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Dog-Eared Corner: The End of Baseball by Peter Schilling, Jr.

A baseball novel about Bill Veeck and the stars of the Negro Leagues

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Washington Nationals, 2020 Opening Day Set Number: X163234 TK1

I (Quincy) invited Chris D. Davies, resident Baseball book reviewer for Covering the Corner, to read Peter Schilling’s The End of Baseball, which has long been my favorite baseball novel, so that we could discuss it together, and Chris graciously agreed.

After re-reading, I discovered some issues with it that I hadn’t remembered and it was fun to compare notes.

Quincy: It’s probably been about a decade since I’ve read the book, so one thing that I did wonder about was, if the book was written today, would Schilling have been so free with his use of the n-word? Characters in the book use it frequently, and, while its use is never presented as a positive thing, I remember when I first read this book thinking about how the use of the word in the novel might be offensive, even assuming it was reflective of the language of the time. Schilling is a white man, so that also complicates things as I’m firmly on the side of, as a white man, not ever using the word nor pretending I have a stake in how the word should be used by people of color. Did you have any thoughts about that writing choice?

Chris: This was something that struck me as well, particularly because of the way the same issue was handled in the book I read immediately prior to The End of Baseball, which was Jon Meacham’s biography of Abraham Lincoln, And There Was Light. Obviously a book about Lincoln’s life is going to have lots of source material with ethnic slurs; however, Meacham (or his publisher) decided against printing the n-word in full. This was an interesting choice because (1) everyone knows what was said and (2) it did not change the meaning. It’s a sad statement about America that the n-word was as prevalent in the 1850s as the 1940s, but it is true both books including the word would accurately reflect language of the time. Perhaps a better statement is that the 14 years between 2008 and 2022 (when Schilling’s novel and Meacham’s book were published, respectively) led to a better understanding of the impact that word can have — even in a period-appropriate telling. I have to think that if The End of Baseball were to be written today, this issue would be handled differently.

Quincy: The central conceit of The End of Baseball is that, in alternate historical timeline, Bill Veeck (a seminal figure in Cleveland baseball history) buys the Philadelphia Athletics with the stipulation that he must turn a profit in one year and decides to fill out the roster entirely with stars from the Negro Leagues. This, MLB Commissioner Judge Landis solemnly warns, will bring about “the end of baseball.” How do you think did Schilling in realizing this plot?

Chris: First of all, I love the idea, since it’s absolutely grounded in fact. Veeck would have done this if he could! So, creating a story around this was a fun 300-page hypothetical. In terms of plot, without giving too much away, I think that the overall arc Schilling chose to give the story was perhaps a bit easy or predictable, but he made it quite interesting along the way. He writes with skill and passion, and that makes the novel an easy one to read, one where even if you feel like you know where the plot is going you can still find it enjoyable. There are little asides, stories that divert from the season at hand, that make the characters more complex and endearing, which also helps move the book forward. One complaint I would register is that it takes at least two-thirds of the book to get to the All-Star game, and then comes rather quickly to a close. As much as I do not like attempts to narrate baseball games and despite the fact that I found the very brief denouement to be excellently written, I would have liked a little bit more substance to that “third act” of the book.

Quincy: I really enjoyed how Schilling mixes both legend and verified accounts of the heroes of the Negro leagues and helped me become aware of some I’d never heard of before, including Martin Dihigo. Which characters worked for you, and which didn’t work as well?

Chris: There were a number of characters in the book that were wonderfully written, such as Veeck, Roy Campanella, Artie Wilson — even the villain Landis. Schilling gave those characters big scenes and lots of room to develop, which made them feel real and dynamic. When writing about an entire club, of course, there’s not room for that kind of development for everyone. Characters like Dihigo or pitching coach Mack Filson were pretty flat on the page, in my opinion, if only because their stories could not get the same real estate as the main characters. For the chance to simply increase awareness about some great Negro League talents, however, I appreciate what Schilling did.

Quincy: Aside from his decision to include use of the n-word, Schilling’s telling of the story of Josh Gibson might be his most controversial choice. Gibson is portrayed as an alcoholic and a drug addict with a girlfriend who feeds his addiction. Certainly, there are plenty of rumors about Gibson’s use of drugs and alcohol, but his death from a stroke at age 35, doesn’t appear to have been caused by addiction. Certainly, the addiction is portrayed as a tragic disease by Schilling and not something for which Gibson deserves moral condemnation. If telling the story of addiction was important and Gibson was a potential vehicle for that story, I wish the novel had chosen to deal with how Gibson lost his wife as she gave birth to twins at 17 more than Gibson’s regrets at not being able to play major league baseball and involvement with a poorly developed cipher of a groupie-type. I am ok with the novel grappling with the disease of addiction, but, overall, I found Gibson’s portrayal pretty disappointing. What were your thoughts?

