Monday, March 15, 2010

Rewriting History

A Review of The End of Baseball by Peter Schilling Jr.
By Chrissie Bonnes

(Editor's note: This was originally run a couple of years ago when Peter's book came out in hardback. I'm rerunning it because this week the book is being re-released in paperback. It deserves every sale it gets, and Twins Geek's readers deserve to know about it.)

I’m a rabid baseball fan only when one of my two favorite teams is playing, so I wondered if I was the best candidate to review Peter Schilling, Jr.’s historical baseball novel The End of Baseball. Luckily, Mr. Schilling worked himself into a hitter’s count by basing most of the action in the hometown of one of my two favorite teams, Philadelphia. He then proceeded to hit one out of the park.

The premise, according to the author, is based in fact. Bill Veeck, freshly wounded in World War II, had the brainstorm of buying a big league team and, to turn a profit, integrating baseball all at once rather than one player at a time. Schilling has Veeck take that action, buying the Philadelphia A’s and fielding a team composed solely of the best players from the Negro Leagues.

The fact that I am not the target market for this novel became clear early on during an action-movie-esque chapter describing a scouting expedition to a less than democratic island nation. Though it may be too early to discuss movie rights, it seems the role of the scout was written for Harrison Ford at his Indiana Jones best. Though the scout was slightly less dashing than Harrison Ford, it’ll be a few years before the movie version comes out, and Han Solo isn’t getting any younger.

My early reservations about plowing through a baseball book written by a man for male readers were quickly set aside. The detail paid to each character, making each unique, and making many both hero and villain, will mesmerize any reader. So often, an author is unable to separate his own voice from that of his characters’, resulting in a homogenous cast, providing pleasant enough company on the ride and trading clever barbs. Here, each character has a unique voice, his own character traits, and his own view of every situation.

For instance, we see a player walk the streets of Detroit with a cousin who witnessed the city’s race riots. As the events that shaped the player’s past and contributed to his determination become clear, he becomes so much more than one of the pitchers in the A’s rotation. This player has his own “Invincible” moment, when he “ran into himself,” in the form of a stickball game, Detroit versus Philadelphia. As if it wasn’t already obvious, the reader sees that the player knows this is bigger than him. And though this novel is not at all bogged down by stats, their importance to some players is vividly depicted: “His brain housed a twenty-story accounting firm of little Satchels, all of whom scribbled ledger after ledger of his statistics, feats, and – tucked in a black folder and filed away – his mistakes.”

Not that clever one-liners are absent. The sometimes tense, sometimes deathly serious moments are balanced by genuine humor. On baseball’s first ever Fan Appreciation Night, one of the A’s faithful is about to become the lucky recipient of myriad prizes bestowed upon him by a pair of bathing beauties. “There were cases of Ballantine Ale and Moxie soda pop, six giant cans of Hershey’s chocolate syrup, a box of Phillies blunt cigars, five robust hams, a midget bearing a gift certificate for forty gallons of gas, an Underwood typewriter...and, topping this all off, pushed in a wheelbarrow by a circus strongman, a pile of five hundred silver dollars, which rolled up between the leggy women.” Despite the eye-popping array of luxuries and beauty, all the fan can think is “…look at all that ham.”

But don’t worry; this is far from chick lit. The action keeps coming, and Schilling throws plenty of curves. Some twists in plot are subtly foreshadowed. Some, like the barstool that inexplicably appears in a street brawl, come out of left field (if you’ll pardon one more baseball pun). Some are introduced quickly and are either resolved just as quickly, or become a recurring theme. Some seem almost like an aside, or a cameo, emerging later as integral to the plot. Some are nothing more than red herring, leaving this reader scratching her head. The result is an unexpected, thoroughly enjoyable ride with a wholly satisfying but not predictable conclusion.

The title The End of Baseball is, of course, a common refrain from baseball purists. Interleague play? A wild card? It’s the end of baseball! While baseball may no longer be “America’s Pastime,” it has survived many changes and challenges. When a sportswriter puts forth the theory that “war years were somehow recorded differently, in a separate ledger perhaps, records marked with an asterisk to separate them from the legitimate numbers of the hallowed greats,” readers will recall asterisk posters in the stands during the San Francisco Giants’ games last season (not to mention the earlier asterisk after the number 61). Similarly, when a sportswriter in the novel “called on Congress” to mediate an injustice, perceived or actual, readers will be reminded of current subpoenas and testimony on Capitol Hill. The fan can only hope that fears of “The End of Baseball” are again unfounded.

Though baseball fans will certainly love this book, particularly for the edge-of-seat, heart-pounding descriptions of on-field action, non-baseball fans will love the vivid imagery, the rich character depictions, and the reactions of those characters watching and listening to those same pitches and innings.

Chrissie Bonnes, aka The Voice of Reason, usually works more in the GameDay background, cooking for and cleaning up after the esteemed Editor and his children. But this one was right in her sweet spot. (Sorry. One more baseball pun.)

1 comment:

luckylager said...

On your advice, I ordered the book from Amazon today - only two left!