It seems easy enough doesn’t it? A ball, a bat, 60 feet, six inches, 90 feet—find some talented athletes, charge folks to watch, make a little money and may the best team win.
Well, Peter Schilling’s novel The End of Baseball reminds us that things are never easy when you involve the species known as Homo sapiens in the endeavor. I’ll be honest—in a sense I hated the book; it left me depressed and irritable, but don’t take that as a knock so much as an idiosyncrasy on my part. You see, when I read a fictional work I personally use it as an escape from the real world. Schilling captures the real world all too well.
It sounds like a paradox but The End of Baseball may well have been the first book that was too well written. It felt frighteningly real. Most fictional pieces I read generally have the mythical “happily ever after,” whereas Schilling’s novel is so graphic in its presentation that I had to remind myself continually that this was simply a story. Nevertheless, because of the fact that this particular story seemed all too viable, I was unsuccessful in keeping my darker emotions at bay as I continued reading it.
Schilling did his homework on the Negro Leagues, on Bill Veeck, on Commissioner Landis and many others. Between the front and back covers was a time machine where he transported us back into history yet placed us in a different timeline. Part of me wonders whether he used the Athletics rather than the Phillies (the club Veeck tried to buy and integrate) to use an AL setting or he simply mixed up the teams. The fact that he clearly read “Veeck as in Wreck” makes me think the switch was deliberate. If you’re reading this Mr. Schilling drop me a line and let me know why you used the A’s rather than the Phillies if it’s not too much trouble.
The unnerving part of the whole thing is that the various storylines were all too familiar. We all know of small men who are not content to set their own personal standards of right and wrong—not to mention their own particular version of “the established order of things.” Such men use every trick, avenue and machination at their disposal to impose those views on the world around them and punish with extreme prejudice those who refuse to remain in the pre-ordained orbit these sorts of folks establish for people within their personal sphere.
The End of Baseball is more than a simple story; it also serves as a reminder of the consequences of indulging, rather than battling against the darker natures that exist within us all. None of us is born hateful, self-destructive, bigoted or prejudiced. They’re not like skin color; it is a learned behavior and crosses all demographics. Oddly enough hatred and prejudice are the least prejudiced things in the world since they do not discriminate and will obligingly enter into anyone’s heart regardless of their background.
But I digress (yes, even in book reviews).
In the case of J. Taylor Spink, editor of The Sporting News, he found redemption in the truth, whereas Landis’s downfall is in using everything at his disposal to perpetuate the lie that the black man could not compete in the big leagues. Eventually it is his own lack of fidelity to the truth that finally prodded Spink to listen to his conscience rather than continue to be beholden to the machine.
It also gives us a perspective on what we are led to believe in the media: Satchel Paige as a whimsical folk hero, Josh Gibson as the troubled artist are images we embrace while Schilling portrays them as men with the same vices and shadier sides that exist in us all.
Paige is harmed by his hubris and ego—indeed we see aspects of Barry Bonds‘ personality in Paige, anger in being eclipsed by one they view as inferior (Martin Dihigo), just as Bonds was driven by the adulation given to Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire in 1998. He enjoys perks and privileges that most within the game do not and has a sense of entitlement that rivals the biggest egos in the sport. Many of his self-centered antics are written off as ‘Satchel being Satchel.’
Josh Gibson finds a modern parallel in Darryl Strawberry, a man of enormous talents, yet in both cases we are left with a profound sense of “what might have been” due to the players’ inability to conquer their inner-demons: substance abuse. We are left to wonder that had they played in our day and age whether their legacy would be based on what they accomplished on the field or the seamier aspects to their personalities.
J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI makes an appearance that reminds us of Jeff Novitsky of the IRS and FDA‐a man looking to further his career and pursue his agenda within the sport’s ranks. Novitsky hunts down steroid users in the game with the same zeal Hoover pursued communists on the Philadelphia A’s.
Also we get another glimpse within ourselves as we try to put historic feats in an historical context when in reality we’re trying to put them where we wish in our own structured little universes. As Buck Leonard chases Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record we see efforts by both Landis and Spink to either prevent or discount the slugger’s feat to keep their preordained “the established order of things” undisturbed.
The hardest thing was to witness in the pages the destructiveness of hate and people’s eagerness and glee to indulge in it—those who can only take solace in the misery of others just so they can feel better about the lives they’ve chosen to live for themselves. Whether intended or not, Schilling captures magnificently that compassion is only for the strong and mindless hatred for the weak and weak-minded. It takes stiff effort to better ourselves and sadly few can be bothered, which is why Veeck‘s vision, despite his own flaws and foibles, still seems to resonate down to our day.
This is not a happy book with a happy ending. As stated earlier, it is a book based on a different timeline but the same people, motivations and events during a very dark period in human history—consider yourselves forewarned. Armed with this information it will allow the reader to go through the pages of one of the finest pieces of baseball fiction to come out in a very long time without being disappointed that real life rarely ends on a high note. Peter Schilling Jr. deserves the highest of marks for creating a fictitious history that feels like the genuine article.
Finally, I would like to give Mr. Schilling a standing ovation for making crystal clear that humanity would be a whole lot happier if it stopped taking itself so damned seriously and didn’t try to impose its imperfect will on the growing pains of society and instead choose to grow up right along with it.
Thanks to Schilling we understand that change will not be ‘the end of baseball’ but rather that the game is more likely to be destroyed by those fighting the change. If the biggest complaint about a book is that it may be too well written, then it’s safe to say it’s a work of which the author should be proud. Take a bow Mr. Schilling.