SOURCE: HNN (June 13, 2011)
[Luther Spoehr wrote over 40 biographical essays about baseball players for David L. Porter, ed., Dictionary of American Sports Biography]
Books about baseball—the good ones, that is—tend to take one of two approaches, either the lyrical or the analytical. (The bad ones, of course, include failed attempts at both, as well as unimaginative narratives of runs, hits, and errors, wins and losses. Then there are the cliché-ridden player autobiographies “as told to” some sportswriter’s tape recorder. We’re unlikely to review such stuff here.)
On the short list of truly lyrical evocations of the national pastimes, most readers would include books such as Roger Angell’s The Summer Game (1972), the first of several collections of his “New Yorker” essays, and Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer (also 1972), about the 1955 world champion Brooklyn Dodgers. Kahn in particular strikes an elegiac note (the title is taken from a Dylan Thomas poem that begins, “I see the boys of summer in their ruin”), successfully sustaining a theme in which long-sought triumph is tinged with realization of inevitable, relentless decline and fall.
Far more rare and (in my view) even more difficult to achieve are vivid, meaningful recreations of baseball lives that were lived outside the major leagues’ spotlight, where upwardly-arcing careers end, often abruptly, always sadly, just short of the big time. Stories of players “good enough to dream” (to quote another Roger Kahn title) are an important part of baseball history—and, because upward striving is integral to the “American dream,” an important part of American history, too.
Dan Barry’s Bottom of the 33rd is a, yes, lyrical tale of striving taken to extremes: the story of the International League baseball game between the visiting Rochester Red Wings and the Pawtucket Red Sox on April 18-19 (the night before—and early morning of—Easter Sunday), in 1981. For over eight hours, as the temperature skidded below 40 degrees and the wind blew in from center field, the teams battled on, through 32 innings, before play was finally suspended--thanks to the league commissioner, who at last responded to telephoned pleas for permission to stop. Tied at 2-2, the game resumed under sunny skies on June 23. Major league players had gone on strike 11 days before, so the entire baseball world focused its attention on Pawtucket’s creaky McCoy Stadium. The climactic thirty-third inning lasted all of 18 minutes until Pawtucket’s Dave Koza, the book’s prototypical striver and dreamer, singled in future Hall-of-Famer Wade Boggs to give the Pawsox a 3-2 victory.
Such a brief synopsis does not do justice to Barry’s beautifully written, vivid, funny, and poignant narrative. A New York Times columnist who previously wrote for the Providence Journal, Barry knows the local context: the gritty, fading industrial town of Pawtucket (pronounced, he correctly points out, “P-TUCK-et,” not “Paw-TUCK-et), with its triple-deckers and bars and a decrepit 6,000-seat stadium that had cost more to build, just before World War II, than Notre Dame’s 50,000-seat football stadium. Of course, the fact that the local political boss, Mayor Thomas P. McCoy, had insisted on building it on a swamp might have had something to do with the high construction costs.
Pawtucket is best known as the birthplace of America’s industrial revolution; in 1793 the Slater Mill was the first of many textile factories in the area. The factories were long gone by 1981, however, as were the Pawtucket Slaters, an earlier minor league team—so, for that matter, were the Rhode Island Red Sox, a disastrously-named (and run) operation. For four years, the Pawtucket Red Sox had been in the hands of Ben Mondor, a successful, Canadian-born local businessman, who had initially been dubious about undertaking this particular venture. (Asked, “So how would you like to buy a baseball team,” he replied, “How would you like to go play in traffic?”)
Mondor was trying to build a family-friendly operation ($3 for box seats, $2 for grandstand seats, 50 cents off each ticket for senior citizens and children), and on this chilly April evening 1,740 fans arrived to watch the Baltimore Orioles’ AAA affiliate, the Red Wings, take on the Boston Red Sox’s top farm club. The clubs’ rosters included some young players on their way up, some older ones (in their late 20’s) obviously on their way down, and some just treading water, all just hoping for their shot at the big leagues.
