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Authors: Michael Bishop

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Brittle Innings

BOOK: Brittle Innings
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Table of Contents

FAIRWOOD PRESS

Bonney Lake, WA

In 1943, at the height of World War II, the Highbridge Hellbenders of the the class-C Chattahoochee Valley League deep in Georgia acquire a 17-year-old shortstop from Oklahoma named Danny Boles. The Hellbenders snap him up because he’s too young for the draft and preternaturally talented. In Highbridge, they make him the boarding-house roommate of an enormous first baseman with the awe-inspiring skill of blasting monster home runs out of the CVL’s tumbledown ballparks. Known to his teammates as Jumbo Hank Clerval, this mysterious giant and the mute Danny Boles strike up an improbable friendship that culminates at the hot season’s end in triumph and disappointment, not to mention a host of haunting discoveries in both the simmering South and the wind-swept Aleutian Islands.

Hailed by critics as a contender for the Great American Novel laurel, Brittle Innings evokes a bygone era of worldwide conflict and homeland unity. It also convincingly links documented wartime history with the immemorial mythology of the superhero and the legendary status of baseball as the unchallenged American pastime. If you read it, you will not forget it.

BRITTLE INNINGS

A Fairwood Press Book

August 2012

Copyright © 1994 Michael Bishop

All Rights Reserved

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or

by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording,

or by any information storage and retrieval system, without

permission in writing from the publisher.

Fairwood Press

21528 104th Street Court East

Bonney Lake, WA 98391

www.fairwoodpress.com

Cover illustration & design by

Paul Swenson

Book design by

Patrick Swenson

Originally published by Bantam Books, May 1994

ISBN13: 978-1-933846-31-6

First Fairwood Press Edition: August 2012

Printed in the United States of America

eISBN: 978-1-62579-327-0

Electronic version by Baen Books

for Jeri, Jamie, and Stephanie,

with love,

and

for my mother,

Maxine Elaine Willis,

and belated thanks

for teaching me to love reading

and for many games of backyard catch

in Mulvane, Kansas,

and

in memory of my dad,

Lee O. Bishop (1920-1989)

who took me out to see the Memphis Chicks,

and who half-expected me

(I think)

to play shortstop in the bigs

Brittle Innings:
Outfielders or Outsiders

by Elizabeth Hand

I
reviewed Michael Bishop’s brilliant,
sui generis
novel
Brittle Innings
when it first appeared in 1994. At that time I wrote, “I wish I’d written it.” Rereading it nearly two decades later, I’m even more staggered by Bishop’s achievement.

In
Brittle Innings
, Bishop takes on a subject as big and complex and difficult to categorize as the unforgettable Henry “Jumbo” Clerval, the central and most riveting character in a novel that has many: the dark heart of America itself. After a brief preamble, we find ourselves in Tenkiller, Oklahoma, June 1943, embarking on a journey as improbable and absorbing as Huck Finn’s, narrated by a character Huck might well have taken up with if he’d found himself playing minor league baseball during the Second World War.

That narrator would be Danny Boles, seventeen and afflicted with a stammer, a talented shortstop with Cherokee blood who’s looking to get the hell out of Tenkiller. Danny’s age and speech impediment keep him from being cannon fodder, so his chance to get out of Dodge arrives when he’s offered a position with the Highbridge (Georgia) Hellbenders, a farm team that prides itself on being the “Terror of the CVL,” the Chattahoochee Valley League. The Hellbenders’ owner, Jordan “Mister JayMac” McKissic, offers Danny seventy-five-dollars a month, along with room and board, and the golden opportunity to play in

“. . . a small town league, with a pitiful ‘C’ training classification, but we make it in spite of the war because we’re the hardest-

playing saps anywhere and flat-out beaucoups of fun to watch.”

Indeed they are. The Hellbenders lineup reads like the cast list from a lost Damon Runyon sandlot epic: Quip Parris, Clarence “Trapdoor” Evans, Sweet Gus Pettus, Percy “Double” Dunnagin, Junior Heggie. Their rivals in the CVL include the LaGrange Gendarmes, the Marble Springs Seminoles, the Cottonton Boll Weevils, and the Opelika Orphans. Bishop’s dialogue throughout is also Runyonesque, in particular the fulsome exhortations of Mister JayMac.