Chris: I struggled with the Gibson story as well, in part because statistics just don’t back it up. Negro League statistics have to be taken in the context of segregation, which is no small thing to reckon, but even with the unreliability of some sources Gibson’s numbers in 1944 as well as ‘45 and ‘46 were pretty darn good. Baseball Reference has 562 PA recorded during those years and a line of .340/.418/.632 for Gibson, which does not suggest he was addicted or washed up in any way. Someone’s probably yelling, ‘The End of Baseball is a NOVEL,’ and I know I’m supposed to give artistic license for decisions like this, but making Gibson an aged addict seemed easy and like a good way to create a cliched character rather than a nuanced individual who had to live up to legendary lore.

Quincy: The choice of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the story’s primary villain was an inspired one, in my opinion. The man deserves to be roundly condemned by students of history for his racism that held the game back to its eternal detriment. But, it’s also fun to see how journalists like J.G. Taylor Spink, J. Edgar Hoover, and fans like Pete Adelis begin to feature as antagonists in the story. I often found myself anxious to get to the resolution of the tension between Veek, the Athletics, and each of these “enemies.”

Chris: Totally agree on this and happy to see Landis vilified. I don’t have much more to add about this, because you said it well, I will just add that reading this reminded me how bereft the game is of people like Veeck these days. There are modern-day Veecks, like the folks who run the Savannah Bananas or any number of minor league clubs, but a major league owner who wants to win and focuses to a fault on making the fan happy is a dinosaur these days.

Quincy: One thing I think that Schilling handles well is the refusal to introduce a “white savior.” Veeck is trying to turn a profit not wage a societal revolution out of a sense of injustice, reporters promoting the Athletics are simply trying to sell newspapers… no one really seems to understand or care about the immense injustice that these amazing players endure simply because of the color of their skin, and, I’m sure that is accurate to how things were for players like Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby. I do think the novel needed to spend more time describing all the ways that players who broke the color barrier in MLB were mistreated by teams, fans and officials, alike.

Chris: While cities like Boston and St. Louis get dragged in The End of Baseball for their (deserved) reputations, Schilling is shockingly light on including real adversity for his players. I suppose his thinking went something like ‘A team full of Black players would not face what Robinson faced,’ but that does not quite rhyme with the American experience of integration — solo or in groups. Toward the end of the novel (SPOILER ALERT), when Oscar Charleston is handed the role of manager, there’s not even an acknowledgment that he’s the first Black manager, let alone reaction from fans in the park. There are a number of authorial reasons to write it this way, not the least so he can focus on keeping his plot tight, but it does kind of take the reader out for a second because of its ahistorical quality.

Quincy: I’d like to hear Schilling talk about his decisions to assign certain decisions to given players: Would George Jefferson’s family be ok with him being portrayed as a player who could get into a street fight that left a marine dead? Would Dave Barnhill’s family be ok with him being seen as a Communist sympathizer (though I, for one, certainly sympathize with Communists trying to help the black players in this novel)? I realize the novel needs to have some freedom to imagine within its fictional world, but these were real, live people, some of whom died a mere 40 years ago. I hope readers don’t take their full impressions of the men mentioned in the novel by the characters seen therein.

Chris: Although I found this book to be very entertaining, and I am quite happy you suggested it, I am a little glad this hasn’t gotten the level of popularity a book like The Natural or Shoeless Joe have gotten. If this were a relatively popular book or a movie adaptation, some of those narratives would be impossible to shake and everyone would simply remember Josh Gibson as a drug addict. On the communist point, however, I wanted more. Not because I love communism, but because this was another historical fact that Schilling integrated into the story. One of the most interesting things I learned when I visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City (anyone who has not yet been should absolutely try to go when they can) was that a communist paper did advocate for Black players and integration for years. The real man who wrote so much about this issue was Lester Rodney, of the Daily Worker, and the NLBM has a great little exhibit dedicated to him. He was no white savior, obviously, but he did play a role, and I thought it was cool that Schilling incorporated that into his novel.

Quincy: I wish the novel had taken the time to develop female characters, but, as it exists, only Bill Veeck’s wife, Eleanor, emerges as a strong personality with some complexity.

Chris: At least he has good company: Steinbeck, Hemingway, etc., pick just about any “classic” male writer and they probably struggled to create complex female characters. I love reading baseball books and like I love other great works, but I’ve learned that if you don’t make an effort to read diverse authors, then you won’t encounter diverse characters.

Quincy: In rereading, I discovered that I love the concept of this novel far more than its execution. There are a lot of problems, as we’ve mentioned. Ultimately, I think the things I love most about The End of Baseball are: 1. The novel bringing to light for me players and stories of which I was only aware on a cursory basis and presents them as just as heroic and special as any of the ML players of their day, if not more so. You read the book and earnestly wish Bill Veeck could have pulled something like this off in real life. 2. The novel’s ability to make the action on the diamond intricately tied to the action off the diamond, both full of suspense to see if the team readers have adopted — the Philadelphia Athletics — will win the day. Oh, and, of course, the fact that the whole novel is essentially spitting on Judge Landis’s grave is also a huge plus.

Chris: I’m very happy to have read this book. It took me longer to read than I wanted, but I blame my children for that because the prose is actually quite tight and fast-paced. Of course, there are problems, but I’ve yet to find a book I thought had none and overall this book is a success that I’d recommend to all baseball fans.