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double play

6 December 2004

Robert B. Parker's Double Play is not the first novel about an attempt to kill Jackie Robinson. In the world of baseball fiction, original ideas are rarer than unassisted triple plays. Donald Honig published The Plot to Kill Jackie Robinson in 1992. Honig's novel is about a crazed lone gunman, though, while Parker's features several mobsters, jitterbugs, and other ugly mugs who have it in for the Dodger infielder.

Of the two novels, Honig's Plot to Kill Jackie Robinson is much more plausible. The delusional assassin in Honig's novel centers his animosity on Robinson in the context of the media circus of racial politics that surrounded Robinson's debut. But the would-be killers in Double Play are not motivated by racism, and are relatively sane, though they seem stupid beyond the parameters of belief. One of the mob bosses in Double Play puts Robinson on his hit list for refusing to accept a drink in a Harlem eatery. Another character hires a hit man to shoot Robinson because he's jealous of his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend, who happens to be Robinson's bodyguard.

Double Play is really the story of that bodyguard, Joseph Burke. Wounded on Guadalcanal, Burke comes Stateside to find that his wife has run off with another man. Retreating into a Bogart-like shell, Burke becomes a gun for hire. (A rich man even gets Burke to protect a daughter named Lauren, in a Big Sleep allusion.) Burke's resumé comes to the attention of Branch Rickey. Rickey taps Burke to protect Robinson during the perilous 1947 season.

Robinson quickly develops respect and even a sort of love for his surly, homicidal Man Friday. When Burke, burnt out by the corpses that are starting to accumulate around Ebbets Field, makes an attempt to quit, Robinson says "I'll finish it with you. Or I'll finish it alone" (250). I'm not certain what Robinson is talking about, but it sure sounds romantic.

To sum up: Double Play's main idea is to have a tough, capable white guy protect a black icon.

Mere admiration of, even mere adulation for Robinson, is not enough. The white hero must nurture the black icon in a positively maternal way, willing to sacrifice his life for this emblem of integration and racial justice. While Robinson is sensitive, noble, and loyal, he is ultimately incapable of making his way in the world without a hard-boiled white man watching his back. Burke is entrusted with the most politically correct job possible in American popular culture – saving the life of Jackie Robinson – and gets to carry it out by exceeding his black friend in every category of American manhood except marital devotion. Talk about having your cake . . .

In the end, not only does Burke save Robinson, but Robinson (by constantly stressing his own domestic happiness) helps Burke to open up emotionally and enter a loving relationship with Lauren. The mush reaches such extremes that wiping out all the characters in a desperate gun battle would have been much more satisfying in some ways.

Parker parallels his hard-boiled narrative with an odd and unrelated sequence of chapters in italics that trace the Dodger fandom of a New England boy named Bobby – who is exactly Parker's age – through his boyhood and into 1947. The result is an uneasy blend of a typical Parker shoot-'em-up and a nostalgia-dripping foray into the apparently unquenchable sentimentalizing of the Boys of Summer.

Parker, Robert B. Double Play. New York: Putnam's, 2004.