“Mostly, we’ve lost to total mediocrities and also-rans. Were I given to worry, I’d be a total ruin. But I’ve long since taken to heart the scriptural counsel that anxious thought adds not a minute to our lives, and I sleep like a babe in swaddling clothes.”

“Jesus,” Hoey said, not exactly reverently.

“Selah,” Mister JayMac said. “I’ve prayed and I’ve rounded up these fresh-faced youths.”

“Glory!” Quip Parris said. “What if they’re bums, sir?”

Mister JayMc smiled. “If yall wanted aiggs, would I foist on you scorpions?”

Danny is, for all appearances, one of these fresh-faced youths. But he’s now utterly mute, following a violent rape aboard the train from Tenkiller to Highbridge. Still, he’s no less a misfit than some of his clowning teammates. And he certainly can’t hold a candle to Jumbo Hank Clerval, the booming, seven-foot giant with “a Frenchified accent” who becomes Danny’s roommate at the Hellbenders’ boarding house. When he first meets Clerval, Danny thinks, “His face was out of alignment somehow, like a pumpkin cut in two and put back together wrong.” And, then, a little later:

His hair was greasy black, with a shock of silver-white in the middle of his lumpy forehead and streaks of nickel-gray around his mangled-looking ears. Cripes, I thought, if you staggered into him in a pitch-black street, the fella’d give you about twelve quick heart attacks. Even the overhead lights and the ragging of his fellow Hellbenders couldn’t hide his weirdness. I was ugly, but this guy’d been put together in a meat-packing plant by clumsy blind men.

But Jumbo’s a hell of a first baseman, and he has a hell of a story to tell, in the journal he eventually shares with Danny, as the two become friends and confidantes during the Hellbenders’ short season under the broiling Georgia sun.

At the commencement of my new life, as throughout my old one, bitter cold scant afflicted me. I preferred it to the warmth of summer, responding to it as an assemblage of pistons, flywheels, and cogs respond to lubrication. My chief hindrance lay not in meteorological conditions, but in the body of my dead creator . . .

It is Michael Bishop’s astonishing achievement to braid these two voices seamlessly within one narrative, alternating between Clerval’s logbook of his journeys back to what we quaintly call civilization, and Danny’s play-by-play account of the Hellbenders barnstorming through the Chattahoochee Valley.

It would have been very easy for such an ambitious and genre-bending work to have ended up as nothing more than an intriguing hybrid, ungainly as Jumbo himself. But in rereading
Brittle Innings
I found myself once again so deeply immersed in Bishop’s vision of a lost America that I was startled to look down and realize I was staring at a page. I truly can’t recall another book that so beautifully and deftly captures the American home front during World War II.

But for all its exuberance and memorably larger-than-life characters, this isn’t a nostalgic evocation of America-at-War. One of the novel’s set pieces features a game between the Hellbenders and the Splendid Dominican Touristers, a barnstorming team from the Negro American League, and throughout his novel Bishop doesn’t shy away from confronting the rifts between the white players and their black counterparts, in particular the tragic figure of Darius Satterfield.

Baseball may be the playing field on which the exuberant characters of
Brittle Innings
make their bids for sandlot stardom, but this isn’t really a novel about outfielders. It’s a novel about outsiders: voiceless Danny; doomed Darius; questing, noble Jumbo Clerval, still embarked upon his centuries-long quest to determine where genuine humanity resides: that elusive spark we call a soul.
Brittle Innings
isn’t just a great baseball novel, or a great literary novel, or a great science fiction novel. It’s a great American novel. And, yes, I wish I’d written it.

Prologue

A
fter pursuing him a week (half my annual vacation from the
Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
), I caught up with Danny Boles on a blustery day in early April at a high school in eastern Alabama. I knew I’d found him because his fabled motor home—he called it Kit Carson, a sly allusion to his job—was parked on the asphalt above the school’s ram-shackle athletic complex.

