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?”