One of Barry’s great strengths is his ability to put aside what came later and portray how things looked at the time. Then, it was not obvious that shrewd Ben Mondor, who greeted fans at the gate to find out how they liked their experience at the ballpark, would build a model franchise that is remembered fondly by former players and so popular with fans that even after a refurbished McCoy Stadium was expanded to 10,000 seats, it is regularly filled to capacity. Then, Wade Boggs wasn’t considered much of a prospect. And although Cal Ripken, Jr., then nicknamed “J.R.,” was a hot prospect, that spring he was “just a big kid, still struggling to manage the competing feelings of elation, anger, and insecurity. In fact, the boyish exuberance that he couples with his strong competitive streak can sometimes wear thin….He’s not Cal Ripken, Jr., not yet. He is just J.R., he is twenty years old, and he has grounded out.”
Barry deftly recounts the game itself, weaving the stories of its participants—young men from “the mill towns of New England to the suburbs of the Pacific Coast; from the housing projects of the Midwest to the sugarcane fields of the Caribbean: a ballad of bus fumes and ambition”--into his narrative as an ordinary ballgame slowly and inexorably evolves into an extraordinary one. He seems to have read every scorecard and news story, and interviewed everyone: not just the players and coaches, but the executives and staff, concessionaires, and hardy fans who stayed…and stayed. Wisely, he doesn’t detail every single play (over the course of 32 innings, that would have meant describing 192 outs), and the energy and rhythm of his prose (he has a terrific ear) keep the story moving briskly.
After the Pawsox tie the game, 1-1, in the bottom of the ninth, the procession of extra innings begins: “The night swells. The wind blows in from center field and whips through the stands, where fewer and fewer fans are subject to its snap. The souvenir stands along the empty concourse have been shut down.” Players warm themselves in the dugouts by burning broken bats in 55-gallon metal drums. In the top of the twenty-first, Rochester takes the lead—and Pawtucket, on a hit by Boggs, ties it in the bottom of the inning. “So it continues, deeper and deeper into a holy Sunday, a baseball game wanting to end but unable to find the way. The players and the managers and the coaches and the journalists and the batboys and so many others cannot leave. They are rooted by the gravitational pull of duty, a magnetizing force too powerful to overcome.”
A major source that allows Barry to recreate the atmosphere of this “sleepwalk toward dawn” is a tape-recording of the Rochester radio broadcast. The announcer, Bob Drew, had been the team’s general manager, but had then been demoted; his girl friend recorded every inning and thus gives Barry all the aural evidence he needs to capture the details of a game that seemed to have “morphed into some kind of…performance art,” with cold, exhausted players making out after out, and the ballpark’s sound system after each half-inning alternately blaring Sammy Davis, Jr.’s “The Candy Man” and John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”
So why, you may well ask, did the umpires not just stop the game? The answer, as is so often the case, lies in a bureaucratic blunder. For years, the league rule had been clear and precise: “A curfew will be in effect during the regular season. No inning shall start after 12:50 a.m. Time will be either Standard or Daylight, whichever is in effect in the city where the game is played.” But unfortunately, unaccountably, that statement had been omitted from the 1981 edition of “International League Instructions for Umpires, Players, and Managers.” So the glassy-eyed players played on, past 3:30 a.m. as Pawsox executive Mike Tamburro tried again and again to reach league president Harold Cooper at his home, “wondering all the while: It’s after midnight on Easter Sunday. How can you not be home?” Finally, Cooper, who had long-standing instructions not to be awakened at night for trivial baseball matters, was finally rousted out of bed and ordered that the game be stopped after the 32nd inning.
The rest—including the game’s quick ending on June 23--is, as they say, history. Or at least it is now, thanks to Barry’s book. Using what he modestly terms “informed imagination,” he has produced a small masterpiece of historical thinking that rescues baseball’s longest game from the “truth-altering charms of myth and memory” and is marvelously well written besides. When you finish it, you’ll feel that you know Win Remmerswaal, the eccentric, ill-fated pitcher from the Netherlands; shortstop Bobby Bonner, whose promising career seemed to go south after one misplay under the steely gaze of Orioles manager Earl Weaver; the heralded, wonderfully-named, thoroughly frustrated strongman, Drungo Hazewood; and the rest of them. You’ll also feel like you’ve been shivering at McCoy yourself. And you’ll be more certain than ever that the Dave Koza’s of the world matter to the telling of history.