The Last Real Season

New book remembers the final year before free agency

The 1975 baseball season was pretty undistinguishable except for Frank Robinson becoming the first black manager in the major leagues. Outside of the dramatic World Series between the Reds and Red Sox, the campaign was fairly pedestrian.

It was, however, the advent of free agency when the average player salary was $27,600. The 25-man payroll for the Reds that year amounted to half of what Alex Rodriguez is getting paid. Garish double-knits were the dress code of the day and it seemed that every player sported some type of mustache, beard or fu-manchu.

Backup catcher Ken Suarez of the Texas Rangers summed up life as ball player circa 1975, drawing the analogy of working for a large corporation compared to an average team in the West Division of the American League.

"In those days, you launch a career with some company like IBM," said Suarez. "You might be there the rest of your life. But as a baseball player, I knew for sure that when I reached 32 or so, I was through.  In baseball, there was no security, but no uncertainty either."

Suarez is one of a handful of players that are highlighted in "The Last Real Season," ($25.99, 253 pp) Mike Shropshire's rollicking account of the '75 season as a beat writer covering the Rangers for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.  Shropshire has plenty of characters to choose from in his day-by-day narratives. There's center fielder Cesar Tovar who would blow a whistle around his neck when he was charging shallow fly balls to let the infielders know he was coming; clubhouse lawyer Jim Spencer who complained about being named to the All-Star team because he wanted the three days off and of course the ringleader, manager Billy Martin.

Martin's temper mixed with his drinking would ultimately lead to his firing in July of the season. "Wherever Martin had managed, more than good starting pitching, Billy had to have a scapegoat," writes Shropshire. "In Texas, (general manager) Danny O'Brien had become the logical and undeserving candidate to serve in that …..capacity."

Shropshire doesn't explain why he decided to capture that particular season 33 years later and some of the more outlandish drinking and carousing details are attributed to anonymous players. The language is salty and the exploits away from the ballpark are not for the faint of heart.  However, this was a time long before 24-hour cable sports shows, all-talk radio and web bloggers. To read the accounts of an innocent, yet frolicking period of baseball are refreshing.