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September 28, 2010

Another Look

Baseball Digest

by Bob Hertzel

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It is difficult to imagine today, but once upon a time there was life without the Internet.

The world, at that time, was not brought to your doorstep, and this was perhaps harder on the baseball fan than on anyone else in the country, for the coverage of the sport was what you found in your local newspaper.

As early as 1942 Herb Simons, a sportswriter for the Chicago Sun-Times, put together a publication that was, considering the primitive times, a pre-Internet Internet, gathering baseball stories from around the nation, done not by faceless bloggers who may or may not have credibility, but by the best baseball writers of what would become the Golden Age of baseball writing.

The publication was called Baseball Digest and, if it wasn’t as all encompassing as the Sporting News, which was simply known as the “Baseball Bible,” it wasn’t intended to be. It was not the source for baseball news, simply a place to republish the best stories in newspapers and magazines, offering statistics you could get nowhere else such as the biggest gainers and losers in batting average from year to year and pitchers’ records against other clubs.

It was filled with opinion—that of the likes of Dick Young, Jim Murray, Jimmy Cannon, Mel Durslag, Joe Falls—opinion you could enjoy, respect, and, yes, disagree with, no matter what your age.

Recently, in reading the section of the February 1973, Baseball Digest entitled “The Fans Speak Out,” I came across the following letter talking about a piece written by George Vass, a highly respected Chicago baseball writer:

Before George Vass writes anything on teams he does not directly cover, he should do some research.

In his article “What the Contenders Need for 1973” Mr. Vass reported the Yankees need help at third base where “Rich McKinney and others have struggled.”

Mr. Vass obviously did not follow the Yanks during 1972. They had one of the finest third basemen in baseball since early June, Celerino Sanchez.

Obviously, this fan had his own strong opinions.

Still does. The letter was signed: Keith Olbermann, Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Yes, that Keith Olbermann, who was 14 years old at the time.

Baseball Digest has survived from 1942 to the present, although it is now down to six editions a year and goes online, and because there are so many places to find your baseball stories, facts, and opinion, the magazine no longer carries the weight that it once did.

But this was really one of the greatest publications a baseball fan ever had through the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s and into the ‘80s.

There was something for everyone, really. In addition to the original material and the reprints from Esquire Magazine, Time and Look magazines, to the Nashville Banner and the Dayton Daily News and all papers of different sizes and circulation in between, there were different departments.

Hall of Fame shortstop and manager Lou Boudreau wrote “Baseball Tips for Budding Ballplayers,” an instructional section for youth.

There was the Baseball Digest Quick Quiz, which occupied young minds and old, challenging them with their knowledge of baseball history, rules and statistics. There was monthly section called “The Game I’ll Never Forget,” where star players recounted one game out of their career, be it Johnny Bench talking of the 1972 NLCS game against Pittsburgh that he tied with a home run off Dave Giusti in the ninth inning and that Cincinnati won on a Bob Moose wild pitch, or Rennie Stennett recounting his seven-hit game in Chicago in his own words.

The magazine had almost everything, right down to a less-than-challenging but fun baseball crossword puzzle that offered clues like 25 Down—“Pitcher Steve sounds like he could give you a close shave.”

The answer, of course, was Steve Barber.

For those who were into the rule book, there was a section called “Think You Know Baseball?” where under a cartoon of a sliding runner breaking up a double play Harry Simmons would set up a scenario about breaking up a double play on which with none out and the bases loaded, interference is called on the slide at second base. Both runners are ruled out, but Simmons asks what does the umpire do about Steve Garvey, who had been on third and scored on the play?

By the way, the answer on page 71 of this issue quoted the rule on interference saying since Garvey had touched home plate at the time of the interference, his run would be allowed to stand.

As great as the editorial copy was, the advertisements were better. There was an ad for a cult baseball game called APBA Baseball and for another game that advertised: “Manage in the Majors with Strat-O-Matic Baseball.”

You could send away for team mugs, jerseys, posters, 8 mm films of World Series or heavyweight championship fights, sign up for “Ted Williams Baseball Camp"--if you can imagine being so lucky--or you could bulk up on one of the body-building ads such as the one that showed a weight lifter exposing his muscular frame with the headline:

“Impossible … if not for the super body building process”

And, of course, the back cover would have an ad for Winston cigarettes, for in that era even ballplayers smoked.

Placed through the magazine were short vignettes taken from papers or provided by baseball writers--most meant to make you laugh, some to amaze you.

Take this one:

A friend of Gene Mauch once asked him how he was feeling and the Montreal manager said fine.

“My players say I’ll never have a heart attack because I don’t have a heart,” Mauch laughed. —Milton Richman, United Press International.

But, in the end, it was the stories that grabbed you.

Take this lead off a story by Jimmy Cannon: “The autopsy is going on, but there isn’t any corpse.”

Think you don’t want to read on about Brooks Robinson and how his average had fallen?

And Cannon was right. There was no corpse, for Robinson went to have one of the greatest World Series known to man against Cincinnati that October in 1970.

 And where else could you find out that all it cost the Cincinnati Reds to sign Hall of Fame first baseman Tony Perez was $2.50 for a visa or that Ken Griffey Sr. was signed by the Reds for a Reds’ jacket, a pair of sanitary socks, and $500 a month, which was more than the Reds got Dan Driessen for, as he claimed he signed for “a Reds’ yearbook and a plane ticket.”  

Bob Hertzel is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bob's other articles. You can contact Bob by clicking here

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