Wednesday, 1 April 2015

TWO PITCHERS TURNED AUTHORS

Jim Brosnan, 1962. Topps trading card
(Courtesy of The Topps Company, Inc.)
When Jim Brosnan’s unique book, The Long Season, hit the scene in 1960, it changed sportswriting forever. “Ballplayers are supposed to have their opinions written for them by sportswriters,” Brosnan wrote in the book. Here was Brosnan--a baseball player--who was not only opinionated, but he could also speak and write for himself. In other words: a scholar. My word! No pun intended.

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1929, James Patrick Brosnan, a six-foot-four, 210-pound right hander,  first came to the majors in 1954 with the Chicago Cubs, but didn’t stick until he came back in 1956. Used as a middle reliever and spot starter, he was traded mid-season 1958 to the St Louis Cardinals.  Nicknamed “The Professor,” he indeed looked like one. He wore glasses. He spoke fluently. And in the off-season he worked for an advertising agency in Chicago.

Early 1959, Brosnan began writing a personal journal about his entire coming season in the big leagues from spring training to late September. The Long Season was an inside view of the game from a ballplayer who knew how to express himself in a funny, honest, well-written and interesting way. Announcer  Joe Garagiola called Brosnan a “kookie beatnik” for his comments; while famed sportswriter Jimmy Cannon said Brosnan’s literary creation  was “the greatest baseball book ever written.”

Brosnan admitted that players drank, including himself, who preferred martinis with olives, oftentimes with his wife once he was home from the road. He mentioned players taking certain available drugs to help in their performance: Decadron, for example.  He used such then-taboo words as “bastards” and phrases  “what the hell!” and “a horse’s ass.” He called announcer Harry Caray “an old blabbermouth.” Referring to Seals Stadium, where the San Francisco Giants first played when the team moved west (while Candlestick was being constructed), Brosnan said: “San Francisco’s ball park is another pitcher’s hell.”

While Sal “The Barber” Maglie was attempting to hang on as a pitcher with the Cardinals at age 42 (he was released before the regular season started), Brosnan said of him, affectionately: “Sal is not a pleasant-looking man--he looks like an ad for the Mafia.” Also, throughout the first half of the book, it was plain to see that Brosnan never saw eye to eye with manager Solly Hemus, who insisted that Brosnan be the team’s long reliever.

After a mediocre start to the 1959 season, Brosnan was traded in early June to the Cincinnati Reds for another pitcher, Hal Jeffcoat. The trade was fine with Brosnan because Fred Hutchinson was the new manager for the Reds and Brosnan’s ex-manager in St Louis before being fired with 10 games left to go in 1958. The two had got along well in St Louis and would continue to do so in Cincinnati.

Brosnan and his new manager got along so well, in fact, that by 1960, Hutchinson inserted Brosnan into the right-handed closer role where he blossomed with a 7-2 mark, 57 relief appearances (two starts), 12 saves, and a 2.36 ERA. Bill Henry, from the left side, responded with 17 saves and a 3.19 ERA. Although the Reds finished sixth in the 1960 standings, they led the National League with 35 total saves. Better things were expected of the Reds for 1961. Just in time for another Brosnan book, after one year off from his diary note-taking. Titled Pennant Race, it was more than a sequel to The Long Season. Just as good, if not better.

In the introduction to Pennant Race, Brosnan said, “Never taken seriously as pennant contenders, the Reds found ways and means to win often enough in the season of ’61. How and why they won the pennant is the subject of my book.” The Reds won the 1961 National League pennant, their first in 21 years, with a 93-61 record, four games up on the second-place Los Angeles Dodgers. Brosnan enjoyed himself by contributing mightily: 10 wins, 16 saves and 3.04 ERA in 53 games.

By 1961, the Giants were now playing in the new Candlestick Park. “That wind-blown tunnel down by the Bay,” as one sportswriter once spoke of it. Often windy and cool, even in the dead of summer, Brosnan hated Candlestick as much as Seals Stadium, calling it “The grossest error in the history of major league baseball.” Sidenote: During the 1961 All-Star Game at Candlestick Park, Giants pitcher Stu Miller was actually blown off the mound by a sudden wind gust.

