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For April Fools' and baseball season: George Plimpton

BaseballPeriodicalsNational LeagueErnie BanksAmerican LeagueNew York Mets

To commemorate April Fools' Day and the start of baseball season, let’s take a look back at that greatest of all sports prank books, George Plimpton’s “Out of My League.” Originally published in 1961, it recalls Plimpton’s experience pitching to a lineup of major league all-stars before an exhibition game played at Yankee Stadium in the fall of 1958.

“The rosters were impressive,” Plimpton tells us; “just about everybody who had played in the official All-Star game earlier that summer was included: Whitey Ford, Nellie Fox, Billy Pierce, Harvey Kuenn, Billy Martin, and Frank Malzone of the American League, and, among others, on the National League team, Frank Thomas, Bill Maseroski, Bob Friend, Richie Ashburn, Gil Hodges, and Ernie Banks.” If these names mean less to us than they once did, such is the nature of time, of forgetting, but suffice it to say that this was the cream of the crop.

Plimpton went on to make part of his career as a Walter Mitty of the sports world; in “Paper Lion,” he played quarterback in a preseason game for the Detroit Lions, while in “Open Net,” he played goalie with the Boston Bruins. In 1985, he created a memorable April Fools' prank of his own, writing in Sports Illustrated about a fictional New York Mets rookie phenom named Sidd Finch, who could pitch at 168 miles an hour. (He later turned the piece into his only novel, “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch.”)

“Out of My League” was also developed for Sports Illustrated, but Plimpton is no Finch. That’s the point, to portray him as a kind of everyman, a fan who gets to cross the line separating the grandstand from the playing field. His model was Paul Gallico, who went on to write “The Poseidon Adventure” and scores of other novels, but as a sportswriter in the 1920s and '30s had sparred with Jack Dempsey and golfed with Bobby Jones. “Dempsey stalked him,” Plimpton tells us, “whacked him down to the canvas, and when Gallico left the ring he was shaking, bleeding slightly from the mouth, rosin dust on his trunks, his head singing, and, as he wrote, ‘knowing all there was to know about being hit in the ring.’”

Plimpton’s adventure had a similar outcome; to put it simply, he got gassed. He retired the first two batters, Ashburn and Willie Mays, on pop-ups — “That is all of that day I really care to remember,” he admits — but the third, Frank Robinson, touched him for a double, and the fourth, Ernie Banks, made him throw 23 pitches before flying out to Mickey Mantle in right-center field. Ultimately, he didn’t even make it through the National League lineup before being replaced by Yankee coach and batting practice pitcher Ralph Houk, who finished up.

The charm of the book is in the telling — Plimpton is erudite and self-deprecating by turns. But he also recognizes that baseball, that all sport, is hard work, performed by professionals with an abiding sense of pride. After he is pulled from the game, he ends up in the dugout where players call out questions: “Hey, kid, what’ja think of it, hey? How’d ja like it out there? Pretty rough, hey?” Their joshing is good-natured, but with an edge; as Plimpton notes, “[Y]ou could tell they were pleased their profession had treated me as roughly as it had.”

Like many of the greatest baseball books, “Out of My League” — which you can read, for free, at the Internet Archive — has an observational, offhand quality, not unlike an afternoon at the ballpark. This is the best thing about baseball, its air of reflection, the gaps and pauses that give the game its inner life. I know of no other sport that encourages such a sense of fantasy among its acolytes, the most pervasive being that we can do it too.

Plimpton’s experience, of course, suggests the opposite, which is only as it should be, I suppose.

“When I emerged from the clubhouse,” he writes of the aftermath, “I could feel it slipping away fast. The baseball diamond and the activity of the players, now engaged in their regular game, seemed unfamiliar and removed. Someone smacked a ball which was caught after a long run but the steel pillars cut my view and I couldn’t distinguish either of the participants in the play. No one recognized me as the Sports Illustrated pitcher as I went down the aisles looking for an empty seat.”

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