Baseball Book Review: The End of Baseball, by Peter Schilling, Jr.

Last season, this space within City Pages was worked by veteran writer Peter Schilling, Jr. His experience was not wasted. Rather -- I feel I can safely assume -- Schilling used pieces of his 2007 blogging season to heighten the lexicon, further the environment, polish the dialogue, and enliven the literary box scores of his debut novel, The End of Baseball, released in the spring of this year by Ivan R. Dee Publishing (Chicago, IL).

I would be remiss to omit the fact(s) herein that I have both known Mr. Schilling as an acquaintance for a short time, and have also admired his Twin Cities freelance work for some years. But with that said: Any peer, pal, relative or reviewer worth a salt will, in short, tell you if your work is for shit. Truly-- it saves steps, pains, and postage.

But that’s not the case with Baseball, the well-penned and well-paced novel that imagines a baseball season that never was. In the early 1940s, business madman and baseball maverick Bill Veeck secured backing to buy the Philadelphia Phillies and planned to stock the club with Negro League stars. However, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis saw to it that the splash was never made, keeping MLB segregated -- that’s the reality.

But Schilling’s book imagines the fantasy, constructing a 1944 season in which Veeck was able to field a team of Philadelphia Athletics composed wholly of black players (and one Cuban) that include baseball luminaries such as Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Roy Campanella, “Cool Papa” Bell and Satchel Paige (whom Veeck would later truly sign, at age 42, as a member of the Cleveland Indians in 1948). And while Schilling gives these men and their brethren readable and tangible gloves, spikes and balls, it is the character of Veeck that holds the soul of both this team, and the novel.

Skillfully drawn with all his flair (and all his faults), Schilling does a near-masterful job of constructing Veeck. In this portrayal, Veeck is penned with appropriate complexity and humor: he’s smart, he smokes, he drinks, he thinks, he reads, he works behind-the-scenes, he’s pained (futzing with his nascent prosthetic of a leg, having lost the limb as a Marine in WWII) and oftentimes, he’s very much alone. And this last description is what makes him so very human, what makes the reader feel that he too is living this season, with all it’s balls and strikes of life, right along with the protagonist.

And for what Schilling lacks at moments in his spare descriptions of zeitgeist and his caricatures of violence, he makes up for with adroit depictions of game stories. Baseball, when on the field, is one of those books where pages can flip in wonderful three or four pages chunks. Schilling has a great talent for description of in-game storytelling, and also for getting inside both the respective heads of his players and the mood of the dugout. Countless of these passages are skillfully written with grinding tension, tangible sweat, and audible jubilation (or rage, depending on the city).

And while Schilling makes earnest (and occasionally successful) attempts at painting and understating the haughty personas of Landis, J. Edgar Hoover, Walter Winchell, the coaches and ballplayers (of whom Josh Gibson’s plight is the most engaging) -- the story of Baseball, its guts and heart, continually comes back to Veeck.

Schilling has surely done a wealth of commendable research to reconstruct the cities, stadiums, people, and personal histories of this time. But above all the legwork stands the literary interworkings of a one-legged man, with Bill Veeck wonderfully looming, and laughing between the lines and above the words -- smoking and drinking his way through a season that never was.

Should Schilling (hopefully) continue to publish works of this ilk, a few more books will find him likened to W.P. Kinsella. And from a local perspective, I formally request herein that he consider employing his skills to take on another story that wasn’t to be: the second-half of life for another complex and magnetic baseball figure, Kirby Puckett.

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