Game Six

Mr. Reindeer

White Lodge
Apr 13, 2022
775
1,740
This is the fourth and to date final sports book by Frost, and the only one not about golf. That means that I have a little more connection to the material. My dad is a second-generation Yankees fan, and he did his best to raise me in the faith. To his great disappointment, I never really caught the baseball bug (probably due to my lack of physical coordination, and my tendency to pass out from heat stroke while running away from the ball in the outfield); but I’ve been to my share of Major League games—including several at the venerable Fenway, the major setting of this book. Of course, if my dad knew I was reading a book about the Red Sox, he would certainly disinherit me.

In the Conversations book, Frost describes the genesis of Game Six as a “narrative challenge” he set for himself: to write a book about one baseball game. He chose Game 6 of the 1975 World Series (between the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox) because of the “inherent drama” and “one of the greatest casts of characters in major league history.” Indeed, this game is regularly cited as one of the greatest baseball games of all time, routinely listed in the top five (and usually in the top two) by respected baseball historians, so it’s a very reasonable choice. However, it is also worth noting that Frost watched this game live (“on a twelve-inch black-and-white television”) when he was one month away from turning 22, so there may also be an element of nostalgia at play in his choice. (In terms of Frost’s personal timeline, I believe this would have been right after he returned from his first stint in Hollywood—freelancing for shows like The Six Million Dollar Man—when he decided to forego assembly-line TV work, and a semi-steady paycheck, to instead hone his craft doing more personal work at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.) Unlike the matches recounted in his three golf books, Game 6 is an event that Frost experienced live in real-time, not something he had to reconstruct from archaic sources after the fact. Relatedly, it is interesting to realize that the full NBC broadcast of the game still exists to view today…as Frost notes in the book, this is the first World Series where all the games have been preserved on tape (previous Series have at least some games missing due to tapes being lost or reused). All of this raises an interesting question: what is the appeal of reading a 400+-page book describing a baseball game, when you could just go watch the game itself?

As if in answer to this, Frost dedicates the book to Vin Scully, the longtime broadcasting voice of Frost’s favorite team, the Dodgers. In the dedication, Frost calls Scully “Baseball’s master storyteller,” and in the Conversations book, he elaborates on the reason he dedicated the book to Scully despite Scully having no involvement whatsoever in the 1975 World Series: Scully was Frost’s model for how to spin a comprehensive story out of a single ballgame. The book does indeed have the feeling of Frost doing his version of live baseball color commentary, but with an element of time dilation, as if the game were moving in slow motion in order to give him time between each pitch to recount all the backstories of the players, the highlights of the first five games of the Series, as well as the history of baseball itself and the broader social context of the era. Frost previously employed this method of interspersing the events of a central game with related backstory/context in all three golf books, refining and expanding on this approach with each successive book, and Game Six is the culmination of this technique. (In my Kindle edition, the “backstory” sections are not delineated from the “present-day” game portions in any way—no italics, no added spacing—so the jumping around can sometimes be a bit disorienting, especially when Frost is jumping back and forth between two different ballgames.)

It’s also worth noting that in the first two golf books, all of Frost’s subjects were deceased by the time of writing, and he was basing those books solely off existing written sources. In The Match, he spoke to two of the main four central figures. But in Game Six, the private thoughts and conversations Frost recounts, as well as the biographical details of the many players, are largely based on first-person interviews conducted by Frost himself with almost all the parties involved. So even though anyone could go watch the game on tape, much of the backstory and context that Frost brings to the table is unique to the book.

As I said, it’s a bit easier for me to get invested in a baseball narrative than golf due to having more familiarity with the sport, but one upside to golf as a narrative focus is that Frost could hone in on a small group of “characters.” The through-line of the story (generally a hero’s journey, especially in the first two) was easy to follow. By its nature, a book about two baseball teams has a cast of dozens, leaving a very real danger of the narrative becoming unfocused and meandering. Frost does his best to give the story a backbone by using the Prologue to telegraph to the reader who the two emotional centers will be: Reds manager George “Sparky” Anderson and Red Sox power pitcher Luis Tiant. The common thread between Anderson and Tiant—two very different men of different generations in completely different positions on their respective teams—is that Frost portrays each as the man who came onto a team with an impressive roster of talent that wasn’t working together as a unit, and became the beating heart of the team. This narrative approach isn’t entirely flawless—Tiant’s game begins to decline in the fifth inning, and he is pulled in the eighth—not a traditional literary hero through-line, but one certainly familiar and understandable from a baseball fan’s perspective (the real blame is on manager Darrell Johnson for keeping him in for as long as he does).

