Behind the plate, Howard had settled in his crouch, his big mitt up for the target. Concentrating on it, barely aware then of Ashburn, I toed the rubber with my spikes and with an almost physical jolt of will, I swung into a slow windup. Under the pressure of the moment, I half expected to exhibit a pitching form as spastic as the cartwheeling fall of a man from a high tree … and I was surprised at the ease with which I got the pitch off. I was not prepared, however, for what then happened: that, rather than speeding for the bulk of the Howard’s mitt, the ball, flung with abandon and propelled by a violent mixture of panic and pent-up anxiety let loose, headed straight for Ashburn’s head. Down he went, flat on his back, the bat flung away, and an explosion of sound – a sharp gasp from the crowd – sailed out of the stands as I hurried off the mound calling, “Sorry! Sorry!”
While I was playing baseball professionally (something tons of people dream of doing, which I don’t really understand), I was always jealous of my high school friends who had normal jobs, getting normal pay, and would go for a good drink after a long day of work. Man, I was fucking jealous of that.
In the comments, I responded, however feebly, with:
I think for most little boys and many girls growing up in the US, being a pro ballplayer … seems like a life of status and adventure. We grow up with guys like you … as heroes, at least to some extent, and the dream of hitting the HR (or making the great catch or throwing the shutout or getting the big K with the bases loaded in the ninth) in the big game is a romantic ideal.
Most of us, of course, didn’t go through the traumas of youth ball the way you did, and so when it ended for us (after Little League, or Jr. High, of whenever), there was still a whiff of “what if” in the air, and even though we resign ourselves to that ending, we still have a certain bittersweet longing for that “what if.”
In 1958, one of those little boys and girls got to find out “what if.”
George Plimpton was, if not a pioneer, an early participant in what’s sometimes referred to as “participatory journalism,” in which a writer not so much embeds her- or himself in a situation, but actively participates in it. In his case, Plimpton arranged to pitch an inning in a post-season All-Star exhibition at Yankee Stadium and then write it up for Sport Illustrated.
Plimpton, at the time, was a 31-year-old writer and editor (of The Paris Review*), part-time CIA agent, and long-retired boy baseball player, last pitching in high school. He loved the game, though, and while sitting in the bleachers for a late-season New York Yankees game, decided he wanted to find out “what if.”
Through an editor at SI and a few good words from Toots Shor*, of all people, he managed to get permission to pitch a first, “unofficial” inning at a postseason exhibition game featuring AL players, led by Mickey Mantle, and an NL squad, led by Willie Mays. He would pitch to the starting lineup of each team, and the team with the most total bases at the end would split $1,000. (This sounds laughable today, but those of us who know our baseball history know that $100 apiece to a 1958 major leaguer was something worth playing for.)
Out of My League is the story of that inning, that day.
Or rather, that kinda, sorta half-inning. You see, his appearance was a very rushed affair, set up half-assed over the course of a couple of weeks, and nobody actually thought to set up ground rules beyond:
- Plimpton would face both eight-man lineups (the pitchers wouldn’t hit)
- Total bases wins
- $1,000 dollars: Woo Hoo
In fact, no one in MLB or the Yankees had bothered to directly ask, or tell, the players they’d be participating. Plimpton, having made his arrangements through SI and player agent Frank Scott, arrived at the stadium not actually knowing for certain that he’d actually be pitching. Scott hustled between locker rooms prior to the game in order to secure everyone’s agreement, which most consisted of shrugs, followed by, “$1,000? Sure, why not.”
One agreement they failed to consider getting an umpire to participate. So the ground rules, made up on the spot were that Plimpton would throw pitches until the hitter either struck out or hit something into fair territory. There would be no walks. This was have consequences in what followed.
And what follows is the logical conclusions of a real-life Walter Mitty* “what if.” Plimpton is an excellent Mitty: witty, self-deprecating, and erudite all at once. He’s keenly aware of the folly he, an amateur, is engaging in and, too, that the professionals he’s engaged in his adventure, are just that, professionals. He understands that they view him with a combination of amusement and benign contempt. He watches and agonizes as his catcher, the Yankee’s Elston Howard, moves from idle curiosity to engaged pro trying to make the best of it, to exasperation as the amateur Plimpton moves from determined to desperate.
