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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS

Day In, Day Out
Book Review by Brad Rogers

George Gmelch. Inside Pitch: Life in Professional Baseball. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001, 230 pp., $21.95, cloth.

 

Though we love to talk about baseball's complexity and difficulty as attributes of its relation to real life, we baseball fanatics are all really just sappy romantics. Listen to one of us describe his first view of a real baseball park or how it felt putting on her first little league uniform. No matter where our lives took us after adolescence and 275-foot outfield fences, many of us still harbor a view of the lives of professional baseball players as being a form of extended childhood paradise, filled with fragrant grass, good-natured locker room humor, and the roars of appreciative crowds. Like wistful adults complaining of youth being wasted on the young, we forget what a horror childhood can often be, and how worrying and stressful a state of perpetual insecurity can be. George Gmelch's recent book, Inside Pitch: Life in Professional Baseball, has come along as a potent antidote to this often romantic nonsense by presenting us with a heavily researched look at the lives of baseball players—and others closely associated with the game—through all levels of professional ball.

Gmelch is an anthropologist with a professional baseball background, having played in the Tigers farm system in the 1960s. In the '90s, he turned his attention back to baseball after many years in the academy and the field, studying development in Mexico and urbanization in Ireland. By his own admission, he avoided the game for many years after his abrupt departure from baseball (coming after a controversy arose over an article he wrote, unrelated to baseball, while playing in North Carolina), and he is up front about his possible emotional barriers (or, at least, foibles) in stepping back into the game after such a history. Gmelch deals with his own stance in a preface that, as in much anthropological and folklore research of the last few decades, gives us information about the researcher that can broaden and clarify our interpretation of his observations. It serves to make readers beware that a single human with a single (albeit as objective as possible) perspective did this work, and that situations arise in the course of fieldwork where complex human relations and tendencies can warp what used to be called "objective observation." He even quotes his own field notes from the beginning of the project while on the first road trip with the Birmingham Barons:

 

Hoover Met Stadium, Birmingham, Alabama. It's my first road trip in twenty-four years. As the Birmingham Barons' bus pulls out of the stadium parking lot—destination Jacksonville then on to Orlando, Florida, for eight road games—manager Tony Franklin stands up to introduce me. "I'd like you to meet George Gmelch. He's an anthropologist studying our lives as ballplayers. I don't know why anyone would find what you do interesting, but that's his business, and he's a whole lot smarter than me (laughter). Anyway, he was a player in the Tigers' organization in the '60s, so he knows his way around. I want you to help him anyway you can . . ." The players turn in their seats, craning their necks to get a good look at me. I smile a lot, trying not to show my nervousness. I appreciate Tony's remarks, but I don't really know my way around. I'm not even sure I can talk baseball anymore. The jargon has changed—terms like "the show" are alien to me. I've been away from baseball for so long that I seriously wonder if I can relate to these guys. Will they allow me—a bearded, graying professor—to hang out with them?

 

With this we now enter into the work with the researcher, looking through his eyes, trusting (hopefully) his observations, and taking his conclusions with as many grains of salt as each reader may deem necessary.

Gmelch structures the book pragmatically, which matches his overall writing style. Beginning with young players committing to baseball and the "science" of scouting talent in the first chapter, we then move up the ladder, examining the issues dealt with at mini-camp, then through each level of the minor leagues and into the majors. Along the way Gmelch does a thorough job of looking at many aspects of the players' lives, including things like how distance from home and immaturity can affect performance on the field, how living conditions and money change from level to level and league to league, and how clubhouse language, especially jargon and nicknames, establishes a tangible culture for the relatively isolated young men. Entire chapters are dedicated to baseball wives and marriages (a needed addition to the literature of baseball), groupies, different approaches to mental preparation, and the often problematic lives of ex-ballplayers.

While the book was never boring, owing to Gmelch's easy style and ability to let the players and other involved people tell their stories, I was a bit surprised at the lack of real discovery as I read it. Baseball is a well-documented pastime, and some talented writers have covered it over the years, so that much about the lives of players has already been opened to the public. Many players' biographies and autobiographies have given us the same feel for the issues young players face, though in a much less comprehensive style. I hate to give ESPN too much credit, but its daily saturation coverage of sports has opened up the culture of baseball in a way that was unknown before. Sections of the book dedicated to things like slang and how players spend their free time had little to reveal to anyone with cable TV and a willingness to waste a lot of free time. Of course, this brings up the cultural question of TV's influence on those being studied, because Gmelch mentions that practically everyone in professional ball watches Baseball Tonight religiously. Is it simply reporting what the players say and do, or does it, however unintentionally, involve itself in promoting conformity on the part of young players trying to make it to the big leagues?

Admittedly, someone who has not been an insane daily follower of baseball for several years may find much of the information in the book new, and that person is probably the ideal reader for Gmelch. But this is not to say that the avid baseball fan will have nothing to think about. The information dealing with scouting, conveyed in many scouts' own words, provides a fascinating inside look into this imperfect system that drives professional baseball. The chapter dealing with ballplayers' wives and the kinds of lives they lead as they support their husbands' careers is certainly jarring to anyone who clings to the aforementioned romantic ideas about pro ball, but it is fascinating and moving to read the anecdotes of several wives that Gmelch managed to interview. Throughout the book are sprinkled little nuggets of information that bring a reader up short—like finding out that over the course of a three-hour game the ball is in flight for a total of ten minutes, or that over half of the most highly touted and drafted young players never make it to the major leagues. And finally there is the pleasure of reading the words of the players themselves as they reveal some startling experiences they've been forced to endure, or are able to open up enough to allow us to glimpse the mental and emotional hardships that such a cold, recent-performance-based occupation forces on them.

Inside Pitch fulfills a second mission, however, by taking a scholarly look at some of the observations made in terms of previous anthropological and psychological research. Most of the more technical (to lay readers) theory is dealt with in the extensive footnotes, where Gmelch ties in ideas raised by scholars in several other fields to the ideas he has brought forward dealing with the culture of baseball. Structuring the book in this way successfully keeps the narrative nature of the text flowing for those of us who are in it for the stories, while still grounding his work in his primary discipline.

By the end of this book I was a little relieved I could never hit a decent fastball. Gmelch rounds off his own part of the story (he laces his own experiences throughout the book as a means of comparing two eras in pro ball, as well as establishing his own relationship to his research) by asking his old minor league coach if he could have made it all the way. He admits he is ambivalent about finding out the truth here, and after reading his accurate and sensible account of the lives of professional baseball players, I was, too. Fanaticism requires a little romantic delusion. —EFQ

 

BRAD ROGERS lives and works in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and plays third base for the Unaffiliated Dodgers.

© 2001 Brad Rogers

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