Local baseball fans, already cheered by the Cardinals' winter acquisitions and outlandish April slugging, have further reason for early-season celebration: the publication of Peter Golenbock's The Spirit of St. Louis: A History of the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns (Avon Books, 651 pages, $27.50).
As one of the National League's most storied franchises, the Cardinals have long attracted writerly interest, producing a small library of books on the team and its players. Although Golenbock's work can't be called definitive -- its disappointing lack of stats, records, rosters and standings requires true devotees to purchase a complementary volume such as Mike Eisenbath's The Cardinals Encyclopedia -- it's the most comprehensive and objectively clear-eyed book on St. Louis baseball yet produced, an entertaining oral history informed by an expansive knowledge of the game but blessedly unclouded by parochialism or nostalgia. The book boots a few easy grounders -- it's plagued by annoying repetitions and typos (street and place names cause particular problems) and makes one Merkle-worthy boneheaded gaffe by flopping the IDs on photos of Gussie Busch and former GM Bing Devine -- but Golenbock scores with such consistency that he easily overcomes the errors.
The Spirit of St. Louis is the prolific Golenbock's fifth baseball oral history; he's previously written works on the New York Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers, Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox. Baseball historians such as Donald Honig (Baseball When the Grass Was Real) have been recording player memories since the publication of Lawrence Ritter's classic The Glory of Their Times in 1966, but Golenbock differs from them by organizing his works by franchises rather than eras. "I discovered that if you just go and interview a random bunch of ballplayers, the interest is limited," he explains. "Chicago White Sox fans don't want to read about Ernie Banks, and Boston Red Sox fans don't want to read about Stan Musial. But if you go and interview a whole raft of players from one particular team, you end up with a mosaic that has depth: The players will tell you about their teammates, their manager, their GM, the city, their life in and out baseball."
Golenbock deviates somewhat from his usual approach with The Spirit of St. Louis because the book chronicles the history of both the Cardinals and Browns. No one would question the choice of the Cards -- with their glittering roster of Hall of Famers and nine World Series and 15 league championships -- but why include the lamentable bottom-dwelling Brownies, who won but a solitary pennant during their 52 years in St. Louis before relocating to Baltimore in 1954? As the Browns' small but rabid group of fans will attest -- "There are 150 of them, and I know each of them personally," laughs Golenbock -- the team made up in colorful personalities what it lacked in quality players, whether one-armed outfielder Pete Gray, midget pinch-hitter Eddie Gaedel, legendary raconteur Satchel Paige, carousing pitcher Sig Jakucki or wooden-legged owner Bill Veeck. And however divergent their fortunes, the Browns and Cards remained inextricably tied during their joint years in St. Louis, sharing the same stadium, scrambling for the same fans, even facing each other in the '44 World Series. As Golenbock notes, "It was an opportunity to write about what was in effect the battle between the Cardinals and the Browns, because at certain points in their history it really wasn't clear which of the teams would go."
Golenbock admits, however, that the Browns' consistently dismal performance over the decades made writing about them difficult: "There are just so many people who you could interview to talk about 'Well, we were really terrible in 1937, and, boy, were we bad again in 1938.' I tried to focus on the highlights." The perennially contending Cardinals presented no such problems; if anything, Golenbock tends to compress events too severely, especially when recounting more recent history (Ozzie Smith, for example, is treated with surprising brevity given his importance to the franchise in the '80s and '90s, and the Cards' 1996 division championship receives only a passing one-sentence mention). Golenbock deals much more generously with the Gashouse Gang of the 1930s, the '40s powerhouses and the pennant-winning teams of the '60s.
Golenbock also lavishes deserved attention on dozens of important figures in Cardinal -- and baseball -- history: early owner Chris Von der Ahe, who brought beer to the ballparks; GM Branch Rickey, who created the modern farm system (and later integrated baseball with the Dodgers); and such Hall of Famers as Charlie Comiskey, Rogers Hornsby, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Dizzy Dean, Lou Brock and Bob Gibson. As you might expect, Golenbock reserves his highest praise for the Man, Stan Musial: "He was a better player even than people remember," Golenbock asserts. "You go back and look at his numbers, and they're just amazing. For somebody to be that talented and to be so humble, it's a very rare combination. He was not a flamboyant personality. A guy like Joe DiMaggio or a guy like Ted Williams -- they were kind of mythical players because of their personalities as much as their skills. Stan was always such a down-to-earth guy, he didn't allow myths to grow up around him. He just went out there every day, got his uniform dirty and got his two hits."
As much as Golenbock admires stars such as Musial, the principal delights of The Spirit of St. Louis are the voices of the journeymen, the role players such as Carl Warwick of the '64 Cards or the Browns' Ellis Clary. "Just hearing Ellis Clary talk about the '44 and '45 Browns to me is worth the price of buying this book alone," Golenbock enthuses. "He was enthralling to me. The fourth outfielder, the backup shortstop -- very often those are the guys who notice the most. I find that the men who sit on the bench tend to look at the bigger picture. The stars get up and hit the ball. They know what their role is, they know who they are, and they know where they fall in the heavens. The foot soldiers tend to view the game differently. Very often they need to use their head more; they need every little bit to keep them in the major leagues. They're gathering this information as they're sitting and viewing what's going on."
Golenbock's The Spirit of St. Louis takes the same distanced perspective of those players, gazing backward with clarity and insight. But its author also admits to looking forward to a successful campaign by the Cardinals in 2000: "It's amazing how many books you can sell when your team wins."
Peter Golenbock discusses and signs his book at 7 p.m. Monday, April 24, at Library Ltd., 7700 Forsyth Blvd. For more information, call 721-0378.