Of Heroes and Humans

Jim Brosnan wrote about himself, and sports writing evolved

Red Smith, who wrote as well as anyone about athletes and the games they play, called the sports section the “toy department,” and it is hard to know whether he meant this as a statement of defiance or of self-abnegation. Sports writing has long been regarded as the journalistic equivalent of the beautiful person who just doesn’t add much to dinner-party chitchat. (“But he/she really is smart.”) There is some justification for this. Sports are games, even as those who write about them have traditionally worked hard to cast what takes place on the field of play as a mortal struggle, rife with agony, tragedy, valor, and in recent years, the brave doings of “warriors.” Warriors, however, are people who fight in wars, experiences that no amount of hard sliding or diving after loose balls can approximate.

For a long time, writing about sports meant chronicling the feats of heroes, with little to no thought of trying to make sense of the men—and on very rare occasions, women—behind them. The writers traveled with athletes, played cards, drank, chatted in hotel lobbies, and turned the other way when a woman other than a player’s wife picked up his room key. What mattered took place on the field, or in the arena. And when those events were thrilling, they often brought out the best in the sports writer’s deep bag of prose.

Like so much in twentieth-century American life, things rumbled along this way until World War II. It would be an exaggeration to say that all hell broke loose after 1945. But it was as if the experiences of war, or writing about war, had a bracing effect that made it difficult for the men who had seen a thing or two to return to the old ways. So it was that beginning in the late 1940s, writing about sports slowly began to assume a new, and in some circles, dark edge. Questions were asked that had not been asked before, especially in the clubhouse, by such tough-guy practitioners as Dick Young of the New York Daily News. Young hunted for gossip and innuendo and, belly to belly, asked how a man could hang a curve on an 0-2 count, and for this the athletes hated him. Meanwhile, others were asking questions of a far more nuanced sort, which typically revolved around the word “why?” (Such questions lead, inevitably, to the bigger question of “Who are you?”) Still, such pioneering magazine writers as the wonderful W. C. Heinz labored in relative loneliness. Celebration remained the watchword of the press box, which meant that the most probing questions remained unasked.

It was in this slowly evolving terrain that there appeared in the spring of 1960 a book unlike any the sports world had ever seen. It was called The Long Season. Its author was Jim Brosnan. Brosnan was thirty years old and in the sixth season of his major-league pitching career. He wore glasses, chewed tobacco, listened to George Shearing, read D. H. Lawrence, relished foreign-language films like Nights of Cabiria, did not require a special occasion to enjoy a martini or three, loved his wife, and had earned a reputation as a pitcher with a good fastball who thought too much on the mound. The world knew this because Brosnan had written about it—by himself, without the assistance of a ghost-writer or an as-told-to buddy.

Nobody—let alone a ballplayer—had ever taken readers inside the clubhouse, and on the road, and into the bullpen, and given them the chance to watch and listen. The Long Season opens in the spring and ends on the season’s final day. In between, Brosnan carps about his manager, throws too many home-run balls, gets traded, wonders why he is traded even though he’s happy to be playing for a new club, and spends a lot of time chatting with his fellow pitchers about money, as well as the eternal mystery of what it takes to get a batter out. If his pitching didn’t make Brosnan famous, his writing certainly did. The Long Season irked some in his exclusive fraternity—fellow ballplayers called him a “gray flannel suiter” and a beatnik.” But critics were kind, and the readers made it a best-seller.

The novelty of The Long Season, however, obscured something deeper. This did not escape the attention of Brosnan’s manager in Cincinnati, Fred Hutchinson, who was a man of few words, all of them trenchant. 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.”

If this was so, then Hutchinson had seen what the others had not, that in writing a book about himself, Brosnan had propelled the evolution of sports writing a great step forward by introducing the heretofore largely unimagined idea that a real-life athlete might be a character worthy of literature. Brosnan smiles at the thought of this, slyly, as if to say that well, yes, that was the point all along.

He is now seventy-nine years old and lives in the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove, in the same split-level home to which, in the course of The Long Season, he returned to play with his children and seek the solace of his wise and peppery wife, Anne Stewart, who called him (and still calls him) “Meat.” He had grown up in Cincinnati a suspicious reader, which is to say that he read a lot but with a skeptical eye, especially when it came to books about baseball, which often bore no relation to what he was experiencing on the field.

“They didn’t feel right,” he says. “I had the ear and the mind that was open to something new.”

