Molly Lawless sets out an ambitious goal in the preface to Hit By Pitch, namely including moments of levity and elements of comedy, tragedy, and mystery in her book. On its own, these goals are not absurd, as a good story should mirror our lives and include the highs and lows, the mirth and misery that we all experience as we move through our days. The ambition underlying Lawless’ goal is evident in the subtitle: Ray Chapman, Carl Mays and the Fatal Fastball.
Inarguably the greatest tragedy to occur on a baseball field, how can there be levity and comedy in the story of Ray Chapman and the only death to occur during a baseball game? As I said, it’s a tall order, but Lawless delivers, and Hit By Pitch is a great piece of baseball writing. Of course, Lawless didn’t just write the book, she also illustrated it, and it’s the combination of her words and pictures that provides a truly illuminating and entertaining experience.
Lawless claims proud reverence for the deadball era, but her influences seem to stretch back further, to those classical influences of Greek comedy and tragedy references in the preface. Starting her graphic novel in media res, like so many ancient tales, she sets the scene for the titular moment and builds anticipation without giving away the climax. This is also quite the feat, since the climax is already a known fact–Chapman dies–and a gory one at that, but her introduction is a great start that sets the hook for the reader.
From there, Lawless winds her way through the biographies of main characters and many supporting characters, like Tris Speaker, as well as several anecdotal stories that endear the reader to Chapman and, to a lesser extent, Mays. Lawless’ stated intention is for each of these chapters to stand independently, with the ability to be read like a Sunday comic strip and still be as enjoyable by itself as it is within the full volume. I think she succeeds in this goal, but taking them all together is still a much richer experience; for example, stories like Chapman playing the role of an Irish tenor or Mays throwing a ball at a fan in Philadelphia make the former much more likable and the latter more likely to have been guilty of throwing a game (another chapter later in the book).
The way Lawless depicts the characters, in both her descriptions and her illustrations, is laudable. It was certainly no easy feat, either. Crafting these personalities solely based on historical depictions would be hard enough, but Hit By Pitch is a graphic novel and Lawless had to conjure up representations of each player based on a very limited amount of photographic evidence. Despite the limitations, however, the book succeeds in providing a consistent and memorable portrait of its characters.
If there’s a criticism of Hit By Pitch, perhaps it is that the book is not an intensively researched and groundbreaking work. Lawless relied on a few select sources, all mentioned in her bibliography, and stuck fairly close to those historical narratives. This is only a criticism if you are seeking deeper historical insight, though; if you come to the book seeking more information on a historical event with an entertaining presentation, then you will find exactly what you are looking for. In this regard, Hit By Pitch is an excellent book for younger readers with an interest in the early days of baseball, but by no means am I suggesting that this is a kid’s book. It’s a book for all ages of baseball fans, and I’d gladly recommend it to anyone.
Lawless was kind enough to spend some time discussing her graphic novel with me, expanding upon her baseball fandom, illustration style, and how she came to this story and what compelled her to write it. It was a lovely conversation and you can listen here.
If you’d like to read a copy of Hit By Pitch, you can find your nearest independent bookstore or library to see if they have a copy. Failing those options, it is also available for purchase directly from the publisher, or from Barnes and Noble or Amazon.