In his later years, Mark Twain, the quintessential American author, was a frequent spectator at the most American of games. He worked baseball into A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, released in 1889. Modern authors in turn have woven Twain into their own baseball novels, with the legendary author playing a noteworthy role in Darryl Brock’s If I Never Get Back.
Had Twain’s best-loved character Tom Sawyer fallen for the game, his eyewitness accounts of the games might have sounded something like Vinny Spanelli’s in Jeff Polman’s 1924 and You Are There! The 17-year-old Phillies fanatic had about as much tolerance for book-learnin’ as Sawyer. Instead of spelunking or swimming, Vinny cuts out of school to attend games at the Baker Bowl.
Vinny’s partner in crime, literally in several cases, is best friend Benny Zepp, a fellow Phillie supporter and Giant hater, whose own schooling came to an end well before Vinny’s. The 1924 campaign becomes a tortured adventure for the duo, who shadow their team on a roadtrip in a Chrysler Model Six, purchased with the unexpected windfall Benny’s rich uncle left him when he died. Though they barely survive—which is more than can be said for the car—they continue to circuit the league, with Vinny accompanying the team for several months as a batboy.
Baseball’s never far from Vinny’s mind, though the game takes a rightful back seat at points as he courts a fair Brooklyn fan named Rachel Stone. These imagined characters interact with historical ones ranging from Phillies players such as Cy Williams and Heinie Sand to Negro legends Oscar Charleston and Rube Foster. Polman even works in a pair of Chicago misadventures with mob boss Al Capone.
The only thing he didn’t concoct were the game results, which were determined by dice rolls. The entire 1924 season was played out using Strat-o-matic cards. Polman blogged the season, in character, on his website, Vinny telling the story of the National League, while cantankerous Calvin J. Butterworth, a Tigers beat reporter, details the American League race. Eventually reporter and batboy cross paths, teaming up to integrate the sport more than two decades before Jackie Robinson broke the game’s color barrier.
Stocking the Phillies roster with Negro stars, long before Bill Veeck even dreamed of pulling such a stunt in Philadelphia, was a calculated move to spice up the season, which as Polman played it out lacked the dramatic pennant races of the actual 1924 season. They also gave him an excuse to work in the Negro all-stars recently released by Strat-o-matic.
Vinny’s Phillies finished a distant seventh, just like their real-life counterparts, who were badly outplayed in their rinky-dink home park, finishing 26-49 in the Baker Bowl that season. Despite its league-worst 4.87 ERA and relatively punchless lineup, the team appealed to Polman.
“I was drawn to the Phillies because being from the East Coast (and my journalist brother lives in Philly), I knew I could relate to a fan of a team there,” Polman says. “I'm a diehard Red Sox fan but I felt that was a little too close, and there have been way too many books already about the Red Sox. Also, Baker Bowl with its short fences and high-scoring games really appealed to me.”
It became apparent as soon as he contemplated converting his blogs into a book that the retelling would need to be pared down. Butterworth’s accounts shared equal billing on the website, but Vinny is the star of the book, with the vast majority of the daily accounts coming from his pen. His tale, including the romancing of Rachel, made for a better story arc than the troubled reporter’s.
Polman bills the book as “a fictionalized baseball replay,” but even readers who aren’t familiar with tabletop games might find something to like here. A screenwriter and journalist, his creativity extends well beyond the diamond, with period details researched on the internet as he blogged. He—and Vinny—certainly have a finger on the pulse of the nation in the early ’20s.
While this marked the first time Polman turned a season replay into a book, he’s blogged other campaigns and is launching a new one this month at Mystery58.wordpress.com. The new project will be a murder mystery based on the 1958 season. No word yet as to whether Vinny Spanelli, who would be just 51 years old in ’58, will be involved. Considering the mayhem that followed in his wake in 1924 and You Are There! he shouldn’t be ruled out as a suspect.