Monday, December 29, 2008

The Greatest Game Never Played

All the Stars Came out That Night
By Kevin King
413 pages

If you're like me, you start missing baseball this time of year. Now that the holiday craziness is behind us. Isn't that right? Well, to prepare for the upcoming season--now only three months away!--I'm going to post my review of a book that came out a couple years back.


Those who enjoy baseball novels will adore Kevin King's All the Stars Came out That Night. At the center of this book is, like so many baseball novels, an event that never happened: a legendary game between a Negro League All-Star team and a white All-Star team at Boston's Fenway Park following the '34 World Series. But before we reach that game, King takes readers on a looping and whooping joyride across the country, from Pittsburgh to Hollywood. We meet John Henry and James Atwood, two bumbling would-be criminals who determine to kidnap Dizzy Dean for ransom during the World Series; they fail to kidnap Diz but manage, instead, to get caught up in Diz and Satchel Paige’s plot to arrange the first inter-racial All-Star game. In fact, just about everyone gets swept up in this plot.

What's remarkable about this nifty first novel is how King channels an impressive roster of characters and deftly shifts the point of view between them. We find a regular Who's Who of early twentieth-century American culture: Clarence Darrow, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, Henry Ford, Gus Greenlee, Walter Winchell, George Raft, and Carole Lombard, among others. Add to that list the baseball All-Stars: Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Dizzy Dean and the biggest names of the Cardinals’ famous Gashouse Gang; even Shoeless Joe Jackson, baseball's tragic, lost soul, makes an appearance (what baseball novel is complete without baseball's greatest fallen hero?). The sheer number of characters in this novel is incredible, but King manages to present each with astonishing depth and humanity. A drunken Babe Ruth, for example, stinks up the dugout with his gastrointestinal troubles, but at the same time we see him as a man suffering deeply the frailty of his age, his body, and his declining career. He's finished, and he knows it. We laugh, but doing so is a poignant reminder that the Babe was, after all, only a man. His great bellyache is our great bellyache.

Walter Winchell, the gossip columnist, is the “narrator”—a fact you may forget for half the book—and as a result there is a kind of hybrid feel to the story: half tabloid expose, half historical study of major league baseball before the integration of the game. What King elucidates well is the resistance many powerful Americans felt toward inter-racial play during the pre-Jackie Robinson era. At first, baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis and automaker Henry Ford ardently oppose the game, fearing that a Negro win would prove Negro superiority. A loss for the white team, Henry Ford tells his trusted right-hand man, Harry Bennett, would be “a national humiliation”(95). So when Ford finally assents to sponsor the game, he does everything in his power to assure that the white team will win. And just in case the Negro team does win, the game is played under portable lights and with only a handful of spectators so that that the game remains top secret.

Until, that is, Winchell decides to tell this, “his last story.”

If there is a drawback to this book it may be, for some readers, the fact that it is predominantly a baseball novel. For all its power and charm, for all its humor, those who know a little bit—or preferably, a lot—about The Gashouse Gang or the Negro Leagues or baseball history generally will be in a better position to appreciate the gags and the magical baseball images King presents his readers (though for those readers unfamiliar with these things, this book would be a fun introduction to them). Take this gem, for example:

Then he (Joe DiMaggio) saw him (Joe Jackson). A tall specter with a lubbed-up belly like a house that had poorly settled, and crooked teeth stained with decades of tobacco juice. The Natural. The one who broke molds with a full, powerful, fluid swing that sent balls with stunning frequency off and over stadium walls. Line drives you could hang your wash on (322).

Baseball novels like this are in fact a rare treat for the baseball fan: a story that combines the lush atmosphere of the game we love with the storyteller's art of building a captivating drama. But they're also limited to the playing field, as it were, of the ball diamond. Even a novel as insistent as this one is on proving that it is more than just a baseball story—by inviting a whole slew of interesting characters into the mix—remains in the end a book whose substance is the hard stuff of the country's longest-running sports institution.

While many novels in this niche genre—from Wallop's The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, which is now famously adapted as the Broadway show Damn Yankees, to Malamud's classic The Natural, to W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy—tend to move toward myth and legend, this one, to its credit, does so in moderation. It creates, instead, a much larger social panorama of America anno 1934, by focusing on the dark side of baseball: the game's less than noble history of racial segregation. For those of you who can hardly wait for the next baseball season to begin, this book should provide a measure of comfort to hold you over until opening day.

If you're into baseball books, by the way, then you might also enjoy Dennis Lehane's The Given Day. That book, written about frequently on this blog, also features baseball in a fascinating way, with Babe Ruth in a supporting role. Since reading The Given Day, I've read Lehane's Shutter Island. So look for a post later this week on these two books, particularly as they concern genre.

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