Tiant’s backstory is particularly inspiring: as a kid growing up in Havana in the 1950s, he is discouraged from a career in baseball by his father, who pitched brilliantly for years in the American Negro Leagues and received almost nothing for his troubles. But when push comes to shove, Luis Senior begrudgingly supports his son’s dreams despite being sure that they will lead to heartbreak. Things take on an even more poignant turn when Castro comes to power; due to the U.S. travel embargo, Luis is unable to see his parents for fourteen years (with the exception of a brief visit from his mother, which requires his father to spend the week in jail in order to assure her return). One fascinating portion of the book recounts an “unofficial” visit to Cuba by Senator (and failed 1972 Presidential hopeful) George McGovern, with the hopes of repairing relations between the two countries. During his meeting with Castro, McGovern also manages to convey a request for Luis’s parents to be permitted to visit him. Surprisingly, Castro, himself a baseball fan, allows the family to leave, and after a heartwarming and much-publicized reunion, they stay in America with their son for the rest of their lives.

Sparky Anderson is a tough-but-fair old-school manager, a child of the Depression, a perfectionist and tactical genius who takes the time to get to know his men, feeling that the interpersonal clubhouse camaraderie is as important to success on the field as skill and practice. A beloved, personable and magnanimous figure, unafraid to make daring moves on the field (and particularly famous for how frequently he pulls pitchers—the Reds go through seven pitchers by the end of Game 6’s ninth inning), he stands in sharp contrast to the Sox’s manager, erratic alcoholic and conservative minimalist Darrell Johnson, whose philosophy is basically to stay out of the way. One of the pleasures of the book is the insights into Sparky’s strategic thought process, and seeing how his approach pays off (or, very occasionally, doesn’t).

The story opens dramatically, with Game 6 having been pushed back three days due to seemingly endless rain in Boston (the second-longest delay in World Series history at the time), leaving everyone emotionally numb, uncertain, and out of sorts, with the “scrappy, countercultural” Sox down 3-2 against the favored, more strictly regimented well-oiled “Big Red Machine.” Both teams are desperate for a win: the Reds have not won the pennant since 1940, and the Sox since 1918 and the infamous trade of Babe Ruth to the Yankees, leading to the supposed curse.

Aside from Luis Tiant and Sparky Anderson, the other players tend to get more truncated backstories, focusing largely on their professional histories. Early lives are generally related in a few sentences; when their personal lives off the field receive focus, it’s generally to mention substance abuse problems or accidents leading to physical injury that affected their games. Some players pop off the page moreso than others, and a reader who isn’t already familiar with the personalities may have trouble keeping the large cast straight. Reds third baseman Pete Rose is of course one of those players who can’t be mistaken for anyone else. Nicknamed “Charlie Hustle” and famous for his aggressive playing style—and later for the illegal betting which led to his lifetime ban—Rose is a colorful guy. Despite his highly competitive streak, he’s having so much fun in Game 6 that, even when the Reds are down, he can’t help telling anyone on the field who will listen what a great game it is. Future Hall of Famers Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Tony “Doggie” Peréz round out the core four all-stars at the center of the Big Red Machine’s lineup (for some reason, Frost’s book—or at least, the Kindle edition—leaves off the accent marks on players’ names). Bench, whose life and career have been consistently plagued by tragedy, loss and injury, is the consummate catcher, perhaps exactly because of those early experiences; as Frost puts it, Bench developed “the ability to stand outside himself, coolly observe the world around him, and take whatever comes.” On the Red Sox side, future Hall of Famer Carl “Yaz” Yastrzemski is the aging but undisputed leader of the team; generally taciturn and intense, Yaz isn’t quite the life of the party the way that Rose is, but he’s just as powerful a hitter and fielder and a consummate team player. Rounding out the core of the Sox team are Carlton “Pudge” Fisk (yet another future Hall of Famer) and Rico Petrocelli. Petrocelli, a loyal company man who has always done whatever is needed, is facing the imminent end of his career due to a beaning he took the prior season that has caused intermittent vertigo and vision problems. Fisk, for Frost’s money, is rivaled for greatest catcher in Major League history only by Johnny Bench.

Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey emerges as another interesting figure. Partially raised by Ty Cobb, Yawkey is initially an impossibly rich and spoiled hard-drinking Jazz Age-era dilettante who buys the Sox as a plaything in 1933. Frost presents Yawkey as the grandfather of the current owners’ philosophy of throwing money at players in order to build a team of superstars (“checkbook” baseball). Yawkey is a complicated figure who is known for being enormously generous with his players, treating them like family, but also a staunch holdout against racial integration. Originally viewed as an outside interloper by the people of Boston, an opinion not helped by decades of bad decisions that constantly dash the hopes of the inevitably disappointed fans, Yawkey eventually becomes a beloved figure in his later, mellower years, when he is a frail raggedly-dressed cuddly old man who seems to have finally assembled a team that can grab the pennant. What Yawkey knows, but no one else does, is that he is dying of leukemia, and ’75 is his last chance to accomplish his 42-year dream of bringing a World Series win to Boston. As presented by Frost, Yawkey’s exchange with a reporter outside the stadium after Game 7 is heartbreaking in its simplicity.

Another colorful character is Bernie Carbo, the Sox’s goofy substance-addicted hotheaded outfielder and pinch hitter. Before being traded to the Sox, Carbo was previously thrown off the Reds after assaulting general manager Bob Howsam over a pay dispute; he also regularly carries a stuffed gorilla to interviews. Carbo has arguably the greatest hero moment in Game 6, or at least the most dramatic one, with an eighth-inning three-run homer with two out that ties the game back up for the Sox.

In all three of the golf books, Frost spends a fair amount of time focusing not only on the athletes themselves, but on the contemporary journalists who cover their exploits. It seems natural that as a writer himself, Frost is drawn to the sportswriters as “characters.” He continues that trend here, but with the evolving nature of media, by 1975, Frost is dealing not only with print reporters, but with television and radio as well. Appropriately enough for a guy who’s spent a fair amount of time in the network TV system, Frost chronicles the experiences throughout the game of NBC executive Chet Simmons, director Harry Coyle, insecure NBC play-by-play announcer Joe Garagiola, NBC color commentator Tony Kubek, Sox announcer Dick Stockton and Reds announcer Marty Brennaman (the latter of whom was the first person Frost discussed the book with in its infancy, as he says in the acknowledgements). Simmons and NBC are concerned with baseball’s declining ratings. The upstart NFL, ABC’s Monday Night Football, and the Super Bowl (“Roman numerals had from the second year on amplified its self-mythologizing importance”) are threatening to end baseball’s century-long reign as America’s favorite sport. Only 25% of Americans list baseball as their favorite sport, and most of those are over 50. Thankfully, Game 6 saves baseball—at least for a little while. In an endearingly quaint passage, Frost recounts how word of mouth spreads quickly via phone calls after Bernie Carbo’s eighth-inning homer, leading to a whole wave of new viewers tuning in to the game at 11:30pm, with the game becoming the most-watched World Series game in history up to that point.

An amusing anecdote occurs when the Sox’s Denny Doyle mishears third-base coach Don Zimmer’s “No, no, no!” as “Go, go, go!” leading to a tragically misbegotten attempt to race home. Another funny story involves NBC cameraman Lou Gerard. As Carlton Fisk sends his game-winning ball flying high in the bottom of the twelfth inning, director Harry Coyle tries to radio Gerard, positioned behind a hole in the Green Monster scoreboard, to pan to a shot of Fisk’s ball in flight; but Gerard is so terrified by a giant rat crawling on his foot that he doesn’t hear the instruction, and instead fortuitously and accidentally captures the now-famous footage of Fisk hopping and waving his arms, willing the ball to stay clear of the foul line.

