24-karat diamond-writing gems (Volume 3)

August is always the longest month of the baseball season. Almost everywhere, the weather is stifling and energy-sapping. Playing in a dome, while cooler, is depressing. Who wants to be indoors in August?

The bad teams have run out of excuses and second chances. Their hopes for a post-All-Star break reincarnation have gone unfulfilled. There is still a month to go before the September call-ups that can infuse some life into a dead clubhouse, give the fans something to look forward to and the media something to write about.

August is also tough on the contenders. They have already played more than one hundred games but there is still a long way to go. The games are crucial—but no one wants to admit as much and add to the building pressure. The fact remains that you can’t play for a pennant in September if you don’t play well in August.

By August, baseball has divided itself into two distinct groups: those looking to add a key player for a pennant race and those looking to trade that player for prospects (who can put them into a pennant race in the future). General managers work the phones harder. Scouts spend extra time on the road. Managers and pitching coaches must give honest assessments of how their players will perform when it matters most—in September. This is not a month for illusions.

In a literal sense, August is baseball’s hottest period. In a figurative sense, August is the time when temperatures rise

– John Feinstein

Yes, the dog days of August are fully upon us. What better time, then, to take a step back from the maddening tension of the grinding season? How about we refresh ourselves with a few of the most artful examples of baseball writing from decades past, those snippets of exquisite prose that instantly remind us why we put up with all the silliness eternally surrounding this most fascinating of games.

All right, this next one’s from just about a half-century ago, and although a few of the details betray its period, fundamentally its content is timeless. The griping that “games are too slow nowdays” is, alas, a constant refrain of every era, and even more eternal is the fussy, temperamental thoroughbred character of the pitcher, always the object of everyone’s attention.

And, man, I for one sure miss white-wall-tired automobiles.

In recent years, in attempts to speed up the game, such rituals as throwing the ball around the infield have been considered dispensable by some authorities. Sadly, as the so-called deadweight components of the game are pruned away, it is always the pitcher who suffers. The authorities want to limit mound conferences. A few of the more impatient umpires yell at a dawdling pitcher that his pants aren’t falling off, his cap is straight—to quit fussing with them and pitch.

In some parks, rather than waste the time he takes walking in from the bullpen, a relieving pitcher is transported to the mound in a white-wall-tired automobile. In Boston’s Fenway Park they have a scooter. The pitcher looks uncomfortable sitting there with a glove on his lap; beside him, the chauffeur is usually grinning—as if delivering a man in particularly ludicrous costume to a charity ball.

Actually, the pitcher as the prima donna of the baseball roster needs that long walk from bullpen to pitcher’s mound: his vanity delights in the picture he presents as a lonely but courageous figure, his jacket carefully shielding the pitching arm, tramping his way in past the outfielders as his name is bellowed out over the loudspeaker system. It means he can play the part of the avenging angel without actually doing anything but walking—for the moment.

The pitcher is happiest with his arm idle. He prefers to dawdle in the present, knowing that as soon as he gets on the mound and starts his windup he delivers himself to the uncertainty of the future. Similarly, the ritual of throwing the ball around the infield allows the pitcher to postpone the future; it allows him to fuss around on his hill of dirt like a gawky hen; he can pick up and drop the rosin bag; he’s given a moment or so in which to preen himself on his accomplishments. It is the fine moment of his profession.

– George Plimpton

Probably no practitioner of that preening profession has ever written more subtly, slyly and revealingly about it than the fellow we’ll hear from next. While we fans can be excused for sometimes expressing impatience with the breed, here we’re privileged to glimpse just how agonizing their day at work can be.

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Mizell had retired seven straight batters and I didn’t think there would be much need for help. But by the time I’d taken off my jacket, found my glove under the bench, walked to the bullpen mound and stuck a piece of gum in my mouth, Wilmer was just about out of the game. Wally Post hit the second pitch for a single and Anderson slammed a high curve off the scoreboard for one run.

Hal Smith ambled out to talk to Mizell, taking as much time as he could. But what can a catcher say but good-bye? Keane, who had been running the club since the third when Hemus was thumbed, also took his time before calling me in from the bullpen. I heard Venzon, the umpire, yell to me that I was to come on to the mound, but I kept throwing so that he’d have to come down the left field line to get me. I like Tony, and all that, but I needed time to get warm. I threw two more quick curves before he got to me to yell, “Let’s go, Brosnan. Didn’t you hear me call you?”

I was tempted to get smart and say, “You’re the one with the rabbit ears, not me,” but I like Tony, I really do. Sticking my nose in the air, I walked by Venzon and out to the mound thinking to myself, “I’m ready.”

I could have been more ready, I guess.

I couldn’t have looked worse, I know.

Willie Jones was the first hitter, and I knew I could get him out if I kept everything away, and wasted maybe one pitch inside. But he hit a pitch that was just not quite far enough away from him. His fly ball fell a foot inside the right field line for a double. Philadelphia was just two runs down and still had nobody out.

Freese bounced a slider back to me, and I felt better. But Dave Philley batted for Hegan and hit a low slider away from him to left field for a single. It wasn’t too bad a pitch. Had it broken down slightly instead of staying flat Philley might have hit it into the ground instead of on a line. Then, too, White might have caught the ball in left field had he been an outfielder instead of a first baseman.

Bowman batted for the pitcher and I was trying to decide how to pitch him, when Keane ran out of the dugout, yelling for time. He ran all the way to the mound and said, “We’re going to let Jackson pitch to him.” I assumed that what Keane said came from Hemus, shrugged my shoulders, and walked to the clubhouse. At this critical moment I was willing to accept anyone’s opinion. The Philadelphia fans were roaring. Do they sense disaster, these miserable fans?

