Twilight of the Long-ball Gods

Twilight of the Long-ball Gods

David C. Ogden reviews Schulian’s Twilight of the Long-ball Gods for NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture

John Schulian takes readers to some of the forgotten backwaters of professional baseball, from Wisconsin Rapids to Roswell, and provides a slice of life from those who clung tenaciously to their dreams of making it to the Major Leagues. Schulian swaths those small-market Minor League towns in a glow of Americana that only a Norman Rockwell painting could duplicate. The intimacy between the team and the town, the bonds between players and their adoring public, and the innocence with which fans accepted their baseball heroes conjure up those elements of the game that have traditionally been held as sacred. While Schulian pines for those pastoral images of the game, he also scrapes through that façade to show those small-town baseball venues as whistle-stops where career Minor Leaguers’ dreams of making it to the “show” shrivel and die.

Schulian’s book is a collection of his columns and articles from the Chicago Sun-Times, Philadelphia Daily News, Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News, and other publications between 1980 and 1999. Like the multitude of other compilations of baseball essays by print journalists, Schulian’s anthology is a sweeping mosaic of his and others’ perceptions of the game. Schulian takes aim, however, at some of baseball’s colorful personalities, some well known and others less so. His primary targets are sluggers whose reputations have dimmed or died with time. He introduces readers to Steve Bilko, the Pacific Coast League home run king in the 1950s, and Moe Hill, the slugger for the Wisconsin Rapids team during that decade. Howitzer Howie Moss, Russ Morman, and Joe Bauman are other baseball cast-offs featured in Schulian’s reflections. Schulian explains his penchant for such forgotten players: “I always had a habit of identifying with obscure ballplayers; maybe it was an unconscious acknowledgment of my own limitations” (130).

Schulian does not restrict his observations to the obscure. Scattered throughout the book are his meetings with such baseball luminaries as Tim McCarver and Steve Stone. Schulian pays homage to Bill Veeck, described as a voracious reader and the “antithesis of the frills-and-fancy-stuff ownership that plagues big league baseball these days, the last of the breed that survived by wit and guile instead of Daddy’s money” (58). George Thorogood’s baseball fanaticism and Stud Terkel’s insights on the game are other subjects of Schulian’s musings.

Schulian’s tone varies as much as his baseball subjects. Some of his articles drip with nostalgia and sentimentality while others deride professional baseball for what it should be but isn’t. In all the articles, however, Schulian’s writing is crisp and many of his metaphors are memorable. In his article on the 1986 San Jose Bees, featuring a cadre of drug-addled players, including the late Steve Howe, Schulian called the team “the game’s legion of the damned” (116). Schulian uses the colorful quotes of manager Jim Frey in framing the futility of Minor Leaguers who claim they can “hit buckshot with barbed wire” (66), but whose careers sputter and die prematurely. Managers whose careers meet a similar fate are also part of Schulian’s landscape of the game. Schulian summarizes their epitaphs in the words of Rocky Bridges: “I managed good but, boy, did they play bad” (117).

Schulian’s essay compilation leaves the reader wondering what happened to those long summers when the baseball stadium became the cultural and social center of the community. In that way, the book leaves a pleasant aftertaste. At the same time, Schulian reminds us that professional baseball continues to grind through the years, leaving dreams of Major League aspirants in tatters and memories of baseball’s “better years” in an eternal mist.