In backstory, Frost chronicles topics such as Fenway’s construction through a series of corrupt under-the-table real estate deals (including the very practical origins of the famous Green Monster left field wall), the initially controversial onset of the designated hitter in the American League, and the vaudeville origins of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (written by two men who had never been to a baseball game—Frost calls the modern-day compulsory singalong annoying). The opening portions of Chapters Six, Seven, and Nine present a recounting of the origins of the game of baseball itself, from its informal origins as a variant on English “rounders” in the early 1800s to the first codification of its rules in print in 1845 to the first team to turn professional and pay its members a salary: the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1869. This development leads to the first of many public outcries that baseball has sold out and that the simple pastoral American Pastime is being corrupted by mercenary greed, changing the game from one played by teams made up of members of the same community to one where hired guns are brought in from all over. When the Cincinnati Red Stockings elect to return to amateur status, their founder Harry Wright then founds the Boston Red Stockings (both teams wear bright red socks, hence the name). Shortly thereafter, a different Cincinnati Red Stockings—related to the earlier team in name only—joins the National League and evolves into the modern-day Cincinnati Reds. Meanwhile, the original Boston Red Stockings go through many name and location changes and eventually evolve into the modern-day Atlanta Braves. The American League is founded by Byron Bancroft “Ban” Johnson, who establishes the Boston Americans (the team—finally—who would become the modern-day Boston Red Sox). The intense competition between the National and upstart American Leagues, fueled by Ban Johnson buying up National League players, leads to the first challenge (almost like a duel) between the top teams in each League (the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Boston Americans) in order to establish dominance, giving rise to the first World Series in 1903, which is initially intended to be a one-time-only event comprised of nine games.

In typical Frost fashion, he also embraces the larger historical context of the period. In particular, he devotes a passage to the racial tensions and violence going on during this period in Boston due to the forced integration of schools via the controversial policy of “busing,” which Frost acknowledges as well-meaning but ultimately “the classic big-government blunder that made no one’s life better.” Frost contrasts this racial unrest against the Bostonian public’s unmitigated acceptance and worship of the dark-skinned Cuban Luis Tiant.

Frost also, in rather tenuous free-association fashion, uses the presence of President Gerald Ford’s son in the stands as an excuse to recount the bizarre story of Sarah Jane Moore. Moore, who is fixated with the Symbionese Liberation Army, spends some time with the group as an FBI undercover informant; subsequently, she gets it in her mind to assassinate the President, takes a shot at Ford, and misses. It makes for pretty surreal reading when Frost decides to intercut Pete Rose’s fifth-inning at-bat with the story of Patty Hearst and the SLA in between pitches.

(Continued in next post due to character limit)
 
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Mr. Reindeer

White Lodge
Apr 13, 2022
775
1,740
Following the conclusion of Game 6, the book has a final chapter chronicling Game 7 in much more abbreviated fashion, followed by an “Afterward.” As in The Greatest Game Ever Played and The Match, I’m not sure if Frost is deliberately misspelling “afterword” (i.e., because this section of the book explains what happened afterward, following the main events). I’m assuming it is intentional, since he spelled “afterword” properly in The Second Objective. In any event, as in those two golf books, this very long closing section (it’s nearly a fifth of the book’s entire length) chronicles the aftermath of the 1975 Series, following all the principals through the rest of their careers and beyond, as well as briefly charting the history of baseball through the following 33 years, up to the then-present-day of 2009. In particular, Frost chronicles how all the good will and passion inspired by the 1975 Series, reviving the public love of baseball, was very quickly squandered, and both teams that had played so brilliantly in the Series very quickly fell apart. A running theme in the book is the eternal conflict between owners and players, as best embodied by the “reserve” clause, a then-standard MLB contract requirement which essentially allowed owners to unilaterally keep players under contract indefinitely. In December 1975, the arbitration result colloquially known as the Seitz Decision rings the first death knell for the reserve clause. The aftermath of this decision brings about the dawn of the “free agent” era and the draft, putting the players’ fates more fully into their own hands finally, but sending MLB’s capitalistic impulses into steroid mode, resulting in “free-spending monarchs” such as George Steinbrenner building super-teams and leaving smaller clubs to pick up the scraps.

