Wednesday’s Book Review: “Seasons in Hell: With Billy Martin, Whitey Herzog, and “The Worst Baseball Teams in History”—The 1973-1975 Texas Rangers”

seasons in hellSeasons in Hell: With Billy Martin, Whitey Herzog, and “The Worst Baseball Teams in History”—The 1973-1975 Texas Rangers. By Mike Shropshire. New York: Donald I. Fine, 1996.

As a Texas Rangers beat reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1973 Mike Shropshire thought he had a great gig, following a major league baseball team around America with a good expense account. Perhaps so, but it was a gig that required him to follow and write about what could arguably be called the worst team in MLB history. In 1973 the Rangers compiled a 56-105 record. It was a far cry from the high quality Texas Rangers team that has been in playoff contention for the last several years.

Among other standouts that year retread pitcher Jim Merritt pitched a three hit shutout and then promptly called a press conference to announce that he had doctored the ball with KY jelly to throw the outlawed spitball. Also during 1973, high school phenom David Clyde made his MLB debut with the Rangers just 22 days after being drafted. He did well in that outing, striking out the side in the first inning after walking the first two batters and winning the game 4-3. But David Clyde never lived up to his hype and lasted only five years in the major leagues and winning only 18 games in his career.

At some level Shropshire’s book is more of a comedy routine than a baseball book. It chronicles, but without much attention to dates, circumstances, etc., the crazy experiences of covering this lousy team. Whitey Herzog—who had a gift for saying what he thought—led this group, whom Shropshire calls F-Troop, Whitey’s Menagerie, and other less complimentary names, was fired near the end of the 1973 season and replaced by Billy Martin for the 1974 campaign. Martin was a hard-driving, hard-drinking, cantankerous personality who knew how to win baseball games and he seemed to work his magic with the Rangers as well. They finished 84-76, placing second in the division; probably as good as anyone could have done. Of course, Martin did have one great player that Herzog had traded for just as he left the Rangers, Ferguson Jenkins, who won a team record 25 games in 1974. No one has topped that record for the Rangers since.

But Billy Martin was a problem and in 1975 he was sacked about halfway through the season when he got into trouble with team management. He was forever in this kind of trouble and he then went on to manage the New York Yankees, where he would continue that pattern, eventually serving five different but equally turbulent tenures as manager of the Yankees.

This is an enjoyable book, somewhat in the style of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four but not so revelatory. It tells what you might already anticipate. These Rangers were not very good, and the players were neither particularly talented nor inspired. They tended to carouse, drink, and get into trouble, sometimes being led by Billy Martin in accomplishing all three. If you need reminders of these horrific episodes in Rangerland, this is the book for you.

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