No umpire and no walks means that each hitter, motivated by a mix of pride and $100, simply waits Plimpton out, ignoring and casually fouling off any pitch they deem not-hittable enough. Content to let him throw pitch after pitch while they bide their time, Plimpton grows frantic until exhaustion finally wins out. He does, in fact, start out well, retiring two batters fairly quickly, but then the others become increasingly patient.
Interspersed in the narrative of that growing desperation are little vignettes of names we know (Mantle, Mays, Frank Robinson, Nellie Fox) and some we don’t remember so well (Bob Cerv, Frank Malzone), Plimpton’s brief interactions with them, and how he hopes he’s viewed by them contrasted with how he’s pretty sure he’s actually viewed by them.
There are witty asides, funny stories about how he ends up with the mitt uses in the game after his is stolen from his car, or the misadventure with his first curve ball in the game, or how his inner voice betrays him about the time Bill Mazeroski comes to the plate.
But there are also passages of the sheer beauty of the game, and the awe of being on the big field, standing alongside a bunch of men who excel at it and being, for an instant or two, one of them. There is a touching moment when, overwhelmed, and about to take the mound at Yankee Stadium, Plimpton is approached by Bob Friend, who tells him, “This is my first time in this park … I don’t feel much at home either.”
It’s not spoiling much to say that things didn’t go as hoped or planned. Completely worn down by the time he finished with the NL hitters, Plimpton was an exhausted puddle and couldn’t face the AL. Ralph Houk took over and faced Mantle and crew. Plimpton watched from the dugout.
He writes: “I suffered a steady stream of humiliations … what happened to me is bound to happen when an amateur is thrown into the company of professional athletes. It is inevitable.” And that true, of course, but that doesn’t stop us all from daydreaming “what if” from time to time, both before and long after we’re old enough to laugh at ourselves for doing it.
And, in fact, it didn’t stop Plimpton himself from actually doing it, again and again. After his baseball adventure, he went on to play football, twice, in exhibitions with the Detroit Lions and Baltimore Colts (Paper Lion, Mad Ducks and Bears), train and play goalie in an exhibition with the Boston Bruins (Open Net), box against Archie Moore (Shadow Box), and play in a professional golf tournament (The Bogey Man). And wrote about them all. And those are just the ones he turned into books. He also played chess grandmasters, tournament-level Bridge, and trained as a high-wire walker. Walter Mitty, indeed.
Out of My League is a little baseball oddity, but a wonderfully interesting and entertaining one. Plimpton is an enthusiastic and droll guide to a little vicarious wish-fulfillment, a little voice letting us know what “what if” is really like.
It was my great good fortune to meet Plimpton once. It was 1988, not long after his wonderful baseball novel, The Curious Case of Sidd Finch (which may well be a future installment here) was released. I was working in a bookshop in Indianapolis, and he happened to be in town and came into the shop. He wasn’t promoting Finch, however (though he signed a copy for me – I already had one at home, but bought another so he could autograph it – and still have it around here somewhere), but was in town to indulge yet another of his great loves, fireworks. He had written a book them, too, and had come to see a big display along White River, in downtown Indy. Turns out, he had been a demolition expert in the Army and later had a very amusing (since no one got hurt) attempt at breaking the world’s record for setting off the largest firework that resulted in blowing a 35-foot-wide, 10-foot-deep hole in the ground. Walter Mitty, indeed.
He actually took the time to chat for a while about The Paris Review (story for another time), and was as gracious, self-deprecating, witty, and warm as he comes across in his books. It was maybe 15 minutes, but 15 minutes I cherish.
But when I dressed in my street clothes it was with regret that I stuffed the baseball outfit back into the carryall. I found myself looking around the locker room carefully so that I could remember it, not to write about it so much as to convince myself that I had been there.