I pulled in next to the RV, climbed out, and peered through the driver’s-side window. An empty fast-food sack and an old ruled notebook lay on the front seat. I tried the door. It was locked. From the ball field came the faint chatter of two or three players and a coach’s blistering shout, “
Come on, you guys, talk it up!

Although not quite five in the afternoon, a twilight chill had begun to creep over the tilled red clay beyond the collapsing rail of the center-field fence. A red-shouldered hawk, hungry or curious, sailed above the clay. I watched it as I heel-walked down the slope looking for Boles.

In that puny weekday crowd, he stood out plainly enough. There were aluminum bleachers on each baseline, but Boles leaned on the fence midway between first base and the right-field foul marker, a metal pole topped by a limp blue pennant. He wore faded dungarees, scuffed loafers, and, as if it were July, a short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt. A wispy-haired and frail-seeming man, Boles rested his arms on the fence and studied the talent on the field. Most folks would have supposed him some player’s grandfather.

Aping nonchalance, I strolled past the first-base bleachers, tiptoed around Boles, and took up a place beside him. I hesitated to interrupt his scrutiny of the earnest kids scattered across the field. I also hesitated to confess my real business, for Boles had a reputation as a hater of newshounds.

When that dull half-inning had concluded and the teams began lackadaisically changing places, I said, “Mr. Boles, you’re a hard man to track down.”

He squinted at me as if I’d jabbed him with a stick.

“If not for your RV,” I said, gesturing toward the parking lot, “I might’ve kept going. This is the umpity-umpth town I’ve visited in the past five days.”

Boles’s squint unclenched. His eyes grew a size or two, his irises like tiny pinwheels. April sunlight turned his jug-handle ears translucent. Although it looked as if I could knock him over with a string bean, Boles intimidated me. Why? The sleeves of his flamboyant shirt came down to his elbows, giving him the look of a frail gnome with a bad haircut. Maybe it was his rep that daunted me, or the hint of flint in his close-set eyes.

Almost indifferently, Boles looked away. A between-innings pitching change had taken his attention. A long-armed black kid, with a fullback’s thighs, took the mound and hurled incandescent heat during his warm-ups.

Sadly, with a batter at the plate, the kid’s performance was high, wide, and ugly. He walked the first two batters to face him, struck out a wild swinger, walked a third kid, struck out a second hitter on a dozen pitches (including several that would have been sure tickets to first if the batter hadn’t foul-tipped them), and came irreparably unglued when a blooper to right center rolled to the fence for a bases-clearing double. He shied his next pitch into the hitter’s ribs, then stalked around the mound muttering and banging his glove against his thigh.

“If he just had some control,” I said.

The manager signaled for the right fielder and the distraught black kid to swap positions.

Only then did Boles look at me again. “
That’s where he shoulda been playing to start with. He’s a pitcher like the Incredible Hulk’s a doily maker
.”

Although his look scalded, Boles’s voice unnerved me most. I’d forgotten that several years ago, during an operation for throat cancer, he’d had his vocal cords removed. Today he spoke with the help of an amplifying device, a kind of cordless microphone, held to his throat above the Adam’s apple. The sound from the amplifier was intelligible enough, but mechanical in tone. Listening to him, you got the feeling that his rubbery face masked the shiny features and the artificial vocal apparatus of a robot.


Who the hell are you, anyway?

“Sorry, Mr. Boles.” I tried to recover. “A sports writer.”


Yeah? Who for?

“The Columbus papers. Columbus, Georgia.”

Boles nodded and pocketed the microphonelike gadget.

“I telephoned your home in Atlanta a few weeks back,” I said. “I want to do a major profile. A full-length book. Your wife said she’d relay the message. In the meantime, she advised me to look for you at high school games up and down the Chattahoochee Valley. She said we should have a face-to-face about the feasibility of the project.

“Sir,” I added.

Boles put a finger to his lips. In a sudden sweep, he moved it to mine. He wasn’t here to jawbone; if I wanted his cooperation, I had better knock off the kibitzing. The scoreboard in left field said that this game was only four innings along. How many innings did high school teams play? Seven? Nine?

Despite a windbreaker and woolen slacks, I had Himalayan-size goosebumps, while Boles, tanned and stringy in his Hawaiian shirt, seemed primed for another four to six innings.

