Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in 2015 and is reprinted here by permission.
My early baseball education came mainly from Topps’ baseball cards and Random House’s “Big League Library” series (Jim Brosnan’s Great Baseball Pitchers, George Vescey’s Baseball’s Most Valuable Players, and a dozen others). The late 1960s and early 1970s was a great time for young baseball readers, and my school libraries had a fair sampling of books on such heroes as Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays. I read all I could find.
A turning point in my baseball reading, when I began to appreciate the impressive history of the game’s literature, came with my teenage discovery of Charles Einstein’s three (later four) volumes of The Fireside Book of Baseball, an anthology of game accounts, columns, poems, illustrations and cartoons covering several decades. The series had been around a while before I ran across it, but the first time I read the words of Ring Lardner, Heywood Broun, and Damon Runyon was in the page of these books, checked out of the Groton (Connecticut) Public Library in the mid-1970s. Some of it was tough sledding. Runyon, who later became one of my favorites, wrote in a colorful stylized language that was not yet familiar to me. The same was true of most of the pre-war material.
A highlight was a piece by Arnold Hano in the first Fireside volume (1956): a chapter from his book A Day in the Bleachers. The book is a first person account of sitting in the Polo Grounds’ bleachers for Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. The excerpt is about a single play — a sensational catch by the Giants’ Willie Mays of a deep drive off the bat of Cleveland’s Vic Wertz. I knew of this play, but I so loved Hano’s chapter that on my next trip to the library I checked out the whole book.
The central character of A Day in the Bleachers is not Mays, nor is it Dusty Rhodes, who won the game with a home run. The main subject is Hano, a 32-year-old freelance writer living in Manhattan, who wakes up on the morning on September 29, 1954 and announces to his wife that he is going to the ballgame, to root on his beloved Giants. “You’ll never get in,” she tells him. Ignoring this, he takes the D Train from midtown to the Polo Grounds, waits on a long line, buys a ticket, crams himself into the bleachers, occupies himself for a few hours waiting for the game to begin, interacts with fellow denizens (a few of whom are rooting for the Indians), agonizes through ten innings of tight baseball, and heads (happily) for the exit. This takes up 154 pages, perhaps 40,000 words.
Hano writes clearly and directly, with wry humor and confidence. He observes the game expertly, and with a delightfully fierce partisanship. He keeps score (of course), and jots down additional notes in the margins of his New York Times. He loves sitting in the bleachers, where he doesn’t have to be so polite. “My wife says I am a vindictive man when it comes to baseball; I believe she is right,” writes Hano. “In the bleachers, however, you can be vindictive. Nearly everyone else is.” Hano guardedly chats with his neighbors without really meeting them. Surely the vast majority of the 52,000 present were rooting for the Giants, but there are at least two Indians partisans nearby — a man directly behind whom Hano never once turns around to see, and a woman in a red hat (a Brooklyn Dodger fan, of all things) a couple rows in front. To Hano, these two are a nuisance — every time the Indians do something worth cheering about, their happiness offends him enough that he can’t help bickering with them. But mostly, Hano observes the game and all of it’s nuances, strategies, and player analysis that many of us have talked about at ballgames since we could put two thoughts together.
One of my favorite sentences in the book comes near the start, when Hano is explaining why he prefers sitting in the section of the bleachers that is just to the left of dead center field. The reason, he explains, is that when the pitcher is right-handed (like both of the day’s starters, Sal Maglie and Bob Lemon) Hano would be directly in line with the ball as it traveled from the pitcher’s hand to home plate. With this view, from more than 500 feet away, he would know whether it was a ball or a strike without waiting for the umpire make his signal. “Once in awhile I’m mistaken,” Hano tells us, “but then, I remind myself, umpires are human.”
If you had never been to a ballgame before, if you had never screamed yourself hoarse rooting for a team, this passage might seem ridiculous. Does the author really think he can call balls and strikes from his distant perch better than the umpire who is inches away from the action? On the other hand, if you are able put yourself in Hano’s place that day, the answer is easy: if the angle is right, sure, why not?
Hano is an unapologetic Giants fan, but not a dishonest one. He sees the flaws in his team, and he is not overly confident about how things are going to turn out. He considers the Giants the better team and the National League the better league, but he’d been around enough to know that might not be enough. Not today, and not over four games. He does not hide his worry.
