Thursday, July 3, 2014
Jim Brosnan, RIP: Inside Looking Out
"A cocky book, caustic, and candid and, in a way, courageous," began Red Smith's review of The Long Season, relief pitcher Jim Brosnan's record of his 1959 season, spent between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds, "for Brosnan calls them as he sees them, doesn't hesitate to name names, and employs ridicule like a stiletto. He infuriated a lot of men in baseball, but he wrote an honest book that furnished an insight into the ballplayer's life which no outsider could possibly get."
Brosnan, who died June 28 at 84, jolted baseball in more ways than one. Jonathan Yardley, the nonpareil literary critic of The Washington Post, isolated the point 10 years ago, when reviewing The Long Season retroactively in 2004, upon its fresh republication (in hand with Pennant Race) in quality paperback: "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 omertà."
The Long Season might not have happened had Brosnan not bumped into a Sports Illustrated editor, Bob Boyle, who'd heard the bespectacled relief pitcher — whose clear-rimmed eyeglasses and locker full of books earned him the nickname The Professor (from Frank Robinson, his Cincinnati teammate) — had ambitions about writing a book about major league baseball. Boyle invited Brosnan to write an article "if something significant happens." Perhaps characteristically, Brosnan suggested a piece about his trade from the Chicago Cubs to the Cardinals for veteran shortstop Alvin Dark. (One reporter called the trade "a mutt for a pedigreed pooch — a real steal for the Cubs.") "Loved it," Boyle said when the article was published. "Why don't you write a book about a whole season?"
Among other revelations in The Long Season was the one in which the Cardinals didn't exactly think they were trading a pedigreed pooch for a mutt. Brosnan wrote fondly of Fred Hutchinson, who managed him with the Cardinals for a spell and would manage him again with the Reds: "A ballplayer always owes a good manager a debt. I learned things from Hutch and I thanked him. He gave me a chance to make more money, for one thing. It was on his recommendation that [the Cardinals] traded for me. And he gave me confidence in myself when the most I might have expected was a good chewing out."
Brosnan praised and needled in the same arch but honest tone, even if he did sanitize much of the vocabulary of the locker room or the dugout, as Bouton wouldn't need to do a decade later. He showed the better and lesser sides of several players, but even his needles seemed not to come from malice aforethought. Brosnan seemed to have no sense of wanting any kind of revenge for any kind of slight, in an era when players were too often slighted under a system that kept them, in essence, indentured servants.
When The Long Season and Pennant Race were republished, Brosnan remembered only too readily what made them controversial and him a figure of suspicion: "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."
"Over the years," Yardley would remember, "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." Which is what Bouton would argue on behalf of Ball Four (and its exquisite follow-up, I'm Glad You Didn't Take It Personally), whose uproar made any engendered by Brosnan's volumes seem like a dainty skirmish at the country club in comparison.
Just a few years after Brosnan came Bill Veeck, a man to whom modesty wasn't necessarily a virtue, with an owner's version of The Long Season, his memoir Veeck — as in Wreck, which pulled as many covers away from baseball's board and back rooms as Brosnan pulled from the clubhouse and the dugout. (Not to mention the hotel and the airplane.) If Brosnan was a sneak, a snob, and a scab, you shudder to think of how Veeck was perceived, and wonder how far you'll have to sanitize the language in which it's expressed.
Perhaps the only reason Brosnan would prove not to have earned half the invective Bouton earned in due course was that Brosnan had been a mere Cardinal and Red for his books, at a time when neither club was considered a real contender. (The 1961 Reds would have skeptics all season long, until the pennant actually was in their pockets.) Brosnan was generally well-liked in his clubhouses, where his teammates appreciated an obvious intellectual who didn't parade himself as one. (Bouton wasn't always a popular figure in his clubhouses.) He was just as comfortable hanging out with old-school baseball men as he was diving into Dostoyevski.
But pulling the covers on the New York Yankees while pitching for the Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros, as Bouton did, made Brosnan's inside-looking-out records resemble the very type of sanitized book against which Brosnan once flew. Almost.
Critics tend to rate The Long Season higher than Pennant Race because it chronicled a season in which neither of Brosnan's teams of 1959 were going very far in the actual pennant races. "[A]n ordinary season — life as it's really lived — rather than an extraordinary one," Yardley recalled. On the other hand, you could approach Pennant Race as an extraordinary season lived by somewhat ordinary men (those Reds were smothered in five games by the Yankees in the World Series), if you didn't count Robinson, a Hall of Famer in the making. (Though Robinson suffered a late-season slump, during which Wally Post took up some slack.)
"Do we play well before crowds of reporters, Joey?" I asked Jay.
"They still can't believe we could win it," he said. "Experts, ha!"
Yardley lamented never getting to see Brosnan work because he'd been an American League fan, but Brosnan did get to the American League in 1963. After opening dismally for the Reds in six appearances, the Reds traded him to the White Sox for a no-name reliever named Dom Zanni. Brosnan got into 45 games with the White Sox and posted his best seasonal ERA (2.84) with fourteen saves and a 1.27 WHIP. And the next winter he was gone.
Brosnan's writing didn't stop with the two books; magazines from The Atlantic and Sport to Boys' Life (the journal of the Boy Scouts, for the boys in the Scouts) and Esquire called for his essays, often publishing them during the season. The White Sox asked him to cease and desist when they acquired him and he went along, reluctantly, during 1963. Come contract talks for 1964, White Sox general manager Ed Short handed Brosnan a contract calling for a salary cut and a formal ban on writing without prior club approval.
Brosnan declined to sign a contract like that, and his career was over. No other team took a flyer on him when the White Sox released him, not even with both The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated taking his side. Not that Brosnan was all that disheartened, deeply though he loved the game. He continued both his writing career and his work in an advertising agency (which he'd done in the off-seasons for several years), he raised his family, he did some sportscasting, and he lived happily in Morton Grove, Illinois in the same home he bought with his wife 58 years ago.
"Pitcher Marries Pitcher," Brosnan crowed about his nuptials. He met and married Anne Pitcher while in the Army in Virginia, where she was native. Until her death last year, theirs was a love that endured even longer than baseball's arguable first man of letters on the mound had his love affair with the game.