My favorite phrase in Pennant Race was Brosnan’s reference to being a pro: “Beer makes some players happy. Winning ball games makes some players happy. Cashing checks makes me delirious with joy.” I like to use the last sentence on occasion even today. For years, my family had wondered why I would often say that until I finally told them.

While Brosnan’s two extensive literary ventures opened the public to the baseball locker room, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four came along and ripped the doors right off the hinges. Written in a similar diary style to Brosnan’s two masterpieces, Bouton described his day-to-day 1969 season in which he split between three teams--Vancouver Mounties of the Pacific Coast League, Seattle Pilots of the American League and Houston Astros of the National League--as a knuckleballer a few short years after throwing his right arm out with the New York Yankees chucking too many fastballs and overhand curves.

Besides both authors being traded mid-season during the writing of their first books, they shared many other similarities. They had the same first name and the same initials. They were nicknamed “Meat” by their wives. I wonder why? Sal Maglie is mentioned in detail in both books. Bouton had him as a pitching coach for the Pilots and said that he looked like the “friendly neighborhood undertaker.” Is that one step up or down from Brosnan’s Mafia identification? Like Brosnan, with his “Professor” nickname away from home, Bouton was known as “Bulldog” to his teammates. Last but not least, both players were relief pitchers at the time of their writing prowess.
 Jim Bouton, 1963, Baseball Digest photo
(US Public Domain)

In Ball Four, Bouton was funny, informative, and used many colorful metaphors. He  took a lot more liberties than Brosnan by admitting that players often drank too much, swore a lot, engaged in sneaky “beaver shooting,” took greenies (amphetamines), sampled illicit sex  on the road, and implied that a good number of individuals  in management were liars. He also reminisced about his years with the New York Yankees in great detail.

When Commissioner Bowie Kuhn got drift of a few Ball Four excerpts displayed in Look magazine in early June 1970, a few weeks before the book’s release, he called a meeting with Bouton where he demanded that Bouton declare it was all fiction. Bouton refused. When this piece of information hit the news, people couldn’t wait to open up their wallets, buy the book and read for themselves the juicy secrets held inside. In reality, Kuhn’s reaction to Ball Four helped the overall sales.

Ball Four
became one of the best-selling baseball books--if not sports books--of all time, although Bouton was shunned for years by many baseball players, coaches, managers, and executives for spilling the beans and naming names. His former Yankee teammates were especially ticked with him, including players Roger Maris, Elston Howard, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra for what he said about the Mick such as his partying too much instead of taking better care of himself and how he was snotty to reporters, just about making them crawl and beg for a minute of his time, as Bouton so vividly wrote in the book. Bouton also revealed that Howard and Berra used to drag their “junk” across the team’s locker room cold cuts. He  called Roger Maris a “loafer” for how he ran down to first on ground outs and he let us know Whitey Ford threw mud balls and scuff balls to fool the batters.

On a lighter note, Bouton picked on Pilots manager Joe Schultz, Astros manager Harry “The Hat” Walker, Yankees manager Ralph Houk and liked to make fun of “company men” in general.  One such employee was Pilots bullpen coach Eddie O’Brien whose job Bouton felt a monkey could do. Also, Joe Pepitone apparently wore two different hairpieces: a smaller, tighter one for the game to fit under his helmet and his hat, then a larger one off the field. Outside of baseball, readers loved Ball Four for its honest depiction of life in the majors. New Yorker writer Roger Angell called it “the funniest book of the year.”

Today, all three tell-all journals, The Long Season, Pennant Race, and Ball Four, are considered classics of baseball literature. They have been in my baseball library for a number of years, going back to when I had purchased a first edition of The Long Season at a second-hand bookstore in Regina, Saskatchewan in the early 1970’s for a whole $2.50.  It’s still one of my prized possessions.


Evaluating these three books for this article was like doing a book report on them, but a lot more fun than the boring book reports I had been forced to do in high school.

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