When Bob Lemon led off the Indians’ fifth in a 2-2 game, Hano observed: “I hoped Lemon would strike out; it is perhaps fair to say that I would not have been particularly concerned if had broken his leg in running out a ground ball. The next day I would have felt bad about it, sorry for Lemon and for the Indians and their misfortune, but at the moment my only desire was to see the Giants win.” Well, OK, not many people wish physical harm upon others when going about their normal lives, and I sincerely doubt Hano really did either. But when you are rooting for your favorite team? In the World Series? In a tie game? Hey, it’s complicated.
Hano watched a classic ballgame — his Giants won on a three-run home run by pinch-hitter Rhodes in the bottom of the tenth. But it will forever be remembered for Mays’s spectacular catch in the eighth inning, saving what would likely have been a two-run triple by Vic Wertz in a 2-2 game and almost certainly a Cleveland victory. Hano expends nine pages on this play (the catch, and the equally spectacular throw), going through various stages of objectivity and fear. How far will the ball go? What other great catches have I seen at this park? Would DiMaggio have reached it? What are the baserunners doing? Are the fielders moving to the correct bases?
Hano’s description of the actual catch is simple enough: “Mays simply slowed down to avoid running into the wall, put his hands up in a cup-like fashion over his left shoulder, and caught the ball much like a football player catching leading passes in the end zone.” Hano did not think the catch was particularly difficult for Mays, nor one of Mays’s better catches. No one else could have caught it, Hano believed, but once Mays’ instincts and speed got him to the ball the catch was fairly routine.
The book ends 28 pages later, as Hano is packing up his things to head for the exit. He looks for his game-long combatants. The woman in the red hat had left (“Good, I thought. Crawl back to that rock.”). So had the Indians fan who sat behind him. Hano claims, a little unconvincingly, that he did not need a final gloating. “My wife — I knew — was wrong,” he concludes. “I am not really a vindictive person. When my team has won.”
Hano first pitched a magazine-length story to the New Yorker, who declined, and then spent a few months trying to sell it as a book. When Crowell published it the following summer, it received tremendous reviews, including a full page feature in the New York Herald-Tribune. James T. Farrell, in the New York Times, wrote, “though we know it’s outcome, our interest is held here as it might be in a novel.” This is undeniably true, as my repeated readings have confirmed.
Because there were very few baseball books for adults in those days, bookstores had no idea how to sell it. Put it with the sports books, and only teenage boys will see it. File it with the non-fiction, and it will be ignored by academics. “It sold like cold cakes,” Hano jokes. By the time I ran across it, nearly twenty years later, it was long out of print, occasionally read by discerning library patrons across the land. I found a beautiful used copy many years ago for $5.95, which I still own (the price is still visible in light pencil).
Hano and his wife moved to Laguna Beach, California, the summer the book came out. He was a prolific writer and editor before and after Bleachers, not only sports, and not only non-fiction. After the critical success of his book he became a frequent contributor to SPORT magazine, which published some of the best sports writing in the country over the next two decades. Hano was followed to California by the Dodgers, Giants, and several other sports teams, and essentially became SPORT’s west coast writer for twenty years. His association with Mays continued, with several magazine profiles and three of Hano’s 27 books.
In 1987 SABR paneled a bunch of experts and came up with something called “The Essential Baseball Library.” There were 57 titles chosen, several of which were multiple volume sets. The list leans towards “academic” and away from “enjoyable to read,” but I was still surprised that Bleachers did not make the cut. Had it become my little secret? “The catch” had remained famous (the story was part of my wedding vows, in fact), but the book had not.
Happily, Bleachers has had a resurgence. De Capo put out a paperback in 1982 (with an introduction by Roger Kahn) and again in 2004 (introduction by Ray Robinson), and it is no longer terribly difficult to find. The original hard copy might run you a few hundred bucks, if you can find one.
Even better, Hano is still around and often called upon to talk about his great book and his enviable writing career. I spoke with him on the phone a few weeks ago, in fact. He told me that he went to the game intending to write about it, and the game’s enduring fame was simply good fortune.
And you no longer need to learn about Hano from me. Jon Leonoudakis, a talented documentary filmmaker, has recently made a film about Hano, which might be coming to a theater near you. If not, you can buy the DVD. I highly recommend it.
Six years after rejecting Hano, The New Yorker published John Updike’s “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” a stirring first person account of attending Ted Williams’ final game. Whether Updike had read Bleachers is not known, but Updike’s story has a secure place among the very best baseball stories. Two years later Roger Angell began writing first-person accounts for the same magazine, which he is still doing 53 years later.
As great as Updike and Angell obviously are, and as much as they did not hide their biases, they did not write as partisans. Hano laid bare the thrilling, nerve-wracking, delightful, and occasionally ridiculous experience of watching your team play a baseball game.
And he is one hell of writer. His book remains a treasure.