Mingling fictional characters with real-life notables of the age, King joyfully concocts a Depression-era tale of a secret baseball game between the best white baseball players and their black counterparts.
“Flush with $25,000 from his first kidnapping, John Henry Sealund headed east to Chicago.” This is how we meet the first of two laugh-out-loud funny knuckleheads (the other being one James Atwood) who bumble their way into a world of movie stars, gossip mavens and the greatest baseball players who ever lived. Negro League legend Satchel Paige wants money; Henry Ford wants to prove the white (and non-Jewish) race is superior; Shoeless Joe Jackson wants his long-denied shot at redemption; some kid from the Pacific League named DiMaggio wants to prove himself; Babe Ruth wants another hot dog; and all the players want a chance to square off against their doppelgängers, whom they’re prohibited from playing in the pre–Jackie Robinson era. As the organizers put their teams together and move toward game day, King spins glorious set pieces, including a Hollywood party attended by George Burns, Carole Lombard and gossip columnist Walter Winchell—who narrates the novel from the grave—at which a pie fight breaks out. King’s exuberant tone is pitch-perfect, and his dialogue is sharp: Standing on the pitcher’s mound, Dizzy Dean tells switch-hitter Cool Papa Bell, “Cool, the day you hit a homer off me will be a day that don’t end in a ‘y.’ ”) There’s also wonderful period detail, such as Paige’s catcher putting a beefsteak in his mitt to cushion Satch’s bone-breaking fastballs.
Fans of W.P. Kinsella, sports history nuts and anyone drawn to prewar popular culture should sprint for this book. It’s a bracing, bottom-of-the-ninth grand slam.