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
Lonnie Wheeler; Bob Gibson
Flatiron Books, 2016
256 pp., 19.99
The Pine Tar Game: The Kansas City Royals, the New York Yankees, and Baseball's Most Absurd and Entertaining Controversy
256 pp., 27.2
Michael R. Stevens
Baseball Review 2016, Part 1
This review has been a study in devolution—what was once a Spring Training Report concocted in early March, and what had become something of an Opening Day report for the end of March and beginning of April, now appears as an Opening Month Report. In fact, it was opening day this past weekend … for Northeastern Little League of Grand Rapids, Michigan. And the second game of my son's double-header was played in a steady, chilly rain, with a breeze turning into what the British call a "freshening wind," as I stood in a roofless dugout thick with mud and shivering 13- and 14-year-olds, trying to keep the scorebook dry under my feckless jacket, shouting hoarsely, "Quick hands, kid" as parents wrapped in a variety of blankets, parkas, and rain tarps bore grim witness from beneath the concession stand overhang. We slogged our way to a sweep.
And that's been the story during the first month of the season in many of the northern Major League Baseball cities: cold, snow, rain, wind, but the ball games going on, sometimes stoically, as the players regain their strokes and the pitchers seek the grip of the slider and splitter. We entered the double-digit days of April here in Michigan with heavy snowfall. In fact, it snowed every day for the first two weeks of the month—including blizzard conditions a few weeks back that froze the door of my minivan shut. Yet, earlier that same afternoon, I'd sat in the parking lot listening to Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers drive an opposite field home run off a Yankees reliever, through an icy wind. There were snow-outs in Cleveland for the nth season in a row. AL Central fans scoffed upon the hearing that the Washington Nationals called a game due to cold with the temperature in the 40s. The 40s—that's short-sleeve weather! And the warmth has returned a bit in the past few weeks of the season, both meteorologically and psychologically.
Speaking of the Tigers, my adopted team after two decades in Michigan (though the Yankees of 1977-1978 remain the talismanic presence of my Upstate New York boyhood—Thurman Munson, why did you leave us so soon?), two new books have surfaced that survey the landscape of the Old English 'D', offering two very different perspectives on the glory days of the late 1960s. The first volume, Playing with Tigers: A Minor League Chronicle of the Sixties (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2016) is by noted baseball anthropologist George Gmelch, who teaches at the University of San Francisco and at Union College in New York, and who has produced a surprisingly intimate look at his years in the Tigers' minor league system in the mid-1960s, alongside such figures as Jim Leyland and Gene Lamont, and amidst the nation's, and his own, rising social consciousness. Had all gone ideally, baseball-wise, he might have arrived at the big-league club just in time for the 1968 World Series run, but alas, his career stalled, to some extent due to his activism, and he moved toward academia, one of the 95 percent or so of minor-leaguers who never make the big show. Gmelch edited the fine volume Baseball Without Borders: The International Pastime (Nebraska, 2006), which offered a global span, but this present book is very personal.
As Gmelch was doing fieldwork with his test group of the Birmingham Barons, which ended up as Inside Pitch: Life in Professional Baseball, someone suggested he write about his own minor-league experience. And when he finally chose to do so, he rediscovered not just his athletic glory days but also the tenuous context of mid- and late-1960s America, a place of transition and of polarization. Gmelch's youth was a story of Golden Age baseball boyhood, with a suburban California setting wealthy enough and enterprising enough for a backyard batting cage, and an idiosyncratic, idyllic field in his hometown of San Mateo, with "a stand of redwoods in right field, forcing the outfielders to chase down extra base hits in the trees." While in junior college, Gmelch would have a titanic double-header, "as I drove in eleven runs with seven hits, including two triples and three home runs. The last home run cleared the redwood trees in right-center and four lanes of El Camino Real before hitting a building on the far side. It was a monster shot." The departure of the local Tigers' scout after the first inning was the only downside, but that same scout arrived a few days later to sign him (the bonus of $2,500 was on the low side, but Gmelch mentions that it "would cover the cost of two years at Stanford University, where I had just been accepted"—nowadays, that amount would cover about two days!). And so the minor-league odyssey began.
