PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Sitting in the stands at a Jamestown Tigers game in 1992, anthropologist George Gmelch suddenly had a vision of himself 30 years before.
Twenty years in the minor leagues
Ain't no place I didn't go
Well, I got a few hits
But I never made The Show
— from “The Laughing River'' by Greg Brown
“In my mind's eye, I saw myself in my old uniform, batting left-handed, playing first base,” he said. “It was incredibly vivid.”
Gmelch, chairman of the anthropology department at Union College, has made a career of journeys — to Ireland, Alaska, Barbados. But by far the longest trek he has made was the one to baseball and back again.
In two books, “In the Ballpark: The Working Lives of Baseball People,” published in 1998, and the yet-to-be-released “The Ball Players: Life and Culture in Professional Baseball,” he has trained a scholar's eye on the national pastime.
Getting there wasn't easy. For 25 years after he left the Detroit Tigers farm team without making it to the big leagues, he hardly talked about baseball. He wouldn't watch games on TV and gave only a cursory glance to the sports pages.
“I think it was too painful,” said the 54-year-old Gmelch, on a lazy drive through the Berkshire foothills en route to a Pittsfield Mets game. “This had been my dream since the eighth grade. Even though most people thought it was great that I played pro ball, in my mind I had failed.”
But as his son grew old enough to play Little League, and with prodding from his wife, Gmelch turned his attention back to the sport he once loved. And in the process of writing his books, Gmelch learned what any fan of “The Natural” or “Field of Dreams” knows: the redemptive power of baseball.
When he began field research in 1991, he had no theme in mind. Yet in his portrayals of characters as diverse as the Philly Phanatic or a beer vendor at Baltimore's Camden Yards, reviewers found a common thread in the characters' obsession for the game. In writing about their passion, Gmelch rediscovered his own.
As he turns off Route 20, the town of Pittsfield slowly unfolds with its mosaic of New England church spires and Main Street movie marquees — the kind of town he saw countless times as a player.
The ballpark rises out of the downtown like an ancient monument. Three hours before game time, the rival Staten Island Yankees arrive at Wahconah Park. The stadium is empty, save for batting practice, and the wood bleachers audibly creak as Gmelch descends to the field.
“There are few things as wonderful as a well-maintained baseball field,” he says. “The lush greenery. The dark brown mud of the infield. The perfect white chalk lines …”
He approaches Mike Baker, the Yankees pitching coach and an international scout. Gmelch has him musing about what he looks for in a recruit: “When I go to Scottsdale, Ariz., or Salt Lake City, Utah, the players are too comfortable. If they don't have the blood in their eye, the passion like a bright, hot coal, I'm not interested.”
Gmelch's demeanor is scholarly, no-nonsense; his tone sometimes clinical. He has the quiet reserve of one who knows what he's looking for, and has seen much of it before. In the stands he finds Jessica Stockam, whose husband, Travis, is a Mets catcher. Travis is the only married player on the single-A team, comprised mostly of new draft picks just out of college and high school. The new book devotes an entire chapter to the solitary lives of baseball wives. “Does it get lonely when he's out on the road?” Gmelch asks. “When you move up in the leagues, there are a lot more wives,” she says. “So when the guys go away, the girls get together and its fun.” She looks down and becomes suddenly quiet. “If I can only make it through the next few years,” she says.
There are stories like those in every ballpark. Traveling the country for the past eight years, Gmelch has heard many of them. He also has re-read journals from his days as a player and gotten back in touch with former girlfriends and teammates — all part of the process of research, and rediscovery.
Looking back on his life in the mid-1960s, Gmelch saw that he'd lived in two worlds. Half the time he was a student at Stanford University, which was in the throes of protests against the Vietnam War. For the other half, he was living the American Pie life of a minor league ball player. The rooms he shared with teammates were plastered with maps of towns he'd seen in the Northeast and deep South. The journey had a special meaning then, before the Walkman and the VCR made bus trips less communal. On buses that rarely had air conditioning, teammates played cards and trivia games; a guy inevitably strummed a guitar and players engaged in repartee. “I liked to look out the window and see tobacco fields, small towns, orange trees, Cape Canaveral,” he said. “There was a real sense of place.”
As part of his research, Gmelch retraced his old route from spring training camp in Lakeland, Fla. to Rocky Mount, N.C., where he played during the regular season. As baseball changed, he found, so had America. “I was shocked by how much like the Northeast it was,” he said of his recent cross-country travels. “The same chains, the same fast-food places with the same building patterns in every city. America is a lot more homogenous than it was then.”
It also is more inclusive. Gmelch recalled how some towns in the South enforced de-facto segregation long after it was outlawed. When the team went out to eat, black players had to stay in the kitchen. Once, a cadre of town officials in Rocky Mount complained that four was too many blacks to have in the starting lineup. Within days, two were reassigned. It was Gmelch's unforgiving take on Southern racism that helped bring about the end of his baseball career.
Throughout his tenure with the Tigers, Gmelch sent columns on minor league life home to his local paper in the San Francisco Bay Area. In one piece, which he now labels a satire, Gmelch called the local police chief a Ku Klux Klan member and his brother a Klan grand dragon. “I had it from a very reliable source,” he said recently. Nonetheless, the town fathers of Rocky Mount and the Tigers home office were none too enamored of his wit. It wasn't long before a libel suit was threatened and he was quietly put on the disabled list.
Gmelch played ball in Canada for two years before turning to an academic career in anthropology. Looking back, he acknowledged that he probably had little chance of making it to the big leagues anyhow. If journalism hadn't caught up with him, his batting average would have.
The professor is perched in the bleachers at Wahconah Park, where an umpire has made an unpopular call. “Open up your good eye!” cries a fan. Gmelch laughs. His career had been spent writing lofty tomes for highly specialized audiences; one was titled “The Irish Tinkers: The Urbanization of an Itinerant People.” With the new books, he is reaching a popular audience for the first time.
“You want to make an impact,” he says. “But then you realize that your stuff is only read by academics, not policymakers. It's not what you expected when you were 24 and just out of grad school.”
Now, it's the roar of the crowd all over again. Unlike most scholarly books, “In the Ballpark” has sold 10,000 copies. It was well-reviewed in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Sports Illustrated.
“I wrote six books before this one,” he says. “None of my neighbors read them. No one out of anthropology read them. Now, people I don't know want to have conversations with me about what I do. It's pretty nice.”