “I won’t say ‘the Good Old Days.’ The Old Days.” And Whispers provides many reminders that “the golden age of baseball” was not golden for everyone. Many of the voices in the book, even those who present themselves as embracing of Black players in MLB, use uncomfortable phrases like “the Blacks” repeatedly. Perhaps that can be excused as a product of the times, but less excusable is the account of Kirby Higbe (one of the southern players that requested Branch Rickey not sign Jackie Robinson and was subsequently traded), as he gains no sympathy from a first-hand accounting, or Rex Barney using the N-word (even though he was quoting others that used it).
Everything from the past has to be viewed through a different lens — I mean, there are gay jokes in Friends that would not get aired on any television network in 2022 — but that doesn’t make the racism from some of the subjects of Whispers of the Gods okay. It does inform it, though. And one of the beautiful things about Whispers is that it is a collection of oral histories that can be digested in any form and does not rely on a continuous reading. Skip Higbe and Barney’s chapters and the book is even more enjoyable and takes nothing away because the racism that plagued (and still plagues) baseball and America is still present and we can still learn from it.
Overall, Whispers of the Gods is a good read and a great book for anyone interested in baseball history. It is available now via Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. You can purchase a copy at your local independent bookstore.