Ask a baseball fan to name the mother of all sports autobiographies -- America's first look at what life is really like as a professional athlete -- and most will point you to "Ball Four," Jim Bouton's rollicking account of his 1969 season spent between the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros. And with good reason: It's not every day you come across a quote as golden as "for Chrissakes, Gelnar, you'll never get them out drinking Dr. Pepper."
But as scintillating, scandalous and paradigm-shifting as "Ball Four" was, it owes its place in the canon to another book -- one that came along a full 10 years earlier. Written by one of baseball's indelible characters -- a man so out there Frank Robinson dubbed him "The Professor," who'd bark at batters in French, who spent his off-days at art museums and his down time in the bullpen smoking a pipe -- it was unlike anything anyone had ever read. It was a truly fly-on-the-wall account of life in the Majors, from being traded to clubhouse bridge games to watching Stan Musial playing the drums, taking any notion of what fans should or shouldn't have access to and flipping it on its head.
It nearly got its author punched in the nose by a big league manager, but Jim Brosnan's "The Long Season" walked so that "Ball Four" could run.
It was always going to take an outsider to produce baseball's ultimate insider account. For decades, the rules had been clear: The game was a fraternity, and only members were allowed behind its doors. A book actually written by a player was practically unheard of, and those that did exist were autobiographies in name only, more invested in myth-building than anything like verisimilitude. (According to Babe Ruth's 1948 autobiography, Ruth not only called his shot in the 1932 World Series -- he dreamed about doing so the night before.)
Brosnan, however, had always been a bit different. He skipped the first grade, took seven years of Latin, became an accomplished pianist and graduated high school before his 17th birthday. He didn't grow up wanting to be a ballplayer; he wanted to be a doctor, or maybe a writer.
But he grew to 6-foot-1 as a teenager, and his fastball was undeniable -- he played just one year of high school ball, but he helped carry his American Legion team to the national finals, and Major League scouts took notice. In 1947, the Cubs came calling with a $2,500 signing bonus, and after a single semester as a premed student at Xavier, he dropped out to pursue a career as a pitcher.
Fitting in was a struggle, though. Brosnan wasn't a fan of most people and didn't care much about hiding it. He was competitive but sensitive, and an undeniably odd fit in a baseball clubhouse. He got demoted after his Minor League manager, former big leaguer Charlie Root, overheard him laughing at a book he was reading at his locker -- he'd just lost, 1-0, and Root thought Brosnan wasn't taking it hard enough. When he arrived at his next stop, his new skipper filed an inauspicious scouting report:
“Reported unhappy, still lone wolf. Started off not reporting on time and leaving park after being taken out of game, but doing little more. … The last time he pitched he walked to the plate in batting practice without a cap and, when not at the plate, sat on the bench reading a magazine. Was told about these things.”
The Cubs, mired in the cellar of the National League, desperately needed any pitching they could get, so Brosnan (after a brief stint in the Army, during which he met his wife, Anne, whom he courted with trips to see the National Symphony Orchestra in D.C.) wound up in The Show anyway. He even became an effective reliever, turning in a 3.58 ERA over 193 2/3 innings from 1956-57. But he was still a man removed: "On the road, I did what I always did," he once recalled. "I read. If I went to a foreign movie, I went by myself. The players resented me.”
Ballplayers couldn't figure him out, this guy who rarely drank and kept his nose in a book and would much rather talk about the poetry of Virgil Thomson or the compositions of Béla Bartók than play pinochle on the train to the next city, and Brosnan was constantly perplexed by the culture around him. Plus, his life had settled a bit, with a wife and three children and a relatively stable spot in a big league bullpen. So, when a friend of his at Sports Illustrated came to him and asked if he'd be interested in writing a dispatch or two during the 1958 season, he didn't see what the big deal was.
The resulting story -- "Now Pitching for St. Louis: ... the Rookie Psychiatrist" -- ran in the July 21 issue, and it was uninhibited in a way that felt unprecedented. Brosnan touched on every aspect of a year in the Majors, from his midseason trade to the Cardinals:
[GM John] Holland's words -- 'I don't know whether this is good news or bad news' and 'we appreciate all you've done for the organization' -- while probably well-intentioned, were spoken like a poor actor at first rehearsal.
To a, uh, rather unfortunate in-game injury:
The ball broke my protective cup (as I later learned) and the pain was intense. After rolling around the infield for a while I lay still groaning. Ballplayers hovered over me with pained expressions and the trainer used ice and smelling salts, and I came to, hoping the ache would die down ... The trainer gave me pills and assurance, and I headed for the train station.
The piece was a hit, so much so that Brosnan decided to keep a daily diary in 1959 -- and to turn that diary into baseball's first tell-all.
