Before there was Bouton there was Brosnan

While I’m taking a summer break from the blog, I’m posting recent links about sports history, books, culture and the arts that I haven’t mentioned here before. If you have any suggestions on great sports reads you’d like to bring to my attention, contact me at wendygparker@gmail.com. Enjoy!

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The contemporary athlete memoir is hardly what it used to be, and has rarely approached the anomaly of ballplayer-as-writer the way Jim Brosnan did when he revolutionized the form 55 years ago with the publication of “The Long Season.”

But Brosnan, who died in June at the age of 84, did more than peel back the veneer of the clubhouse for readers. He had a good deal to do with how sportswriting evolved from endless, purplish hagiography to the litany of blistering psychodrama of our times.

In terms of style and temperament, what Brosnan wrote occupies a more nuanced, moderate ground that’s badly needed today, but that may seem quaint to those who traffick in blunt “reality” and snark.

The Long SeasonSportswriter extraordinaire John Schulian examined Brosnan’s legacy in remarks posted on The Stacks, Deadspin’s tribute to classic sportswriting. While Brosnan’s prose wasn’t as vulgar as what was to come in the 1960s and beyond, Schulian says that the former reliever was provocative in a way that fit his times.

In what was ostensibly a book about the 1959 Cincinnati Reds season, “The Long Season” represented more than a snapshot of a year in the game:

“By lifting the veil of secrecy from his world, Brosnan ventured where no player had ever gone.

“So Brosnan was the first of baseball’s dugout literati. Without him, there might have been noBall Four by Jim Bouton a decade later, which would have been a loss of epic proportions. Then again, Sparky Lyle might not have put his name on the scabrous Bronx Zoo, which would have been a blow for good taste. And what to say of Jose Canseco and Juiced? You take the wretched with the sublime, I guess.

“But never forget this: The Long Season by Jim Brosnan was, and is, the best of its kind.”

Brosnan wrote controversially about the paltry salaries players received, a full 15 years before free agency, a topic that upset the powers that be. In 1964, the Chicago White Sox, which owned his contract, ordered him not to publish any of his baseball writings during the season. Brosnan refused to sign, and went on to a writing career that included children’s books and magazine articles.

His departure from the game was prefigured in a 1961 Saturday Evening Post article stating that Brosnan might have been “the most intellectual creature” ever to play the game. Yogi Berra mused that this might have been the case because he was known to read “books without pictures.”

Here’s much more on Brosnan from Mark Armour on the SABR website.

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