From Richard Sandomir’s review of Stephen King’s new baseball novella, “Blockade Billy”â€””â€¦Great baseball fiction is not as plentiful as the best historical, biographical and journalistic work of Roger Angell, John Updike, Gay Talese, Roger Kahn, David Halberstam, Red Smith, Lawrence Ritter and Jane Leavy.”
In the season of Stephen Strasburg comes another phenom, a fictional one created byÂ Stephen King. William Blakely is weird and not all that smart. Heâ€™s out of sync with his New Jersey Titans teammates and, being a King character, he possesses a horrible secret.
But his ability to block home plate with a particular violence makes him a fan favorite and earns him the nickname â€œBlockade Billy,â€ the title of Kingâ€™s new novella.
Set in Newark in 1957, the 80-page story is told to â€œMr. Kingâ€ decades later by the Titansâ€™ third-base coach and describes Billyâ€™s call-up from a minor league team in Iowa, his one month as a hitting and catching sensation and his inevitable downfall.
King is among a group of novelists who have dipped into writing about baseball.Â Ring Lardner,Â Philip Roth,Â Bernard Malamud and Mark Harris did it. So didÂ Robert Coover,Â Don DeLillo (in the prologue to his novel â€œUnderworldâ€), Douglass Wallop, Eric Rolfe Greenberg, W. P. Kinsella andÂ George Plimpton.
King has written about baseball before. A devoutÂ Boston Red Sox fan, he co-authoredÂ a book about Bostonâ€™s 2004 World Series victory. He also wrote about a Little League team forÂ The New Yorker. Another of Kingâ€™s books, â€œThe Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon,â€ was not a baseball novel but used the former Red Sox pitcher as an inspiration to a girl lost in the woods.Before his great renown, King wrote â€œBrooklyn August,â€ a poem about a night game at Ebbets Field that starred Gil Hodges, Carl Erskine and Roy Campanella.
â€œMy mother worked in the Stratford (Conn.) laundry on the mangler,â€ King wrote in an e-mail message. â€œMost of the crew was African-American, and they all rooted for theDodgers. My mom became a Dodgers fan, too, and even went â€” on a bus trip, I think â€” with the other â€˜girlsâ€™ (her word) to see the Bums play at Ebbets.â€
King spent two weeks writing â€œBlockade Billyâ€ and a third week polishing it. With itsÂ Norman Rockwell-like cover illustration, â€œBlockade Billyâ€ first appeared in April in an edition from Cemetery Dance Publications; it was packaged by Scribner last month with a story published last July in Esquire.
King is not steeped in baseball fiction. He read Malamudâ€™s â€œThe Natural,â€ the basis for theÂ Robert Redford film, and Wallopâ€™s â€œThe Year theÂ Yankees Lost the Pennant,â€Â the basis for the Broadway musical â€œDamn Yankees.â€ But most of his reading in the genre has been novels for youngsters by John R. Tunis and Jackson Scholz.
â€œBaseball fiction is hard,â€ he wrote in the e-mail message. â€œThereâ€™s 25 guys on a major league squad!â€
Although King is a fan ofÂ Roth, he has not read â€œThe Great American Novel,â€ a wild, richly detailed 1973 satire about a third major league whose history is erased from the annals â€” as Blockade Billyâ€™s inevitably will be.
Kingâ€™s agent, Chuck Verrill, said that Kingâ€™s fans were well aware of his love for baseball; readers of his â€œDark Towerâ€ series know that in one of the books, a character asks if the Red Sox have won the World Series.
â€œThis idea finally compelled him to write the story,â€ he said, referring to Newark baseball in 1957. â€œHe loved that period of time and the quality of the baseball.â€
Coover did not wait until he was in his 60s to write a baseball novel, as King did, or write about baseball realistically.
Coover drew on the tabletop ball games he created as a child in the Midwest in the 1940s to write â€œThe Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.â€ Waugh is a middle-aged man obsessively absorbed in his imaginary league, which he runs with rolls of his dice and accessories like his Extraordinary Occurrence Chart.
â€œI imitated calling the plays asÂ Harry Caray did and kept records, saw players through their up-and-down playing careers,â€ Coover said in an e-mail message.
â€œI not only remembered all those â€˜players,â€™Â â€ added Coover, who years later, in his 30s, rediscovered his league records while cleaning out boxes in his parentsâ€™ house. â€œI even knew what they â€˜lookedâ€™ like, whether they were left- or right-handed, defensive greats or big hitters, cool or given to tantrums.â€
Coover did more than write a great novel that created a parallel baseball universe, but in Waugh, he created aÂ fantasy baseball pioneer.
Great baseball fiction is not as plentiful as the best historical, biographical and journalistic work of Roger Angell,Â John Updike,Â Gay Talese, Roger Kahn,Â David Halberstam, Red Smith, Lawrence Ritter and Jane Leavy.
â€œYou take Roger Angell on baseball before you take any novelist because itâ€™s somehow a celebration of whatâ€™s going on,â€ said Nicholas Dawidoff, who wrote â€œThe Catcher Was a Spy,â€ about Moe Berg. â€œBeing a novelist, thereâ€™s an inherent gesture of making things up.â€
â€œBlockade Billyâ€ is, of course, made up, although King lets him mingle withÂ Ted Williams, Jimmy Piersall, Clete Boyer and Luis Aparicio.
But Billyâ€™s darkness is not as frightening as many of Kingâ€™s characters.
â€œAt least Steve avoided turning him into a vampire,â€ Verrill said.