Baseball BeatMay 02, 2006
The Only Game in Town: Q&A With Fay Vincent
By Rich Lederer

I had the pleasure of interviewing Fay Vincent, the former commissioner and author of the recently published The Only Game in Town: Baseball Stars of the 1930s and 1940s Talk About the Game They Loved, about his book and the state of baseball. Vincent is a former entertainment and business executive who served as the commissioner of baseball from 1989 to 1992. He is also the author of The Last Commissioner: A Baseball Valentine.

Rich: The Only Game in Town is part of The Baseball Oral History Project. How did you become involved with it?

Fay: The origins of this book begin with my listening to tapes of interviews Larry Ritter did in the '60s with old ballplayers who played in the early years of the 20th century. I was fascinated, and I realized nothing of comparable interest was being done with players of later decades. Moreover, the Baseball Hall of Fame had no organized oral history project. So I began with players from the '30s and '40s with unique stories to tell including my great friend Larry Doby, the first black in the American League who was then ill and whose story was about to be lost. Similarly Warren Spahn, Bob Feller, and Tommy Henrich were growing older and I was eager to capture their stories and did so in 4-hour video taped interviews. The idea is that 50 years from now fans will be able to go to Cooperstown and see these tapes of wonderful players talking about a period in baseball that would otherwise be forever lost.

Rich: I understand that you, Herb Allen, and George Cooney provided financial support. This project must have been a labor of love for you.

Fay: It was and is. I have done 40 of these video interviews and just did one with Carl Erskine of the old Brooklyn Dodgers. I will continue to do 4 or 5 new ones a year, perhaps more.

Rich: You were inspired by the audiotapes of Lawrence Ritter's book, The Glory of Their Times. I own and cherish those CDs. Do you have plans to introduce a video or audio version of The Only Game in Town?

Fay: No plans. But I hope the video tapes will be made available via The Hall or in some other commercial fashion. HBO and ESPN have shown no interest.

Rich: That's too bad. I know fans like myself would be very interested in watching and perhaps even owning the video tapes. Maybe a Ken Burns-type could make use of them for a documentary.

Fay: Perhaps and I have not given up - I hope to find someone who will work with these tapes. I think they are unique, precious, and extremely interesting.

Rich: The focus on Volume One is on the 1930s and 1940s. How many volumes do you anticipate unveiling?

Fay: All depends on the sales of this volume.

Rich: Gosh, I hope the sales of this book are such that the project can be continued. I know you have conducted dozens of interviews thus far. It would be a shame if they weren't made public.

Fay: I suspect they will be public in some fashion through the Hall of Fame. It would be absurd to have done them for fans only to find out fans are not able to see them. Perhaps The Hall will license someone to distribute the tapes.

Rich: You interviewed ten players for Volume One. Elden Auker, Dom DiMaggio, Larry Doby, Bob Feller, Tommy Henrich, Monte Irvin, Ralph Kiner, Buck O'Neil, Johnny Pesky, and Warren Spahn. Quite a group. Five Hall of Famers and five others who were stars in their own right. How did you go about contacting and choosing these particular players?

Fay: I was interested in the oldest with focus on their historical significance - each of them is unique.

Rich: The interviews appear to have been transcribed as literally as possible. Little or no editing. If the player repeated himself, went off on a tangent, or spoke in incomplete sentences, you printed it.

Fay: Correct. Had we interviewed the President of Harvard the text would have been similar because none of us speaks as well as we believe we do. Perhaps I was wrong but I would be interested in readers' reaction.

Rich: I think it works. Sure, a few of them ramble a bit, but this format makes it feel as if the reader is sitting in the same room listening to these oldtimers tell their stories.

Fay: Thank you. It was a judgment call and I hope we were correct. But Ritter did much the same and his tapes were fascinating.

Rich: You asked everyone the same two questions: Who got you interested in baseball? Who gave you your first ball and glove?

Fay: Yes, and they would go off for a long spell that was fascinating. The common thread is that each was terrific at the game from the very beginning.

Rich: OK, it's my turn. Who got you interested in baseball? Who gave you your first ball and glove?

Fay: My father who was a fine college and semipro player. He was a very good hitter at Yale and led the college league in hitting in the '30s. He taught me to love the game. (See The Last Commissioner.)

Rich: The 1940s included the World War II years as well as integration of the major leagues. The former altered the world and the latter changed the game forever.

Fay: Correct, these 10 were part of the greatest generation. I liked each one of them and admire them greatly.

Rich: How would you compare and contrast the players of yesteryear with those of today?

Fay: Very similar. They all love the game, the old players lived in a different world with no union, no long term contract and a lot less money but the similarities are many.

Rich: Has the game of baseball changed for the better or worse over the years?

Fay: Fortunately is hasn't changed that much on the field. The mistakes like the DH are few and the game remains magical.

Rich: If you were still the Commissioner, how would baseball be different today?

Fay: Hard to tell. I doubt it would be very different though I hope I would have done something about the steroid issue earlier.

Rich: Do you think players were taking performance-enhancing drugs back then?

Fay: Not extensively but certainly to some extent. In those days cocaine was reasonably widely used but steroids were just beginning. I have no idea the extent of the use in 1992 when I left.

Rich: What one change would you like to see baseball make?

Fay: Eliminate the DH and stop shrinking the size of the playing field.

Rich: Will Pete Rose ever make the Hall of Fame?

Fay: I do not think so. He should not be admitted and for the time being I think the issue is dead.

Rich: If you had a vote, would you be "for" or "against" electing Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Rafael Palmeiro to Cooperstown?

Fay: I would not vote for them at present and would wait to read the Mitchell report.

Rich: How about one of your featured players in The Only Game in Town - Buck O'Neil?

Fay: The Negro League Committee that I chaired without a vote made what I believe is a final decision on Buck. I hope The Hall of Fame will honor him in some other fashion for his remarkable conduct as an eminent senior citizen of baseball.

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An excerpt of the opening chapter on Elden Auker is available for those interested in previewing The Only Game in Town. In addition to the players featured, the book includes multiple stories and photos of Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, and Ted Williams. There are more than 50 photos in all, including most of the stars from MLB and the Negro Leagues in the '30s and '40s. I devoured the book from cover to cover and believe it is a good read and a valuable part of any baseball library.