Surprisingly, he lasted only two more feeble ground-outs, then limped away from the fence toward the parking lot, gesturing at me to follow. He didn’t look back. Never mind his hitch-along gait, he made good time. At his RV, he keyed open the driver’s door.

“The game wasn’t over,” I said.

He turned around, his amplifier to his Adam’s apple. “
At this level, it’s not games that matter. It’s players. I don’t have to wait for meaningless overall outcomes to sort the stumblebums from the racehorses
.” He said outcomes, even with his flat mechanical voice, as if it were a disease. “
Sides, you were getting itchy to leave. Weren’t you?

“Yessir.” It didn’t embarrass me to say so. The April twilight had rolled down on us like a corrugated iron door.

Boles said, “
Go around back. I’ll open up for you. We’ll have us a nip and chew the fat
.”

In less than a minute, he’d admitted me to the boudoir-kitchen-sitting-room of his motor home. We sat across from each other in a cramped table booth that undoubtedly opened out, at night, into a spine-deforming bed. From plastic cups, we sipped Early Times Kentucky whiskey. Kit Carson’s interior, redolent of hamburger grease and lime-scented aftershave, felt airtight and stuffy. Its warmth, and that of the booze, made Boles’s filmy shirt seem almost practical. I shed my windbreaker.


I let you find me
,” Boles said.

“How so?”


Usually, on the job, I park this rolling flophouse where the competition aint likely to see it
.”

“The competition?”


Other scouts. They know my rep. They figure if I’m tooling around a certain neighborhood, I’ve scented a prospect, maybe even another MVP
.”

I wasn’t above buttering him up. “You’ve signed over forty big leaguers, haven’t you?”


Forty-six. So I don’t let the competition see
Kit
. I park behind a gym, a dumpster. Sometimes I drive a renter
.”

“You abandon
Kit Carson?


Else guys’ll poach. I’m only out here today
”—waving his cup at the parking lot—“
cause I knew you’d throw in the towel if you didn’t find me in a year or two. Right?

“Why’d you want me to find you? Are you ready to talk?”


I’m ready to retire. Talking may be the way to fatten up the goose that’ll let us do it in comfort
.” He smiled. “
Or the only way to clear my head
.”

Boles said he had a story to tell. He just didn’t trust himself to tell it like a professional writer would. So he proposed that I ghostwrite it for half any advance monies, plus a seventy-thirty split of all royalties, subsidiary sales, licensing fees, and other incidental income. He had pored over too many rookie contracts not to have acquired an acute business sense. Cannily, he had also checked out my credentials, surveying both my work for the Columbus papers and my profile of the first female National League umpire in a months-old issue of
Sports Illustrated
. His verdict? I was no Shakespeare, but I did okay.

“Mr. Boles, that’s nice to hear, but I hadn’t planned to do an ‘as-told-to’ book. I’m an interviewer and an analyst.”


So interview. So analyze
.”

“Sir, I want to write a book about a major-league scout’s life on the road, a book based on firsthand observation.”


So the goofball who lets you observe him doesn’t cut into your profits?

“Mr. Boles—”


So he doesn’t get a damned thing out of it but the pleasure of your company?

I held my tongue. I didn’t care much for Boles’s phrasing, but his assessment of what I hoped for—a book of my own, profits of my own—hit the target dead center.


No offense, young fella, but your personality lacks the dazzle to make that trade-off work for me
.”

“Well, there’s also glory.”

Boles cut his eyes.

“The book I have in mind has the working title
The Good Scout
. You’re the good scout. It’ll chronicle a full year of your life on the road, scouting for the Atlanta Braves. It’ll also—”


If you did that, traveled with me a year and wrote it all up, you’d deserve the money, all of it. But that aint the book I want to do. Uh-uh
.” He sloshed himself another finger of Early Times and twisted around to snap on a portable radio balanced on the ledge above our booth. The static-riven broadcast of a ball game gabbled away behind us as we talked. Effortlessly, though, Boles followed the game’s progress, even as he outlined his own literary plans and parried my bemused objections.

