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NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture 10.2 (2002) 142-143

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Triple Play

Shadow Ball:
A Novel of Baseball and Chicago

Peter M. Rutkoff. Shadow Ball: A Novel of Baseball and Chicago. Jefferson NC: McFarland & Company, 2001. 228pp. Paper, $21.00.

John Updike has observed in an essay in the New Yorker ("Tote That Ephemera," May 7, 2001) that "what writing should do" is refresh "our sense of the world." In Ragtime (1975), novelist E. L. Doctorow wonderfully refreshes our sense of America in the early twentieth century by imaginatively intersecting two fictional families with such historical figures as JohnJ. McGraw, BookerT. Washington, and Henry Ford. In his debut novel Shadow Ball, PeterM. Rutkoff adopts a similar narrative strategy. Limning detailed portraits of Charles Comiskey, Rube Foster, and even W.E.B. Du Bois, and rendering Chicago with a documentary realism, Rutkoff puts to good use his expertise as a professor of American Studies at Kenyon College--Doctorow's alma mater--and convincingly brings 1919 to life. His novel pivots on a plan to make Negro League star Pop Lloyd the new shortstop of the White Sox as the team begins its run for the pennant. To his credit, Rutkoff succeeds not only in depicting the Black Sox but also in evoking the social and racial contexts that baseball reflects.

Rutkoff's realistic imagination creates several well-rounded characters and a kinetic sense of urban growth and conflict in post-World WarI Chicago. For example, Rutkoff animates Foster better than any biographer. He sharply etches several scenes: Rube Foster's upbringing in East Texas, where he watches his father shout down a crowd of Ku Klux Klan members; Foster's windmill windup beating the Phillies in an exhibition game; and Rube's surprise dinner with role model Du Bois. Rutkoff writes especially well in the descriptions of Rube's ball games.

Equally telling are the representations of Chicago in the first chapter, "The Street." Rutkoff maps the city, detailing the various ethnic neighborhoods and conveying the city's climate, the clatter of its traffic, and its imposing architecture. Similarly, Chapter 2 represents the underworld of the tunnel system, where 40,000 teamsters "labored in [spaces] barely high enough to stand in" and "manned the tunnel's 117 miniature locomotives that hauled three thousand open wooden carts" (p. 18) across "the arteries of commerce" (p. 19). Here, the strife between immigrant workers, newly migrated blacks, and the powers that be strikingly parallels the social frictions of the above-ground world. Just as white Teamsters protested when blacks stepped into their jobs during labor actions, Pop--who is one of these blacks--observes of the resistance [End Page 142] from the eight men out that if you "move a black man in... the white man gonna squawk. That's just how it is" (p. 222).

Although Rutkoff frequently engages us with his re-creations of character and place, his admirably detailed style impedes the progress of the plot. We know from the back cover that Comiskey and Foster's plan to integrate baseball will unravel when riots erupt the very week Lloyd is set to step foot on
the grass of Comiskey Park. But many long digressions meant to flesh out characters keep the narrative stalled. For instance, in Chapter 2, Sam Weiss, Comiskey's go-between with Foster, wonders how the players will take the news of their newly signed teammate (p. 29). However, this suspenseful crux hangs in the balance until Chapter 8. (The book contains nine chapters.) Embedded between these points of plot are long flashbacks about Foster's childhood and his development from amateur pitcher to silent partner of Charles Comiskey. We return to the present action in 1919 for one paragraph on page 110, then wind down a thirty-four-page digressive flashback about Kid Douglas, a blues singer who gets hired as Comiskey's domestic help.

Another problem with plotting involves the climax, Pop's quiet decision to leave the Chisox ballpark and return across town to the locker...


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