Book Review : "Pennant Race"

Pennant Race: The Classic Game-by-Game Account of a Championship Season, 1961Pennant Race: The Classic Game-by-Game Account of a Championship Season, 1961 by James P. Brosnan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked this, but not as well as I liked Brosnan's earlier book "The Long Season." Like that book, this one has his acerbic wit, and an insider's view of baseball as it was in the early 1960's. However, it seems a little less fresh, and a little less varied--less inspired, somehow, than the first book.

That's not to say it wasn't a fun read. I was six years old in 1961 and my very earliest memories of the game I have loved all my life date back to that season, though the Reds--Brosnan's team--were not on the radar of this fledgling American League fan. By modern standards, this is not at all a "tell-all" book, but still there are some surprises. Brosnan has eliminated the casual racism of the earlier book, and even taken obvious effort to counter that, here. We get a much more human depiction of the Latin players in particular. I was genuinely shocked by the open discussion of greenies, the amphetamines popular among players of the era, which Brosnan refers to as "bombers." I knew about greenies, but never expected the workaday casualness in mentioning them. Almost two decades later another pitcher named Bill "Spaceman" Lee would catch all kinds of flak from league and club bigwigs for acknowledging his marijuana use. As far as I know, Brosnan's disclosures caused nary a ripple.

I missed the family stuff from the earlier book. In "Pennant Race" we hear very little about Brosnan's wife, and even less about his kids. Drinking, on the other hand, is constant and heavy. Like the pep pills, I already knew that major league baseball was a drinking culture at the time, but in both books the author seems afloat on a sea of martinis. One wonders how he performed so well, despite the night life. It's been done before, and often, I suppose, but when he describes being barely able to function in a game due to being hungover--following a drinking binge over not being selected to the All Star team--it's disturbing. At least it was to me.

In the latter third of the book particularly, when the pennant race becomes the sole focus, the day to day game descriptions blur together a bit, and grow rather tedious. Somehow, the excitement of a pennant race in an era when there still were pennant races, doesn't come through. Brosnan doesn't describe his team's city, Cincinnati, at all really, and the fans are described mostly as a clueless nuisance or, in the case of female fans or "broads" as he calls them, either hogs or hot. One has to consider the "Mad Men" environment, but still. Once the pennant is won, the book ends, with nothing at all written about the subsequent World Series against the Mantle & Maris led New York Yankees. Maybe the loss in five games would have been a down note to finish up with, but I had hoped for an insider's account of post-season play at a time when baseball was king.

Recommended if you like baseball, especially baseball back in the day, but not recommended as heartily as "The Long Season."

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