Playing with Tigers: A Minor League Chronicle of the Sixties
University of Nebraska Press, 2016
288 pp., $26.95
Pitch by Pitch: My View of One Unforgettable Game
Flatiron Books, 2016
256 pp., $16.99
The Pine Tar Game: The Kansas City Royals, the New York Yankees, and Baseball's Most Absurd and Entertaining Controversy
256 pp., $25.00
Michael R. Stevens
Baseball Review 2016, Part 1
Gmelch's assignment to high-A Daytona Beach for the summer was also a revelation—both of the pleasure of baseball with larger crowds and pleasing weather (and a posh apartment complex to live in, full of retirees), but playing with confidence, batting cleanup after a strong spring. Yet he mentions the realities of the outside world pushing in more in that sunny April fifty years ago: "The day of our home opener the Daytona Beach Morning Journal ran a front-page picture of Gail handing the ball to our starting pitcher, Hook Warden. Next to it an article reported the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam was approaching 250,000. I paid more attention to the news now, especially from Vietnam, than I had the year before in Jamestown. My childhood buddy Chris Nelson had been drafted and deployed." Despite these growing shadows, the micro-concerns of baseball life still dominated Gmelch's season; after beginning on a tear despite the vast fences at City Island Park (where Jackie Robinson had played his first integrated exhibition game in 1946, and for whom the park is now named), Gmelch assented to superstition: "Mentally, I connected my good fortune that night with having changed my baseball undershirt midway through the game, something I rarely did. For the next week, as I continued to hit well, I continued to change my shirt around the fifth inning." When he later struggles at the plate, he tries elaborate rituals of restitution—the mysterious overlay to baseball that had Wade Boggs scratching in Hebrew in the batter's box dirt, and Lou Brock hiding his filthy pants from the laundry crew when the steals were flowing.
The good and the bad, the ups and the downs, so tightly allied in the baseball cosmos, struck Gmelch later that season, when he got the longed-for call-up to high A Rocky Mount (N.C.). He reunited with Leyland and played with some future big-leaguers like Dick Drago, but after suffering a brutal slump, he ended up on the bench in low A Statesville (N.C.), with another future MLB player and manager, Gene Lamont, and then preemptively called the Detroit home office collect in order to complain. Though he was sent back to Daytona Beach to play, the seeds of discord between him and the organization began to germinate.
While recounting the hijinks of the minor league life—one pitcher teammate "placed a penny inside his athletic supporter cup after each game he won. As the season wore on, you could hear the coins clanging against the plastic cup as he ran"—Gmelch also comments several times on the earnest theological discussions afoot on the ubiquitous bus trips: "I argued that if the Bible was really the Word of God, why had it been altered, edited, and changed over the years, yet still contradicted itself?" During the off-season back at Stanford, and on a European tour with his new Florida girlfriend during Christmas Break, the consensus against American militarism proved persuasive to him: "[The protestors'] views steeled my own opposition to the war and caused me to liken my country's foreign policy to the behavior of privileged campus jocks—loud, brash, and arrogant." His assignment back in Rocky Mount took him far from anti-war protests, but he found the remnants of the Jim Crow South, with segregated seating in the stadium and the fact that "none of my black teammates were allowed in the library. The 'colored library' was a small shared room at the black high school, Booker T. Washington." That little detail was microcosmic for conditions as Gmelch saw them, and when he took a tip from a local teammate that the police chief of Rocky Mount was a Klansman, he chose to complain about that in the monthly column he'd been sending back to his hometown paper in California about life in the minors. Two weeks later he was summoned back to Rocky Mount from a road trip to meet the mayor and police chief, a grim encounter.