Jackson pitched to four men. Two of them singled, and two of them walked as the Phillies’ radio broadcaster snorted and brayed fanatically. As I uncapped the aspirin bottle in the dressing room, the winning run crossed the plate. I swallowed two pills at once, pocketed two for later, and sat down on the table to wait for the explosion.

The tension was thick. The locker room steamed nervously, the damp walls reflecting every player’s breath. I heard the clatter of muddy spiked shoes being banged on the floor, and the scratching of matches as cigarettes were lit.

“That’s the worst exhibition I ever saw!”

That’s all that was said.

Jim Brosnan

The ballgame being described, by the way, took place on May 5, 1959. (And contrary to Brosnan’s contemporaneous recounting, Bill White wasn’t the Cardinals’ left fielder on that single by Dave Philley; Gino Cimoli had been inserted as a defensive replacement to begin the bottom of the ninth.)

Can’t you just see that game, that inning, those at-bats, in your mind, even though you didn’t actually witness them? I wasn’t present—hell, I was a crawling infant at the time, and a continent away besides—but Brosnan’s terse, wry style brings me right there.

Yet even more vivid than our imagining of games described to us is our remembering of games seen by us, no matter how long ago …

There is a game of baseball that is not to be found in the schedules or the record books. It has no season, but it is best played in the winter, without the distraction of box scores and standings. This is the inner game, baseball in the mind, and there is no real fan who does not know it.

It is a game of recollections, recapturings, and visions; figures and occasions return, enormous sounds rise and swell in our remembrance, and the interior stadium fills with light and yields up the sight of a young ballplayer, some hero perfectly memorized, just completing his own, unmistakable swing and now racing toward first—See the way he runs? Yes, that’s him!—then leaning in as, still following the distant flight of the ball with his eyes, he takes his big turn at the base.

Yet this is only the beginning, for baseball in the mind is not a mere yearning and returning. In time, this easy envisioning of restored players, winning hits, and famous rallies gives way to reconsiderations and reflections about the sport itself. By thinking about baseball like this, by playing it over and yet keeping it to ourselves, keeping it warm in a cold season, we begin to make discoveries. With luck, we may even penetrate some of its mysteries and learn once again how richly and variously the game can reward us.

– Roger Angell

Ah, but isn’t it the case that as we remember ballplayers and ballgames long past, as we review them again and again with our mind’s eye—aren’t we also remembering and reviewing our own lives, our own selves, casting back not just to a time and place and event, but also to a long-ago self that thrives anew?

The following summer, I was loaned out for a month to a farm family in Vermont, on my mother’s well-meaning assumption that milking cows and forking hay would be healthy for a 128-pound city boy who was by now spending most of his time with his ear to the radio or his eyes on the sports pages.

But I outfoxed her. If the corn rows that required daily weeding were many and endless, they also formed a giant screen against prying eyes. I could duckwalk behind them to the edge of the field, and from there it was just a short run to the bunkhouse, where the innards of an old radio sat on a bench by my bed. The machine had no switch, no volume control, no tuning knob, not even a dial. But by stretching myself prone on my bunk and reaching both my arms through the space between the headbar and the mattress, I could make the thing work. With my right hand I would hold a loose wire against a terminal at the back of the chassis to get power, and with my left hand manipulate the variable condenser to tune in different stations.

In the daytime it was impossible to pick up New York City, but it usually took just a few seconds to find a local news broadcast with a roundup of ball scores at the end of it. In an instant I would be back down the stairs and out again among the corn rows pulling up weeds as if they were what stood between the Yankees and the pennant. At night, if the atmosphere was clear, it was possible to catch the Yankee broadcasts directly, though it was always a challenge to chase after the signal as it faded in and out of the nearby frequencies. I had to be careful also to hold the loose wire steady, for at the slightest tremor of my fingers the circuit would break and the signal would die.

But if I did everything right, Mel Allen’s bronze gong of a voice would ring in the darkness around me with a description of game being played thousands of miles away. No, not a description really, for the words didn’t call up a picture of reality; they were reality. The phrase home run, the words “it’s going, going, gah-own”—these didn’t summon an image of the ball arcing into the grandstand, but rather the feeling of the event—a surge of ecstasy if it was a score for the Yankees, a pang of despair if the enemy had struck.

So I would pass evening after evening in the darkness of the bunkhouse, literally tuning in my fantasies, until my arms would fall asleep from the pressure of the mattress, my fingers grow numb, the wire slip, and a vicious shock would jar my hand as the old radio short-circuited.

But even electrocution couldn’t kill the dream. On days when everything else had gone wrong for me, yet my team had won, I would drift off to sleep imagining the next day’s victory and the one the day after that, an endless stream of winning days winding all the way to October and another championship—a dream of perfection.

And on days when my team had lost, I would tell myself that my fixation on baseball was pretty silly after all, a personality quirk, a residue of adolescence—I might even go so far as to promise myself to swear off the game. Yet just before nodding off, my mind would slip to a level deeper than discipline. And at the border of sleep and dreaming, I would discover again, as if it were a coin in tall grass, the hope that my team might win tomorrow.

– Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

References & Resources
John Feinstein, Play Ball: The Life and Troubled Times of Major League Baseball, New York: Villard, 1993, pp. 253-254.

George Plimpton, Out of My League, New York: Harper, 1961, pp. 94-95.

Jim Brosnan, The Long Season, New York: Harper & Row, 1960, pp. 118-120.

Roger Angell, “Baseball in the Mind,” in This Great Game, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1971, p. 26.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, Me and DiMaggio: A Baseball Fan Goes in Search of His Gods, New York: Lyons, 1986, pp. 18-19.

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