|Thursday, January 9
Updated: January 13, 1:56 PM ET
Brosnan was the pioneer of sports autobiographies
By Alan Schwarz
Special to ESPN.com
So Jose Canseco is writing a book. Or, truth be told, he's blabbering into a tape recorder, letting someone make sense of it afterward and throwing his ever-respected name on the cover. At least 67 fans will plunk down their $24.95 to rubberneck the saliva-slathered pages of a volume surely thinner than even ol' Jose's conscience.
Ah, sports autobiographies. Where would we be without books that let Dennis Rodman discuss his "feminine side," or allowed Wilt Chamberlain to claim altogether different scoring records? The mother of all these tomes, it is said every time another peeks its head out of the muck, is Jim Bouton's 1970 classic, "Ball Four." We are told this often enough, it turns out, to virtually whitewash the fact that it isn't true.
In fact, sports autobiographies had gotten a new lease on life exactly 10 years before Bouton, when Jim Brosnan, a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, wrote "The Long Season" -- and opened the door that in many ways Bouton and his descendants only walked through.
Some history: Before 1960, a ballplayer writing a book himself was unheard of. Ghostwriters had fashioned "autobiographies" of the game's elite for decades, but most read like Joe DiMaggio's "Lucky to be a Yankee," with effusive praise for the player's talents and friends, and little to tell the reader what being a ballplayer was truly like. Even Jimmy Piersall's "Fear Strikes Out" tended to sugar-coat the Red Sox outfielder's nervous breakdown, protecting fans from the more horrific details.
The only book that shed real light onto the player mindset was Christy Mathewson's "Pitching in a Pinch," released way back in 1912. The well-spoken and Bucknell-educated Mathewson, collaborating with New York Herald writer John Wheeler, mused on many areas of the game that had gone unexplored before, including superstitions, strategy, pitching styles and a first-hand depiction of Giants manager John McGraw. The book became revered by dozens of future baseball writers; Red Smith would often recall that as a boy growing up in Green Bay, Wis., "Pitching in a Pinch" was the first book he borrowed from the Kellogg Public Library.
Generations later, Brosnan came along as the perfect ballplayer to raise sports autobiographies to a higher level. Brosnan was an outsider, reading Dostoevsky on airplanes and smoking pipes in the clubhouse. He could write, too, and in 1958 fashioned pieces for Sports Illustrated on his getting traded to St. Louis and his relationship with manager Fred Hutchinson. Those led to his keeping of a diary throughout 1959 that became "The Long Season." Needing no transmuting lens of a ghostwriter, Brosnan provided the first "inside" account of major league life.
Spring training has a convocation ceremony that follows strict patterns all over the baseball world. Manager speaks: "Wanna welcome all you fellows; wanna impress on you that you each got a chance to make this ball club." (This hypocrisy is always greeted by an indulgent and silent snicker from the veterans of previous training camps.)
San Francisco is a nighttime wonderland. There's so much to do and see after a night game that breakfast time usually comes too soon to be properly attended. (In fact, baseball games interfere seriously with the visiting ballplayer's social life in San Francisco.)
Two walks and four singles sent Pirate runners circling the bases around me. I felt like the operator of a merry-go-round, everybody else getting a kick out of the ride but me.
Brosnan walked readers through his entire 1959 season. From his contract squabbles with Cardinals general manager Bing Devine, to spring training, to Hutchinson's midseason firing, to watching Stan Musial play drums on the clubhouse floorboards, to getting traded from St. Louis to Cincinnati in June, Brosnan acted as a reporter as much as a pitcher. He described a teammate who sat wondering if he'd be cut: "The tone of his voice was a bit scratchy; the tension of not knowing whether or not he was the one on whom the ax would fall had finally gotten to his vocal cords. It gets so bad, you can't talk about it; but it's so important to you that you can't think of anything else."
Brosnan made sure to maintain a sense of decorum; he avoided almost all references to ballplayers' lewd behavior, and relied on euphemisms when he indulged himself. (Sex was "a strenuous exercise or two.") Still, his roaming into the more secret corners of the game broke new ground. He described one instance when he arranged with Ernie Broglio, his opposing starting pitcher that day, to exchange meatballs to each other so they could get the rare treat of looking good at the plate. He admitted to throwing a spitball to Pittsburgh's Bill Virdon and wrote that the illegal pitch was "quite popular in the National League." Brosnan also quoted his manager's pep-talks without censorship: "It would be smart, boys, to know what the outfielder's name is, and how well he throws the ball from the outfield, and even what he eats for breakfast, or how much he had to drink the night before, because if he can't get the good jump on the ball the next day you can take that extra base on him every time and that is what wins ball games, boys."
It never occurred to Brosnan that people in baseball would consider it invasive. But they believed it to be that and more, a betrayal of fraternity rules. He had invited the entire world into baseball's treehouse.
One teammate, Gino Cimoli, threatened to punch him in the nose. Cardinals manager Solly Hemus growled, "You think Brosnan's writing was funny? Wait till you see him pitch." The best remark came from Cardinals broadcaster Joe Garagiola: "You know what Brosnan is? He's a kookie beatnik ... That part about him calling home to 'see if there were enough olives for martini hour.' What kind of stuff is that to write? How is that going to look to kids? We want the kids to look up to ballplayers, don't we?"
The press disagreed. Time magazine called "The Long Season" a "deft, wry account," adding that, "Traditionally, a baseball book is a sludge of cold porridge turned out by a ghostwriter for some superstar and dedicated to the notion that pro baseball is just good, clean, American fun. Brosnan's book breaks all such rules ... he strongly suggests that baseball players are something less than choir boys." The nation's two most influential columnists, Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon, approved as well; Cannon remarked that "The Long Season" was "the greatest baseball book ever written."
Brosnan went on to write another book, a diary of 1961 called "Pennant Race," and played two more seasons before retiring in 1963 at the age of 34. His career record: 55 victories, 47 losses, two books that changed sports autobiographies forever.
When "The Long Season" came out in 1960, a young pitcher named Jim Bouton was pitching for the Yankees' Carolina League team in Greensboro, N.C. He bought it, read it, and decided to carry some of Brosnan's sensibilities to the big leagues.
"I really enjoyed it tremendously," Bouton told me of "The Long Season" several years ago. "I remember when I was reading the book, the parts that excited me the most were whenever he would quote any of the players or coaches ... It was fascinating to me what the ballplayers actually said to each other during games, in the bullpens, or after games. It really revealed them as personalities. What were these guys like? How did they think? What do they talk about? What's going on in their heads, you know?"
Thanks to Jim Brosnan, we have spent 40 years finding out. As to what's going on inside Jose Canseco's head, I for one can wait.
Alan Schwarz is the Senior Writer of Baseball America magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.