Remembering the Golden Age of Baseball

This article was written by Vi Owen

This article was published in Summer 2009 Baseball Research Journal

For as long as I can remember I have had an unquenchable passion for baseball. Beginning in the 1920s, when I was about five years old, I’d watch my big brother, Marv, playing sandlot games, then high-school and college games. The biggest thrill of all was witnessing his sparkling professional play in a major-league career that took him all the way to the World Series.

Now, as a senior citizen, I enjoy traveling back in time to my golden age of baseball—the 1930s and 1940s. Those were the glory days of Babe Ruth, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Grove, Hank Greenberg, Bob Feller, and scores of other great ballplayers.

At some time in the 1920s, Babe Ruth came to San Jose, California, to play in the exhibition game at old Sodality Park on San Carlos Street in San Jose.

My parents took me to the game. I was about seven years old and knew little about the great career of Babe Ruth. In fact, I spent most of the time at the old wooden ballpark running up and down the wooden planks (not stairs). I seldom even looked at the playing field or at Babe Ruth.

In the 1980s Marv, then a retired major-leaguer, gave me all the memorabilia he had carefully preserved from those exciting decades—contracts, baseball cards, newspaper articles and box scores, fan letters, pictures, game programs, correspondence, and more. Reviewing this wealth of material and reliving the memories that went with it, I knew I had to write a book about my brother’s career. He agreed to be the consultant.

As a “rookie” writer, I faced a huge challenge. Would a female senior citizen writing about baseball be taken seriously? Added to this were the physical and financial limitations imposed by age and the great investment of time that would be needed to complete the project. Balanced against those confines were several tremendous assets, the most valuable being Marv himself, coupled with the wealth of material he had preserved from that wonderful era. When added to my own burning desire to see the job through, these plusses far outweighed the drawbacks.

If a slow, low-key approach was all I could manage, so be it. Still, how could I go about finding the inner circle of baseball? With whom could I network?

My first step into digging for background information to establish the setting of the book was to visit the places where it had all begun. Starting with California’s Santa Clara Valley, where we had grown up, I enlarged my search to other areas of the Pacific Coast. Finally, I moved on to Detroit, where Marv’s greatest professional triumphs had taken place. Whenever possible, I collected pictures along the way.

At the same time I joined groups such as the Society for American Baseball Research and the Pacific Coast League Historical Society and participated in their activities. Attending national and regional baseball conferences, I met fans, sportswriters, editors, publishers, and retired players. Many of these people who shared my passion for baseball had great stories to tell. All were helpful and friendly. They renewed my vigor and expanded my thinking. Nevertheless, it was easy to get sidetracked. Hunting through old photos and finding a picture of a tall, shy, awkward thirteen-year-old girl (me), I remembered what it was like to stay for the first time in a large city hotel. The excitement of being in a hotel elevator filled with famous baseball players. The incredible thrill of watching my brother play third base for a major-league club.

How different it was from our small hometown.

Another photo triggered recollections of a true incident that took place in 1939. Marv, then with the Chicago White Sox, and Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers had the honor of playing in the baseball centennial celebration at Cooperstown, New York. They were greatly impressed by seeing lined up at home plate the five Hall of Fame charter members—Walter Johnson, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Honus Wagner—in addition to Hall of Famers George Sisler, E.T. Collins, Nap “Larry” Lajoie, Cy Young, C. C. “Pete” Alexander, and Connie Mack. (Lou Gehrig was ill and unable to attend the celebration.)

Hank, who had brought along two official baseballs, muttered to Marv that, much as he would like to have them autographed, he was too bashful to approach these heroes of the game with the request. Marv swallowed his own shyness. “Let me do it,” he offered. At his request, each Hall of Famer signed both baseballs. Hank kept one of them and presented the second to Marv, who for decades kept it in a fur-lined box in a safety deposit box.

Anecdotes and photographs such as these played an important part in the finished book. To start with, however, I outlined the material in projected sequence. Once I had a fairly complete book proposal, I sent it off to editors at publishing houses that I hoped would be interested in publishing the manuscript.

While this audacious move failed to result in the offer of a contract for publication, each editor I had contacted answered my letters personally. Many offered suggestions. One even gave the proposal a lengthy, constructive critique by phone.

But even though I followed their suggestions in the book’s many rewrites, in the end the editors still regretfully expressed the opinion that the market for the book was too limited. With no contract for publication forthcoming, I had a hard decision to make. Ten years’ work had gone into the book. It was the best I could make it, but was it worth publishing?

With all my heart, I believed that it was. Accordingly, I decided to see it through as a self-publishing venture.

In 1996, soon after I celebrated my seventy-seventh birthday, Adventures of a Quiet Soul: A Scrapbook of Memories made its debut in print. While I haven’t made a fortune, following through on my dream has proven to be well worth the effort in every way.

All of the many reviews were positive. Some, indeed, were extremely flattering. Dave Anderson of the New York Times wrote, “Your book is dazzling. It’s a priceless labor of love.”

It was a labor of love—for baseball and my brother.

Traveling back in time to my golden age of baseball proved to be quite a journey!