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Hanging Curvethe sixth book in the Mickey Rawlings baseball series, is set in St. Louis in 1922. Rawlings, never a great player, has been traded again. At the start of the book, he's approached by an old acquaintance to play an unsanctioned game. Baseball players like Rawlings never made a lot of money, and Rawlings wants to play, especially when he learns his team will be playing against a team of "coloreds", because he's heard there are a lot of good players on those teams.
To put this issue into perspective a bit -- In 1997, Jackie Robinson's number, 42, was retired by every team in Major League Baseball. This is a sign of the utmost respect in baseball, and one that was absolutely appropriate.
Before Robinson "broke the color barrier" in baseball, there were African-American players. The Negro Leagues and many teams even before them survived in segregated America. Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and made history.
Mickey plays against the "colored team" and several days later, he learns that the pitcher of that team, Slip Crawford has been murdered, possibly by the Klan. Mickey's friend, Karl Landfors, who is described as "a muckraking journalist and a diehard Socialist" has come to St. Louis to work with a senator on a proposed federal anti-lynching bill, and not coincidentally, to look into Crawford's death.
Mickey is a truly good guy, although not without faults. His personal life is a mess and he's sometimes rather clueless as to how to behave with Margie, the woman he lives with. But in ways that matter, he is what we call in my family, a mensch. This means he is a good guy with heart, who tries to do the right thing by the people he deals with every day.
St. Louis, especially East St. Louis in 1922 is experiencing a major increase in members of the Ku Klux Klan, which is trying to pass itself off as a more or less benevolent society which never acts violently. Five years before this story, St. Louis was shaken to the core by horrible race riots, where injury and death were brought on dozens of innocent people while many police stood by. If something is not done, those riots, it seems, will return with a vengeance.
Mickey, who in the course of the story manages to mess up his personal relationship (both parties were at fault to be honest, but he's not very smart about women), gets more involved in events because he cannot look away. He likes the "colored" people he meets and has no patience with the slimy types who represent themselves as fine upstanding Klansmen. The Klan in turn makes assumptions about Rawlings, because he's white. And Mickey's not stupid; he is not taken in by innocent seeming rhetoric, although at one time in the story, he pretends to be pro-Klan. It's not hard to infiltrate this not very secret society.
Those who know baseball history will be thrilled at the appearance in this book of Oscar Charleston as well as Jimmy "Cool Papa" Bell. Mickey is a little easy-going, but he's tough where it matters. He stands up against racism in a time when it was certainly not easy, and there were very few protections for minorities or those who sided with them about having equal rights. In a wonderful scene on a train in Hanging Curve, Mickey stands on the platform of the "whites only" train car while Franklin Aubrey, an African-American lawyer whom Mickey is working with, stands in the doorway of the "colored" car and holds a conversation as if this were normal behavior. This infuriates the conductor who tries everything he can to interrupt and end the conversation. It's a small victory, but a necessary one when Mickey and Franklin finally go back to sit down for the duration of the trip.
When Cubs Park, the ballpark Mickey moonlighted in, is burned down, Rawlings joins with Margie, and Karl Landfors and dozens of St. Louis' white community to rebuild the home of the minor/minority league players. In the face of the ugliness of lynching, the openness of racism and the threat of riots, this is more than a gesture, it's a brave act, but a necessary one.
Mickey gets quite an education in Hanging Curve, and so does the reader. And yet, I think Soos has done an exceptional job of teaching in this 262 page book. The action never flags, the reader is never meant to feel like it's time for the daily lesson. The dates and numbers offered are astonishing; facts like the development of shin guards, which were not created by a white catcher but by African-American infielders who were getting spiked by white opponents. Mickey too is targeted for his support of these players, and is tortured by a number of Klansmen during the story. If it seems so very long ago, any look at a major American newspaper even 78 years later will show the excesses of racism are hardly dead in our country.
Early in Hanging Curve, journalist Landfors pulls a clipping from his pocket and reads a quote from a Louisiana member of the House of Representatives, during a Congressional debate in which this person claims that "White people of the South have a right to lynch a Negro anytime they see fit without interference on the part of the Federal Government." Major league baseball today far more reflects what is fair in America, but a lot of people had to go through hell to get us there.
I'm not big on Declarations of Truth - but I have to say Hanging Curveis an important book. It's a helluva mystery; it's full of interesting characters and wonderful scenes of 1922 life - restaurants and ballparks, travel and big cities, baseball as it was then. It's also a very well-written study of racism and the way it was then; how it differed, how it is the same. Please read Hanging Curve; then if you haven't already read the rest, go out and catch up with Mickey Rawlings. --
http://www.drizzle.com/~roscoe - Stu & Andi's "The Roscoe Page" http://www.drizzle.com/~roscoe/tshirts.html - Original cartoon silk-screened t-shirts - some Sherlockian, Wodehousian & others still available. Check out the new 'Roscoe Store' pages at CafePress! We now have an assortment of imprinted items with original Stu Shiffman art: http://www.cafeshops.com/cp/store.aspx?s=roscoestore - "The Game's Afoot!" Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson http://www.cafeshops.com/cp/store.aspx?s=roscoestore2 - "Nero Woof," a Funny Animal version of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe. "Rex Trout takes notes on Nero Woof". http://www.cafeshops.com/cp/store.aspx?s=Roscoestore3 - "I Love a History Mystery!" Ancient Roman detective. http://www.cafeshops.com/cp/store.aspx?s=Roscoestore4 - "I Love a History Mystery!" Medieval mysteries.
Reviewed by Andi Shechter, March 2000
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