An interview with Jim Brosnan

Soon after I graduated from the John R. Tunis school of sports literature, I began reading through my dad's collection. He had some cherce books: James T. Farrell's My Baseball Diary, Lawrence Ritter's Glory of Their Times, Roger Kahn's Boys of Summer, Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al, the works of Roger Angell and George Plimpton (though my dad thought Plimpton a snob), Jim Bouton's Ball Four, Pat Jordan's A False Spring, and Robert Coover's Universal Baseball Association, Inc.

Two of the best – and most literate -- were written by an obscure relief pitcher named Jim Brosnan: The Long Season (1960) and Pennant Race (1962). Before their publication, sports books by and/or about athletes were one-dimensional and hagiographic. Both Long Season and Pennant Race were season-in-the-life diaries that gave readers an insider's peek into the daily toil of a ballplayer: how they prepare for spring training, what they talk about in the bullpen, what it feels like to be traded.

Here's Brosnan on Dodgers ace Don Drysdale: "When Drysdale is fast -- on some days a pitcher throws harder than on others -- his fast ball pops the leather of the catcher's mitt. Like a sledge hammer slamming a fence stump. The very sound can numb a batter's hands, even before he gets out of the on-deck circle. 'Got to get out in front -- got to be out in front on the pitch,' he says to himself. Of course, Drysdale also throws a fast curve ball. If the batter sets himself to get way out in front on the fast ball, and the pitch turns out to be a curve ball, he may suffer the embarrassment of looking like he's chasing bumblebees with a butterfly net."

Book reviewers were astonished that a baseball player could actually write; his peers, who nicknamed the bespectacled Brosnan "The Professor," were outraged that he wrote revealed the game's secrets, including how to throw a spitball. Catcher-turned-broadcaster Joe Garagiola reportedly called Brosnan a "kooky beatnik."

"I had violated the idolatrous image of big leaguers who had been previously portrayed as models of modesty, loyalty, and sobriety," wrote Brosnan in the introduction to a new edition of Long Season. (Thankfully, both of his books have been re-printed by Ivan Dee.)

Brosnan retired in 1963, after a nine-year career in the Majors. This weekend, he will be inducted into the Baseball Reliquary's Shrine of the Eternals, along with New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra and historian-statistical analyst Bill James, in the Pasadena-based group's annual shindig at the Pasadena Central Library. The ceremony starts at 2 p.m.; while you're there, check out the Reliquary's latest exhibit at the Library: "The Times They Were A-Changin': Baseball in the Age of Aquarius."

The 77-year-old Brosnan recently injured himself in a fall, so won't be able to attend the ceremony. (Berra also can't attend, but James is scheduled to be there.) I spoke with Brosnan by telephone from his home in suburban Chicago.

LA Observer: How does it feel to be elected to the Baseball Reliquary's Shrine of the Eternals?

Jim Brosnan: It's an exceptional surprise and honor. Neither I nor my father ever thought I would make it into a Hall of Fame of any kind, so what he did years ago was to invent one. I come from Price Hill, which overlooks Cincinnati, and there were several other [Major Leaguers] from there: Herman Wehmeier, Clyde Vollmer, the Zimmer brothers. My father thought it would be a good idea to have a Price Hill Hall of Fame, and so he started one. Now, the Reds have their own Hall of Fame. But my father beat them to it.

LAO: Had you written about baseball before you wrote The Long Season?

JB: For Sports Illustrated. When I was with the Cubs, I was also working for the man who did all the advertising for the Wrigley company. Time Magazine had sent somebody out here to do a story about P.K. Wrigley, and I got to know the reporter [Bob Creamer]. He said, "If you ever do any writing about baseball that you think would be of interest to us, let me know."

About this time, the Cubs were figuring on trading me – which they did, to the St. Louis Cardinals, for Alvin Dark, which he considered a grave insult. So, I called Bob, who was then an editor with Sports Illustrated, and I said, "I'm no longer with the Cubs. I've been traded, and it was a rather interesting thing that happened. Should I write about it?"

He said, "Yes." I did. They published it. Then, they published other pieces I wrote. An editor at Harper & Row –- at the time, that's what it is was called –- called me and said, "Would you do what you have been doing for Sports Illustrated for us?" Evan Thomas, who was then running the company, was a big baseball fan, and he liked what I had done. They said, "Send us, say, 50 pages." And, I did. Then, they called and said, "Send more." They kept repeating that until I got most of it done.

Pennant Race came after that because they wanted another book. The guy at Harper & Row said, "The Reds are going to win the pennant this year." As it turned out, his hunch was good.

LAO: Who were your influences as a writer?

JB: Hemingway, I suppose. My basic question was, "Could I write the way he did?" I enjoyed the idea that I could put down my thoughts on a piece of paper.

LAO: You inaugurated the season-in-the-life format that is so popular in sports. How did you decide to write in that format?

JB: I had not been happy with the baseball books that I had read when I was a kid. I had read a lot of the baseball books –- they were puff pieces written by sportswriters about one player or another. I thought, "That’s one way to do it, but if I'm going to do it, who was I going to write about?" Well, it came easier to write about me.

I wrote about what interested me -– what I overheard in the clubhouse. At the start, I wanted to see what it would look like after I had written 50 pages. The editors said, "Keep doing what you're doing."

LAO: Did you have to do a lot of polishing after you had sent everything in to the publisher?

