27 March 2012

Gone South III -- Play Ball!

by Dale C. Andrews

Space Coast Stadium, Viera Florida -- Spring Training home of the Washington Nationals

     Several weeks back I mentioned the geographic challenge of uploading timely articles every second Tuesday during the winter months.  Pat and I decided years ago that once we retired we were going to spend as much time as possible each winter away from our home in Washington, D.C.  This year that meant that for three weeks in January we were in the Caribbean – two weeks of which were on a sailboat with the spottiest internet imaginable.  We came back from that trip to spend two weeks at home, making certain that our adult sons had not completely trashed the house, and then took off again to Gulf Shores, Alabama for two and a half weeks in February.  We lucked out there with great internet available in the condo we rented.  Then after another two weeks of checking on the house we are off on the last of our winter trips – a week and a half in Florida devoted to watching the Washington Nationals’ Spring training.  I’ll have some internet access there, but to be on the safe side this article will be scheduled before we leave. 
"Smartie" getting off of the Autotrain.  Everyone laughed.

    While we drove to and from Gulf Shores, our Spring Training tradition sends us south on the Autotrain.  This allows us to leave our bigger "road trip" car in D.C. and travel instead with our convertible Smart car, which would never otherwise see Florida.  (I can’t imagine 900 miles of I-95 in Smartie).


    The train is always a blast. --  dining cars, where, as a couple, we invariably sit across from people we have never met, and lounge cars where strangers sip cocktails together while watching the scenery pass.  No wonder  trains  have always been fodder for mysteries.  I can’t ride an overnight train without thinking of The Lady Vanishes,  Hitchcock’s second-to-last British film.  The 1938 movie (based on the largely forgotten book The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White), together with Hitchcock’s 1959 American film North by Northwest and Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express all capture the microcosm that is train travel – a self-contained slice of life, detached from the rest of the world by movement.  No wonder that trains afford a perfect setting for classic golden age mysteries – how better to contain your story and all of your suspects?  While ocean liners are a close second, nothing beats the tightly cabined setting of a train.

    So to and from Spring Training I have little trouble conjuring up SleuthSayer thoughts.  But what about baseball itself? 

    For whatever reason the nation’s pastime hasn’t provided much of a setting for mystery stories.  Perhaps readers will offer up other examples, but the only ones that spring readily to my mind are the Ed Gorgon stories by the great Jon L. Breen.  Jon started the series way back in 1970 and has written that his original inspiration for Ed Gorgon, the baseball umpire who repeatedly is called upon to solve mysteries between calling balls and strikes, was that Frederic Dannay, then editor-in-chief at Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, liked nothing better than baseball and dying messages.  So Jon served up both in Diamond Dick, the first Ed Gorgon story..  That story, and the further installments in the series, spanning thirty years, are collected in Kill the Umpire: The Calls of Ed Gorgon published by Crippen and Landru in 2003. Jon's collection is a fun read and is available at Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, or direct from Crippen and Landru.   (Tell Doug Greene that Dale sent you!)

Shoeless Joe and Ty Cobb, 1913
    If one casts a wider net other non-mystery baseball stories can be reeled in.  Much of the literature that has derived from baseball seems to have its roots in the Black Sox scandal, in which various members of the Chicago White Sox were charged with conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series.  Even though they were acquitted by a Chicago jury, eight players were eventually suspended from baseball for life, including (famously) Shoeless Joe Jackson, who got his name from once running the bases without his shoes on, and who may have been the greatest baseball slugger of all time.  Ring Lardner was a young reporter covering the scandal, and his impressions of Shoeless Joe were said to be the inspiration for his baseball short stories that were later collected in You Know Me Al, a series of letters authored by a vernacularly-challenged ball player.  Lardner uniformly portrays the White Sox players in You Know Me Al as semi-literate and hopelessly avaricious. 

    A real life episode that has repeatedly found its way into baseball lore followed Shoeless Joe Jackson's appearance before a grand jury empaneled to investigate the conspiracy allegations.  On September 29, 1920, The Minneapolis Daily Star, during the course of reporting on the scandal, published the following account:
When Jackson left criminal court building in custody of a sheriff after telling his story to the grand jury, he found several hundred youngsters, aged from 6 to 16, awaiting for a glimpse of their idol. One urchin stepped up to the outfielder, and, grabbing his coat sleeve, said:

"It ain't true, is it, Joe?"

"Yes, kid, I'm afraid it is," Jackson replied. The boys opened a path for the ball player and stood in silence until he passed out of sight.

"Well, I'd never have thought it," sighed the lad
    The line, and the saga of Shoeless Joe, who may or may not have been guilty as charged, reverberated through baseball literature.  In Bernard Malamud’s The Natural the central character, Roy Hobbs, is offered a bribe to throw a game and is then confronted by a child who says “Say it isn’t true, Roy.”  (The line is only in the book, so don’t look for it in the 1984 Robert Redford film!)   The story of Shoeless Joe is also at the heart of the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams, based on Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella.  And, finally, anyone who has seen the movie or stage production of Damn Yankees (a story close to the heart of any Washington, D.C. baseball fan) will remember the refrain “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal Mo.”  (Hannibal Mo. had nothing to do with Shoeless Joe, but, hey, a song’s gotta rhyme, right?)

    Well I should stop here and start packing.  We are off on one last winter trip to the south.   Hopefully when we head back to Washington D.C. it will be spring, because if winter persists it will be me who you will hear lamenting “it ain’t true, is it, Joe?”

8 comments:

Robert Lopresti said...

kinsella's novel was based on his short story called, I think Shoeless Joe Jackson comes to Iowa. kinsella wrote half a dozen books of stories about baseball, most of which could be described as magic realism. I remember one in which the manager of the Red Sox learns in a dream that when his team finally wins the World Series it will be the end of the world.

Kinsella also wrote many. Books of stories about a Canadian First Nation (what we would call an Indian tribe) and a few of those were first class crime stories, like the title piece of Dance Me Outside, which became amovie of the same name.

Robert Lopresti said...

forgot to add that Rex Stout sentNero Wolfe to the world series in a story called, I think, This Wont Kill You, And isnt Robert Parker's Mortal Stakes about baseball?

John Floyd said...

Fantastic, Dale! Enjoyed this.

Rob, Mortal Stakes is indeed a baseball novel (Spenser and the Red Sox, I think), and so is Parker's Double Play. I loved all of 'em.

Dale Andrews said...

We emerged out of the Autotrain and back into the colder northeast this morning when our return train pulled in to Lorton, Virginia. I should report that while our Smart Car was laughed at as it rolled out of the Autotrain car carrier in Florida, picture above, we managed to get 51.5 mpg tooling around the flats of Florida. How we accomplished those numbers, a record for us, is both another mystery as well as a last laugh.

Herschel Cozine said...

You have to admit that there is a lot of crime in baseball. They steal bases, they steal signs, they "murder the ball." There is always talk of killing the umpire. And knocking the pitcher out of the box masy not be a crime, but it is not acceptable behavior in society. And base runners are always being gunned down. And while all this mayhem is going on there are thousands cheering them on. What is this world coming to?

Dale Andrews said...

Herschel -- Ahh, the answer to what we are coming to is . . . Summer!

Herschel Cozine said...

Dale--It sounds like you're as big a baseball fan as I am. Good!
Go Giants! Posey's back.

Jeff Baker said...

I just read Lawrence Block's baseball story "Almost Perfect." Great fun! And then there's Douglas Wallop's novel"The Year The Yankees Lost The Pennant," the basis for the musical "Damn Yankees."