It was called "The Long Season," and without the need for a ghostwriter (and without particularly caring whom he offended or what unwritten rules he violated) Brosnan brought fans fully behind the curtain, from the mundane to the madcap. It wasn't as raucous as "Ball Four" but it was fascinating nonetheless, with an arch wit that would make "Bull Durham" blush.
On Spring Training: "Spring Training has a convocation ceremony that follows strict patterns all over the baseball world. Manager speaks: 'Wanna welcome all you fellows; wanna impress on you that you each got a chance to make this ball club.' (This hypocrisy is always greeted by an indulgent and silent snicker from the veterans of previous training camps.)"
On life before bullpen phones: "A call comes in from the dugout to get a reliever or two loosened up and the cry goes out, 'Brosnan! Get naked!'"
On a teammate wondering if he'd been cut: "The tone of his voice was a bit scratchy; the tension of not knowing whether or not he was the one on whom the ax would fall had finally gotten to his vocal cords. It gets so bad, you can't talk about it; but it's so important to you that you can't think of anything else."
On the difficulty and fragility of life as a pitcher: "Everything has gone so well this spring. Physically I have been loose and healthy, mentally I've been content. Could it be that I've been granted custody of the Golden Arm for 1959? Is the good lady, Luck, on my side this year? I pinched my right arm to see if it was real. It hurt. It is human. What a damn shame."
On teammate Sal Maglie: “He might have been the model for a medieval Italian woodcut.” (Fact check: true.)
On interacting with opposing fans: “An obnoxious fan has a big mouth filled with penetrating sarcasm. He has, usually, a bass voice, a baser personality, and would like to run ballplayers out of the park. He is quick enough on his feet to never be caught. He often leaves the park in the eighth inning, hoarse; and his absence makes the game more enjoyable.”
A bullpen back then was an island of misfit toys, full of guys who couldn't crack it as a starter, doing their best to get by on guile. In Brosnan's hands they became a Greek chorus: cracking wise, always observing, fundamentally laconic but earnest around the edges. (And, of course, there was a little carousing, too. Like the time Brosnan, upset after a poor start in San Francisco, stayed out all night and needed his teammates' help to catch his flight to L.A. ... only for his wife to take one look at him at the gate and walk away. When Cubs manager Bob Scheffing wrote his front office a report on the incident, it read simply: "Brosnan finally joined the ball club.")
Plenty of baseball lifers didn't take kindly to "The Long Season". His old manager in St. Louis, Solly Hemus, quipped, "You think Brosnan's writing was funny? Wait 'til you see him pitch." Cardinals legend Joe Garagiola called Brosnan "a kooky beatnik." (Garagiola and his broadcast partner, Harry Caray, even started sending Brosnan telegrams after bad starts.) A former teammate, Gino Cimoli, threatened to punch him over a passage in which Cimoli misread a fly ball and cost Brosnan a win -- although, according to Brosnan, the two met years later and "after three or four drinks we were laughing about the whole thing." Even Mickey Mantle, when asked for his reaction, responded with a sarcastic "Jim who?"
But the book was a success, selling tens of thousands of copies, and critics couldn't get enough. "Traditionally," wrote a review in Time magazine, "a baseball book is a sludge of cold porridge turned out by a ghostwriter for some superstar and dedicated to the notion that pro baseball is just good, clean, American fun. Brosnan's book breaks all such rules. ... He strongly suggests that baseball players are something less than choir boys." Red Smith, one of the greatest sportswriters to ever live, called it “a cocky book, caustic and candid and, in a way, courageous, for Brosnan calls them like he sees them, doesn’t hesitate to name names, and employs ridicule like a stiletto.”
It was enough to earn Brosnan a sequel, entitled "Pennant Race," about Brosnan's 1961 season, in which he went 10-4 with 3.04 ERA and helped the Reds reach the World Series. By that point, he'd become a prolific freelance writer, with bylines everywhere from The Atlantic to Esquire. Eventually, that pen became a problem: Upon being traded to the White Sox in the spring of 1963, Chicago's GM, Ed Short, told him that he'd no longer be able to write during the season. The next year, Short asked him to take a pay cut, and when Brosnan balked, the team released him. No other club showed interest, and just like that, one of the best relievers in the Majors had to retire at 34.
"Quitting didn’t bother me," Brosnan later said. “I was a writer. I was going to be a writer.”
That's just what he kept on doing for decades, with Anne at his side. It's a good thing, too, because Brosnan didn't just pave the way for a new kind of sports memoir -- he bridged the gap between athlete and fan, creating a new dynamic in which it wouldn't be weird for, say, a former Cy Young Award winner to let thousands of people into his living room on a Twitch stream.