If you read baseball literature, there comes a time in your reading career (fun to speak like you’re a player) where you become hooked on Jim Bouton’s 1970 memoir Ball Four and tout it as one of the funniest things you’ve ever encountered.
By the time Bouton composed his infamous account of his 1969 MLB season with the soon to be defunct Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros, he was a middling relief pitcher and a guy who got into a lot of trouble for daring to say what a lot of people didn’t about what was then America’s most popular sport.
Bouton torched the baseball gods of his time, revealing them as carousers hopped up on speed, frequently drunk, and frequently “shooting beaver”—meaning, peeping in hotel windows to try and spot women undressing. He was anything but an image-sanitizer, and baseball hated him for it.
But high school boys came to love Ball Four. I was one of them. My friends and I thought this was the epitome of baseball writing. And maybe it is when you’re fifteen—which is also when a lot of bands “rule.” But when you’re an adult? Ball Four doesn’t really work as great baseball writing, and it never takes a big, Olympic-style leap across the line of sports writing to become writing for the world—what one could call great American writing, canonical writing, whatever you please. That ain’t Ball Four.
But it is Jim Brosnan’s Pennant Race, a book I return to every couple years and a book that enlivens me each time more than the last—more, certainly, than the baseball season often does, as it sputters in the summer under the weight of the latest four-hour game in late July between a contender and a bottom dweller involving ten replays over plays that will affect absolutely nothing.
I’m going to be emphatic about this, like an umpire bellowing “Striiiiiiike” so that people in the outfield box seats can hear him: This is the best nonfiction baseball book there is.
Much more important, it’s one of the finest American diaries, one that trades in that rare commodity, honest self-assessment.
Like Bouton, Brosnan was a reliever. In 1959, he had written his more famous book, The Long Season, documenting the life and thoughts of a bullpen wit/sage/clown with an also-ran Cincinnati Reds team. In 1961—the season chronicled in Pennant Race—he was back as the closer on a Reds squad that upended everyone’s expectations by winning the National League pennant (not so surprising was the Reds’ subsequent loss to the Maris/ Mantle/ Ford 1961 Yankees).
.Brosnan was not a carouser. He was into joking, reading (consuming literature on road trips, he was dubbed the Professor), listening (Errol Garner), dry martinis, and his family. He’s a bit like Hawkeye Pierce from M*A*S*H in Pennant Race, which feels more autumnal than the summer vibe of The Long Season. In the brains department, fall always comes across as having more going on than the dog days of August, more wisdom, more mordancy, fewer cheap thrills.
At times in Pennant Race, Brosnan writes like baseball’s version of Ambrose Bierce. The bullpen is the in-game hub of the Reds, the Greek chorus stationed paces from the field of play, wedged between the action on the field and the action in the stands.
“An obnoxious fan has a big mouth filled with penetrating sarcasm,” Brosnan writes. “He has, usually, a bass voice, a baser personality, and would like to run ballplayers out of the park. He is quick enough on his feet to never be caught. He often leaves the park in the eighth inning, hoarse; and his absence makes the game more enjoyable.”
The tone is straight out of Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, but lightened by a kind of kindness, a hope that, in this case, the fan might return to his life and not be a dick just because he was a dick shouting at players for three hours.
This was an era when the pitchers with the best arms were starters. To be a bullpen hand was to be a guile guy, someone who got by on brains. Brosnan presides over a Greek chorus of guile guys cracking wise—they were an appealing crew, both laconic and earnest. You don’t want to appear too needy in this bullpen as someone who craves attention, but when you have that rare reliever’s chance to make an All-Star team—as Brosnan did during that magical Reds season—your mates are pulling for you, in large part because of the bonus money you’ll get, which was of more concern in 1961 than now, when a player is apt to not even realize it’s in his bank account.
A book likes this lodges colorful phrases in the mind, phrases that become part of the reader’s running internal commentary. A call comes in from the dugout to get a reliever or two loosened up and the cry goes out, “Brosnan! Get naked!” Brosnan may not talk as frankly about sex as Bouton did, but that notion of denuding, of putting one’s self forward, exposed in full view, is a core idea. Brosnan will give you the japes, he’ll flash the sly wit, but he and his teammates are also guys who are scared, who have the self-knowledge that their entire career could end with the next curveball that fails to break.
Then there is the artistry so clearly evident in Brosnan’s prose. Wally Moon was a pretty good ballplayer, the kind of athlete that only hardcore baseball fans will remember. Brosnan makes him live forever on these pages: “Wally Moon is a medium-sized, slightly bowlegged, left-handed-hitting outfielder. He doesn’t look like an athlete particularly. He looks more like a skinny, beat-up cowboy, wiry but tired of the horse-game.”
Do you notice that last beat? Not a lot of writers can do that. It is damn near a miracle when someone reaches the highest level of professional sports. But for that person to be better at writing than playing that sport? That’s awfully cool.
Brosnan had a strong year with the Reds that season. They were a lively bunch, a melting pot team in the middle of Middle America. You read the book and you start to think that Frank Robinson was this cross between Mike Trout and Aaron Judge, and maybe Vada Pinson should have a stronger case for the Hall of Fame. What is most bankable though, art- and life-wise, is the development of the theme, on nearly every page, that ultimately what is most central to sports is not winning or losing. No, it’s not some hogwash you tell your kid about it’s how you play the game. Sport crosses over into life when we accept how truly de-victimized it is. There is no self-victimization. There is no virtue signaling. There is only kicking ass or having one’s ass kicked.
Pennant Race is often centered on what one does after a loss. You know that expression, the child is the father of the man? More and more I think that a loss is the great sire of the next victory, provided you take to the hill with greater vigor the next day. Get naked, as it were, whatever your necessarily brave version of that is.