A Professor and a Protagonist

Watching from the bullpen gives pitchers the right perspective for reflection (via BuzzFarmers).

Watching from the bullpen gives pitchers the right perspective for reflection (via BuzzFarmers).

The pitcher’s mound is a lonely place. Nowhere else in sports is so isolated, so distant, or so scrutinized: elevated like a dais, surrounded by forty thousand people out of reach, but not out of earshot.

It’s no wonder then that the mound is the setting for much of the game’s best writing. The hitter, at the plate, does not think so much as he reacts. Certainly, he can store up wisdom in advance, build a warrior’s code of unconscious contingencies. But his moment of truth isn’t even a full moment: his grace under pressure is a fraction of a second at most, a blink and a flick of the wrists. The pitcher must carry the weight of the future, determine the perfect pitch and then somehow live up to it. His struggle is to not overthink, or drown in possibilities and doubts.

The natural pairing for the mound is the bullpen: detached, hidden. If pitching is a battle, the bullpen is the soldier’s furlough, a chance to restore and reflect. Here words and feelings come easy. The troubled reliever reflects on his life experiences, searches for answers to unbidden questions. Coarse words and childish games bandage yesterday’s wounds. It’s no wonder that the greatest baseball journals have all sprung from this fertile ground.

Jim Brosnan died recently at the age of 85 in his home in Morton Grove, Ill. For 10 seasons he plied his trade as an average-to-good relief pitcher with the Cubs, Cardinals, Reds and White Sox, earning a salary, a pension, and little else from the game. He was never an All-Star, never had his number retired. His name would have been lost in the yellowed pages of almanacs completely if not for one extraneous detail: he could write.

Occasionally, a subject of art or science is dominated by a single figure, one who changes the landscape of their field. The counterintuitive effect of genius is that after their sudden, swift progress, their descendants actually stagnate in their shadows. Christy Mathewson accomplished this for the writing of baseball. Mathewson’s admirable drive to clean up the game and its reputation, so soiled by dirty play and gambling, founded baseball as America’s pastime. But this also turned the game’s literature into a hodgepodge of hero worship and moral development, an endless stream of Horatio Alger novels.

It was in this context, in 1959, that Jim Brosnan wrote baseball’s first true journal, The Long Season. Sadly, Brosnan is better remembered for having written a book than the books he wrote. He’s baseball’s Sherwood Anderson, recognized historically as the forefather of a genre, or perhaps the unintentional progenitor of the greasy gossip book. But though The Long Season and its 1961 follow-up, Pennant Race, were marketed as an inside look at baseball, this is rough simplification. Like Winesburg, Ohio, Brosnan’s books deserve to be evaluated on their own merits, and considered as more than just “baseball books.”

The sports biography genre, from a literary standpoint, tends to find itself suspended between fiction and fact. Like any biography, it’s bound to the actual events that transpired, assuming the typical sheen of embellishment. But this task is ably fulfilled by the box scores, and so it becomes necessary to imbue its events with the emotional force of narrative. After all, it is the human drama of sports that elevates it over other equally temporal human pursuits, such as gardening, from the perspective of literature. The individual actions of athletes are arbitrary; the author (and, in cooperation, the readers) must supply the meaning. The narrative elements, the rising action and climax, are all fabricated.

Prospective book publishers face a difficult obstacle to the plot diagram, however: by the time the book is written, its readers already know how it’s going to end.

In this sense the baseball book is most similar to the historical novel: it’s not the what that drives the narrative, but the how. Baseball becomes the familiar setting, like any of Michener’s selected states, and the drama is driven by the character. Only the most grizzled Cincinnatian still attaches feeling to the daily wins and losses of a Reds team from 53 years ago. The meaning behind the games themselves have faded away, like pitched battles over the gold standard and forgotten nations. Their statistics clutter almanacs like ruins.

Michael Shapiro, in his piece “Of Heroes and Humans,” hits the nail on the head with a single anecdote:

In 1961, the Reds had just clinched their first National League pennant in twenty-one years. Brosnan and Hutchinson were surrounded in the happy clubhouse by a gaggle of newsmen eager for their thoughts, when someone asked Brosnan, “What was the book about?”

The question suggested that a year after its publication, there might be a new spin on the widely accepted view that the book was about playing baseball for a living. But Brosnan did not get the chance to answer because Hutchinson, not known as a literary sort, did it for him.

“The book,” he replied, “is about him.”

With that Hutchinson rose and walked away, looking to Brosnan like a man well pleased with himself.

But was he right?

“Hutch,” Brosnan told me in a recent conversation, “was never wrong.”

Baseball books aren’t about baseball, it turns out. They’re about baseball players.

