Until Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948, African Americans (for that matter, all non-whites) were denied the chance to play major league baseball. Leading black players – Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Cool Papa Bell, among others – had very few opportunities to test their mettle against major leaguers and were often left to ponder what might have been. Kevin King takes this longing, puts a nostalgic spin on it (by setting the novel in 1934), and produces a work of fiction that is dazzling at times, plodding in the book’s middle, and yet shows the author’s great grasp of the lingo and cadences of professional ballplayers of long ago. What results is a stunning novel which somehow does not completely deliver on its promise.
After having won the World Series by beating the Detroit Tigers, the St. Louis Cardinals of 1934, led by Dizzy Dean and the Gashouse Gang, are left to ponder an off-season of rest and work in menial jobs. Satchel Paige, however, changes all this when he comes up with an idea to match the African American players with the best of the major leaguers in the “greatest game ever played.” Bankrolled by the anti-Semitic and anti-African American Henry Ford, the game is decreed to be played in total secrecy by baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Thus, the major leaguers – Babe Ruth, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and the rookie Joe DiMaggio, among them – take on Paige’s collection of African American players in a game played in Fenway Park under lights. King’s description of the game is gripping, and the seesawing fortunes of the two teams keep the reader on the edge of the seat. The O’Henry-esque ending is sure to bring a chuckle to baseball purists.
While King sets up a great yarn that is completely plausible in its premise, the book meanders in some of its subplots. James Atwood and John Henry, two small town kidnappers, team up with Clarence Darrow to set the game in motion. The group is sent to California to seek the help of George Raft and Carole Lombard to scout the young phenom, Joe DiMaggio. This entire section, in fact the involvement of the two Hollywood stars, slows down the novel, and apart for some prurient interest, appears to serve no purpose to the plot.
King’s strength is in game description and in capturing the nuances of the subculture of professional athletes. In a marvelous set piece, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson journey to the Dominican Republic to convince Martin Dihigo to join their team. King makes the transition from American baseball to the Latino milieu effortlessly and captures the setting perfectly. It’s a shame that such writing gets lost in some of the unnecessary detours that King takes. If the reader ignores these meanderings and concentrates on the essence of the book, the payoff is palpable.