After a second consecutive World Series win in 1976, the wheels come off the Big Red Machine as GM Bob Howsam rebels against the new rules of baseball and simply refuses to play by them, boycotting the draft, and rapidly trading away players who won’t sign under his terms. Labor disputes lead to bitterness between players, owners, coaches and fans, culminating in the 1981 and 1994 players’ strikes. Fans become increasingly cynical watching the behind-the-scenes petty disputes between billionaire owners and millionaire players, and viewership drastically declines. Sparky Anderson (by that point managing the Detroit Tigers) is effectively blackballed from the major leagues after refusing to work with “replacement players” (i.e., scabs) during the 1994 strike, and despite the damage to his career, he still considers taking that stand the proudest moment of his life.

The Afterward ends on a bit of a “hell in a handbasket” soap-box-type note, with Frost going on for awhile. He first argues that modern-day MLB players’ massive salaries are perhaps more understandable in the context of how short the average baseball player’s professional career is; he then goes on to rather accusatorily say that “you” (i.e., the reader) are part of the problem for enabling the system with your hard-earned dollars, and he finishes up by bemoaning that modern players are more concerned with talking to their agents about endorsements than playing the game. He touches very briefly on the 2000s steroid scandal. Finally, he ends on a more upbeat note, proselytizing about the soulful “nourishment” we receive from watching athletes displaying stalwart strength, determination, and dignity in defeat.

It’s kind of funny that as Frost bemoans the corporatization of the entire entertainment industry, he tries to inject a small note of optimism and says that not everything changes for the worse…and then out of nowhere notes that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are “still rocking like their lives depend on it.” Don’t get me wrong, I love the Boss too (and he is absolutely amazing live), but in picking one example of something that’s right with the world out of thin air, Bruce is such a stereotypically middle-aged dad thing to choose.

Francis Ouimet from The Greatest Game Ever Played gets two mentions during the book. The Mark Frost Literary Sports Universe!

Frost takes some jabs at his own profession/industry: in the first chapter, he mentions that “you couldn’t have paid some Hollywood hack to concoct” a better matchup. In the Afterward, he mentions that footage of Game 6 in the film Good Will Hunting is re-edited to increase tension: “Shocking, isn’t it, Hollywood rearranging reality to suit its narrative requirements.”

In a passage on the rise of the counterculture into the mainstream, Frost mentions that SNL had just debuted (the second episode had aired on the night Game 6 was originally meant to be played before it was rained out), and also mentions “earnest, respectable dramas” like Dog Day Afternoon and Three Days of the Condor giving way to blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars (I’m honestly not so sure that this is the victory for the counterculture that Frost seems to think it is). Frost makes an error that any self-respecting cinema devotee will immediately catch: he claims that Star Wars had been shooting since March 1975, when of course Lucas began shooting in March 1976.

Lastly, there’s a slightly odd minor subplot involving Lesley Visser, one of the first trailblazing female sports journalists in America, and easily the most well-known and successful, but at the time of Game 6, she was still a lowly cub reporter at the Boston Globe. Although she has a very minor role, Visser is still by far the most prominent female “character” in the book. While Frost acknowledges her great accomplishments to come (“Visser wasn’t just a pioneer, she was nearly Jackie Robinson”—Frost is prone to hyperbole in these sports books), most of her appearances center around the fact that every male wants to get with her. Reference is made to her being a former college cheerleader, and adjectives used to describe her are invariably along the lines of “comely” and “wide-eyed.” She’s at Game 6, but purely as a spectator because another (male) reporter got her a press pass (we’re left to guess at his motivations…his prize is a hug). Her subplot pays off in a meet-cute with her future husband, broadcaster Dick Stockton, at the game. (Frost notes that Visser and Stockton are still happily married, although they divorced the year after the book was published.) One thing I’ve noticed throughout all of Frost’s books is that he seems to have little interest in writing female characters with any depth, and that his approach to the few female characters who do appear often feels very much a product of the era and culture in which he grew up. He’s obviously much more attracted to male protagonists and male-dominated topics/settings (golf and baseball; the front lines of WWII in The Second Objective; the last line of Game Six, a quote from Sparky, is, “They were all men”—emphasis in the original). I don’t mean to pass judgment; I don’t think that’s atypical of male authors of his generation. But it is interesting given what a female-driven narrative Twin Peaks often is, and how frequently Lynch focuses on exploring the female perspective in his non-Peaks works…it really does feel like Lynch is more the driving force for that element of the Peaks world. It’s perhaps particularly telling that Frost had zero interest in exploring Laura Palmer’s story when it came time to do a feature film.
 
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