It’s impossible to talk about The Long Season without discussing its famed descendant, Ball Four. While a few people criticized Brosnan for lifting the curtain separating young boys from their idols, it was nothing compared to the furor raised by Bouton a decade later. Bouton’s tales of beaver-shooting ballplayers and hung-over heroes riled authorities and sold copies. Though the salaciousness of Bouton’s writing was overrated at the time and positively tame now, Brosnan was not a fan; he felt that Bouton’s editor, Leonard Schecter, had polished up some of the juicy bits.

Bouton’s conflicts are always external: he clashes against incompetent bosses, poor run support, and always against his right arm, disembodied and personified. It’s almost as if two arms are characters in Ball Four: the original one that led him to glory, and his new gnarled and recalcitrant colleague, with whom he must constantly negotiate. Out of the synecdoche of his arm, the knuckleball itself becomes almost the love interest of the book, the subject of his conquest. It is the sword that will prove his righteousness, always just out of his grasp.

Brosnan lacks Bouton’s literary foils. Solly Hemus, his manager with St. Louis, is a blustering martinet, but from the bullpen he’s able to evade most of the man’s wrath. Like Bouton, he’s an intellectual who reads Herman Hesse and smokes a pipe, but he gets along with his teammates. He never talks much about his pitches, except to note when one hangs; he certainly never externalizes them. His stuff never changes: it is good enough when it works, but what makes it work on a given day is beyond human understanding. Even the batters Brosnan faces seem less like individual warriors in battle than a collection of balls hit past him, scorched or dribbled.

Despite being the protagonist, he downplays his own character, and does almost too well. Ball Four is unmistakably about Jim Bouton, with color thrown in to sell copy; so is every baseball expose since. Brosnan’s books are no different, but he’s a chameleon. This is no Virgil, and he is no humble tour guide, no matter how often he points the other way to distract the reader. He’s the most unreliable narrator of all: the one who pretends he’s not narrating.

The book was sold on its merits as an insider’s perspective of the game. The results of those contents are, for the most part, faithfully reported, though an occasional contest with no authorial presence is skipped here or there. But it’s difficult for the author to hold his tongue about the analysis of how to pitch, as described in an early scene, where Opening Day starter Larry Jackson and the coaching staff break down an approach to the enemy.

You skipped Spencer, Larry. You want Rodgers played to pull, is that right?”

“Oh, yeah, Spencer.” Jackson looked up at the ceiling, as if trying to remember some peculiar fact about Daryl Spencer. “He tries to go to right in this park. He can hit that screen, too, if he gets his pitch. I’m gonna try and jam him. Play him straight away. He likes to hit-and-run, Blaze.”

Jackson looked up from the score card and asked, “Is Schmidt catching, or Landrith?” Then he continued without waiting for an answer.”They’re both pull hitters, anyway. Hobie’s a better low-ball hitter, and Schmidt’s a high-fast-ball hitter. Curve ‘em both.”

But as Brosnan finishes reporting this scene, which covers more than two pages, he can’ help but reflect his own ideas on the subject.

As Jackson calmly, confidently disposed of the Giant hitters, I tapped the burned-out tobacco from my pipe. Half-listening, I recollected the admiring opinion I once felt when I attended major league meetings. They make it sound so damn easy, I thought at the time, ignorant of the soon-to-be-experienced fact that these positive opinions were based on ideal percentages. Who would hit What Where! That depends, son, on how you pitch him.

He expands, after repeating the exercise with the other relievers in Solly Hemus’s office five minutes later:

You can say how you’re going to do it all right. But can you throw each pitch where you should? There’s the bitch! Even a veteran, successful pitcher like Carl Erskine says, simply and humbly, perhaps but truthfully, no doubt, that Sal Maglie and Preacher Roe were the only two pitchers he ever saw who could do with every pitch just what they said they could.

This lack of control, not only of pitches but events, is no uncommon concept to the modern pitcher and fan, and is particularly suited to the wild Brosnan. But it’s remarkable how easily this frustration translates to writing, as anyone facing the tyranny of the empty Word document can attest. The idea can be right there–but how to make the words go how you want them? At what point do you give up, as Brosnan seemingly has with his arsenal, trying to control them, and let them be?

It’s the same lack of control that as fans we all relinquish in our fascination with the life stories and work of the baseball player. In literature an abrupt ending, or one that does not harmonize with its story’s theme, jars and displeases us. In Cold Blood remains a classic after sixty years not because of its story, which would make a second-rate episode of Law & Order, but because Capote so skillfully balances between the unfair, arbitrary elements of human nature and the meaning demanded by the reader who devotes time and effort to the literature. When a piece of art seeks only reality, with no higher purpose, it becomes useless; after all, there is more than enough reality out there for free already.

