By Jonathan Yardley
Wednesday, April 7, 2004
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
At the dawn of the 1960s the literature of baseball was paltry. Some good fiction had been inspired by the game, notably Ring Lardner's "You Know Me Al" and Bernard Malamud's "The Natural," but nonfiction was little more than breathless sports-page reportage: hagiographic biographies of stars written for adolescents ("Lou Gehrig: Boy of the Sandlots"), as-told-to quickies ("Player-Manager," "by" Lou Boudreau) and once-over-lightly histories of the game ("The Baseball Story," by Fred Lieb).
Then one book changed everything: "The Long Season," by a little-known relief pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds named Jim Brosnan. Published in 1960, it was a diary of the 1959 season, which Brosnan began as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals and ended with the Reds. Though the book was entirely devoid of the profanity and scatology without which ballplayers can't talk, it took readers inside the clubhouse, the dugout and the bullpen -- not to mention the airplane, the train and the hotel room -- in ways no sportswriter ever had.
The book was greeted with astonishment outside baseball, since the notion that a ballplayer could write (not to mention write well) was beyond consideration, and with fury inside baseball, where players and sportswriters charged that by portraying the game honestly, Brosnan had violated its code of omerta. A decade and a half later, in his preface to a new edition of the book, Brosnan summed it all up:
"As an active player on a big-league team I had seemingly taken undue advantage by recording an insider's viewpoint on what some professional baseball players were really like. I had, moreover, violated the idolatrous image of big leaguers who had been previously portrayed as models of modesty, loyalty and sobriety -- i.e., what they were really not like. Finally, I had actually written the book by myself, thus trampling upon the tradition that a player should hire a sportswriter to do the work. I was, on these accounts, a sneak and a snob and a scab."
The reader does not need to be told what happened: apres Jim, le deluge. A couple of years later Bill Veeck's splendid "Veeck as in Wreck" told the inside story of a maverick team owner, and then in 1970 Jim Bouton's No. 1 bestseller, "Ball Four," did an inside number on the New York Yankees, cusswords and all. But "The Long Season" not merely changed everything, it remains, decades later, the best of its kind. What Red Smith wrote in the New York Herald Tribune -- "it is a cocky book, caustic and candid and, in a way, courageous, for Brosnan calls them as he sees them, doesn't hesitate to name names, and employs ridicule like a stiletto" -- is still true today.
I was 20 years old when the book appeared, and gobbled it up as fast as I could find a copy. It's entirely possible that I'd never heard of Brosnan, since I was an American League partisan and his whole (brief) career had been in the National, but "The Long Season" made me an instant Brosnan fan and I've been one ever since. I was delighted when he and the Reds won the National League pennant in 1961 (they lost the World Series to the Yankees) and even more delighted when he told the story of that season in "Pennant Race" (1962). On giving both books what is not a second reading but more like a fifth or sixth, I find them as fresh as ever, though "The Long Season" seems to me the better of the two because its subject is an ordinary season -- life as it's really lived -- rather than an extraordinary one.
Brosnan was 29 years old during the 1959 season; he turned 30 that October. He had been in professional baseball for a dozen years. He was called up to the Chicago Cubs in 1954 and liked the city enough to buy a house in a suburb called Morton Grove, where he lives to this day. The Cubs sent him back to the minors in 1955, brought him to Chicago in 1956 and traded him to the Cardinals in 1958. As the 1959 season began he had won 22 games in the majors and lost 22, started 35 games and completed six, and, in 1958, had gotten seven saves as a relief pitcher, his chief job for the rest of his baseball career, which ended after the 1963 season. Since then he has written newspaper and magazine articles and a few baseball books for young readers, and worked in advertising (as he did during his baseball off-seasons) and broadcasting.
His fellow ballplayers seem to have liked Brosnan -- a quick wit and an irreverent streak can be strong assets in the clubhouse -- but they clearly were puzzled by him. They called him "Professor," because he almost always had a book with him, because he used big words and was curious about words unfamiliar to him, because he understood there was a larger world beyond baseball, much though he loved the game. "I maintain a small library in my locker in the clubhouse," he writes, then adds the characteristically self-mocking kicker: "Nothing like a book to keep your mind from thinking." And: "The plane ride was too quick for me to read 'The Wapshot Chronicle.' When I get involved in a book my mind doesn't operate properly till I read my way back to reality."
