Baseball before salaries went boom

Sports writer Mike Shropshire sees 1975 as “The Last Real Season” for baseball.

There are two kinds of baseball fans: Those who prefer Kevin Costner’s misty reverence for the game in “Field of Dreams” and those who opt for Kevin Costner’s rowdy rhubarbs and bittersweet hardball addiction in “Bull Durham.” If the latter description fits you, you’ll love The Last Real Season, Mike Shropshire’s salute to the 1975 season.

Then a beat writer covering the Texas Rangers and a soon-to-be exiled manager named Billy Martin, Shropshire skirts the drama of that year’s epic World Series in favor of the drama of players obsessed with typical off-field passions, healthy and otherwise.

Beyond the ribald frat-house revelry, “The Last Real Season” chronicles a lost era, a time when players still spent the off-season working part-time jobs. A member of the Oakland A’s, after missing out on an anticipated $25,000 World Series payout, laments that he’ll probably have to work at a Christmas tree lot over the winter. Anyone expect to see Derek Jeter selling Christmas trees any time soon?

The following year – 1976 – the free-agency era begins, a labor victory for the players leading to the game’s present riches. The minimum big-league salary today hovers well above $300,000 per year. Shropshire captures the sportswriter’s booze-soaked, expense-loving milieu with blunt whimsy. And even his hotel-room musings of somber subjects bring a smile, such as this one from Oakland in September 1975: “Just over in the next town, practically – Sacramento to be exact – somebody had tried to shoot Gerald Ford, interim manager of the United States of America.”

Erik Spanberg writes about sports for the Monitor.

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