Jim Brosnan, an average pitcher who became a literary master, passed away on June 28. The cause was an infection developed during recovery from a stroke. He was 84.
In a nine-year major league career, from 1954 through 1963, Brosnan pitched for the Cubs, Cardinals, Reds and White Sox. He was 55-47 with 67 saves and an ERA of 3.54.
But Brosnan gained an eternal place in baseball history as the author of two revolutionary books. The Long Season was written from a diary Brosnan kept during the 1959 season. It became only the third baseball book to make the New York Times bestseller list.
Pennant Race recalled his experiences as a member of the 1961 National League champion Reds.
Brosnan’s books raised the level of non-fiction baseball writing to a new level of literacy, intelligence and eloquence.
“I had not been happy with the baseball books that I had read when I was a kid,” Brosnan told David Davis of Los Angeles Observed in 2007. “I had read a lot of baseball books. They were puff pieces written by sportswriters about one player or another. I wrote about what interested me — what I overheard in the clubhouse.”
For the first time, baseball was well-written by someone on the inside. Not the fiction of Ring Lardner’s You Know Me, Al, or Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, but real baseball, as it’s played every day. Brosnan paved the way for the great baseball writing of the past 50 years by such luminaries as Roger Angell and Roger Kahn, among others.
Consider this assessment from Pennant Race: “Candlestick Park is the grossest error in the history of Major League Baseball. Designed at a corner table in Lefty O’Doul’s, a Frisco saloon, by two politicians and a ditch digger, the ballpark slants toward the bay. In fact, it slides toward the bay, and before long it will be under water, which is the best place for it.”
Surprisingly, Brosnan’s books provoked outrage.
“I had violated the idolatrous image of big leaguers who had been previously portrayed as models of modesty, loyalty and sobriety,” Brosnan wrote in the introduction to a new edition of The Long Season.
In reality, Brosnan went out of his way not to criticize any of his colleagues.
“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,” he told Davis. “I didn’t lose any friends. There were a couple of 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!’”
Others appreciated such candid observations as one made when he won his first two starts with the Cardinals, after being traded by the Cubs: “Success activates popularity among the group. If any ballplayer achieves 90% success, he will normally achieve 90% acceptance as a friend of all on the team.”
And Brosnan didn’t spare himself in his writing. Here’s the start of his entry for May 25, 1959: “Warming up, I didn’t feel exceptionally good. Some days, you throw better than others, and you assume superiority. But today, I knew I had my work cut out for me. The first batter doubled, and my assumption was confirmed.”
But he also had his good days, such as the time he finally got the better of his nemesis, Willie Kirkland: “Kirkland ran up to the plate, eagerly. My old homer-hitting buddy. Six home runs off me in three years.
“I stepped back off the mound to hate Kirkland with my eyes. (Early Wynn says a pitcher will never be a big winner until he hates hitters.) I growled a negative growl at Dotterer’s sign.
“No, sir, if Kirkland hits a homerun off me on this pitch, it will be from a prone position. Down he went. My control was excellent. He fouled off the next slider, fouled off a curve, and fanned on a fastball right under his chin.
“Well, that pitch did it. When a pitcher can rid himself of the feeling that he can’t get a certain hitter out, he knows he’s got good stuff. The Giants stared at me for six innings, waiting to see Old Broz, Old Nervous Broz, start to waver, start to think on the mound. They waited in vain.”
Brosnan’s career ended when the White Sox inserted a clause into his 1964 contract that he not be allowed to publish any of his writing during the season. To Brosnan, that point was a deal-breaker. A career-ender.
After baseball, Brosnan worked for an advertising agency, wrote kids’ books for Random House’s Little League series, and worked for Boys’ Life. Sadly, he never got to write one more book.
“My last book is going to be how the Cubs won the pennant!” he told Davis. “I’m a Cub fan, and I will be a Cub fan until I write that book and offend everybody!”
Denton Ashway is contributing columnist for The Times. His column appears on Wednesday.