Welcome back to the Book Club! If you haven’t figured it out by now, baseball is a favorite sport here at TehBen.com, and we relish any chance to gush about it. Baseball has a mythic quality from its rich history, as it’s the only sport in America that survives from tall tales and folklore. For me, I have a certain personal affinity for turn-of-the-20th-century baseball, when the sport was working its way towards becoming the national pastime. Thanks to Ken Burns, John Sayles, and today’s book author, the scandal that nearly killed the game on the national stage can be explored in a new light, and it’s most famous subject can live on, for future generations.
The Last At-Bat of Shoeless Joe by Granville Wyche Burgess is a fictionalized account of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson’s life, long after the Black Sox scandal that ruined his legacy. Here’s a brief overview of the facts in both the real world and the novel: several members of the Chicago White Sox were paid off by gamblers to intentionally lose the 1919 World Series. Eventually it was determined that eight players on the team were involved in taking this dive, and were subsequently banned for life from professional baseball. While the participation in the fix is unquestioned regarding several of the accused, some of the “Eight Men Out” have a more ambiguous place in its history. Joe Jackson, the greatest natural hitter of all time, played remarkably well in the 1919 World Series, and attempted to maintain his innocence all the way up until his death in 1951. This final point in his life is where Burgess’ novel picks up.
In the textile mill country of the Carolinas, Jimmy Roberts is a young man with big league dreams. While he and his mother both work at one of the local mills, Jimmy is the star pitcher for the mill’s baseball team. Despite his fairly strong skills, he’ll never reach the heights of professional baseball on his own. After comically failing at a local pro ball team tryout, Jimmy decides to petition a local liquor store owner for some baseball advice. Hiding in plain sight, the liquor store owner Jimmy seeks out is none other than “Shoeless” Joe Jackson.
Let’s get one thing out of the way early in this review: the dialogue is going to be a bit of a struggle for most readers at first. It’s realistic…very realistic as far as 1951 Carolina working-class speech can be. In fact, it’s so jam packed with “ain’ts”, “bein’s” and “what-in-tarnations” that you might even begin to wonder how people understood each other back in those days. Thankfully, I either got used to it or the vernacular may have settled down as the story progressed. The base of the story is fairly barebones, but executed well by using a baseball legend as the glue that holds it together. Shoeless Joe Jackson eventually coaches our protagonist Jimmy, and becomes the manager of a textile mill team that’s chasing the textile league championship. Also, he may be chasing some redemption in the eyes of the baseball addicted public. Antagonism comes from the reluctant owner of a local mill and ball team, Howard, who desires nothing more than to sell his factory, get up north and get into “civilized” baseball team ownership. Howard is manipulative throughout, a scummy dink that prides himself as a puppet master stepping over gamblers, employees, and politicians to get his way. He’s a complete prick, and the best character in the story. The heroes of the novel and their viewpoints on life come across as a bit cheesy (almost at a Leave it to Beaver level of cheese at times), but this contrast of a pure daddy issue adversary gives the novel some real depth. Intertwined with each of the novel’s fictional moments are callbacks to Joe Jackson’s life in baseball and the personal tragedy on the outcomes of the Black Sox scandal. Sometimes for the reader, and sometimes for other characters, Jackson’s struggles both pre and post 1919 are carefully dispersed to add emphasis and a kernel of truth to flesh out crucial story circumstances. Yes, the eventual outcome of the story and the characters around Jackson are pure fiction, but this novel is based around a great deal of historical fact. In some ways this gives the story a “true crime novel” edge, allowing the readers to make their own conclusions along with the fictional characters at the story’s climax.
Verdict: The Last At-Bat of Shoeless Joe by Granville Wyche Burgess is an interesting fictional interpretation of the conclusion of one of baseball’s most interesting stories. The novelization is realistic, well thought out, but most importantly, it’s fair to the legacy of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. While Jackson was never a perfect man, Burgess’ novel gives a charming send off to a man and a character that deserves redemption, and possibly deserves to be enshrined in baseball legend at Cooperstown.
A special thanks to Chickadee Prince Books for providing a review copy of “The Last At-Bat of Shoeless Joe” to TehBen.com. All thoughts and opinions expressed within this review are my own.
Author’s Website: granvilleburgess.com
Purchase/Pre-Order Link: Amazon