Pat Jordan has chosen as an epigraph for his third book a passage from Ernest Hemingway's posthumous memoir, A Moveable Feast. He has chosen wisely and well: "With so many trees in the city, you could see the spring coming each day until a night of warm wind would bring it suddenly in one morning. Sometimes the heavy cold rain would beat it back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing a season out of your life...when the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason.
"Life had seemed so simple that morning when I had wakened and found the false spring...."
A False Spring is the title of Jordan's book (Dodd, Mead, $7.95), and it is indeed about "losing a season out of your life." Jordan has written a sports memoir unlike any other, a painfully introspective look at the glittering hopes of his youth and the three minor league seasons in which those hopes were crushed.
That Jordan's book is about failure rather than success is enough to make it unusual in any sports library; we have, traditionally, liked our sports literature to be about heroes and how they got that way. But the distinction of A False Spring does not lie in its mere differentness. It is admirable on a number of more important counts: as a consideration of what it means to own the gift of talent and then to abuse it, as an account of the passage from boyhood to maturity, and—Jordan's own career notwithstanding—as a celebration of the joys of baseball.
Today, Jordan is one of our most admired sportswriters, the author in recent years of two fine books, Black Coach and The Suiters of Spring. But a couple of decades ago he was a high-school pitcher possessed of a formidable fastball, a smoothly synchronized delivery and big-league ambitions. When he signed with the Milwaukee Braves in 1959, at the age of 18, he got a $45,000 bonus, his picture taken with Warren Spahn, and an assignment to join the McCook Braves of the Class D Nebraska State League.
He was a callow and arrogant youth; he arrived in McCook wholly persuaded that he would bring the league to its knees and move on to greater things within a fortnight. Almost immediately, however, the pattern that was to characterize his professional career was set: one good game in every four. He was utterly without consistency; not having the patience or discipline to refine his craft—to develop control and savvy to complement his fastball—he shifted wildly from triumph to disaster.
The next year, playing in Davenport, Iowa, Jordan experienced a moment that, he realizes in retrospect, illuminates his entire career. He was pitching against the most respected hitter on the opposition, and he was humbling him: "I just threw fastball after fastball, and he kept swinging as hard as he could, falling to one knee each time. The sight of him on one knee was what I pitched for. I loved such moments even more than a satisfying career.... My career was no esthetically well-made movie rising action, climax, denouement. It was a box strewn with unnumbered slides.... I was seldom able to sustain such moments for nine innings. I would pitch four, five, six innings of beautiful baseball and then would lose it all."
As his career crumbled, Jordan became increasingly distant, abrasive and temperamental. He was so completely absorbed in himself that he missed, ignored or rejected friendly overtures from others—a girl in Nebraska, a landlord in Iowa, a pitching coach in Georgia. It is, he says, an aloofness he has not lost: "As I go about my ordinary day, I'll wonder, now, what people are passing, unseen, through my life, only to be remembered years later with a warmth I never felt at their moment of passing."
Jordan finished his brief career with the Palatka (Fla.) Azaleas. He was married by then and growing up: he realized that his dream was over, and he was playing out the string. He ends his story with a question that has haunted many a washed-up player: "What would I be without baseball?" The answer, need it be said, is in this book.
Jordan's false spring was over. But he learned from it a lesson he summarizes as he describes all those who have failed: "Those who had gone away had learned, many for the first time, how to lose. And what they'd lost was the first, the purest and the most precious dream they could ever have. They'd lost perpetual youth, innocence, the dream of playing a little boys' game for the rest of their lives. In their minds no dream would ever equal that, and so no future loss would ever affect them in the way that first one had. When they returned home, then, it was with an indifference to loss and with grace to shrug off defeat in a way those who never challenged that dream could ever do."
Is that a romantic view, a sentimentalization of the baseball dream and those who dream it? Perhaps so. Yet it is a hard truth, one many American men refuse to acknowledge. That Jordan reached this insight through baseball is less important than that he reached it at all, and that he has written so eloquently of his passage to it.