When the worst baseball teams in history are discussed, somehow the Texas Rangers get left out fairly frequently. Maybe they don't have the extended histories of other storied disasters like the Phillies or the Braves, but Rangers fans have had to endure some pretty crappy teams. They had no real on-field success until the Alex Rodriguez era, and nothing to show for it until they finally won their first-ever Pennant last season.
Well, perhaps "nothing" is a little extreme. The Rangers have the distinction of being the baseball team featured in Mike Shropshire's book Seasons in Hell, a jolly good fun insider view of the Rangers from 1973 to 1975, when they were pretty much the worst team in baseball.
Seasons in Hell has a very unique vantage point. Instead of just giving the history of the team in a third person viewpoint, sportswriter Mike Shropshire, who spent years following the Rangers, writes it in the first person viewpoint. Therefore, Seasons in Hell is less an insider chronicle of the 1973-1975 Texas Rangers than it is a book about journalism that just happens to be written by a guy who covered the worst team in baseball. Yes, Shropshire is in it to tell you all about the hilarious missteps taken by the Rangers of the 1970′s, but they are merely the focal point of what is ultimately a memoir of his earliest days as a sportswriter. Shropshire even writes about how and why he fell into the gig at one point, as his career until the Rangers consisted of fancy dinner interviews with celebrities.
Being more of a memoir than anything, Seasons in Hell gives us the story of the Rangers as Mike Shropshire saw it. That clause is important. It means our author is doing the narrating himself from his own point of view. He's telling it the way he saw it himself, which gives us insight on why journalists can be so inaccurate sometimes. You won't be seeing any interviews or reflections from team MVP and star outfielder Jeff Burroughs, third baseman Jim Fregosi, or manager Billy Martin except from the standpoint of Shropshire's memory. For each and every major, important happening in the book, Shropshire is giving us the thoughts of no one other than himself. And so instead of the usual platitudes of this player or that player cheating on his wife, Shropshire talks about the sportswriter groupies in Baltimore, the autograph he wanted but wasn't able to get, and the way the Rangers handled Cleveland's infamous ten-cent beer night promotion and what he thought happened.
The Texas Rangers at the time were a joke team. Being a part of the organization at that time meant you had been banished for some irredeemable sin. The team had a few bright spots – Jeff Burroughs being the primary of them, but Gaylord Perry and Ferguson Jenkins also drop into The Lone Star State for brief spells – but for the most part the Rangers were the penal colony of Major League Baseball. During the timespan covered in Seasons in Hell, they were managed by two of baseball's brightest: When Shropshire arrived to his post at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Whitey Herzog was in place. With Herzog helming the team, the Rangers lost 105 games and Herzog himself would be promptly fired, picked up by the Kansas City Royals, and fired again before riding those great St. Louis Cardinals teams of the 80′s into the Hall of Fame. He was replaced by Billy Martin, who would be guiding the Bronx Zoo Yankees to a World Series title by 1977 and later have his number retired in Yankee Stadium.
Seasons in Hell covers three seasons with the Rangers, but Shropshire only goes into real details with one. That one is the 1973 season, when the Rangers were fielding a team which Whitey Herzog said was "two players away from being a contender – Sandy Koufax and Babe Ruth." There's no real reason I can detect for this disparity. There are 237 pages proper in Seasons in Hell, including the afterword, and the first 158 are about the 1973 season. 1975 Opening Day doesn't begin until page 208. This arrangement certainly lends weight to the idea that people will always slow down to look at car wrecks. It's possible that Shropshire had the most to say about the 1973 season because he was new to the whole world of sportswriting, or perhaps it was intended to give a more in depth idea of the baseball hot stove.
While the last two seasons Shropshire covers don't go into a ton of detail about field goings-on, they do provide some amusing stories. The most notable is Shropshire's firsthand look at Cleveland's ten-cent beer night, one of the most ill-conceived and poorly thought out promotions in baseball history; it was the Rangers who played the innocent bystanders in Cleveland that night. The 1975 season is the shortest in the book and Shropshire's stories have a much more personal feel. Shropshire writes about, among other things, finding relief for an aching back and his departure from Fort Worth.
Shropshire writes a little bit about the prevailing political and cultural atmosphere at times, but Seasons in Hell mostly goes by completely unattached to any of it. Shropshire isn't trying to place baseball into the big picture of anything, and when he does talk about the country at large, it feels more like he's placing it into the context of baseball and Texas instead of the other way around. Shropshire's style as a writer is dry and cynical and he writes Seasons in Hell mostly with his tongue firmly in his cheek as he sits back and just soaks up the view, writing down what he sees and his thoughts on it all.
Mike Shropshire is the hero of Seasons in Hell. While some of the characters and personalities he encounters will stand out more than others – probably none more so than Billy Martin – you really can't pinpoint certain people getting more print time than others. This makes perfect sense because it is, after all, a memoir of his career with the Texas Rangers just happening to be the team he was covering.
I make no secret of the fact that I'm loyal to the New York Yankees. But one of the disadvantages of being a Yankees fan is that we don't really get the experience of rooting for the bad-but-never-actually-boring bands of outcasts and vagabonds who brighten up the diamond with hilarious ineptitude. After reading books like Seasons in Hell, we almost get jealous.