||March is the Least Casual Month
by Russell Field
For serious baseball aficionados, March is a special time of year. While casual fans may relish the coming of spring and April's Opening Day or watching the boys of summer on humid August nights, dedicated enthusiasts need to shake off the doldrums of a winter without baseball much earlier in the year.
Magical dates that have no meaning for anyone else begin appearing on the calendar, and strangers who consider themselves true fans begin exchanging knowing glances on snowy downtown streets. Third week of February: pitchers and catchers have reported to the sunny climes. Second week of March: Grapefruit and Cactus League games are in full swing, and players no-one but the most loyal of the game's followers have ever heard of take centre stage.
An integral part of this annual ritual is the consumption of all things baseball. Fans wade through the bevy of new baseball books publishers release each spring while keeping the trusted old friends of the past (W. P. Kinsella, Thomas Boswell, et al.) at hand. Into this congregation steps a new Canadian entry: Bruce Meyer's Goodbye Mr. Spalding.
Writing good baseball fiction requires more than just a passing understanding of the game's basic principles. Baseball's cherished writers-from Bernard Malamud to Kinsella-have all had a healthy respect for its history, magic, and inherent symbolism. Meyer's Goodbye Mr. Spalding-a collection of nine stories and one poem-does not stray far from these literary roots.
Meyer is at his best when a strong grounding in historical fact is the basis for his fictional tales, as in the collection's opening piece, a prose poem entitled "Horse Diving". At the turn of the century there was an amusement park on Hanlan's Point in Toronto harbour. One of its most popular attractions was a diving horse. Coaxed up a rickety wooden tower, the majestic white stallion would plunge into the murky waters of Lake Ontario to the roars of an approving crowd.
There was also a baseball stadium at Hanlan's Point. It was home to the International League's Maple Leafs and in September 1914 they hosted the Providence Grays, who featured a baby-faced pitcher still five years away from gaining world-wide fame.
In this setting for "Horse Diving", Toronto is enjoying one more summer of pre-war optimism with the white stallion, Goliath, symbolizing the innocence and apparently unbridled power of the Imperial Age. Onto this scene struts a nineteen-year-old man-child, the soon-to-be-famous Babe Ruth. His first professional home run disappears forever into Lake Ontario along with Goliath as shots ring out in Europe, foreshadowing the end of an era. As Ruth rounds the bases, his raw power and aggression are harbingers of the uncertain new world order.
Meyer's recipe for blending the mystical with the historical also unearthed a Toronto ballground long forgotten by all but the most ardent students of Canadian baseball history while heralding its most famous (and equally unremembered) resident. "Sunlight Park" bridges the gap between modern Toronto, and the sterility of its indoor ballpark, and an older time when the young city featured a brand new diamond on Queen Street, east of the Don River.
In 1887, the ballpark-nicknamed Sunlight Park for its proximity to the Sunlight Soap Works-was home to a Ned "Cannonball" Crane. Famous for his legendary pitching exploits, Crane was at the height of his short-lived glory. Nevertheless, a decade later, Cannonball would die alone in a Rochester, New York motel, the circumstances of his death shrouded in mystery.
As fact converges with fiction, "Sunlight Park" chronicles Crane's performance in leading Toronto to the pennant and, a century later, a grieving father's obsessive drive to uncover the events surrounding Cannonball's death. Unable to confront the death of his teenage son, the father chooses, instead, to unravel the secret of Crane's final days.
His desire to learn the truth transports him through time to an imagined meeting with Cannonball. Their "interview" resolves the mystery of Crane's apparent suicide and helps the father accept the death of his son: "They are getting on with their deaths. I must get on with my life."
Many of Meyer's other stories achieve this balance between factual account and personal narrative, especially "Father" and "Goodbye Mr. Spalding". Of the stories that eschew an historical foundation and choose to use baseball as a time-honoured metaphor for life, the best is "Long Way Up, Short Way Down", a melancholy look at the minor leagues.
Nevertheless, Goodbye Mr. Spalding is not without its weaknesses. "The Glove" and "The Summer Is Over" lack the insight of "Horse Diving" and the irreverent charm that guides "Goodbye Mr. Spalding." In other stories the dialogue is often stilted and at times too well-structured for its "dumb ballplayer" mouthpieces.
The strength of this collection lies in the stories' essential foundation-the creativity that spawned their combination of fact and fiction-rather than in their execution. The themes explored will be very familiar to readers of baseball fiction. The notions of bridging time and saying goodbye that are central to "Sunlight Park", for example, are essential elements in Kinsella's Shoeless Joe. In this way, Goodbye Mr. Spalding's themes are just as connected to the past as are its narratives.
Meyer treads lightly on the hallowed ground of baseball fiction. Conscious that he carries a torch lit by Ring Lardner and Mark Harris, he is careful to embrace the best that the genre has to offer in framing his tales. While breaking little in the way of new ground, Goodbye Mr. Spalding is a welcome sanctuary for winter-weary baseball fans.