Friday, December 5, 2014

Remembering Jim Brosnan: The Father of Modern Sports Literature

Quick, who invented the techno-military fiction genre? What about the legal thriller? Who perfected the schmaltzy middle-aged chick novel? How about the modern sports book? Chances are you easily guessed Tom Clancy, John Grisham and Debbie Macomber for the first three. If you guessed Jim Brosnan for number four, congratulations—you’re either a knowledgeable sports fan or you read the title to this post. Unfortunately, the literary contribution of Jim Brosnan, who died at 84 earlier this year, is often forgotten nowadays, but he is easily as important as the first three in terms of being ahead of his time and influencing an entire genre of literature. He certainly deserves the credit—and our thanks.

Jim Brosnan was a right-handed pitcher of moderate talent. A couple of great games in the national American Legion tournament in 1946 (in which he played on a team from Cincinnati with Don Zimmer that reached the finals) earned him a professional contract. After some mediocre years with the Cubs and Cardinals, Brosnan met up with manager Fred Hutchinson who converted him to full-time reliever. Brosnan then became one of the top relief pitchers in the league in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He had his best season in 1961, helping the Reds to the pennant with a 10-4 record and 16 saves.

While he was a quality pitcher, it was his off-field activities for which he will always be known. Right from the start, it was obvious that Jim Brosnan was a very unique baseball player. A genuine intellectual, his tastes ran to classical music, martinis and literature with more words than pictures. He spoke a language never before heard in a major league clubhouse. With his round wire-rimmed glasses and ability to be conversant with writers on an endless array of  highbrow topics, it was inevitable that he acquired the clubhouse moniker “The Professor.” It soon became apparent that Brosnan not only knew a lot of big words, but he could also write them down with considerable talent.

In the Pre-Brosnan era, most sports books “written” by athletes were ghost-written formula jobs in which the prevailing sentiment was “gee whiz, we would play this game for nothing.” These sugar-coated books were directed mostly at pre-adolescents and never, ever peeked into an athlete’s private life or true feelings. Other than some great fiction, such as The Natural by Bernard Malamud and Mark Harris’ Bang the Drum Slowly trilogy, other sports books followed the same bubble gum formula. Judging from these, baseball was inhabited by a bunch of refugees from 1950s black and white family television shows. They made it to the major leagues only because of clean living and hard work and spent their free time drinking malts and visiting sick children in hospitals.
          
             For fans, true life inside a major league baseball clubhouse was a riddle, inside a mystery, wrapped in horsehide. With his diary of the 1959 season, The Long Season, Brosnan became the first athlete to dare to pull back the flannel curtain [my accountant said I needed to use up all my Cold War metaphors by the end of the year]. He wrote about what players really did in their free time and what they talked about and did in the bullpen and clubhouse--an honest view of baseball and the men who played it. He provided the first real look into the psyche of players, a rare insight into how difficult it was to play the game of baseball successfully; the stress of a relief pitcher knowing that one bad pitch could double his ERA and wipe out an entire month of good work in an instant; the psychological strain of  knowing that the next phone call could change his city of employment—or life; the recognition that his professional career was up to the whims of the manager, often a man in position only because of his relationships and membership in the old boy network, and a man who may lose affection or, even worse, trust in key situations, for reasons that may be as simple as what the pitcher did in his last outing.
Contrary to prevailing literary notions, Brosnan wrote that baseball players possessed egos and material needs that made monetary reimbursement not only necessary, but desirable. He also clued the public in to the scandalous notion that baseball players sometimes had thoughts regarding young ladies in the stands that were not entirely wholesome.
What Brosnan revealed about players was totally unexpected. To paraphrase Rick in Casablanca when describing Captain Renault: “Baseball players were men, just like any other men, only moreso.” Who knew? This was radical, stop-the-presses sort of stuff.
  
Brosnan’s portrayal of his wife, Anne, was equally groundbreaking. Not just a vacuous-headed pretty face like good 1950s females were supposed to be, she came across as an intelligent and witty woman who even enjoyed engaging in suggestive banter—the ideal wife in many ways, too  good to be true; supportive and interested in her husband’s career, yet confident and intelligent in her own right.
Brosnan showed the taste (and respect for 1950s mores) to keep his writing essentially PG-13. He left dirty parts entirely to the reader’s imagination, but left little doubt about what he was speaking. He also treated his teammates and opponents fairly--there was little needless airing of dirty laundry or throwing anyone under the bus.

By writing about the game and its players realistically, Brosnan essentially invented the athlete-diary genre. In 1962, he followed with Pennant Race, which detailed the Reds surprising pennant-winning season of 1961. Both books hit the best seller list. They laid the groundwork for the later much more celebrated Instant Replay and Ball Four and forever changed the landscape of sports literature.

