Author, former professor donates baseball book collection to CMU library
It’s such a simple act. But for many American boys, especially from older generations, it had the most subtle and memorable impact on a youngster’s life.
The pop of a leather glove, maybe a smile from the stern father, an easy conversation about baseball.
A handful of minutes with a father usually too busy or too tired to find the time to spend with his son.
Having a catch with dad — a special time and an amazing memory.
It was that time in the backyard tossing a baseball back and forth with his dad that still resonates with Larry Gerlach even after more than six decades.
What started with a simple game of catch with his father led to fascination with the national pastime, a fascination and intrigue so powerful that Gerlach collected every baseball book imaginable. He gathered close to 1,400 different titles about the game, the players, the scandals and the bottomless realm of history that surrounds the game.
“I’d play catch with my dad and we’d talk baseball,” Gerlach said at a ceremony at Colorado Mesa University earlier this month.
The retired professor of history at the University of Utah wanted to find a home for his massive book collection, and he found it at Colorado Mesa, which will keep the collection on the shelves of Tomlinson Library for all to peruse.
Talking to a small gathering at the library, Gerlach’s voice cracked as he remembered his dad, Reuben.
“My dad was a manual laborer. He loaded boxcars with 25-, 50- and 75-pound bags of flour and feed by hand,” Gerlach said, pausing to regain his composure. “He’d come home at night dead tired, dirty and his fingers bleeding. But he liked baseball, and on weekends we’d play catch.”
Gerlach smiled as he let the memory linger.
“That was so important to me because that, and shooting fireworks, was the only personal association I ever had with him,” Gerlach said.
But those games of catch and the memories that followed grabbed Gerlach and never let go.
Gerlach, 75, loves talking baseball, and when it came time to decide what to do with his book collection, Grand Junction and Colorado Mesa University came to mind.
The history and popularity of the Junior College World Series and the fact that his son and daughter-in-law both teach English at the university swayed Gerlach’s decision.
“When I entered the late innings of my life, and what to do with my treasured baseball collection ... I thought CMU would be the perfect place,” he said. “Not only because my son and daughter-in-law teach here, and I’ve come to know the community and admire it; not only because you’ve had a distinguished baseball program for a long time, but also because this community has such a long-standing tradition with baseball.”
Gerlach played on his high school baseball team and offers a grin when assessing his baseball talents.
“I was a pitcher, but I couldn’t throw a good curveball, so that was the end of that,” he said, “and I couldn’t hit a good curveball either, so that was it.
“I played softball, I was mostly the catcher because no one else wanted to do it. It’s a dirty job,” he said, with another smile.
But when he played baseball, his love of the game soared.
“I came to appreciate what a unique game it is. I was fascinated with it. Then I was interested in history and how baseball reflects and affects the history of this country from colonial times on. So it was just a merger of my personal interest in baseball and my professional world teaching history,” Gerlach said.
The books’ subjects range from legends such as Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Roger Maris, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson, to subjects like the Negro Leagues, women’s baseball, ballparks and more.
It’s the history surrounding the game that interests Gerlach the most.
“There’s not a theme or an event in this history that is not studied through the prism of baseball,” said Gerlach, who taught a course on sports with baseball as the centerpiece while at the University of Utah.
Out of the nearly 1,400 titles in his collection, Gerlach has a clear favorite.
“Mine. It’s a history of umpires,” Gerlach said. “Nothing had ever been done on umpires. They had such wonderful stories to tell that I compiled 12 of (the stories) into the book.”
That book is titled “The Men in Blue” and Gerlach has a second book on umpires set to come out in the spring.
“I got interested in what they do and who they are as individuals and how they are really in the heart of the game and how they know players and know managers,” he said.
Gerlach’s enthusiasm for baseball bubbles over as he waxes poetically about what makes the game special.
“It’s a team game that turns solely on individual performances, and I liked that. It’s the only game where your opponent is not the other team.
“You have to catch the ball cleanly, you have to throw the ball accurately and you have to hit the ball squarely; if you do that you win, if you don’t do something like that, you lose.”
Gerlach hopes other readers will enjoy his book collection as much as he has through the years.
“I know what baseball means to this community. I hope it will be valuable and of interest to students, faculty and members of the community for some time to come,” he said, and then recalled a quote by former Major League pitcher and author Jim Bouton.
“A ballplayer spends a good piece of his life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”
And while his baseball book collection has a new home, baseball clearly continues to have a tight grip on Gerlach.