NOTE: The Essential Baseball Library has become a small, personal project for me. I hope to continue to build the list as I encounter great books, but also aspire to someday read each one on the ever-growing list. An impossible task, but hugely enjoyable. So I write ‘em up as I get to ‘em, and share them here whether anybody likes it or not.
A False Spring is a remarkable book (baseball or otherwise) and essential reading for the well-read baseball fan.
First off, Pat Jordan can flat out write.
A few quotes from the reviewers, to buttress my opinion:
“One of the best and truest books about baseball, and about coming to maturity in America.”—Time.
“A False Spring, by turns rueful, amused, nostalgic and disgusted, is just fascinating, probably the best book imaginable about baseball’s underpinnings.”—Boston Globe.
“One of the most fabulous failure stories of our time.”—Kansas City Star.
“An unforgettable book.”—Los Angeles Times.
Jordan is never better than when providing quick descriptions of the different players, scouts, citizens, and coaches he encountered during the period of time he went from “Bonus Baby” for the Milwaukee Braves to abject bust who could no longer find the plate just a few years later.
A few samples, the first is from his high school days:
“One cold drizzly afternoon I am kicking my spikes against the pitching rubber to dislodge some mud when I look up to see Ray Garland, a scout for the New York Yankees, standing on the sidelines beside my mother. Ray is a slick little man who speaks out of the side of his mouth as if distrusting what even he has to say. He is wearing a black double-breasted topcoat with velvet lapels. The coat is wet from the rain and gives Ray the appearance of a drowning rat.”
Later, Jordan goes to Yankee Stadium for a tryout, and enters the dressing room:
“The players’ lockers lined the walls. Each was an open-faced stall filled with polished black spikes, fresh-smelling new gloves and smartly pressed pinstriped uniforms. Yogi Berra, squat and homely, was sitting in his underwear on the tiny stool in front of his stall. He was hunched over reading his mail. Elston Howard, with a long pockmarked face the color of light coffee, was sitting in front of his stall talking softly with muscular Moose Skowron.”
While working out for the Braves, Jordan provides these swift character portraits:
“There was Eddie Mathews, with startling good looks and thick black brows and arms like hams that stuck out from his body; Red Schoendienst, incredibly old and wrinkled looking, with washed out hair the color of his faded freckles; Joe Adcock, barrel-chested, block-jawed, as silent and immobile as a log; Hank Aaron, with his slender waist and hips and skin the flat black tone of latex paint; Frank Torre, as dark and sinister-looking as a Mexican villain from a Grade B movie; Carlton Wlley, long-jawed, timid in appearance, with sunken cheeks and sad gray eyes that mirrored his luckless career . . . .”
He describes Warren Spahn as “a quick-gestured man with leathery skin, a beakish nose and darting eyes, like a bird.”
Anyway, I enjoy typing out well-written passages from books, and compare it in my mind to a kid guitar player going note-for-note through a great song, channeling it through his body, letting that greatness flow through his fingers.
Jordan writes exceedingly well, with clear-eyed concrete detail, about his first minor league assignment in McCook, Nebraska, of the Class D Nebraska State League. The barren nothingness of that place, the vast inner and outer emptiness, a land of horizons comes vividly to life as Jordan aimlessly walks the quiet main street, a pup far away from home for the first time in his life.
Later, he writes of the players who get cut from the organization, let loose to begin their lives anew, the dream vanquished. Life without baseball:
“Once home they faced interminable interrogation. What had happened? They explained. The manager, a sore arm, no batting practice. Some lied: They’d quit. After a week or so the questions withered, expired, and they began to forget. They picked up the branches of their common lives — took a job in a gas station, became engaged to their steady girl, forgot boyish dreams. Then one day about a month after they had returned, they received a registered letter. the envelpe was adorned with a savage Indian. They fingered their unconditional release, stared at it, their day ruined, possibly the week, forced now to abandon the false spring of their new lives and begin again.”
I have three more passages which I feel compelled to share. The first is a terrific description of young Rico Carty:
“He was a catcher then. His throwing arm was a bazooka without a sight. Opposing runners stole second base unmolested while Rico fired baseballs to the center-field wall. He was so tightly muscled (from work in the fields and his training as a boxer) that he moved in slow motion behind the plate. He let so many balls roll to the screen that our pitchers pleaded with Travis not to have him catch. Travis demurred. The boy needed work, he said, then added, ‘He’ll be all right soon as he grows a pair of hands on the ends of those arms.'”
Of course, Jordan ultimately turns his insights onto himself, cold, merciless, bittersweet, yet never sentimental:
“Success in baseball requires the synthese of a great number of virtues, many of which have nothing to do with sheer talent. Self-discipline, single-mindedness, perserverance, ambition — these were all virtues I was positive I possessed in 1960, but which I’ve discovered over the years I did not.”
Jordan describes hotels and bus rides, the girls in cars, and young men at spring training. He tells it all, with stark beauty. And in the end a reader might be struck by the oddness of this man, the great sadness that resides inside him, like the air of an old, sagging balloon:
“It’s almost noon as I write this. Through my attic window I look out on a sunny June day. I shall stop soon, go downstairs, do errands for my wife. I may browse at the bookstore or spend an hour at the beach admiring firm young bodies. At night I’ll go to a movie or sit in a bar for a few hours, then return home to read myself to sleep. And as I go about my ordinary day, I’ll wonder, now, what people are passing, unseen, through my life, only to be remembered years later with a warmth I never felt at their moment of passing.”