© Copyright 2006
by Luke Salisbury
All Rights Reserved
The Answer Is Baseball is a nonfiction book, and my only book published by major press. There’s a delicious irony in that the book is about the ephemeral subject of looking for the best baseball trivia question. The writing isn’t ephemeral, or the method of looking for questions at the intersection of history, wit and American culture, but some of the information is. The method: “Who is the first Native American to play major league baseball?” This leads not only to the tragic story of Louis Sockalexis, who drank himself out of baseball after showing unGodly ability, but to the closing of the frontier in the 1890s, the rise of terrible slums in big cities and the baseball park as an enclosed frontier, the image of the Native American in the American consciousness. (Why could a Native American play in 1897 but not a black man?). A really good question has it all. The spider web of who we are, what we were, what we will be.
The Answer Is Baseball was well reviewed and for years people wrote me about it, sometimes asking why I didn’t write a sequel. “The answer is” that book was a love letter based on thirty years of rooting, talk, remembering and dreaming. I don’t feel that way about baseball now. The best part was the covenant between past and present – the records, numbers, ghosts of the great, the continuity between Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and now. The palimpsest of tradition.
All this was obscured in the 1990s – the Enhanced Era – when steroids and human growth hormone and God-knows-what else, plus better sports medicine and strength training, broke the covenant. 70 home runs? 73 home runs? Sammy Sosa hitting 60 three times and not leading the league? This isn’t right. Roger Maris still holds the single season home run record for me (And my writing about it is my best). Hank Aaron, as dignified, brave and fine a gentleman as we are likely to see, is the all-time home run record holder. I don’t care how many anyone else hits, or the lies they tell about it.
I still watch. I love the Red Sox miracle of 2004. But as my baseball god, the legendary NYU professor Bob Gurland said, “Maybe we’ve seen the best of it.”
Henry Harrison, narrator of both The Cleveland Indian and Hollywood and Sunset, is my alter ego. Henry’s father was wounded at Antietam, the family fortunes faded, he received a gentleman’s education but had to make his way in the world. Henry didn’t want Wall Street. He wanted baseball. Baseball was his art, his imaginary world, he dreamed of helping players get a better deal from the tightfisted owners of the 1890s. Henry falls in love with two women – one who is home, one who is not. Henry lives out the fantasy of being the closest friend to the most talented ballplayer of his time – the enigmatic King Saturday, a Native American, the original Cleveland Indian. The novel is about a young man wanting to recapture what he thinks his family lost, missing a father who knew war and could not talk about it, falling desperately in love with what he can’t have, and what he must have. Henry sees baseball as an American Eden, a perfect aesthetic place, the Keatsian “Much have I traveled in the realms of gold.” He finds it is not.
The Cleveland Indian is a novel about that time in life when one wants to change a piece of the world. Own. Dare. Win. Lose. It’s also about disappearing frontiers – internal and external. About getting what you want and the price of holding it. You see, there is Eden and the memory of Eden.
It’s also about the mysterious, violent King Saturday, and a question: Where does revolutionary energy go in America? If you are truly an outsider, truly willing to confront power, get power, kill, love, throw baseball games, do anything - the question is not what, but where? There are many answers to what. Some legal, some not; some poetic, some mad, many ridiculous. The question is where do you go? Who do you work for? Who do you undermine? How long do you last?
Henry searches. For baseball, love, the Indian himself. Like most young men, he thinks he can contradict Jack Kerouac: “Not the biggest fighter, the biggest drunk, or the biggest lover, can find the center of Saturday night in America.” That quote is the centerpiece of a chapter of The Answer Is Baseball; I’m sure it is the origin of the name King Saturday (I didn’t realize that until just now).
The Cleveland Indian, originally published by The Smith in 1992, will appear in a new edition in Spring, 2005 with Black Sparrow Press. The novel was taught in an American Literature course at Indiana State University, and is the subject of a chapter in David McGimpsey’s Imagining Baseball: America’s Pastime ansd Popular Culture.
Between these novels came three interconnected stories, Blue Eden. They deal with my obsessions of the 1970s: conspiracy, outlaws, the Kennedy assassination, J. Edgar Hoover. The stories take place in the Blue Eden diner on D Street in Washington DC, whose proprietor is Grover Jones, a black man born July 4, 1900, who has the challenge of being visited periodically by J. Edgar Hoover. Twenty-Seven Inches takes place during the hunting and killing of Dillinger in 1934; The Number of the Beast pits Grover against Ty Cobb who comes in the diner in 1947 threatening to shoot Jackie Robinson who has just integrated baseball (Hoover has taunted Cobb into it); The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence happens on the last day of Hoover’s life in 1972 and is about the Kennedy assassination.
I used to think the Kennedy assassination was a ruling class Pentecost – invisible forces showed their face and the evening news spoke in tongues, if one only knew how to decipher this awful new language. I don’t know what happened in Dealey Plaza. I don’t believe one gunman, or one gunman without a support network, pulled it off – and at this point it doesn’t matter, meaning no revelation would affect the political system (If ever?). Dallas is now a mythical event that spawned a labyrinth of stories, truths and untruths, cover-up and the mechanics of cover-up. Many writers have added their own voices to the mad narrative. I wrote two unsuccessful, unpublished assassination novels in the ‘70s and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, (Called a “gem” by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, the only mention Blue Eden received), was my farewell to the subject and the unknowability of the subject.
Hollywood and Sunset finds Henry in midlife, owner of a minor league baseball club he has lost interest in, a distant father of a six year-old, and losing his wife of many years. He has discovered another alternative world, the motion picture, the photoplay as it was called then – and a new antagonist, D.W. Griffith, who has invented the blockbuster photoplay and turned a place called Hollywood into an American gold rush with his virulently racist Birth of a Nation, which Henry pilloried in The Atlantic magazine. Henry is writing a book about Griffith. In the course of three days, Henry must deal with a marriage crisis, fatherhood, Griffith himself, the subtle, incomparable Lillian Gish, but most of all his son. These are different from own-dare-win-lose. This is no private island.
Hollywood and Sunset is another investigation of an alternative, imaginative world – the movies, rather than baseball – and that other world: family - fatherhood, jealousy, love, forgiveness. That world - the one closer than the imaginary ones we need so badly – jumps up and bites Henry on the ass. And he must, as the youth say today, “Deal with it.”