The author's brief sojourn with the Duluth-Superior Dukes, playing in a massive old WPA-built park in incessantly chilly wind, interspersed with overnight bus rides to South Dakota to play the other short-season teams, suggests to Gmelch, in retrospect, how clean-cut and obedient all the players were in the summer of '65: "Throughout the 1960's baseball coaches had no difficulty insisting upon short hair and conformity in dress. We were not unlike soldiers in the military in giving in to rules, discipline, and training." That connection to the military, to draft boards and burgeoning news about Vietnam, serves as a sort of backdrop to the baseball, or rather a shadow slowly being cast.
But Gmelch is quick to show that baseball was not merely a surrogate bootcamp, as his quick promotion to the Jamestown (N.Y.) Tigers revealed a playful and colorful world in the New York-Penn League that still services entry-level professional baseball in my upstate New York homeland. At Jamestown, the players wore the Detroit Tigers uniforms from the previous season (ah, frugality!) and Gmelch reveals, "I got Al Kaline's pants, which seemed like a good omen." For away games, the team rode for hours in three black Pontiac station wagons from the dealership where the team's GM worked in the off-season, and they feasted on "unsold concession-stand food—hot dogs, burgers, and pizza—that was often put out for us after games." Despite gaining a local girlfriend, Gmelch's world was lonely and tenuous, one extended slump away from a ticket home—prophetically, while slumping that year, he began to ponder his future: "Perhaps with this in mind, I went to a bookstore and bought a world atlas, a one-volume nature encyclopedia, and a guide to writing college research papers."
His counterpoint on the team, the young Jim Leyland, late of Pirates-Marlins-Rockies-Tigers managerial fame, served as the merry prankster. Though exactly the same age, Gmelch was college-educated, bookish, a streaky power hitter who eschewed tobacco and was always a bit at odds with the authorities. Leyland was the opposite: "He didn't have all the baseball tools (in fact, he would never hit above .241 in seven Minor League seasons), and he wasn't nearly as talented a catcher as Polak, but he had the kind of toughness and charisma that coaches liked. Within a few years the front office would regard him, despite his penchant for furtively smoking Marlboros between innings, as an 'organization player'—a company man. At age twenty-six he was offered his first managerial job, the Bristol Tigers, in the Appalachian Rookie League." Leyland's practical jokes appeared to be welcome relief for a team that struggled through a summer of bad baseball and worse weather. By the end, in late August, Gmelch reports that "in the second inning Ginny and Moose gathered some scrap lumber and built a fire at the end of the dugout. It must have been a strange sight to the few fans in attendance: smoke curling out from under the dugout roof."
How different the next spring turned out to be, after a year at Stanford and the reports from his now pregnant girlfriend (the baby was later given up for adoption) back in Jamestown. Gmelch discovered the cruel visual cues of the minor-league pecking order in the crowded Tigers' spring training facility at Lakeland, Florida (the oldest continuously used location in the MLB—Detroit arrived in 1934 and they still hold camp there). After being issued number 87—"With so many players in camp, uniform numbers ran into the high 90s—more like football than baseball"—he learned about the sock-based hierarchy: "The only thing that distinguished each of the camp's six teams or squads was the color of our socks. The rookie-league team wore pea-soup green. Double A Montgomery had maroon, but the best was Triple A Syracuse, who wore the same dark-blue socks as the big club." Ah, the humility of the pea-green stirrup! But Gmelch's brush with an even more disconcerting visual reality happened during a study break from his correspondence courses, when he opened an unfamiliar door at the Lakeland complex and discovered a chart on which "the names of every ballplayer in the Detroit organization were listed on the wall followed by a colored star indicating his military draft status: a green star for 1-A, available for military service; a blue star for 1-D, a member of a reserve unit; a silver star for 1-S, student deferment; and so on … . It drove the reality of Vietnam and the military draft home to me." Despite the sobering impression left by this encounter, Gmelch was inspired to fabricate the "cuts and promotions" rosters posted in the meal hall every Sunday night, creating some emotional chaos and eliciting a harsh warning from the Tigers: "Had I not been hitting so well, I probably would have been sent packing then." On the other hand, he gained the respect of the arch-prankster, so that, "When, twenty-five year later, I saw Jim Leyland, then managing the Pittsburgh Pirates, the first thing he mentioned was my posting of those fictitious rosters."
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.
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.
