I grew up hearing Jim Murray, the inimitable Los Angeles Times sports columnist, being read aloud by my father at the breakfast table. On principle, my dad intensely disliked sports writers. He had a long memory and, as vice president and business manager for a Triple A baseball franchise in the 1930s, had found them to be a bunch of freeloaders. Not only did he have to negotiate players’ salaries, keep the lights on at the ballpark, and oversee the grounds crew; he had to make sure these self-absorbed dandies were supplied with free drink and food—in that order—lest they turn against the Angels (his team).
But Jim Murray was in an altogether different league from those scribes. Arriving at the Times after my dad’s former team had been forced to leave town by Walter O’Malley’s interloping Brooklyn Dodgers in 1958, Murray’s column ran on the front page of the sports section, top-left, his Irish countenance radiating from a line drawing that emphasized his wavy hair and heavy horned-rimmed glasses. What my father liked about Murray were his cadences and how he could pile on the similes, like a counter man at Katz’s (or, in Los Angeles, Philippe’s) layering on the brisket, one precisely shaven tier atop the next until your breath was taken away. Even before my dad would cut into the sausage and apply Tabasco sauce to his eggs, those Murray similes would multiply and sizzle—the words commingling over the food like a blessing.
This nation has not been bereft of superlative sports writers, from Ring Lardner and Heywood Broun to Red Smith, Roger Angell, and Frank Deford. By assignment, Dan Barry is not a sports writer, but neither were John Updike, Norman Mailer, or David Halberstam—all of whom wrote unforgettable pieces about athletes, their achievements and defeats. Dan Barry does likewise in his recounting of the longest game in professional baseball history.
Barry is a national columnist for the New York Times and, as Jim Murray might say, a national treasure. For years he has roamed the byways of the “blue routes,” far from the interstates, to send dispatches that together form a veritable portrait of the republic. Barry writes from places the media usually doesn’t notice until after a tornado has hit. Like John McGahern, he has a feel for character; like John McPhee, a sense of place. If you are a Times reader, you’ve wasted your investment if you rush past his byline without savoring what follows. Take his report this year (March 1) from beneath the capitol dome in Madison, Wisconsin. Barry focused on neither Governor Scott Walker nor the throngs of pro-union demonstrators protesting his policies, but on the workers who kept the building (“the granite gem of Wisconsin”) functioning during the weeks of sit-ins—the bathrooms clean, the lights on, the water running, the garbage removed. A good reporter tells the untold, sometimes-forgotten story; an exceptional reporter does so providing context, scope, and the human consequences in memorable prose. On all counts, Barry is major league.
David Halberstam published his majestic October 1964 thirty years after the fact. It recounted the dramatic 1964 season and World Series in which the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the New York Yankees. Halberstam situated those events in the broader context of the civil-rights movement, and demonstrated how that sea change in American consciousness recalibrated the landscape not only of the nation but specifically of major-league baseball. In Bottom of the 33rd, Barry recounts another saga on the baseball diamond thirty years after the fact. His story is not about a climactic season but about a single minor-league game in 1981 played before a diminishing crowd on a bitter spring night in an antiquated stadium in Rhode Island. And for the first twenty innings or so, the contest offered no hint of its eventual singularity.
The game between the Pawtucket Red Sox and Rochester Red Wings, Triple A affiliates respectively for the Boston Red Sox and the Baltimore Orioles, started badly: the lights at rickety McCoy Stadium wouldn’t come on. When they finally did, following a half-hour game delay, no one present could have imagined what was to play out: a thirty-three-inning game (the equivalent of a baseball triple-header) that would extend over three days, eight hours and twenty-five minutes, and include three liturgical seasons (Lent, Easter, and Ordinary Time) as well as 219 at-bats and 60 strikeouts. None of this is lost on Barry, nor does it grow tired in his telling. For he understands not only rite, ritual, and rubric but also baseball strategy, lore, and nuance, turning what might have been a cold recounting of an endless box score into a page-turner. By the time the winning run is recorded, you’re wishing the game hadn’t ended.
Barry has a gift for introducing and honoring the small fry, for conveying his or her unique significance. Bottom of the 33rd tells about the clubhouse boy who becomes the deputy chief of police; the manager who gets kicked out in the twenty-second inning but never abandons his duties, directing his team to victory from beneath the stands; the umpire who abides by the rule book, a faulty edition of which means the game cannot be suspended at the ordinary curfew; the owner, a graduate (as is the manager) of Boston College who, as the game extends into Easter morning, serves free concessions and even shares his personal bottle of Chivas Regal; the wife of the player with the long-awaited winning hit, who sticks by him every pitch of his career but eventually has to leave the marriage when he can’t pass up the first drink of the day—the same player who finally achieves mastery of self and personal redemption; the future Hall-of-Famer who, at four in the morning, lies down on the field in the thirty-second inning to make the third-base bag his temporary pillow; the official scorekeeper who employs four different colors of ink to record the game as it progresses, creating his own one-page Book of Kells; and the radio announcer who loses his job between the thirty-second and thirty-third innings (the game was completed two months later), but comes back to broadcast the final inning, this time for a national audience—the first announcer, Barry points out, to change teams in the middle of a game.
In Barry’s telling, this game was not only like no other, it was more than a game. By describing the lives and years of an unsung group of journeymen ballplayers—their search for work, family, and hoped-for fulfillment—the longest game becomes iconic. Most minor-league ballplayers never make it to the major leagues, let alone succeed if they do. Yet, thanks to Barry’s attentive eye and lyric telling, we learn about their lives and reflect on our own. The longest game, and the thirty years in between, all matter. In resurrecting the game and its aftermath, Barry insures it will not be forgotten. His book deserves a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame.