I went to an estate sale last summer. My wife and I own a house now so I feel like going to one of these is some kind of “circle of life” thing. Amongst the usual furniture, tools, and clutter was a huge bin of sports books, many of which I’ve already read (and reviewed for Zisk). I had to get one. There’s just something about a paperback baseball book from the 80s that brings a warm feeling to my innards. Where Have You Gone, Vince Dimaggio? by Edward Kiersh was my selection, and it proved to be much more of an adventure than I anticipated. Over 300 pages, and in some sense only about half of it is about baseball. The book’s tagline summarizes the content well enough: “From baseball’s biggest sluggers to it’s all-time bobblers—Where did they go when the cheering stopped?” Seemed like a good premise, and as I poured through all 55 (short) chapters, stories ranging from exciting to mundane, joyful to terrifying, and funny to sad hit me like a ton of bean balls.
The “past and present” element was the main focus of each story (kudos to the author, wherever he may be, for the research and dedication to this project), but throughout the book two other themes struck me. Ball players circa 1950s-1970s, especially the benchwarmers, weren’t paid the ridiculous salaries of today. Nowadays a guy can bat .230 in the majors for a few seasons and practically be set for life. Back then you’d bust your ass just as much and earn about 15 to 30 grand a year. This of course leads to an interesting little game of “Where Are They Now?” (see next page). The other running theme is that baseball, especially for the super stars, does a number on your noggin.
Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub himself, was a star player and then an organization man over the span of 25 years. “I had to see a psychologist. I didn’t know how to deal with my environment, the real world. It’s fabulous being a baseball star. But too many people direct your life. You’re always doing what you’re told. This hurts you. Functioning later on is so difficult. I got tired of people recognizing my face, my voice, my walk. I just wanted to be alone to find some answers.”
Gene Conley, one of the early two-sport athletes (91-96 lifetime with Boston Braves, Milwaukee, and the Phillies, as well as a player on the Boston Celtics in the late 50s, averaging 10 PPG), adds another sad element to the mental struggles after hanging up your cleats: The longing for your hey-day. “I only know that I’m still adjusting to being out of sports. When my playing days were over I couldn’t go to a ball game. I still can’t. Maybe inside there’s a feeling that I can do it better than the guys out there. I don’t know what the pain is. I just miss those games. Now I’m on the other side of the fence, they’ve locked me out, and it’s cold.” Cold, indeed.
Some athletes took it better than others. Mickey Lolich (217 Wins, 2,832 Ks, three spectacular wins in the ’68 World Series) went on to run a bakery. “You just have to accept that you’re living another life, that you’re an average workingman. I still have my home, I can maintain it, sure. I just can’t blow $100 a night on dinner, or buy a new car every year. If you’re a ballplayer, you never think about these things. You just go out and buy what you want. Now that’s impossible for me.”
The list of accounts goes on and on—I’ve got every other page marked with interesting quotes of regrets, dreams, and humbled nostalgia. The stories themselves are entertaining, as some of the players had some exciting (albeit brief) careers despite not putting up great stats. Remember this was over five decades ago, when a B-list ballplayer could disappear for two days on a bender and it wasn’t the biggest scandal of the weekend. There’s also some odd photography included. Some typical posed “baseball card” shots, some action shots, and then there’s a picture of Gene Woodling (hit .318 and scored 21 runs in five World Series with the Yankees in the early 50s) vacuuming his living room. Huh? Overall the book succeeds at the double-duty. It reviews the careers of some superstars (Roger Maris, Harmon Killebrew, and Boog Powell all have chapters) as well as some forgotten oddballs, and it also gives the reader a glimpse into the psychology of post-baseball life. If you comes across this one in a garage sale by all means snag it. If I had a stamp that said “charming and weird” I’d be pressing it on the cover as we speak.
Mark Hughson lives in Syracuse, NY and roots for the Oakland A's. His prediction/curse (the Yankees will never win a WS while Jason Giambi wears pinstripes) from Zisk # 16 was validated in 2009, as the Yanks won the title after cutting Giambi the previous season. Not that he holds a grudge or anything. If you want to read about very current music instead of very old baseball paperbacks, visit www.beattheindiedrum.com.