Gibson plunges right into the narrative with a Conradian authorial presence. Of the Tigers pugnacious leadoff hitter Dick McAuliffe, Gibson admits his caution regarding his vulnerability to left-handed pull-hitters—"I respected power. I also respected McAuliffe's competitiveness"—and "McAuliffe, matching no familiar stereotype, was the kind of hitter I'd have to figure out for myself, probing, mixing, and challenging." He extends such observations to several opponents, noticeably to his counterpart in this game and this great pitchers' season, Denny McLain of the Tigers, who won 31 games that year (an achievement unchallenged in the subsequent decades). I thought Gibson might malign the showboat McLain, who later served prison time for drugs and racketeering and who was a 'me first' player throughout his career. And indeed, Gibson duly notes the contrast between them: "It was hard for me to imagine the pace he kept up … . He had two-week Vegas gig all lined for just after the Series, sharing a lounge with Shecky Greene. While he was dazzling the audience with 'The Girl from Ipanema,' I'd be tinkering on our house in Omaha, putting model cars together, listening to jazz records, and maybe strumming a few easy chords on my ukulele. We were, needless to say, different." But Gibson drops hints here and there of clear admiration. In the third inning, working the bottom of the Tigers' order, Gibson notes: "McLain was a hell of a bunter. I thought I was a good bunter, and I had seven sacrifices in '68. McLain led the American League with thirteen—twice as many as my best year. And this was a guy known to blow off batting practice. He had an extraordinary feel for playing the game."
Of Tiger slugger Willie Horton's at bat to open the seventh, Gibson recounts a story of Horton killing a pigeon with a foul ball at Fenway, then admits: "the pigeon fatality came to mind in connection with the foul ball he hit on my first delivery of the seventh inning, a four-seamer on the outer half. This one was not life-threatening, thanks to the screen behind home plate, but it was a murderous cut that Willie unleashed. Even with the heavy bat he swung, the big man could explode on a fastball." Of Willie's later personality clashes in Detroit, his hometown, Gibson suggests with a certain empathy: "Willie was a proud guy, and reacted emotionally when he felt unappreciated or unfairly judged." Of his battles with Tigers outfielder Jim Northrup (who later tripled off Gibson late in Game Seven to seal the Series win for Detroit—I guess I should have said 'spoiler alert'): "It seemed to me that Northrup embraced the gamesmanship involved with what we all did for a living." Of the Tigers' stalwart catcher Bill Freehan (who was runner-up to McLain in the AL MVP voting), Gibson comments in the midst of describing the fifth inning at-bat: "He was proving once again that he was admirably stubborn." Freehan was a former college football player, which Gibson notes was true of several of the burly Tigers. Also, when describing Mickey Stanley (from my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids), the Tigers' Gold Glove centerfielder who had moved to shortstop for the World Series to make way for Al Kaline's return from injury, Gibson offers a side-note referring to Horton, Freehan, Northrup, and Stanley: "The Michigan natives were all Tigers together for eleven season." Here Gibson reveals that secret ingredient for success so valued by his own beloved Cardinals, and so rare in today's free-agent defined game, namely, the consistency and depth of relationships on a team.
In some ways, in fact, this book seems to have provided an occasion for Gibson to reflect on the loyalties and commitments of long-term teammates. He is laudatory of Lou Brock, whose exploits in World Series play have been undervalued. According to Gibson, "the trade that brought Brock to St. Louis, in June of 1964, was a turning point in Cardinals history." Brock, a struggling outfielder with the Cubs, was a "very smart, very sensitive guy with a tendency to think and worry himself into knots." When the Cardinals turned him loose to swing away and to run the bases like a madman, he flourished. (His power is never talked about nowadays, but Gibson points out that: "Just before the Polo Grounds were torn down, he'd become the first player ever to hit a ball over the 483-foot sign in dead center field"—the very sign beyond Willie Mays when he made his famous catch off Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series.) And though Gibson is rather grudging with his honorifics throughout the book—of Willie Mays as a hitter of mistake pitches, he simply says, "Willie Mays did not hit singles off hanging breaking balls"—he calls Brock "the best money player I'd ever seen."
