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A game lifts on prose of pitcher

Brosnan, a nine-year major leaguer who will be honored today, wrote irreverent baseball books that were a precursor to `Ball Four.'

July 22, 2007|John Schulian | Special to The Times

I've always thought of Jim Brosnan as complete in a way that few other players have been in the whole sprawling history of baseball. Of course, if you look at nothing but the cold hard facts of his career, you might call me delusional. Brosnan came off the Cincinnati sandlots, where he grew up playing with Don Zimmer and Jim Frey and considered himself lucky when the Cubs signed him out of high school 60 years ago. A pitcher lucky to be a Cub? Broz would soon learn what it meant to be naive.

He survived by letting his inner realist emerge and went on to play in the major leagues for nine seasons. In 1954 and from 1956 to 1963, as a starter and reliever with four teams -- the Cubs, the Cardinals, his hometown Reds and the White Sox -- he won 55 games, lost 47 and had 67 saves, all to the tune of a 3.54 earned-run average. He was, in his own words, "an average professional baseball player."

But he rose far above that description with a statistic that the Baseball Encyclopedia fails to note. Number of books published: two. Both were nonfiction, written by him in diary form over the course of two baseball seasons. Their titles, as I hope you know, are "The Long Season" and "Pennant Race." There is nothing average about either one. They are, rather, a window into what made Jim Brosnan a complete pitcher -- smart, funny, insightful, irreverent, marvelously well-written and, most important, honest.

"Pennant Race" follows the Reds' march to the 1961 National League championship. Brosnan salted it with one well-observed gem after another, the best remembered of which may be this: "Candlestick Park is the grossest error in the history of major league baseball. Designed at a corner table in Lefty O'Doul's, a Frisco saloon, by two politicians and an itinerant ditch digger, the ballpark slants toward the bay -- in fact, it slides toward the bay and before long will be under water, which is the best place for it."

It was, however, "The Long Season," a chronicle of the 1959 campaign, with which Jim Brosnan made history. This is not the fiction that Ring Lardner, Bernard Malamud and countless other non-playing writers have served up. Nor is it a kid-friendly biography of the kind that has cluttered bookstores since publishers discovered the market for baloney and outright lies.

Brosnan used "The Long Season" to take readers onto the field, but he didn't stop there. His tour continued on into the dugouts, clubhouses, planes, trains and hotel rooms where baseball players lived out their lives, from February until October. He laid bare strengths and weaknesses, triumphs and indignities, good times and bad, his own as well as his teammates'. Granted, he realized his era wasn't ready for the vulgarity that is a staple of baseball conversation. And he steered clear of the sexual shenanigans we have come to realize are part of big league recreation. (In the days he wrote about, there wasn't even a designated hitter, and the champions of the two eight-team major leagues went straight to the World Series.) And yet Brosnan's readers -- not just baseball fans but thinking people interested in the human condition -- got the picture.

It was right there on Page 1. Broz, working in the off-season at a Chicago advertising agency, calls home to see if there are olives for martinis. (That was the first surprise: He didn't drink milk.) His wife, Anne Stewart, tells him his contract from the Cardinals has arrived. He's coming off a strong season and looking for a big raise, all the way to $20,000. On Page 2, he finds out the Cards have no intention of giving it to him.

Welcome to the big leagues before agents and free agency, when ballplayers were indentured servants.

By lifting the veil of secrecy from his world, Brosnan ventured where no player had ever gone. There are those who say that John Montgomery Ward, a 19th-century fireballer, was the first to break this literary ground. But my old friend Jerome Holtzman, baseball's tireless unofficial bibliophile, doesn't include anything by Ward in his collection. And as Broz once told me, if Jerry Holtzman doesn't have it, it doesn't exist.

So Brosnan was the first of baseball's dugout literati. Without him, there might have been no "Ball Four" by Jim Bouton a decade later, which would have been a loss of epic proportions. Then again, Sparky Lyle might not have put his name on the scabrous "Bronx Zoo," which would have been a blow for good taste. And what to say of Jose Canseco and "Juiced"? You take the wretched with the sublime, I guess.

But never forget this: "The Long Season" by Jim Brosnan was, and is, the best of its kind.

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