Three Nights in August

Three Nights in August

April Smith

THREE NIGHTS IN AUGUST: Strategy, Heartbreak, and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager. By Buzz Bissinger. Houghton Mifflin. 280 pp. $25

Read Time:
2m 36sec

It’s a perilous journey through the mind of a major league baseball manager, filled with potholes of depression and washouts of fear, but we want to take it. We want to know what lies behind the glowering game face of that most enigmatic baseball man, and what subplots consume him—including the individual melodramas of a busload of barely post-adolescent millionaires.

Buzz Bissinger, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Friday Night Lights (1990), was granted unlimited access to the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization by its legendary manager, Tony La Russa. The book follows a three-game series during 2003 against the Chicago Cubs and their wily skipper, Dusty Baker. It’s a fresh and thoroughly enjoyable narrative—like TiVo-ing through a great matchup, with Bissinger lingering over the good parts and skipping the junk.

There’s plenty of action, but Bissinger is too sensitive an observer and too complex a writer to settle for a simple play-by-play. We watch La Russa’s pregame ritual of making cards showing how each of his pitchers has done against the Cubs hitters, his irritation when inexperienced young players hog the spotlight, and the flop sweat when he chooses a risky tactic based not on numbers but on intuition. When the lineup is ravaged by injuries, we’re with La Russa as he ponders and frets—dining alone at Morton’s, lying awake all night in the hotel. And we enter the manager’s tunnel of concentration: Everything disappears except the motions of the game, as if it were played in pure silence.  

La Russa’s internal conflicts are nicely balanced against the stakes in the outcome of every pitch, but two events from the previous year overshadow everything. With a novelist’s sense of when to expand the moment and when to roll with the action, Bissinger skillfully discloses the lingering heartbreaks: In 2002, the Cardinals’   much-loved broadcaster, Jack Buck, died, and, three days later, their popular 33-year-old pitcher, Darryl Kile, suffered a fatal heart attack in his sleep.  

Bissinger has finely cultivated the sportswriter’s hard-bitten style, and his book is rife with memorable phrases. A fastball is “a false God.” Kenny Lofton, leadoff hitter for the Cubs, taps his black bat on the plate “as if it’s a divining rod in search of water—plentiful abundance around that plate if he can just find it.” And my favorite: “The ball itself is sometimes cruel, not simply a benign layering of twine and rubber and leather but a little organism with a perverse love of turmoil. Where can I go to create the most disruption? Who needs to be tested right away?

It takes a perverse mind to want to tangle with that. We understand how such a mind works after reading Three Nights in August—maybe even enough to make us retire as armchair managers and leave it to the pros. No, forget that. Second-guessing is one of the timeless pleasures of the game.

—April Smith

About the Author

April Smith ( is the author of Be the One (2000), a thriller about the only female baseball scout in the major leagues, as well as the novels North of Montana (1994) and Good Morning, Killer (2003).

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