 And he did it all with unmistakable literary style. Whereas almost all athlete-written books since have been made with the help of a co-author, Brosnan, even though he had no formal training, wrote and edited his books entirely by himself. While he was a better-than-average pitcher, it doesn’t take long while reading the books to discover that he was a great writer. His writing showed candor and wit with insights and observations that bordered on brilliant. He wrote with an obvious love for the game and a humor that was refreshing. The guy could write a good sentence. He was not just a jock telling some ghost-writer stories, he was a legitimate writer, probably the best in baseball history.

            Since The Long Season was the first book to speak honestly about baseball, not surprisingly Brosnan caught fire from the establishment. Although certainly very tame by modern standards, his comments upset several players and particularly his former manager Solly Hemus, who objected to being portrayed as a dullard. Brosnan’s literary talent immediately drew the ire of baseball commissioner Ford Frick (the man who put the ass in asterick). Frick was a former writer and had perpetrated much of the previous baseball myth on the American public—he had even served as Babe Ruth’s ghost writer in some of the pre-adolescent tales. Frick was determined to protect the public from the truth and protect the game of baseball from prying eyes. He called Brosnan into his office for an official butt-chewing.
            In addition to the content he felt that was inappropriate, Frick objected to a passage in which Brosnan joked with another pitcher about giving each other fat pitches. Everyone knows that sort of thing never, ever happened in baseball (see McLain vs. Mantle, 1968).
           
Although Brosnan proceeded to have the best seasons of his career, his pitching was not enough to save his job. He was traded to the White Sox in May of 1963 for Don Zanni--a 31-year-old who had spent exactly one full season in the majors and had an ERA of 8.31 at the time--essentially dumped. Brosnan believed the trade was due to the desire of Reds owner Bill DeWitt to rid the team of his salary, which at $30,000 was one of the biggest on the team. When all facts are viewed, however, it smells like DeWitt (not a fan of literacy among his players) jumped at the chance to rid himself of what he viewed as a troubling distraction.

            In 1964 Brosnan was a 34-year-old, 9-year major league veteran coming off a season in which he had 14 saves and an ERA of 2.84 ERA in 73 innings (certainly a desirable quantity for any team). That spring, White Sox general manager Ed Short sent him a contract which called for a pay cut to $24,000 and contained a clause forbidding Brosnan from writing or publishing anything during the season. Whereas Brosnan had agreed to a similar clause for the Reds in the previous two years, his writing career was picking up and he felt it was time to make a stand for principle. He sent the contract back unsigned.

Still unsigned a month later, Brosnan wrote an article for Sports Illustrated discussing the contract talks and his stance entitled “This Pitcher May Need Relief.” “Why should I give up writing, a means of making a living, to satisfy a whim on his part?” Brosnan asked.
Short had told him, “Ballplayers are paid well enough that they shouldn’t be doing things on the side.”
“Ballplayers eat all year round,” Brosnan responded. “Aren’t they entitled to a choice of jobs off season?” But with no players’ union, Brosnan was effectively screwed.
Short told him that he was free to make a deal with any other club, pending the White Sox’ approval, as long as the team got any loot from the deal. “Cattle selling themselves as long as they turn the proceeds over to the rancher,” is how Brosnan termed the proposal.
Short later told Brosnan that he had contacted all 19 other major league teams and all refused to want him if he insisted on writing. When informed of Short’s response, Brosnan’s wife Anne said, “Now you’ve had it. What are you going to do; get a job?”
“I’ve got a job,” Brosnan replied. “I’m a writer.”

Still trying to keep his baseball career, Brosnan took out an ad in Sporting News that spring under the category of “situation sought,” trying to sell a pitching arm. He got no takers. He was essentially black-balled from baseball.

            He thus became a full-time writer.  He wrote several articles for Sports Illustrated in the ensuing years as well as keeping a regular gig with Boys’ Life for 20 years along with publishing several baseball books, mostly for kids. He remained accessible to other writers and was always a good interview, providing candid responses and honest opinions. He lived the next half-century in the same house in the Chicago suberb of Morton Grove, Illinois.

I considered myself lucky to be able to speak with Jim Brosnan for the Fred Huchinson book in 2009. I couldn't help but feel honored to be talking to someone I considered to be a living legend, a giant of the literary world and a definite influence on my own fledgling writing career. I knew Brosnan respected Fred Hutchinson and had valuable insights into his personality and managing style and he didn't disappoint. I was pleased to find out that he and Anne, the woman he had so painstakingly portrayed as the ideal sports wife, had remained married for almost 60 years. Before hanging up, in addition to thanking him for his time, I tried to convey my appreciation for his talent as a writer and his place in the history of the game. I only hoped that my words were a small fraction as meaningful to him as those he had put to paper were to me so many years earlier.







1 comment:

  1. I won't question Brosnan, but wasn't Scott Turow well ahead of John Grisham?

    ReplyDelete