From Richard Sandomir’s review of Stephen King’s new baseball novella, “Blockade Billy”—”…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 by Stephen King. William Blakely is weird and not all that smart. He’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 “Blockade Billy,” the title of King’s new novella.
Set in Newark in 1957, the 80-page story is told to “Mr. King” decades later by the Titans’ third-base coach and describes Billy’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. Ring Lardner, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud and Mark Harris did it. So did Robert Coover, Don DeLillo (in the prologue to his novel “Underworld”), Douglass Wallop, Eric Rolfe Greenberg, W. P. Kinsella and George Plimpton.
King has written about baseball before. A devout Boston Red Sox fan, he co-authored a book about Boston’s 2004 World Series victory. He also wrote about a Little League team for The New Yorker. Another of King’s books, “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon,” 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 “Brooklyn August,” a poem about a night game at Ebbets Field that starred Gil Hodges, Carl Erskine and Roy Campanella.
“My mother worked in the Stratford (Conn.) laundry on the mangler,” King wrote in an e-mail message. “Most of the crew was African-American, and they all rooted for theDodgers. My mom became a Dodgers fan, too, and even went — on a bus trip, I think — with the other ‘girls’ (her word) to see the Bums play at Ebbets.”
King spent two weeks writing “Blockade Billy” and a third week polishing it. With its Norman Rockwell-like cover illustration, “Blockade Billy” 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 Malamud’s “The Natural,” the basis for the Robert Redford film, and Wallop’s “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant,” the basis for the Broadway musical “Damn Yankees.” But most of his reading in the genre has been novels for youngsters by John R. Tunis and Jackson Scholz.
“Baseball fiction is hard,” he wrote in the e-mail message. “There’s 25 guys on a major league squad!”
Although King is a fan of Roth, he has not read “The Great American Novel,” a wild, richly detailed 1973 satire about a third major league whose history is erased from the annals — as Blockade Billy’s inevitably will be.
King’s agent, Chuck Verrill, said that King’s fans were well aware of his love for baseball; readers of his “Dark Tower” series know that in one of the books, a character asks if the Red Sox have won the World Series.
“This idea finally compelled him to write the story,” he said, referring to Newark baseball in 1957. “He loved that period of time and the quality of the baseball.”
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 “The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.” 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.
“I imitated calling the plays as Harry Caray did and kept records, saw players through their up-and-down playing careers,” Coover said in an e-mail message.
“I not only remembered all those ‘players,’ ” added Coover, who years later, in his 30s, rediscovered his league records while cleaning out boxes in his parents’ house. “I even knew what they ‘looked’ like, whether they were left- or right-handed, defensive greats or big hitters, cool or given to tantrums.”
Coover did more than write a great novel that created a parallel baseball universe, but in Waugh, he created a fantasy baseball pioneer.
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.
“You take Roger Angell on baseball before you take any novelist because it’s somehow a celebration of what’s going on,” said Nicholas Dawidoff, who wrote “The Catcher Was a Spy,” about Moe Berg. “Being a novelist, there’s an inherent gesture of making things up.”
“Blockade Billy” is, of course, made up, although King lets him mingle with Ted Williams, Jimmy Piersall, Clete Boyer and Luis Aparicio.
But Billy’s darkness is not as frightening as many of King’s characters.
“At least Steve avoided turning him into a vampire,” Verrill said.