JB: No, I didn't. Hardly anything. Initially, I was told to take out [the references to] the martinis. Then I got a call from the top editor – I can't remember his name – and he said, "Ignore that last message. Put more martinis in. We just sold the rights to Sports Illustrated." [Laughs.]

LAO: What was the reaction to the book by fellow ballplayers – and did you lose any friends because of the book?

JB: I didn't lose any friends. There were a couple guys that I didn't like -– and they didn't like me -– and it remained that same way.

Joe Adcock hit a home run off me and said, "Stick that in your book." That got around: Frank Thomas said to me, "Stick that in your book." For me, it got to be a pleasurable joke.

Joe Garagiola was quoted as saying that I was a traitor. I heard that from a couple other people, who didn't know what "traitor" meant in the first place. It never became a serious thing. Since then, Joe apologized when we were getting into the Emil Verban Memorial Society. [Verban was a second baseman for, among other teams, the Cubs.] He said, "I take that all back. Your book was funny." Of course, he wrote a book called, Baseball Is a Funny Game.

LAO: So, no players were outraged that you had taken the trade secrets to the public?

JB: No, because I didn't have any trade secrets. [Laughs.] I intentionally tried not to offend anybody by making remarks about how they played, or what they should have done, or how easy it was to get them out.

Gino Cimoli was upset because I made a crack about him not getting a good jump on a ball. He told my roommate, Howie Nunn, that if ever saw me at the bar, he's gonna punch me out instead of buying me a drink. Well, as it turned out, I saw Gino in a bar in Cincinnati where a lot of the players used to hang out. Howie said, "Let's go talk to Gino." I said, "He's gonna punch me in the mouth." Howie said, "Don't worry. He punches you, I punch him, we're all even." Of course, nothing happened. The thing just blew over.

LAO: Which book do you like better and why?

JB: I thought I did the second book better because I knew better how to write. It became much easier for me to edit myself and to put what I wanted to say in a mode that was, to my mind, wry.

LAO: Your books are often described as precursors to Ball Four Do you believe that your book opened the door to Ball Four?

JB: Well, I don't know. I never talked to Bouton about it, so I don’t really know. I was told that he thought that I was not as truthful as I should be about what the life of a professional baseball player was like. But I don’t know whether that's true because I haven't talked to him about it.

LAO: What was your opinion of Ball Four when you first read it?

JB: I didn't like the first page because I thought he made a buffoon out of Joe Schultz, the coach, whom I liked very much when I was with the Cardinals. The language he used coming out of Schultz's mouth I had never heard. It may be just because I never heard it -- and Bouton was around Joe Schultz a lot longer than I was -- but I'm afraid that set the tone. I couldn’t say that I really liked the book much.

LAO: Do you know Bouton?

JB: Not at all. I've never talked to him. The occasion just never came up. I understand he's got a helluva sense of humor.

LAO: You're known more for your books than for your pitching. How would you characterize your playing career?

JB: I got better at it. I never was able to throw the Tommy Bridges curve ball. [Bridges threw what was considered to be a nasty curve.] I just wasn't getting that break. It was years later, when [coach] Howie Pollet taught me how to throw a slider, that I began to understand it.

I once threw a Tommy Bridges curve ball to Ken Boyer, after I had gone to Cincinnati from St. Louis. Boyer was a good friend, and the pitch had a break that went almost straight down and was a strike. He just stood there and stared at me. Later on, he said to me, "If you'd only been able to throw that pitch when you were with us, we would have won."

LAO: You faced Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Duke Snider, among others. Who was the batter you feared the most?

JB: Mays hit a ball off me over the top of the roof at the Polo Grounds. And, just to prove that he could do it on the West Coast, he hit one clear over the left-field stands [at Candlestick Park]. As far as I'm concerned, he was the best opponent that I couldn’t get out. Well, I once struck him out three times in a game that I started. It was all over the papers the next day -- it was me saying, "I just struck out Willie Mays three times."

LAO: Post-baseball, what did you do for a living?

JB: I worked for an advertising agency for something like seven years. I wrote a lot of kids books for Random House's Little League series. I worked for Boys' Life – the Boy Scouts of America publication – for 20 or so years. That took me to Florida, to spring training, every year. We'd pick somebody out, and then I would do a story about him.

LAO: You published Long Season and Pennant Race by 1962. Besides the kids book, why didn't you continue writing books?

JB: I was getting into television and radio. I was working there, and I liked that.

Today, I'm thinking that my last book is going to be how the Cubs won the pennant. I'm entitled to have my opinion about why it took so long [for the Cubs to win]. But it's not going to be this year, so I don't have to write it yet. [Laughs.}

LAO: So, you still follow baseball today?

JB: Oh, sure. I'm a Cub fan, and I will be a Cub fan until I write that book and offend everybody. [Laughs.]

LAO: What's your opinion of today's game?

JB: Oh, I think it's probably better than it was, physically, with the things that players can do today. Barry Bonds' ability to swing that bat of his: he can do things with that bat, in a swing, that I was never able to detect in any hitter that I ever saw.

LAO: There's a lot of controversy about today's game regarding steroid use. When you were active, did many players – including yourself -- take greenies?

JB: Whenever I had to. If I had a late-night party, I wouldn't hesitate. They were there, and they made me feel better. It was like taking an aspirin, only stronger. They made me feel more capable of pitching. Of course, as a relief pitcher, I never knew exactly when I was going to have to pitch.

LAO: Do you think the players of your era would have taken steroids if they were around back then?

JB: I imagine some would have.

July 17, 2007 10:35 PM • Native Intelligence • Email the editor
 

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