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
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."