Sports Collectors Digest: Jim Brosnan

By Marty Appel

It’s been 60 years since he signed his first pro contract (at age 16!), and 46 years since the publication of “The Long Season”, but Jim Brosnan’s place in the hearts of admirers of baseball literature remains secure.

The journeyman relief pitcher of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, without a ghost writer, produced two baseball books that remain classics, and remain in print after all these years. “The Long Season” was only the third baseball book to make the New York Times best seller list (following “The Babe Ruth Story” and “Fear Strikes Out”), and two years later, “Pennant Race”, equally literate and fascinating, traced the fortunes of the National League champion Cincinnati Reds of 1961.

“I read baseball books when I was 12, 13, 14, and I didn’t believe any of them!” says Brosnan, now 76, speaking from his home in suburban Chicago. “They just didn’t sound authentic to me. And sure enough, when I got to the big leagues myself, I said, “there’s so much more here to write about!”

In 1958, Brosnan wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated on his feelings about being traded by the Cubs to the Cardinals. Feeling good about the way it turned out, he wrote a letter to Buzz Wyatt, an editor at Harper & Row, during spring training of 1959, pitching a diary of his season. Wyatt asked him to send some samples early in the season, and a deal was made.

“I didn’t get any advance,” says Brosnan. “Zero. Only royalties. I think I got about a $7,000 for “Pennant Race”, but the good news is that both books have remained in print to this day, so checks still arrive regularly, and I’m glad people still enjoy them. I have no idea how many have been sold over the years, but it’s wonderful when someone comes up and compliments me on them. And most people seem have read both, not just one. They’re a set!” (The current publisher is Ivan R. Dee).

More than just an enjoyable read, the books are seen as the first “real look” inside a ballplayer’s life ever written by a player. And they are written in such a pleasant, easy style, that young readers could connect to the game through them as well as adult readers.

Sometimes people will suggest that Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four,” a decade after “The Long Season” was a descendant of Brosnan’s work, but Brosnan discounts that. “Very different,” he says. “Only the fact that both were diaries. I didn’t write anything that got people upset. I made no enemies with my book, just spent the rest of my career taking a lot of ribbing from players wondering if they were going to be in my next book.”

Brosnan would take notes in the bullpen, and go home to type out new entries every few days. They would be stories or events of interest. He had a keen eye for the wonders of big league baseball, and for what would be interesting to readers

“The Long Season” dealt with teams headed nowhere – the ’59 Cards, and then the ’59 Reds, to whom he was traded. Since most teams are not contending for a pennant, this was a fascinating look at an average player on an average team.

“Pennant Race” finds Brosnan on the ’61 Reds, a pennant winning team, where the excitement of the race is a perfect balance to the ’59 season. (He was 10-4 with 16 saves for the team). Although the Reds met the fabled Yankees in that World Series, the book ends with the pennant celebration and doesn’t take us into the five-game loss the Reds suffered to the Mantle-Maris Yanks.

“I wrote about that World Series for Sports Illustrated, and the headline was ‘Embarrassing, Wasn’t It?’” he says. “And I knew Fred Hutchinson {his manager} was very embarrassed by our performance in the Series. So I left it out of the book, since I’d already covered it in Sports Illustrated. Why end on a bad note?”

Brosnan would go on to write nearly 200 magazine pieces over the years, book reviews, and children’s books, including biographies of Ron Santo and Ted Simmons. He never did another adult baseball book, but made a good living as a free lance writer following his 1963 retirement. There was some talk recently about putting his magazine pieces into an anthology, but “I found the originals, all on yellow legal paper, and a lot of them had turned brown, were hard to read, and too much of a task to retype. So, no anthology.”

Although not college educated, Brosnan became a student of language, adding to his literary skills. “There was a Boston announcer who was an admirer of “The Long Season,” and who read the dictionary, A to Z,” he says. “He encouraged me to do that, and I did! And thank you, because in this interview, I get to use the word septuagenarian for the first time, because that’s my age, I’m in my seventies!”

Another “first” was Brosnan was a meeting with P.K. Wrigley at the Wrigley Building in Chicago when he was with the Cubs. He was working in the off season for the ad agency doing Wrigley’s gum ads, and his boss asked if he’d like to meet the Cubs owner. “I think I was the first ballplayer he ever met in his Wrigley Building office,” he says. “Maybe the only one ever.”

Brosnan was also a witness on Curt Flood’s behalf during Flood’s trial challenging the reserve clause. “I shared a cab with his lawyer, Arthur Goldberg, and we went to dinner with other witnesses – Red Smith, and Jackie Robinson. It was the first time I ever met Jackie. I’d thrown at him, but I’d never met him!

“Goldberg urged me to use caution in my testimony, not to show people up. ‘But Mr. Goldberg, I’m a writer, that’s what I do!’ I laughed, but he didn’t. He realized I was serious.”

Brosnan goes to one or two games a year at Wrigley Field these days where he is seldom recognized. He and his wife have been married for 52 years; they have two daughters and four grandchildren. One of the grandchildren is a 6’8” lefthander in college, “but he isn’t interested in playing baseball. He could throw a wiffle ball past me as a little kid, but he was just never interested in playing.”