Book review: “Pennant Race” by Jim Brosnan

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Book review: “Pennant Race” by Jim Brosnan

It’s midway through the 1961 major league baseball season, and Jim Brosnan, a right-handed relief pitcher of the Cincinnati Reds, is talking with Joey Jay, the staff ace, about when the challenge hitter with pitches.

Brosnan relates the short conversation in his second baseball book Pennant Race and then steps back and tells the reader:

Of course, when I don’t think I have good stuff — and there are such days — I don’t see how I can get anybody out.

Usually I don’t.

Brosnan, who was a pretty good pitcher during his nine years in the big leagues, is nothing if not rawly honest and drily witty in Pennant Race (published in 1962) as well as in his earlier baseball book The Long Season (1960).

Both explain what it is like for a professional baseball player to go through a season of gamesplaying. And more than that — what it’s like for any high-performing athlete to try to harness the mystery of his or her skill within the context of the business, competition and fishbowl of major sports.

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An elegiac quality

brosnan.comboThere is, in fact, an elegiac quality to Brosnan’s writing, an underlying melody of loss. Just behind Brosnan’s descriptions of games and his recounting of conversations, the reader can discern the exquisite sorrow that these athletes have, knowing how fleeting their skills are and how short their stay at the highest level of their sport will be.

That is a future of dread that they face. And there is another sort of dread on a day-to-day basis: The ballplayer is never sure in any particular game if he will have “good stuff” on the mound or a good eye in the batter’s box. He is never sure why sometimes his efforts work and sometimes they don’t. The bounce of the ball, of course, plays a role. But why on one day is Brosnan’s slider breaking sharply and on another it hangs?

Brosnan gives a glimpse of this in his introduction:

The veteran ballplayer is never sure of what will happen in any given play on any given day…. His life is extremely rewarding when he wins, extremely frustrating if he loses. On and off the field he finds that every day has its moments if he swings with it. The pleasant, and unpleasant, nuances are carefully treasured, not easily forgotten.

 

“The pressure’s on”

The advanced statistical analysis that is employed in major league baseball today has also been used to crunch the numbers of those who played in the past. On that basis, Brosnan turns out to have ended his career with a WAR of 14.3. WAR is shorthand for “wins above replacement”, i.e., how much it helped a team to have this particular player on the field instead of the average available replacement.

In other words, Brosnan’s teams won an average of about one and a half additional games each season because he was on the roster.

Such stats have their place, but Brosnan’s two books are a reminder that these players aren’t robots.

For instance, in Pennant Race, when a sportswriter interviews Brosnan about what it feels like to enter a game as a relief pitcher in a game-deciding moment, he responds:

“After all, the pressure’s on every hitter, too, that I face in a jam. He feels he has to drive in the tying or winning run just as I feel I have to get him out. The thing is I know what I’m going to do. He doesn’t. He can’t until I make my pitch.”

 

“A nice, fat pitch to hit”

And it all comes down to execution — Can the pitcher throw the ball how and where he wants it? Can the hitter get good wood on the ball wherever and however it comes toward the plate?

Mistakes are made, and sometimes the player pays and sometimes he doesn’t, such as in key moment during a Big Series in June between the Reds and the Los Angeles Dodgers:

Spencer took two low sliders for strikes, fouled one off that was close, took a high inside fast ball, and finally got a nice, fat pitch to hit. A high slider. Yummy! He swung hard, too hard, and missed it. Which excited the crowd to applause for the pitch instead of boos for the swing.

You’re either a hero or a bum. That’s what I like about my work.

 

“Horse”

Sometimes, mistakes are made over many games, and by many players. That’s why, after four losses in a row, the Reds hold a players-only meeting to hash things out. It turns out to be part-pep talk and part-group therapy.

I stuck my hand up to get in a word.

“I’ve been pretty lousy — lately,” I said, “and I’d appreciate somebody tellin’ me why. The pitching coach has done a good job so far as he goes but he hasn’t said twenty words to me all year about my pitching. Anybody want to kick me in the ass I’d welcome it.”

“All of us have been horse, Professor,” said [Frank] Robinson.

I’m not sure that ballplayers who were playing poorly were called “horse” in 1961. My guess is that the word is used as a euphemism for what was likely the actual term used “horseshit.”

 

“The easy way to win a pennant”

It turns out that winning a lot of games — especially if it’s done consecutively — can also be stress-producing. In some ways, it’s worse than losing a lot in a row.