Baseball, and sports in general, refuse to play by these rules: they hammer reality down on the public with repetitive, boring force. Investing one’s self in the pedantry of a bad team in August is a draining experience, a watered-down and futile version of soup kitchen work. But this refusal of catharsis is absolutely necessary to the fabric of sport, in order to provide the elation of winning without the oily hand of authorial control. We are beat down, and we are lifted, but the art of life is not how we do, but how we deal with how we do. This is where The Long Season connects to the reader, and makes loss worthwhile.

Surprisingly it’s the low points of Brosnan’s season that make it such a fine book. Brosnan and his wife Anne Stewart are dining in Stan Musial’s restaurant, seated next to the kitchen. His manager has given up on him and his ERA is nearly five. The pair anguish over a looming trade; St. Louis is a barely tenable commute for the Chicago-based Brosnan family, but San Francisco would be torture. Musial stops by to buy him a drink, and they head back to the hotel to find the news waiting for them. In their room, his wife bemoans the trade, tears in her eyes.

What?” I said, vaguely having heard her ask a question.

“I said,” she said, “who did they trade you for?”

Jeffcoat,” I said. “Straight swap, I guess.”

“Jeffcoat!” she cried. “couldn’t they get more for you than that? Oh, honey, they just wanted to be rid of you.”

The scene encapsulates what makes baseball so great: it’s tragedy, and yet it’s not. Anne’s tears are real, and not only for her commute. (Though these things are real as well. “At least you’ve decided to go,” Brosnan adds as a parenthetical aside. “Will you want to go when they finally send me back to the minors next year, or in ’61, or in ’65?”) It’s the artificial value the Cardinals received for the artificial value of Brosnan’s ability to throw a ball hard. We can feel for the couple while knowing that it’s just a game, that they’ll probably be okay. Baseball doesn’t need catharsis; baseball is catharsis.

The scene above is also the reason that Pennant Race fails to approach the heights of its predecessor: it accidentally falls into the familiar plot arc, and loses its realism. Brosnan is, by 1961, a more confident writer and a more confident athlete. The truism that winning breeds chemistry is evident, and the dialogue crackles with the banter of generally untroubled comrades. Brosnan himself, having developed as a character, this time plays Ishmael to the Ahab of Fred Hutchinson. Hutch looms over the book like a worried, thoughtful father, as though he would not be out of place in a Steinbeck novel.

By Syd Field’s standards, the 1961 Reds of Pennant Race are a perfect confluence: a team of talented but disparate youths, fighting long odds and clawing from behind, only to triumph at the last. Brosnan’s slider is a little sharper than usual, and he earns fourteen saves as part of a closer committee. Frank Robinson wins the MVP award. It’s textbook screenwriting. But it’s all too predictable, and Brosnan is forced to cut his book short, excising the disastrous 4-1 World Series loss to the Goliaths of New York, in order to maintain the formula. The conflict on the field proves to be a poor substitute for the conflict of the men on it.

Brosnan retired at 34, despite the competency left in his arm, because he was unwilling to drop the pen from it. After being traded to the White Sox in a salary dump, he was informed by new GM Ed Short that he would not be allowed to write or publish during the baseball season. The ban was maintained the next spring, and a pay cut added to it, and so Brosnan asked for his release. Even by then he was more of a writer than a baseball player, and the transition was easy for him. He settled into his home in Morton Grove, which he had bought in his first full season with the Cubs, and lived there with his wife and family for the rest of their lives.

Jim Brosnan introduced himself to America as an everyman, a humble ballplayer. But as Jim Bouton notes in Ball Four, nearly every professional baseball player, star or backup, is the amateur legend of his hometown. The professional arena is filled by only the greatest of the greats, and their immense skill and strength can only be measured to each other. But it isn’t our strengths that define us; it’s our weaknesses, and the grace we demonstrate in surmounting them.

There’s a little scene in the middle of The Long Season that demonstrates this. The author and Stan Musial arrive early for a ballgame and have a little chat. Despite their congeniality and familiarity, the two men are cautious and even envious of each other. Brosnan, down on his luck and meager of salary, mistrusts the wealthy and beloved hero. Musial, for his part, is made self-conscious by Brosnan’s superior education and wit. The two fence for a while, somewhat tense, until they settle into a more comfortable rivalry, older and greater than themselves: pitcher versus hitter. They offer each other flippant advice, complain about how easy the rules make it for the other fellow. They are, for a moment of weakness, fellow humans.

This is what baseball does for all of us when it is at its best. This is what The Long Season still accomplishes, more than half a century later.

References & Resources

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Comments

  1. Paul Hallaman said...

    I really enjoyed this piece on Jim Brosnan and his contribution to the literature of baseball. Thanks.

  2. Jerry Heverly said...

    It’s worth mentioning that Bouton had a great sequel to his book, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally, that I actually like better than Ball Four (though the second book would have had no meaning without the first).

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