There's a common misconception about baseball players: that those who toiled before Andy Messersmith's monumental free agency ruling did so simply out of 'love of the game.' That because they didn't make millions of dollars, the players were happier and the game was simpler and more innocent. This couldn't be farther from the truth. The fact of the matter is that men played this game not because they loved it but because their skill at it allowed them to escape going down the mines, or puddling steel, or being farmers, or anything else.
Oh sure, there were those within the ranks who did love the game, but it's always been about making enough money to stave off the inevitable. Were it not about money then why did players like Satchel Paige jump mid contract for better pay? Why did guys like Koufax and Drysdale try to negotiate with O'Malley together? And what about John Montgomery Ward and the short-lived Players League? With rights came more access to money and with money came a few more years the average player (with no other sellable skill) could support his family. To suggest otherwise is to view the past through beer goggles.
Mike Shropshire's The Last Real Season presents just such a beer- (amongst other controlled substances) goggled view. Which is too bad, because it's an angle that feels out of place within an otherwise strong narrative. The book is an account of the Texas Rangers' mediocre 1975 season, told from the point of view of the sometimes drug user/definite alcoholic who also happens to be the Rangers' beat reporter from The Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Shropshire). It's an enjoyable, if somewhat predictable, everybody's-a-character, no-holds-barred tellin'-it-like-it-is diary from the same mold as Bouton's Ball Four and Lyle's Bronx Zoo. Since this was the mid-Seventies, it was also inevitable that Shropshire should riff his prose in a 'yeah I did it, so what?' Hunter S Thompson vein.
The only thing that holds this book back is its assertion that major leaguers from 1975 were 'having more fun' because they were getting paid squat (in comparison to post-free agency figures). Hogwash. According to the US Census for 1975, the average yearly salary for a man between 24 and 35 was somewhere around $11,500. Shropshire says that the average ballplayer salary in 1975 was $27,600. Though it seems like ballplayers weren't doing all that bad, remember that their salary was for only half the calendar year. And with many players not having much of a life outside of playing baseball, the off-season employment choices were most likely slim. So to suggest that players were anything less than obsessed with getting paid as much as possible for their services is ludicrous.
But like I said, if you disassociate the narrative from this angle, Shropshire's engaging off-the-cuff you-are-there style shines through. This should help The Last Real Season stand out from the current crop of anecdotal baseball biographies from the sport's former insiders. Having a raging, booze-fueled Billy Martin as one of its protagonists doesn't hurt, either.
The Last Real Season, by Mike Shropshire, comes out in May.
From Grand Central Publishing.