That something new was writing. A priest in parochial school had encouraged him to pursue the craft, telling him that he had a spark of talent, but would need to hone it through practice. So Brosnan practiced. He wrote letters and kept a diary. And when he at last made it to the big leagues with the Cubs in 1954, he found off-season work at a Chicago ad agency, for which he wrote copious memos. He traveled with a typewriter. He did not think well of many of the sports writers, whose knowledge of the game he found lacking. But he did strike up a friendship with Robert Boyle of Sports Illustrated, who, over lunch one day in the spring of 1958, suggested that if something interesting happened, Brosnan should try his hand at writing it up. A week later the Cubs traded him to the Cardinals. Suddenly Brosnan had, in addition to a very unhappy wife, material.

His first piece appeared in SI that July, and was a precursor of bigger things to come, filled with wry observations and generous dollops of self-deprecation. Brosnan also had a caution for readers who might envy his life: the days are long and filled with peril, and your wife will wish you delivered mail for a living.

Boyle not only invited him to write more for the magazine, but introduced him to an editor at Harper & Brothers, who suggested that if Brosnan were interested in writing a book about his life in the big leagues, he should send along forty pages. No promises, but the editor would have a look. That he did, and then asked for another forty pages, and another. All through the spring and summer of 1959, Brosnan pitched and wrote and sent his pages, not at all concerned that he was operating without a contract or an advance. “Jesus, I was a pretty lucky guy,” he says. “These guys who are in the business and are good at it [thought] I could do the same thing.”

He wrote with an ease that stood in sharp contrast to his disposition on the mound. There he sweated, winced, and berated himself: “That wasn’t a very good pitch, buddy boy … . Next time we’ll curve him, right?” The mound, not the page, was where he needed to prove himself, which afforded him an enviable freedom from literary angst, though not from struggle.

Other ballplayers had by then chronicled their troubles. But these were stories of cruel circumstances: Roy Campanella’s paralysis in It’s Good to Be Alive and Jimmy Piersall’s psychotic breakdown in Fear Strikes Out. Brosnan’s trouble was Brosnan, and not merely with his difficulty in spotting his fastball. The Long Season may be an easy and engaging read, with its behind-the-scenes glimpses of flipping rocks onto the field to pass the early innings in the bullpen. Yet there is also an unmistakable edge to the book, the mark of an author using his material to sort himself out.

In retrospect, Brosnan is quick to concede the point. As it happened, he grew up buffeted between two warring parents, each of whom had different dreams for him: his mother wanted him to be a doctor, his father wanted him to play ball. He grew to be an angry fellow and found no comfort in months of psychoanalysis—an unthinkable recourse for a ballplayer—while he was still with the Cubs. But writing was a way to try to make sense of things.

He did this deftly. The Long Season opens with the sun shining, but not for Brosnan, who is unsure of his place on his team, the Cardinals, or with his new manager, Solly Hemus. The author cannot abide him, and makes liberal use of Hemus as the catch basin for his fears, his resentments, his inability to throw the pitches that others can. He views springtime as a season of harsh trials for every man trying to make the club, which means, inevitably, a season of broken dreams and farewells.

Brosnan presents himself as a man for whom contentment is elusive. It is not surprising, then, that the strongest set piece in the book tells of a pitcher facing the end of the line. Sal Maglie had been one of the finest pitchers of his time—but at forty-one, his time was well past. He wanted one more season, and Brosnan wanted it for him.

“Sal Maglie,” he wrote, “has gone down the drain.”

There is Maglie on the mound, laboring. His back hurts. He cannot find a rhythm or his curve.

When a pitcher starts doubting his own stuff, he prays for an easy inning. He needs one.

There was no easy inning left for Sal.

Maglie loads the bases.

“Make that good pitch here, now,” I said to myself.

He didn’t make it. Maybe he couldn’t do it … . Will he ever pitch anything but batting practice, any more?

Brosnan will make the club, not as a starter but as a reliever. He understands how precarious his position is; he is a bad outing away from being reduced to mop-up work. The season is about to begin, and he is filled with worry that he can share only with his wife. So he writes her a letter to “let the sight of words console my nerves”:

If I start to give up runs now, I’m a bum again. Success breeds a maggoty fortune that needs constant replenishment and refurbishing … .

If the knives start to jab they may hit this heel if it’s left carelessly unprotected … . Let’s face it, I can be had. The black forces of despair have made it with me before!

But having hit bottom, he turns to her, and to the life they share:

You’ll have your sorrowful, pining days as before, waiting behind, never any more sure than I am that I can do it … . But this man’s ready to start a new season, and we’re the team that can take it all … . You and I.

He cannot seem to find his place—on the mound, or with the team. Success comes fleetingly, and by early June he is convinced he is about to be traded. The news that he will make a rare start in Philadelphia brings no joy, only conspiratorial rage: he is sure that Hemus wants to give the Phillies a peek, hoping they might take Brosnan off his hands. “By the time I reached Connie Mack Stadium I had talked myself into a depressing cynicism,” he wrote. “Warming up before the game I didn’t feel right. Just hot under the collar.

