The Triumph of the Ordinary
Jim Bouton’s Ball Four (1970) defines the sports diary. The New York Public Library selected it as one of its “Books of the Century.” Keith Olbermann believes that its publication ranks among the most important things to happen in baseball since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. “For the first time, the very first time, there was a book about what it was really like to be a pro athlete,” Olbermann wrote in The Big Show: A Tribute to ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”
Not everyone enjoyed the book’s candor. Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn met with Bouton to suggest that what he wrote was fiction. Legendary gambler/hit king Pete Rose was a little less civil—“Fuck you, Shakespeare”—in acknowledging the pitcher after his literary success.
With all the admirers, controversy, and honors, it’s easy to forget that Ball Four was not the first sports diary. Relief pitcher Jim Brosnan chronicled his 1959 performance with the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds in The Long Season. With that book’s legacy fading fast, there’s a temptation to deem it irrelevant. After all, popular culture’s primary function is to update and renovate past models to the point where the predecessors become hazy.
The Long Season doesn’t chronicle a legendary season—the Cardinals and Reds were miles away from reaching the World Series in 1959. There’s no controversial content that caused Brosnan to become an outcast like Bouton. “I didn’t write anything that got people upset,” said Brosnan, who retired from baseball in 1963. “I made no enemies with my book, [I] just spent the rest of my career taking a lot of ribbing from players wondering if they were going to be in my next book.” Brosnan (nicknamed “Professor”) was not a star player, and though he liked nightclubs and bars, he didn’t enjoy a Mickey Mantle-like reputation for nocturnal carousing.
Why The Long Season still matters after fifty-one years is that Brosnan memorably shows baseball’s unglamorous day-to-day drudgery. And who’s a better guide than a player who supplemented his income not by endorsements or personal appearances but by working in advertising during the off-season? If Joe Torre’s The Yankee Years demonstrated the non-stop aggravation of leading a sports team, The Long Season reveals that there’s never been glamour in being a worker bee—even during baseball’s golden days.
The book starts with Brosnan being upset about his contract, which involves a whole song-and-dance with ownership before he’s satisfied. Then he has to make the trek down to spring training in Florida with his wife and two kids. “We were supposed to hit the road at six a.m.,” Brosnan reports, “and we set a new family record by leaving only one hour and forty minutes late.” He doesn’t get along with his new boss, player/manager Solly Hemus. Brosnan’s mechanics need improvement, a disheartening experience for a thirty-year-old professional. There’s a newspaper columnist he can’t stand, an announcer (the beloved Harry Caray, amazingly) who tears him apart at every opportunity. Some days the pitches hum; other days, everything comes undone. The search for consistency nags Brosnan, who actually pitched well after getting help from Reds’ pitching coach Clyde King. “I felt helpless,” Brosnan writes after a brutal outing in Philadelphia. “My directions weren’t getting through to my brain.” Friends get released. Brosnan gets traded to Cincinnati, much to his loving wife’s chagrin. “At least you’ve decided to go,” Brosnan thinks. “Will you want to go when they finally send me back to the minors, or in ‘61 or ‘65?”
Brosnan later became a successful freelance writer, even writing biographies of not-quite baseball greats Ron Santo and Ted Simmons. There’s a reason for that. In The Long Season, Brosnan displays a gentle wit and breezy flow that most professional writers never grasp. He doesn’t dabble in clichés or revel in self-importance; Brosnan just writes about how he feels. We actually see the working athlete’s soul, which today is increasingly buried under PR savvy and disinterest. Maybe it’s not as groundbreaking or incendiary as Ball Four, but The Long Season might be the more impressive effort: There’s emotional heft and drama in sports even when none is readily apparent.
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in Bucks County, PA with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.