Other writers, he told me, had produced good stuff—magazine articles, newspaper pieces, even entire books—about major-league scouts, limelight-shunning sandlot prophets who had immeasurably enriched the game. The topic was tried and true, even old hat. I argued that a bang-up writer and a well-chosen scout’s signature methods and idiosyncrasies could reinvigorate the topic. Boles shook his head. Yeah, sure, maybe I could do an interesting book, a colorful book, about his career (I’d have to be a droning hack to render his story a total yawn), but it wouldn’t be a ground-breaking book, a book resembling nothing else ever published about America’s national pastime.

Peeved, I said, “What’re you talking about, Mr. Boles? Exactly what do you want me to help you write?”


Ever hear of the CVL? Of Mr. Jordan McKissic? Of the Highbridge Hellbenders? Of Jumbo Clerval? Of a seventeen-year-old shortstop named Danny Boles?

Danny Boles, yes. Everything else, no. In fact, everything else in his catalogue had registered as gibberish. Only later was I able to sort out the separate items and give each one a distinct identity. Only later did I learn that CVL stood for Chattahoochee Valley League and that the CVL had a mysterious sub rosa cachet among older Southern sportswriters.


That’s right. Once I was a minor-league shortstop, a real comer in Class C ball. The league I played in lasted six seasons, from 1938 to 1943, and its final season was the only year that young Danny Boles played professionally. That’s what I want you to help me write about, sport
.”

The high-school ball game had ended. The home team had lost. You could hear the away boys monkey-hooting in their dugout. A gaggle of fans filtered into the parking lot, approaching their vehicles and closing in on Boles’s motor home. In the greenish glow of the safety lamps that had just fuzzed on, the home team’s partisans looked ghoulish: drained and unreal.

I groaned inwardly. Boles wanted me to write about his brief and obscure professional career during World War II. It sounded like a vanity set up. Here he was, arguably the most successful major-league scout ever, but a nagging sense of the illegitimacy of that career made him view his playing days as more bookworthy than his near-mythic accomplishments as a scout. Sad.

Noting my hesitation, Boles tugged one long earlobe. “
I got called up at the end of the ’43 season, but an injury, on the very day Mister Jay Mac gave me the good word, kept me from reporting
.”

“An injury?”


The Phillies wanted me to take over for them at short, but a spiking . . . Hey, you saw me limp up here from the ball field
.”

I had, but Boles’s limp, because he could still locomote with gusto, had struck me as a minor handicap. Besides, no one expected a man his age to be as svelte and rapid as a whippet.

So I’d given no thought to his likely goals before signing on in 1948 as a scout with the Philadelphia Phillies.


The importance of that war-year season wasn’t what happened to me
,” Boles said, “
so much as it was the fate of my roomy, Jumbo Clerval, and the demise of the whole blamed league. A story unlike any you’ve ever heard
.”

I’m sorry: I doubted it. I also doubted that the Phillies (in ’44, they were renamed, for two unhallowed seasons, the Blue Jays, long before Toronto had a team on which to hang that nickname) had called Boles up to play for them. After all, not many players make it in a single jump from a Class C ball club to a starting job with a team in the Show. Thus I dismissed Boles’s claim as unverifiable and unseemly brag.

And he picked up on my skepticism. “
Wonder why I let you find me, sport? I mean, a dozen other pretty good sportswriters’ve been after me, but I let you track me down. Any idea why?

He had me stumped.


Cause you byline your stuff Gabe Stewart
.”

“That’s my name, Mr. Boles.”


Danny. It’s too tight in here to stand on formalities
.”

“All right. Danny.”


I chose you because of your name. When the Phillies called me up in ’43, a fella named Gabby Stewart was playing short for em. His batting average hung around .200. Not that great a glove man, either. In ’44, Freddy Fitzsimmons, the manager, moved him over to third. Stewart upped his average nine or ten points, but the next year he was gone, whether drafted or sent back down to the minors I couldn’t say. He never got back to the bigs. Gabby Stewart was my favorite Phillie, though. His weak stick and shaky glove persuaded the front office to give a skinny, big-eared Oklahoma kid a shot. You aint related to the guy, are you?

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