On Curt Flood, his closest friend on the team, Gibson is unexpectedly tender: "When I spoke at his funeral in 1997, I pointed out that he was one of the few people I knew whom I could never be mad at. Not even for an instant. And that's in spite of him being my roommate for a long time." And despite an anxiety even worse than Brock's—"Curt was always thinking, and that can be hazardous in our profession"—on the field Flood was a rock for the team: "He arrived at the '68 Series as the only .300 hitter on either team. That year, his fourth as cocaptain with McCarver, he also won his fifth of six straight Gold Gloves." But it is Flood's unselfish demeanor, hitting behind Brock, his patience and perspective, that Gibson most admires in remembering Flood the player: "It was a tremendous feat to bang out 200 hits—he led the league with 211 in 1964—while doing all the team-first things required of a good two-hole hitter with a great base stealer in front of him. He made Brock better, made the hitters behind him better, and made the rest of us better, too."
Of course it is for Flood's hold-out against the old reserve clause and his wrenching battle in baseball exile to press for player rights and free agency that he is best known and remembered today. Gibson offers his blunt but clearly loving commentary to that as well. He mentions Flood's "deep-seated, unshakable sense of principle," which would not allow him to accept the heart-rending trade to the Phillies after the 1969 season without having a say in it. Gibson admits, "I was not as idealistic as Curt, and too pragmatic to consider doing what he was doing; less urgently motivated, for sure. I hadn't read James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison as avidly as he had. I hadn't protested in Mississippi with Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson, as he had. I hadn't been traded or disrespected in contract negotiations. But I sympathized with his repudiation of the plantation culture that seemed to guide baseball's treatment of its players." Nevertheless, they drifted apart after Flood sank deeper into depression and alcoholism, Gibson bluntly reveals, though there was a brief and meaningful reconciliation when Flood was dying of throat cancer. Gibson's final reflection is on the manliness and dignity beneath the damage: "Curt's story was tragic, in the personal sense, but it was also essential on a level that makes him both historic and heroic. It set the narrative for a punishing process that had to occur in the interest of progress. Somebody had to take the brunt of it. Somebody, in effect, had to martyr himself, and Curt was the guy. He fully understood the ramifications of what he was doing."
The painfulness of change is a constant theme in Gibson's narrative, the necessity and the cost of stubbornness, the tensions and strains of true friendship (Brock was thrown out at home not sliding in Game Seven, and Flood misplayed a ball off the bat of Northrup that turned into the decisive triple in that same game, costing Gibson and the Cardinals the win and the World Series title—but Gibson offers no accusations). The richest vein of these reflections, and the one I'll end on, comes in Gibson's frequent mentions of his long-time battery-mate Tim McCarver, well known after his playing days as a baseball announcer, the catcher, number-five hitter, and captain of the Cardinal teams that played in three World Series in five years: "The man with whom, off the field, I treasured a connection that, from the time we met in 1959—me a blunt, stubborn black man and Tim a rugged white teenager from Memphis, Tennessee, with all the sensibilities which that implies—had evolved both unforeseeably and wonderfully." I felt my own heart leap at that final phrase, that the world of baseball 50 years ago, for which Gibson's term "plantation system" seems so apt, could foster such a border-crashing fellowship. Gibson points out that McCarver's arrival brought some tension to a team that "as a whole, had no tolerance for ethnic or racial disrespect. We'd talk about it openly and in no uncertain terms. In our clubhouse, nobody got a free pass. But of those who required some talking to, few entertained the subject as sincerely as McCarver … . If a teammate made any distinctions based on color, my practice was to confront him, let him know how we felt about it as a ball club, and give him every chance to change. Tim did, quickly and completely." What might have been a showdown, or fuel for quiet enmity waiting to erupt, turned into something radically different: "It wasn't too long before he was like a brother to me; and still is."
Perhaps the most compelling phrase in the book, both about baseball and about camaraderie, appears in the account of the sixth inning strikeout of Norm Cash, as Gibson muses on his tempo and repartee with his catcher: "To McCarver's credit, though, he was not hard-headed—a large head, yes, but not an excessively hard one. He didn't stomp around and show me up if I shook him off, and in turn, extending him the same respect and courtesy, I rarely shook him off. We were in it together. And because we were so single-minded, I was able to throw the ball with conviction." This is a book about learning to pitch with conviction and live with conviction. Of his older brother Josh, who filled surrogate father and coach roles for Bob, Gibson writes: "When I was eleven, we'd talked about Jackie Robinson, and I had declared that I would become a professional athlete. Josh took me at my word and made sure I did everything in my power to achieve that goal. He certainly did everything in his power." In simple parlance, that is what Bob Gibson exemplified and what he admired: conviction. And this book exudes it.
