By James Calemine
Long Gone is a baseball story. Stud Cantrell manages a Class-D Florida team in 1956. Stud’s life intersects with his lover Dixie Lee Box, a young second baseman named Jamie Weeks and a black catcher–Jose Brown pretending to be Venezuelan–to avoid local racists in this life-altering season for them all.
Long Gone was adapted to HBO Films in the mid-1980s. In the author’s note, Paul Hemphill prefaces the story by indicating: “There really is a town in the Florida Panhandle with the name of Graceville. Once there was a Class-D league called Alabama-Florida and a team known as the Graceville Oilers. That is where the facts in this story begin and end.”
Hemphill grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. He spent a lot of time ‘up in the bleachers of Rickwood Field’. He spent five days as part of a Class-D club before being cut from the team. He then attended Auburn University and decided to become a writer.
Hemphill earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his 1993 book, Leaving Birmingham, experienced Hollywood adapt his work (Long Gone) to film and over the last 40 years written 15 books with a rare degree of experience about truck drivers, baseball, football, basketball, roller derby queens, stock car drivers, politics, journalists, musicians and bootleggers.
Hemphill revealed to this writer how baseball forced him to pursue literature: “This was the summer of 54 or 55. I found myself the prettiest girl in town—a strawberry blonde. I had a friend who owned a Pontiac convertible. After the game—sometimes without a shower—we’d go necking with the two prettiest girls in town on the banks of the Neosho River–pure teenagers. I finished my first quarter at Auburn around Christmas and there was an exchange of letters back and forth.
“I decided to hitchhike out to Oswego, and see how things were going. I just finished working with the post office for the holiday. So I hitchhike 800 fucking miles in winter out there in order to dance in this girl’s parlor. I was not invited back to play with Oswego the next year. I was able to make the travel squad at Auburn where I became the batting practice pitcher. Nothing ever came of that.”
The story takes place from June through August. The real story of Long Gone involves the unsentimental price one must pay for doing what you love. Sometimes it pays. Sometimes it doesn’t. Hemphill paints a portrait of mosquito-infested ballparks, honky-tonks filled with sweaty girls, decrepit motels and long bus rides. The dialogue in Long Gone proves golden. It’s a timeless story that still resonates amid today’s high-stakes Major League baseball.
Read my definitive article on the late, great Paul Hemphill in Insured Beyond The Grave.