The tension gets you more when you’re winning. You almost feel relieved when you finally lose a game. In a losing streak, you just don’t want to go the park. You know you’re gonna lose, some way or other. I’d rather win no more than four in a row, and never lose more than two in a row. That’s the easy way to win a pennant.

 

Actually, there’s no “easy way.”

Pennant Race isn’t just about the competition to win the 1961 National League championship. It’s also about the Reds winning that competition. But, as Brosnan describes it, it wasn’t effortless:

Alternating days of delight and despair we bumped along, winning one then losing one. The day after winning was full of anticipation — World Series loot, pennant raises, champagne. Only to be followed by a loss and subsequent black moods when each player looked back on those particular games in which his error or failure had cost a ball game. Had I just, for instance, not blown those two leads to the Cubs, we’d be four games head, not two.

 

“Pathos”

Yet, if Brosnan’s books say anything about baseball, it’s that the players aren’t just players. They have lives outside of the ball park and thoughts beyond balls and strikes, such as the two Reds players, each a graduate student in engineering, who spend the first three innings of one game discussing missiles and nose cones.

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Brosnan himself is called the Professor. In part, that’s because he wears glasses. Even more, though, it’s because he reads books including, among those mentioned in Pennant Race, works by James Thurber, Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller. He quotes from the Roman philosopher Seneca and makes a passing reference to James Joyce.

Consider his description of a African-American in a top hat who was selling peanuts from a cart outside of the Reds’ ball park:

The vendor fascinates me …Once after a night game, I saw him cheated of a bag of peanuts by one beer-happy passenger of a bus loaded with fans noisily irritated because we’d lost a game. I stared at the peanut vendor, who stood in the street empty-handed of the dime unreasonably withheld by the raucous peanut-eater, who slowly crept away in the back of the bus.

It was only peanuts, but it looked as if it might have been a day’s work for the vendor. He blinked his eyes — once, I think — then assumed his expression of melancholy resignation. I thought to myself, “Why don’t I buy a bag of peanuts?”

I don’t like peanuts.

I like pathos.

 

“Pretty good”

His wife Anne Stewart who calls her husband “Meat” is a good sparring partner for him. After sitting through a game in Milwaukee, she says: “Let me tell you: There were two blondes in the box behind me. All they said was: ‘Maybe we’ll see Jim.’ Now, buster, who were they? Just good fans?”

Brosnan doesn’t tell his response. He only notes: “She described them to me. They sounded pretty good.”

As much as Brosnan embraces honesty and the mysterious nature of his craft, he is also more than a bit cynical, especially when he describes how outside factors can come to play or not play a role on the baseball diamond.

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For instance, he notes that rookie pitcher Ken Hunt had a father back in Utah who was an early version of a helicopter parent:

It was the impassioned, parental, and self-appointed obligation of Mr. Hunt to supervise Ken’s major league pitching. When the kid lost a game his mail was filled with Utahan advice; when Ken won, he patted himself on the back.

And, then, there were some players on the opposing Philadelphia Phillies who, metaphorically, at least, wore their religious faith on their sleeves:

On the Philly roster there were two ballplayers who took religion seriously. They belonged to the peculiar sects that equate athletic prowess with purity of heart and morals. Perhaps the competitive nature of major league baseball fires the preachings of such religious buffs. It doesn’t improve their hitting.

 

“Little goose bumps”

Brosnan’s cynicism fades away when he writes about his yearning to do well on the field — and to be recognized for doing well.

 

Despite high hopes, he learns that he did not make the 1961 National League All-Star team.

“So you rationalize,” said the mirror me. “There are eighty pitchers in the league and you’re making yourself out to be one of the top eight. Is that it?”

“You’re goddamn right!” I said, almost aloud.

Jim Brosnan.jpg....2....Nonetheless, as the season comes to an end, Brosnan is on the mound for the final inning of the game in which the National League pennant is won. Working hard and earnestly as a professional, he is also channeling the little kid inside him:

The more strikes I threw, the better I felt as the Cubs swung through, under, and over the slider. Three of the last four Cub batters struck out and little goose bumps broke out on the back of my neck, ran down my spine, and popped out on my right arm.

 

Life stories

Pennant Race ends with the end of the regular season. Wisely, Brosnan doesn’t go on to the anticlimax of the World Series in which the Reds lost to the New York Yankees in five games. In one of those games, the losing pitcher was Brosnan.

Triumph and defeat, success and failure, “good stuff” and “bad stuff” — Brosnan’s two baseball books tell the story of life in the big leagues.

And, in a real way, they tell the story of life.

Patrick T. Reardon
9.6.16

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