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Sunday, March 20, 2016

Playing With Tigers: A Review

Memoires (both fictional and real) of baseball players have always been a popular sub genre in the literature and film of the sport. Bull Durham and Ball Four are among the most well known, but the beauty is that since they are all told from a unique perspective, there’s always a fresh set of stories and experiences to share. One of the most recent is Playing with Tigers: A Minor League Chronicle of the Sixties (University of Nebraska Press) by George Gmelch.

Gmelch was a first baseman from California who played three minor league seasons in the 1960s for the Detroit Tigers (never rising above Single-A) and then a couple of years in the Canadian independent leagues. On the surface, one might think that since he never came close to reaching the majors there can’t be much of a story here. Those people would be wrong. Playing with Tigers is not only about his baseball experiences but also the role the game played in the coming of age of a young man during a rapidly changing time in American history.

This is not a standard baseball memoire, replete with the recounting of big games. Sure, there is some of that, but Gmelch, who became an anthropologist after his playing days were over, uses his academic experience to help frame his story in a different way than most. The result is a combination of his recollections along with excerpts from the journal he kept as a young man.

While the author had an obvious desire to make the major leagues, he also admits to how he felt as his career progressed, including seeing his fire wane as he developed new interests. The often unspoken competition that comes with playing minor league baseball is explored in depth. In high school and college, top-notch players are the best or among the best they play with and against. However, when they become professionals the talent gap widens significantly or exceeds them altogether. Reading about how many well-regarded prospects Gmelch played with who didn’t pan out for reasons ranging from results to injuries is fascinating. Just like today, each season played out in a way that can be best described as survival of the fittest. Precious few had the combination of talent, health and opportunity to make it all the way to the end—the major leagues.

Surprisingly, it is often forgotten that most minor league players are so young; some just out of high school. In many ways their introduction to professional baseball is also their entry into the real world and isn’t always the smoothest path. In particular, Gmelch talks candidly about his pursuit of and education when it came to sex. Like many ball players, finding willing partners wasn’t necessarily difficult. However, he doesn’t just go over a list of favorite conquests. He speaks freely of his inexperience and immaturity, which at one point led to an unplanned baby that he and his then-partner ended up giving up for adoption.

Although he does talk to some of his peers, adding more of their observations would have made this book even stronger. In some places (particularly when talking about other players), it felt like Gmelch relied too heavily on his own recollections and feelings. While this is obviously his memoir, independent observations would have fleshed out some of his stories even more.

For baseball fans, this book gives a great look at what life was like for players in the low minors and even in Canada during the 1960s. Set against the backdrop of the social issues of the time, there is a lot to digest, particularly given the number of stops the author made during his career.

George Gmelch is someone readers have likely never heard of before, and in the grand scheme of things his baseball career registered but a rather modest blip. That being said, he has quite a few interesting things to say with his baseball/anthropology hybrid book that is rather unique in its scope. He may not have made it as a player but if this work is any indication, he may end up making a greater impact with his pen than with his bat.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free advanced copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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