Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Catching up on some classic baseball novels



So what have I been doing? Where have I been? Why are there cobwebs growing down from the upper corners of this site? I’ve widened my reading list a bit over the past several months, branching out from new baseball books into both older ones and *gasp* non-baseball books. I’ve also been spending a fair bit of time working on my second novel, which I hope to have ready for release in 2014.

I decided I should write something about some of the baseball books I have read in recent months, even though they are not new titles. I found all of them on eBay, as well as a few others which I haven’t yet had time to read. It’s a great resource for finding baseball novels, many of which are now out of print, or at least not available in ebook format.

I promise there will be more reviews of new books coming soon, but for now I hope you enjoy some of these. Feel free to leave comments about these or some of your other favorite baseball novels.

The Celebrant – Eric Rolfe Greenberg

The Celebrant is rightfully regarded as one of the best baseball novels ever written. Mark Harris' The Southpaw resonated a little more with me, because I really got into the Henry Wiggen character and enjoy that casual, Huck Finn, kind of story-telling. But Greenberg did a fabulous job in taking the reader back to the early 1900s, when Christy Mathewson helped broaden the game's appeal to those who thought it was ruled by uneducated ne'er-do-wells. The baseball detail is amazing. He really brings some of the most storied games/series in baseball history to life, through the eyes of his characters, blending the historic and the fictional as well as any book I can recall.

The off-field story really picked up pace for me with the introduction of Arthur, Jackie and Eli's younger brother, who applies himself to analyzing and improving upon the family's jewelry business. His battles with Eli move the story to its tragic conclusion, and even though he seems overly ambitious, it's easy to understand why he feels it's important to protect the company from Eli's gambling.

Veracruz Blues – Mark Winegardner

This is another book that blends fact and fiction, setting a disillusioned reporter from St. Louis down in the Mexican League in 1946. The end of the war brought all of the star players back to the major leagues, but there weren’t enough jobs to go around. A number of familiar names wound up down south of the border, where they played alongside greats from the Negro Leagues as well as Mexicans and Cubans. Wealthy Mexican businessman (more like gangster) Jorge Pasquel dreamed of building the Mexican League into a rival third major league by luring enough star players to elevate the talent level and reputation. Pasquel really existed, as did the league’s raid on the majors, which lured Sal Maglie, Mickey Owen, and Vern Stephens among others. Also joining the league was New York Giants spare part and part-time agitator Danny Gardella, who is a major character in Veracruz Blues.

The story is told through a variety of viewpoints, ostensibly as related to the reporter, Frank Bullinger Jr. nearly 50 years later, as he tries to document the wild season for a book. The thread hops to a different character each chapter, intertwining the off field nuttiness with the game and pennant-race action. Not content to fill the league’s rosters with gate attractions, Pasquel tries to alter the outcomes by stacking certain clubs with premier talent. His ego and temper destroy the league within months, leaving the summer of 1946 as more of an asterisk than the rise of anything significant.

Winegardner works in other bigger-than-life characters, like Ernest Hemingway and Babe Ruth. The story is so crazy it feels like it has to be all a figment of his imagination. But a lot of it isn’t. I found myself wondering at times which events really happened and which existed solely within these pages. Winegardner does an amazing job of making it nearly impossible to tell which is which. I wound up spending a fair bit of time searching for more information on the web when I finished, and came across this fascinating story about Danny Gardella and his role both in the Mexican League as well as fighting against baseball’s reserve clause. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. And sometimes you can’t tell the difference.

The Dixie Association – Donald Hays

The Dixie Association is regarded by several baseball fiction aficionados I know as one of the all-time great baseball novels. I agree it's in the conversation somewhere, on the list if you're compiling a top 20 or 30, but for me it doesn't quite make that elite rank.

What knocks it down a little is the constant, often hyperbolic, political jabbing at virtually everyone to the right of Hog Durham on the political spectrum, which is just about everyone. I'm coming at this as someone with a left-leaning political viewpoint, but also as someone who quickly wearies of the fractious red state vs blue state mindset we seem to have sunk into in this country. Each reference by itself wouldn't grate, but compiled upon each other for 384 pages, they grew a little tiresome. As did Hog's repeated introspection on how hard it was for a scoundrel like himself to settle down and appreciate a woman who loves him. Get over it already, dude.

That aside, it really was a good book. The baseball is very well done. Hays clearly understands the game, how it's played, how pitchers pitch and how hitters hit. The Dixie Association, while fictional, comes off as a realistic minor league, though as poorly run as it seemed to be, I would almost have expected it to fold midseason. The characters are colorful and well drawn, from the main ones down to the bit players on the roster. The language Hog Durham uses as the first-person narrator is wild and creative and paints very vivid images of the people and places described.

Season of the Owl – Miles Wolff

An obscure but entertaining baseball story centered around a murder, with clues revealed chapter by chapter. Wolff does a nice job of setting the story in small-town North Carolina in the late days of segregation. The rinky-dink minor league operation is presented in great detail, as you might expect from someone who has made his living in minor league baseball.

Wolff has spent the past two decades working in independent leagues. Prior to that, he owned both Baseball America and the Durham Bulls. I worked for him at both places. I can remember seeing this on the book shelf in the Ballpark Corner souvenir shop when I worked for the Bulls. I contemplated rescuing a copy from its purgatory there--never selling, rarely even being picked up by a potential purchaser--but for whatever reason I never did. It would have saved me the trouble of finding it on eBay, which was something of a challenge, particularly when compared with the better-known books above. This won’t go down with the classics of baseball fiction, but it’s an enjoyable read, heightened in my case by my connection to the author and having lived in North Carolina for nearly 10 years.

3 comments:

  1. I love, love, love The Celebrant. I think it's the best sports novel I've read. I haven't read the others you write about here but they sound like good reads. Glad to hear you have a timeline on your next project.

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  2. I've had the Hays and the Wolff books for years in my baseball fiction collection, but every time I picked one of them off the shelf, I ended up putting it back. The Celebrant definitely rates in my top ten list as does The Veracruz Blues. The latter is one book that seems to be overlooked. Next on my baseball fiction TBR list is Bill Kinsella's 2012 novel, Butterfly Winter.

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  3. Kent, that Butterfly Winter looks promising. I'll add that to my list as well. One of my other ebay finds was Kinsella's The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, which is moving ever closer to my on-deck circle.

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