This is a simple statement of fact, not literary posturing. Brosnan seems never to have had any pretensions about his reading or his enjoyment of intelligent conversations about matters other than the infield fly rule. He didn't think he was better than other ballplayers because he read books, and he didn't think they were inferior to him because they didn't. In fact he clearly enjoyed the company of old baseball hands like Marv Grissom and Sal Maglie, as well as rustics like Vinegar Bend Mizell and Marshall Bridges. He chewed tobacco, too. "Can't kick the nasty habit," he admitted, though in "Pennant Race" he vowed to quit at the end of his baseball days, doubtless much to the relief of his wife, Mary Stewart, who on the evidence of both books is at least as smart, funny and irreverent as he is.
"The Long Season" gives pleasure on any number of levels. It conveys, as no other book ever has, the dailiness of baseball, with its season that not merely is long but provides an endless, often inexplicable succession of ups and downs. One day in 1958, pitching against the San Francisco Giants, Brosnan gave up a homer that "cleared the back wall of the right-field bleachers, at the 425-foot mark, causing sportswriters to go dashing out of the press box with a tape measure." In 1959, with the game on the line, he faced the same batter again: "Did he hit it out again? He did not. He tapped it right back to me, like a good little boy, and we had a double play to retire the side." As he says: "This game will drive you batty." Or, as he writes a week later:
". . . Man, that's the way it goes in this game. You make your pitch, and if it's the right pitch, it works . . . most of the time. If it's the wrong pitch, you find out soon enough, and they tell you soon enough, also. If you don't believe them, they send you somewhere else so they don't have to listen to you; and so that you can ponder by yourself the misfortune that has struck you. Etc."
Baseball is a tough game and, as that passage indicates, a merciless one as well. A couple of bad appearances -- in which, as is often the case, you make all the right pitches but don't get the right results -- and you're in the doghouse, or the minors, or on a plane to join another team. In late April, still with St. Louis, Brosnan sensed that "I'm not long for this clubhouse"; he'd had some bad outings and the manager, Solly Hemus, just plain didn't like him, a sentiment he returned. Sure enough on June 8 he was told to report to Cincinnati: "I sat back on the couch, half-breathing as I waited for indignation to flush good red blood to my head. Nothing happened. I took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly. It's true. The second time you're sold you don't feel a thing."
The trade turned out to be good for Brosnan. Not merely were the Reds a better team, but a month later they brought in Fred Hutchinson as manager. Brosnan had played under him the previous season in St. Louis -- until Hutchinson was fired, as managers always are -- and thought the world of him: "Most ballplayers respect Hutch. In fact, many of them admire him, which is even better than liking him. He seems to have a tremendous inner power that a player can sense. When Hutch gets a grip on things it doesn't seem probable that he's going to lose it. He seldom blows his top at a player, seldom panics in a game, usually lets the players work out of their own troubles if possible."
This was a different time, and managers exercised stronger control over their players than they do now, in the age of multi-trillion-dollar contracts and free agency. The game was different in other ways as well. There were only 16 teams, and only three were west of the Mississippi. There were no playoffs; league champions went right to the World Series. Sunday doubleheaders were commonplace, and so were day games after night games. Black players had been in the majors for barely a decade, and though by the late 1950s there were many of them, race relations in the clubhouse and on the field were often testy. The American League still required pitchers to bat for themselves; the heinous designated hitter was not authorized until 1973.
Still, baseball is baseball. Today's reader may not recognize all the names that appear in "The Long Season," but the observations they inspire about the game and how it's played are timeless. Any one of dozens could be quoted, but here is Brosnan on the formidable Don Drysdale of the Los Angeles Dodgers:
"When Drysdale is fast -- on some days a pitcher throws harder than on others -- his fast ball pops the leather of the catcher's mitt. Like a sledge hammer slamming a fence stump. The very sound can numb a batter's hands, even before he gets out of the on-deck circle. 'Got to get out in front -- got to be out in front on the pitch,' he says to himself. Of course, Drysdale also throws a fast curve ball. If the batter sets himself to get way out in front on the fast ball, and the pitch turns out to be a curve ball, he may suffer the embarrassment of looking like he's chasing bumblebees with a butterfly net."
That's a dandy paragraph, and there are lots more like it in "The Long Season." It can be read for insights into the game, since Brosnan was an astute observer who watched carefully, asked smart questions, and was wise enough to admire skills in others that he didn't possess himself. He obviously liked ballplayers a lot, and respected their intelligence, which may seem unlettered to the chattering classes but runs deep when it comes to this most complex and nuanced of games. Over the years some players were even smart enough to grasp that "The Long Season" did them, and baseball, a favor, by capturing its human side and in so doing making them more, rather than less, interesting and admirable.
"The Long Season" is available in an Ivan R. Dee paperback ($16.95).
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.