- Playing with Tigers: A Minor League Chronicle of the Sixties by George Gmelch
We are fortunate that power-hitting first base prospect George Gmelch of the Detroit Tigers was not fleet of foot or more consistent with his hitting, for readers might be deprived of this insightful memoir of minor league baseball during the turbulent 1960s. After leaving baseball in 1970, Gmelch pursued an academic career as an anthropologist, and he employs his scholarly credentials to provide a greater understanding of minor league baseball culture. But Playing with Tigers is much more than just another academic book on baseball or for that matter just another baseball memoir chronicling past games and off the field hijinks—although such tales enrich Gmelch's account. Rather, Playing with Tigers is an honest rendering of one player's personal growth within minor league baseball culture during a time in which all American institutions, including a traditional sport such as baseball, were undergoing considerable change. To recapture this period, Gmelch does not simply rely on elusive memory as he maintained a personal journal of his baseball experiences. As a careful scholar, he compares his impressions with newspaper accounts of his baseball travels which took him from Duluth, Minnesota to Canada. Then in what proved to be the most rewarding part of his research, Gmelch [End Page 251] reconnected with former teammates and managers in addition to two former girlfriends for whom he provides pseudonyms. The result is an honest and moving story of Gmelch's evolution as a young man within the historical and cultural context of the 1960s in which the anthropologist "rediscovered the greatness of baseball and why as a youth I had worshipped it" (249).
Gmelch grew up in San Mateo, California, and his passion for baseball was inherited from his father; a businessman who was a transplanted New York Yankees fan. As for pursuing his boyhood dream of a career in professional baseball, Gmelch, like most other white middle-class males of the era, believed all things were possible with hard work—the appeal of the American dream. Nevertheless, he had no professional baseball offers following high school, so he enrolled at the College of San Mateo and continued to play baseball. Following a difficult freshman season, he put up better statistics and earned a modest bonus from the Detroit Tigers. In the summer of 1965, Gmelch was assigned to the Duluth Superior Dukes of the Northern League, the bottom rung of the Tigers farm system. Similar to most of his teammates, Gmelch was away from home for the first time, and the team became his new family. His personal journals tended to focus upon a young man's interest in the opposite sex and his batting average. Concentrating upon his performance at the plate, there was little concern for the overall success of the team. While somewhat inconsistent, Gmelch demonstrated enough potential to earn a mid-season advancement to Jamestown, New York of the Class A New York-Penn League.
After establishing a degree of comfort in Duluth, Gmelch was not happy with being sent to Jamestown, but he was learning the gypsy way of life in the minor leagues. The transition to Jamestown, however, was eased through romantic ties to a local young woman with whom he enjoyed his first sexual experience and fathered a child that the parents would give up for adoption. These are not the type of sexual exploits described by Jim Bouton in Ball Four. Gmelch writes with a degree of tenderness and honesty missing from most former athletes recounting their sexual conquests. He was respected by his teammates, but they found his pursuit of reading rather strange, and he was given the nickname of "Moonbeam."
In the spring of 1966, Gmelch enjoyed his first spring training at Tiger Town in Lakeland, Florida, and he was assigned to the Daytona Beach club of the Florida State League. With the growing number of draftees being called for the war in Vietnam, Gmelch was paying more attention to American foreign...