The third volume included in this review will also serve as a bridge to my predictions (Part 2 of this piece) for this already partially completed season. The Pine Tar Game: The Kansas City Royals, the New York Yankees, and Baseball's Most Absurd and Entertaining Controversy (Scribner, 2015), by Filip Bondy, is a rollicking journalistic adventure into the baseball universe of the summer of 1983, when George Brett's ninth-inning home run off Goose Gossage was invalidated because Billy Martin pointed out that the amount of pine tar on the bat exceeded allowable limits. And the umpire agreed. And Brett went berserk. And then the league office disagreed. And lawsuits were filed. And the fatal inning was replayed. Sort of.
It's all a strange story now, though I remember it well, because I was in the height of my Yankees frenzy as only a 14-year-old can be, not least because just a few weeks earlier, as I rode to a Babe Ruth baseball game in my coach's Suburban, I'd listened on the radio to Phil Rizzuto and Bill White covering Dave Righetti's no-hitter. And I had a new hero in Yankee rookie first baseman Don Mattingly. George Brett, on the other hand, was a nemesis, who consistently battered Yankees' pitching. The bat in question was apparently Brett's favorite ever, a Louisville Slugger T-85 model, a "small botanical miracle, just seven grains of ash," which, according to Brett, "meant it was really, really hard." As for the loads of pine tar on it, Brett was a classic barehand hitter, looking for grip and feel without batting gloves. Yankee manager Billy Martin had often openly mocked and harangued Brett from the dugout during the years of rivalry—" 'Every time I came to bat,' Brett said. 'That's really high-class, really a tribute to baseball.' " That Martin was back on the Yankees' top step of the dugout for a fifth go-around as manager was a minor miracle, after multiple firings and squabbles between him and the Yankees owner, George Steinbrenner. Steinbrenner himself, whose antics and histrionics are far too well known even to the casual baseball fan, was in every way an opposite of the Royals founder and owner, Ewing Kauffman, whom Bondy reveals as a forward-thinking, congenial man of quality relationships and a deep respect for baseball.
The plot is full of such oppositions, such contradictions, of deep love and loyalty to baseball, and then the farcical results that evolved—the accusations, lawsuits, public-relations chaos. (None other than Rush Limbaugh was the Royals P.R. director! Wouldn't he have fit better with Steinbrenner?) But the quirks of the game kept me turning the pages. Bondy is at his best in recounting the re-played final inning (a rarity in baseball history), demanded by AL president Lee MacPhail (a former Yankees front-office rep) for August. Yankees star pitcher Ron Guidry played center field, and lefty first baseman on the rise Don Mattingly stood in at second base. Sure, Billy Martin was mocking the ruling to re-play the inning (he apparently left the field to watch Barney Miller during the eleven-minute finale), but even then, there was baseball shrewdness at work: "Neither move, actually, was as crazy as it seemed. Guidry loved to chase and catch fly balls during practice, much the same way Mariano Rivera would do years later, and demonstrated a remarkable range and talent for the job … . As for the left-handed Mattingly at second, Guidry said, 'Donnie could turn double plays. He was athletic, he had great hands.' " Details like this give Bondy's narrative a pleasing thickness for baseball fans, even as the plot becomes more a sociological survey of sports as business and entertainment in the 1980s. And Bondy's account of the 1995 meeting in which the retirees Brett and Gossage, down at Spring Training with their respective teams, met afterward and talked with each other for the first time—Brett gave Goose a pine-tar loaded bat for the restaurant Gossage had opened in Colorado—is downright moving. When Gossage auctioned off most of his baseball paraphernalia for financial reasons in 2013, he didn't sell the 'facsimile' bat Brett had given him: "Gossage didn't think he could get much for it, because it came without the memories included—and without the friendship." Billy Martin might not have approved, nor the Boss, nor thousands of fans, but such camaraderie in the midst of competition seems a fitting end to this famed and farcical struggle.
Michael R. Stevens is professor of English at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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