“Ashburn led off for Philly. ‘I’ll curve him,’ I thought. Ashburn looked at four curve balls and walked.”

He records an out. And then he starts to fall apart:

Freese hit third. ‘I got to keep the ball down,’ I thought. Freese hit a high slider into the upper deck of the left field stands. The Philly fans started to laugh, again. (Those miserable fans.)

He is back in St. Louis the next night, and takes his wife and children to dinner at the restaurant owned by the team’s greatest player, Stan Musial. Never does the gulf between star and journeyman feel so profound. The Brosnans are seated near the kitchen and watch as Musial works the room, autographing a dozen menus. He stops by their table, buys them a drink, and lingers long enough to tell Brosnan that business is so good he might invest in another bank, his third. “Now there’s a celebrity,” Brosnan’s wife tells him. The letter advising him that he has been traded to Cincinnati is waiting at the front desk when they return.

The news disappoints Anne Stewart Brosnan—the summer heat, the impossibly long drive with two young children from Chicago. But for her husband, the letter brings the relief and possibility of a fresh start. The Reds, a struggling team like the Cardinals, make him feel wanted. In the weeks to come, his pitching improves. The Reds fire their manager and replace him with Hutchinson, who had first managed Brosnan in St. Louis and whom he admires.

The trade comes at the midway point of the season, and once the deal is complete, the book evolves into a different sort of story. The anger ebbs. In its place comes room for questions and, with them, some knowledge. On a trip to St. Louis, Brosnan seeks out the Cardinal general manager, Bing Devine. As happy as he is to be with the Reds, he cannot help but wonder why St. Louis wanted to be rid of him. Devine replies with careful platitudes. Brosnan presses him (“Do you feel that I let you down, Bing?”), but Devine will not rise to the bait. Sensing he will get no further, Brosnan takes his leave, picks up his final Cardinals check, and finds a letter from a fan telling him that “Devine was a louse, Hemus was a bum, and I was still all right.”

The Reds make a run at the first division—and a modest share of World Series money. In September, they arrive in San Francisco to play the Giants, whose best hitters have had their way with Brosnan before. Not today. Suddenly, in the course of an at-bat by Willie Kirkland, who had homered six times against him, Brosnan rediscovers his purposeful dark side—a necessary tool for success on the mound—and strikes him out with a fastball under the chin.

“When a pitcher can rid himself of the feeling that he can’t get a certain hitter out, he knows he’s got good stuff,” we read. “The Giants stared at me for six innings, waiting to see Old Broz, Old Nervous Broz, start to waver, start to think on the mound. They waited in vain.”

The Reds ultimately tumble to a sixth-place finish, three games ahead of the Cardinals. But with the end of the season, Brosnan’s thoughts turned away from vengeance, from being traded, from Sunday double-headers sweating through flannel uniforms, from hangovers and pep pills in the clubhouse. They turn, instead, to the end of things. “The empty locker symbolizes the cold, blue sadness of the last day of the season,” he writes. “There is something poignant and depressing about clearing out, for good; abandoning your own place in the clubhouse. They even take your name plate down, and who’s to know what player dressed in which locker?”

It did not take long for others to follow where Brosnan had first gone, and within a decade the deceptively easy tone of The Long Season would be eclipsed by such tell-alls as Jim Bouton’s tart and bawdy Ball Four. In fact, the idea of the athlete as subject matter became so accepted that, in time, it was hard to imagine a spring publishing season without the advent of another Bronx Zoo or Juiced or, most recently, A-Rod. For that matter, it was hard to envision a magazine staking a claim to literary greatness without being able to boast such gems as Gay Talese on Joe DiMaggio, Roger Angell on Bob Gibson, or Richard Ben Cramer on Ted Williams.

It feels like a stretch to suggest that The Long Season changed sports writing. The book appeared just as journalism was reinventing itself, expanding what it defined as a story and how to tell it. But in the mad race for style points that began in the 1960s, and which today includes high marks for snarkiness and innuendo, something was lost: the simpler and ultimately more universal brand of storytelling that a most unlikely author had to offer.

Brosnan was back on the mound and better in 1960, and better still in 1961, when he wrote his second book, Pennant Race. It is a good book, and though it reads very much like The Long Season, Brosnan concedes that it lacks the original’s power: it is the work of a more contented man. He would go on to write several more books and hundreds of magazine articles, and that is how he made his living when his time came to walk away from the game. He tried his hand at fiction, but was never really pleased with the results.

“I have three kids,” he says, “and a half a novel about each of them.”

Like pitching with a three-run lead, it only looks easy.

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Michael Shapiro , founder of The Big Roundtable, is the author of six previous nonfiction books. His work has appeared in such publications as The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, GQ, and Columbia Journalism Review. He is a professor at Columbia Journalism School.