The Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption and Baseball’s Longest Game

Dan Barry, renowned New York Times columnist and two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, saw something in the longest game in the history of professional baseball: that it was about much more than baseball. It was an April 1981 Triple A minor league game between the Rochester Red Wings and the Pawtucket Red Sox. With a tied score of 2-2, the game continued until 4:00 a.m. on a cold Easter Sunday. A misprint in the 1981 Minor League Handbook had excluded the guidelines for games that went into excessive overtime, so the teams played on until the Red Sox managers finally contacted the league president, who advised them to pause the game. It resumed in July and finally ended after 33 grueling innings. Barry does much more than relay the facts of the record-setting game, he gets to the heart of it. From the first page, when his narrative slowly zooms in on the quiet town of Pawtucket, Rhode Island and settles on the decrepit, depression-era McCoy Stadium, Barry begins to build a stunning panorama of a baseball game, a moment in history, and all the lives involved.

Though ostensibly about baseball, The Bottom of the 33rd is also about America. Barry sees beyond, for example, the announcer’s calling of the players’ names: “If Drew had rattled off the birthplaces of each player, rather than their names, he would have sung an anthem of the Americas...From the mill towns of New England to the suburbs of the Pacific Coast; from the housing projects of the Midwest to the sugar-cane fields of the Caribbean: a ballad of bus fumes and ambition.”

But it isn’t just the ballplayers. Barry overlooks no one: the team owners and managers, the Pawtucket Coach Joe Morgan (of later Boston fame), down to the bat boy, the clubhouse manager, and the brave few attendees who lasted in the stands through the cold night and morning. A masterful storyteller, he deftly decides when to tell and when to hold back what is already known to history. The fate of Wade Boggs the third baseman for Pawtucket? Those not quite as familiar with the baseball greats of the 1980s learn early on that he will make it to the major league. And what of Dave Koza, the PawSox’s first baseman, “baseball old” at age 26 and dying for a real chance in the majors? Not until the very end do we find out what became of Koza – who would likely be the main character if it could be said that this collage of a book had one – and what became of many of the other people brought together that night. The research this must have involved and the empathy Barry has for each individual is astounding and makes for a wholly engrossing and affecting book – for lovers of baseball and lovers of literature alike. – Sheila Langan (288 pages / Harper Collins / $26.99)