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
His return to play was under a cloud of distraction. He was part of a one-hitter by Ken Brett, George's older brother (we'll hear him from again in this review), called up late in the year by the Red Sox and the youngest pitcher ever to appear in a World Series. Brett later battled arm trouble on ten different teams, but hit .262 lifetime, phenomenal for a pitcher. Then, as a finale, the highs and the lows return together. On June 11 Gmelch had five hits, two of them triples, and 5 RBIs, his best game in professional ball. He was immediately benched and, three days later, unexpectedly and unequivocally released by the Tigers.
Apparently a deal had been struck between the organization and the offended authorities in Rocky Mount. In Gmelch's retrospective opinion: "If Detroit had big bonus money invested in me, or if I had been playing like a prospect, as I had in Daytona Beach, they might have reassigned me to a different farm team." Having survived the fallout of his grand prank with the spring training rosters, Gmelch could not survive the earnest but naïve declarations about freedom and fairness, nor the image of a player a bit too independently minded for the organization. But on the other hand, the welcome call of the academic life consoled him—well, not quite yet. First, a foray into the independent Quebec Provincial League, a sort of free-wheeling refuge for players cut or banned from MLB. For Gmelch, the baseball and bonding were pressure-free, actually fun—"On the bus rides home, we always had two cases of free beer—provided by one of the team's sponsors, a marketing manager for Dow Brewery"—with adventures in proto-sociology amidst Québécois (food, womanizing, separatist politics, language navigation). Back for a final season in Quebec in 1968, Gmelch clashed with his manager and teammates about politics (including his support for the U.S. Olympic sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who were reprimanded for their Black Power salutes in Mexico City). A trip to a Cree Indian reservation in the north with his sociology student girlfriend (and eventual wife) helped to make the shift of career trajectories more and more obvious. After marriage and a year of graduate school at University of California at Santa Barbara, Gmelch writes, he "didn't return to Drummondville for the 1969 season, as I chose instead to participate in an anthropology field school in Mexico. But there, living in a highland Tlaxcalan village, I had vivid dreams about playing baseball again." Though he returned to do field research on baseball superstitions in 1970, Gmelch never played again (and at the end of that season the league folded, as the expansion Montreal Expos drew away the fan base—more to come on the Expos later in this review as well!). Yet, unlike so many ballplayers, he is now able to reflect, in his seventies, that "my life had not peaked but rather taken a new direction." We are thankful that his decades in the academy and in sharp-eyed anthropological musings has given him a unique and multilayered vision of the remote world of the minor leagues of fifty years ago.
Moving from a seasoned anthropologist and academic writer to an ex-big leaguer with a co-writer would seem to be a step down in eloquence, but I realized this wasn't so soon after I began Pitch by Pitch: My View of One Unforgettable Game (Flatiron Books, 2016), an account of Game One of the 1968 World Series by Bob Gibson and Lonnie Wheeler. This was Gibson's 17-strikeout game against the most feared lineup in baseball, his fifth straight World Series complete game victory (including ultra-clutch Game Sevens against the Yankees in 1964 and the Red Sox in 1967), his fourteenth shutout of the season, the crowning moment of his outlandish 1.12 ERA season (greatest of the modern era)—and, last but not least, an extraordinary performance by an African American athlete in a year of race riots and MLK's assassination. What I learned about Bob Gibson is that he narrates like he pitched, intelligently and unflinchingly, and that, like Gmelch, he was a college boy (Gibson went to Creighton in his hometown of Omaha, where he starred in basketball, later doing a stint with the Globetrotters). What I first admired as baseball eloquence I finally realized was eloquence about humanity; the book turns out to be less about his strikeouts (though he mentions every pitch of the game) and more about relationships, with his teammates and with the world at large and, surprisingly, his opponents the Tigers, whom he respected deeply. In the bullpen for the Tigers during the Series was 'Hook' Warden, George Gmelch's Daytona and Rocky Mount teammate, a shirt-tail connection between the worlds of these narratives.