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Book Report: Pennant Race

One of the great things about library book sales—well, I suppose any used book sale, but I seem to go to library book sales more often than other kinds, more often even than used book stores—is coming across some book you haven’t thought of for years, but loved at the time, and then buying it for a buck, reading it and finding out that it really is magnificent.

Or awful, of course, which is also interesting. Pennant Race falls into the magnificent category. It’s cheating a bit, in this case, because Jim Brosnan’s baseball diary is often mentioned as one of the great baseball books, second (in many people’s opinion) only to his earlier diary The Long Season. I am hoping to pick up Long Season at some library book sale some year soon, but for now, I’m just thrilled to have Pennant Race. If you like baseball at all, Gentle Reader, and haven’t read Mr. Brosnan’s books, there is a treat waiting for you.

Baseball is different now than it was in 1961, of course. The starting pitchers for that team included Jim O’Toole, who started 35 games and got two saves, and Bob Purkey who started 34 and saved 1. Of course, Mr. Brosnan, the closer with sixteen saves and 34 games finished, feels it necessary to explain what a save is, which he does by essentially describing it as a tool for contract negotiation. Which it is, but who admits that these days? Mr. Brosnan talks a lot about money, coming off a good outing with the confidence that his mortgage is safe and worrying after a bad one if he needs to find another source of income. I imagine things are different, now; the bonus babies in the Reds bullpen have a few thousand in the bank against a short career. After everything, the lowest-paid rookie in a bullpen these days should be able to feed a family for ten years on one year’s salary. And a good thing, too.

As I settled in to re-read the book I was looking forward to a few anecdotes about Frank Robinson, a source of great sportswriting copy over half-a-century of baseball. I was disappointed. It was clear that Mr. Brosnan did not spend much time with him. Most of that is that Mr. Brosnan’s natural home was the bullpen, and most of the book is set there, with the cast of relievers attempting to keep their minds on the game. Or not. Out of the bullpen, in the clubhouses, trainer’s rooms, hotels and buses that make up the rest of the book, he hangs around with, no surprise here, the relievers that he spends game time with, that he’s closest to. Fair enough. But I don’t think I’m entirely imagining a sense that the two also were kept apart by race—not that I think Jim Brosnan is or was a racist, particularly, but because the black players stuck together and the white players let them. That probably happens to some extent these days, although I suspect mostly it’s monolingual Anglophones of whatever race hanging around together and those who are comfortable in Spanish letting them. I have no idea. But—Frank Robinson! MVP of that Pennant Race, towering and possibly tragic figure in baseball history, and he would barely break the index. Hmph.

One last thing—it was a very strange experience reading about the games Mr. Brosnan’s Reds played against the Giants. It was almost as if he wanted the Giants to lose.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,