I can honestly say I've taken a real shine to Mike Shropshire's work. Or at least his baseball work. I've never read his football work, which is the majority of the books he's written, but his work revolving around the Texas Rangers is smart, delightfully snide, and smarmy as hell. He's only written two books about the Rangers, and they're both about the bad old days, long before the Ron Washington/Josh Hamilton Rangers became the royalty of the American League. But both of them deserve to rank among the great jock literature written about baseball in the 1970's.
First, Shropshire covered the 1973-1975 years in Seasons in Hell. Later, he produced The Last Real Season, which is subtitled "A Hilarious Look Back at 1975 - When Major Leaguers Made Peanuts, the Umpires Wore Red, and Billy Martin Terrorized everyone." I think the subtitle says everything about just why Shropshire decided to pinpoint the 1975 season in particular after he already covered a little bit of it back in Seasons in Hell. Of course, one of the very few problems I had with Seasons in Hell - which is otherwise one of my favorite baseball books - was the fact that the three seasons Shropshire covered in it tended to thin out as the years went by. Shropshire went through 1973 in great detail. He went through the following season in slightly less detail, and for 1975, he had more to say about the state of his job with his newspaper than he did about the Rangers.
The Last Real Season rectifies that. Shropshire takes us methodically through the year 1975, the year after Billy Martin won Manager of the Year by merit of leading the Texas Rangers to an unexpected second-placed finish in 1974. Date by date, Shropshire guides us through 1975, mocking the Rangers, mocking Billy Martin (a very dangerous thing to do to the notoriously volatile Martin - probably why he waited until after Martin was dead to write up these memoirs), and also mocking himself and sportswriters in general.
To me, the fact that Shropshire is so openly contemptuous of his profession is the best part of his writing. While his books about the Texas Rangers are indeed about the Texas Rangers, they're not so much about the team itself as they are about his adventures as their official chronicler of their on-field history. Shropshire writes The Last Real Season strictly from personal memoir. He didn't run out and interview the old-school players, read a million books and provide footnotes and bibliography, and he didn't seek promotional permission from the Rangers organization. He simply took a few notes about what happened, his personal thoughts about them, and turned them into a book.
The Last Real Season is a journal, not a game by game account. There aren't any stories about what the players were doing on their own unless they happened to tell the story to Shropshire in passing. There are, however, plenty of stories about just what Shropshire was doing, as well as thinking. He's the main character in the book, as well as the first-person narrator.
Billy Martin is the most prominent side character, and it says a lot about Shropshire that he managed to get the notoriously volatile Martin to like and trust him. Martin is a fighting who can't stand losing and a great baseball manager whose methods brought success to several teams, most notably his Pennants and World Series titles with the New York Yankees during the Bombers' only real colorful time as a team, the Bronx Zoo era of the late 1970's which began right after Martin left Texas. In fact, 1975 was the year Martin was run out of Texas and hired by the Yankees, and one of the things Shropshire gets to write about is how that transition came about. Shropshire is damned certain that Martin rigged the controversy and unwinnable fight that resulted in his getting fired from the Rangers, thus leaving him open for the inevitable time later that year when the Yankees would have an open spot. It's apparent that everything Martin did was an audition for George Steinbrenner in anticipation of taking the reins as the Yankee skipper.
That doesn't mean Martin didn't care about his own team, though. Martin was one of the gritty hearts, a lunchpail guy among the Yankees' superstar galaxy during the days when the Yankees were winning the World Series every year. He earned his keep as a fan favorite because he hated losing, and it just pissed him off no end. That was part of the reason for the Rangers' strong showing in 1974, and there's a malicious bit of amusement about watching him break down in 1975 when the 1974 run turns out to be a fluke. He begins the season believing the defending champion Oakland Athletics will be challenged by Texas in a hard-fought duel to the death since the Rangers have Jeff Burroughs and Ferguson Jenkins while the A's lost Catfish Hunter to the Yankees in free agency. It was left up to Reggie Jackson near the end of The Last Real Season when, in an interview with Shropshire, he spells it all out: "A lot of people failed to factor in the reality that the Rangers' showing last year was a fluke. Ferguson Jenkins is a pitcher who will always be on schedule to win 20 games, but not 25, like the Rangers had been counting on again this year. Last year, they got away with a one-man bullpen. You don't get away with that year after year. Last year, they put Cesar Tovar in center field, and he played like Willie Mays. This year, Tovar played like the player he is, which is a nice utility man who is pushing age 40. Last year, Jeff Burroughs was the Most Valuable Player in the American League. This year, he played back down to his actual level, which is that of a man who'll finish around eighth among the outfielders in the All-Star voting. Even if some of last year's pieces had fallen into place again, Texas has no chance against us. Look at the players in this room. We are head and shoulders above the rest of the league." Ouch.
Jackson's Athletics are the primary antagonist of The Last Real Season, in fact.They're the team the rest of the American League aspires to be like, and they're defending the title they won the previous year, which was their third in a row. It seems like Oakland is always being discussed and worried about. On the flipside, no one is concerned about the Minnesota Twins or Chicago White Sox, of whom it's immediately decided don't stand a chance in hell of even making a surprise run like the Rangers themselves did in 1974.
Martin is a fun presence, and his team is also a lot of fun. But the most fun of reading The Last Real season is Shropshire writing about himself, doing his job, going through the motions as a sportswriter. In private, he writes while playing a game with himself called chase-the-six-pack, where he buys a six-pack of beer and tries to finish his article before the beer. There's one point where he pretends to be a famous hockey player in order to get laid, but that blows up in his face. He goes about a lot of his work in the most half-assed form imaginable, disbelieving of the fact that he's getting away with a lot of it. And you really don't condemn him for acting like this, either; the baseball season is a 162-game-long marathon, and you have to watch game after game even if you don't want to. Shropshire, for his attitude toward sportswriting, really is a fan, but even he can't go in and out keeping it up. It's very interesting to watch his beliefs toward the Rangers themselves change. After last season, he writes about the promise the Rangers show for 1975, with their talent and what happened the previous year and the Athletics lacking Catfish Hunter. While the team keeps up its appearances at first, a 162-game season, more than any other sport, will divide the pack between the contenders and pretenders. Shropshire's attitude towards the Rangers' chances gets tested and eventually he wears out, in spite of trying to remain optimistic through to the point when they're mathematically eliminated.
The tales of Martin and his jolly group of rogues and hacks help, but ultimately the paragraph above describes the true appeal of Shripshire's duo of Rangers books, this one and Seasons in Hell. I found that for all the antics and strong opinions Shropshire provides on the era - before free agency came about and shot salaries nto the stratosphere (something Shropshire doesn't actually go into great detail about) - I was reading and enjoying his Rangers books not for any information he had on the team, but because of the way he details his own life as a sportswriter.