Lawrence Ritter baseball interviews honored by Library of Congress registry

The groundbreaking oral history interviews of Deadball Era baseball stars conducted by late SABR member Lawrence Ritter have been selected for induction into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry.

This week, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington announced the selection of 25 sound recordings to the registry that will be preserved as cultural, artistic and/or historical treasures, representing the richness and diversity of the American soundscape.

“These recordings represent an important part of America’s culture and history,” Billington said in a press release. “As technology continually changes and formats become obsolete, we must ensure that our nation’s aural legacy is protected. The National Recording Registry is at the core of this effort.”

Ritter (1922-2004), a professor of economics and finance at New York University, traveled around the country in the early 1960s interviewing the likes of Sam Crawford, Smoky Joe Wood, and Stanley Coveleski, standout players from the first decades of the 20th century. He turned their colorful stories into The Glory of Their Times: The Story of The Early Days of Baseball Told By The Men Who Played It, the 1966 book that has inspired millions of baseball fans to become interested in the history of the game.

Reissued many times in expanded editions and also available in a four-CD set, the book has sold nearly a half-million copies and deepened the appreciation of baseball fans everywhere for the players of the past.

Ritter wrote that he got the idea from the 1961 death of Ty Cobb — the great players from the turn of the century were old men, and he wanted to hear their stories before they died. Before Ritter, no one had undertaken the effort to interview old ballplayers on such a grand scale, and his efforts led to dozens of oral history collections in the ensuing decades. Ritter did not ask probing questions or delve into the details of their careers — instead he turned his tape recorder on and stayed out of the way, allowing his subjects to go where their memories would take them.

As Lee Lowenfish wrote in his Summer 2010 Baseball Research Journal profile of Ritter:

Every chapter in Ritter’s classic revealed a vivid human personality, all of them united by a love of baseball. John Tortes Meyers, Christy Mathewson’s favorite catcher on the New York Giants of the early twentieth century, expressed his sorrow at the stereotyping of players of American Indian ancestry, who were routinely given the nickname “Chief.” He said he cringed at the killing of Indians in the TV westerns that inundated the airwaves. Hall of Famer Wahoo Sam Crawford from Wahoo, Nebraska, similarly did not like to watch TV, preferring to read the novels of Balzac. He didn’t attend old-timers games because he wanted fans to remember him in his youth. He vividly described the poor reputations of the players of his day. “We were considered pretty crude,” he told Ritter. “Couldn’t get into the best hotels and all that.” 

Ritter was part of the inaugural class of recipients for SABR’s Henry Chadwick Award in 2010, honoring the game’s greatest researchers. Each year, SABR’s Deadball Era Research Committee presents the Larry Ritter Book Award for the best book set primarily in the Deadball Era.

For more information on the Library of Congress National Recording Registry, click here.

Originally published: April 3, 2014. Last Updated: April 3, 2014.