The choices we don’t make in life sometimes plague us more than those that we do; how would my life be different (read: better) if I had taken that job, made that phone call, married that other person? Where would I be? What would I be doing?
Well take that way of thinking, and apply it to Bill Veeck, Jr. and the 1944 Philadelphia A’s. The 1943 edition of the club was coming off a 49-105 finish and had just been sold by Connie Mack. Infighting amongst his children kept them from ownership, and a creative deal with the junior Veeck gave him the reins to the White Elephants.
The ever inventive Veeck, who also owned the Negro League Philadelphia Stars, decides to cut every one of the A’s just before Opening Day and replace them with the Stars, who had become a collection of Negro League All-Stars with Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson, just to name a few. It would be the forced integration of Major League Baseball, two years before Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
But that plan never came to fruition, and while baseball’s integration was delayed and some of the greatest names in Negro League history never got to put on a big league uniform, it did give Peter Schilling, Jr. the opportunity to write his first novel, The End of Baseball.
Schilling hits a home run with his debut novel – while not only doing a solid job transporting the reader back to the mid 1940s, he takes on the enviable task of developing multiple characters that have tremendous amonuts of complexity: starting with Veeck, the maverick owner and promoter charged with turning a profit on the A’s else he have to return them to the Mack family, and his business partner, Sam Dailey, the more intellectual, business-minded investor who gets tugged around to scout for players before inheriting much more responsibility than he bargained for once the Commissioner suspends Veeck.
The cast of players and managers is no small task to turn into dynamic characters – Josn Gibson is in the tail end of his glory days but feels compelled to live up to his Ruthian comparisons while battling the demons of addiction; to former great Oscar Charleston battingling manager Mickey Cochrane for respect, to a young Roy Campanella trying to learn from the veteran Gibson while watching him crumble.
Throw in a vindictive Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis and his mouthpiece, Sporting News writer J.G. Taylor Spink, and you have a roster full of people to develop and get the reader familiar with, which Schilling does succesfully.
By using real people in a fictional work, Schilling takes on the challenge of bringing somewhat new characteristics to light. How would Landis respond to a team of Negro Leaguers playing in the Majors? How would a team of Negro Leaguers, all in their rookie season in the bigs, take to the abuse that Schilling has the fans and press rain down on them?
Schilling gets to answer that question as he sees fit, and while it might not vibe with every reader, it definitely makes for an interesting read.
While not a fan of fiction, I did find myself liking The End of Baseball more and more as it went along. If anything, I liked it to the point where I will probably misquote something that happened in the book as actual fact at some point, and I will have Mr. Schilling to blame. That’s the downside of using real people to craft a fictional story.