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 policy in Southeast Asia. To maintain his college deferment, he was taking classes at Stanford University, and the Tigers attempted to secure coveted spots in the reserves for their top prospects. Gmelch, however, endangered his status with the Tigers by initiating a prank that included posting a phony set of team rosters. [End Page 252] But because he was putting up good numbers, Gmelch was not released. He continued his strong hitting with Daytona Beach, but he was becoming an increasing critic of the Vietnam War and racial segregation—positions that many of his apolitical teammates simply did not understand. Challenging the conventional wisdom was also encouraged by a new girlfriend who believed there were more important things going on in America than baseball during the 1960s. His comfort level at Daytona Beach was disrupted when the Tigers sent him to Rocky Mount, North Carolina in the Carolina League. Gmelch failed to hit at Rocky Mount and defied Tiger management by asking that he be returned to Daytona Beach—a request that was reluctantly granted.
Nevertheless, in 1967 Gmelch was reassigned to the Rocky Mount Leafs. At this point, Gmelch notes that baseball was beginning to lose some of its allure. He writes, "I am still puzzled over what really shook my dream of being a big leaguer. I suspect that the changes in society with the Vietnam War and the rise of the counterculture began to diminish the importance of baseball for me. Many young people at the time had become critical of, or rejected outright, the traditions and institutions of mainstream America. And to many nothing was more 'establishment' than America's national pastime" (161). Acting upon his increasing political awareness, Gmelch was critical of racial segregation in Rocky Mount; composing a piece for his home town newspaper in California in which he asserted that the Rocky Mount chief of police was a Klan member. Local officials learned of the article, and Gmelch was given his unconditional release by the Tigers who had warned the young first baseman to abandon his writing. Gmelch regrets that his reckless behavior ended his dreams of reaching the big leagues, but on the positive side he acknowledges that the experience convinced him to change his major from biology to anthropology.
Despite pursuing a doctorate, Gmelch had not quite gotten baseball out of his system so he decided to explore an opportunity to play in the independent Quebec Provincial League with the Drummondville Royals in the summer of 1967. He enjoyed the experience of living in Canada where he was comfortable expressing his antiwar views, although in terms of lifestyle Gmelch was not into drugs and the counterculture. While he recognized that his career in Canada was not leading anywhere, he returned to Drummondville for the 1968 season during which he was increasingly disillusioned by the violence in the United States. Gmelch, however, was not afraid to take on the local establishment, as when the Drummondville city government failed to remove street lights which created a glare that made hitting dangerous, he and teammates took a rifle and shot out the lights—an action for which he was fined and required to pay for the destroyed lights. Although he was invited back for the [End Page 253] 1969 season, Gmelch declined and pursued his studies and a fellow anthropologist, Sharon Bohn, whom he would later marry. The following year, Gmelch returned to Drummondville, but he only stayed a few weeks as his life had moved in new directions.
In writing this memoir, Gmelch expressed few regrets, but he did observe that as a young man his actions were often immature. Similar to the vast majority of athletes who enter the minor leagues, he failed to reach the big leagues, but Gmelch concludes that his baseball experiences, including the failures, provided him with transferable skills that served him well later in life. He does lament, however, that the end of his baseball career marked a decline in the relationship with his father. Gmelch concludes, "Given the clash between my father's conservative, probusiness, staunchly Republican politics, and his commitment to the American suburban, consumerism way of life and my emergent antiwar, antimaterialist, and leftist sympathies, baseball was where we found common ground. My father would never find the same satisfaction in my future academic achievements" (240). For many of us who came of age in the 1960s, these sentiments are all too familiar; allowing the reader, who never had the baseball talent of a George Gmelch, to recall bittersweet memories of baseball, family, and the 1960s. George Gmelch is to be congratulated for the courage it took to write this memorable chronicle of life and baseball in the 1960s.