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king of the mound

29 november 2013

Wes Tooke's King of the Mound is not the most original of children's baseball novels: though that would be a tall order; it's a genre where everything's been done and re-done. There have been numerous other novels where an older black man takes a white boy under his wing and teaches him to overcome adversity via baseball: Alfred Slote's Finding Buck McHenry and Mary Stolz's Coco Grimes, for instance. At least once, that older black man has been the ageless Satchel Paige, greatest of Negro League pitchers, though it took time travel to bring Satch and kid together in Dan Gutman's Satch & Me. But as Satch-was-my-mentor novels go, King of the Mound is complicated and satisfying, and beguiles as it informs.

It's 1935 (no time-travel, this is a simple historical novel). Our reflector-character Nick is recovering from polio; he has been bedridden for some time, and must walk with the help of a brace, but he's escaped the worst consequences of the disease. Of course, to a kid who's only ever been able to relate to his widowed dad over baseball, could any consequence be worse than not being able to pitch from a mound?

Nick and his dad live in Bismarck, ND, where the elder plays semi-pro ball. They live in a shack on the property of an attractive grass widow who's graduated to widow in earnest, and has a plucky daughter, Emma, who loves baseball and keeps egging Nick to push his rehab two steps at a time. But neither a grumpy dad nor a perky girl is really the role model that Nick needs. Fortunately there's a future Hall of Fame pitcher fixing to throw for the Bismarck squad in the summer of '35.

That part is completely true, by the way. At the height of his career, disenchanted with working for the grasping owners of the Negro League ballclubs, Paige spent the better part of two seasons (1933 and 1935) pitching semi-pro ball for a club run by car dealer Neil Churchill, who figures prominently in King of the Mound. And not just Paige, but some of the greatest names in segregated baseball: another Hall of Famer, Hilton Smith; catchers Quincy Trouppe and Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, pitchers Chet Brewer and, well, Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe. As these real-life characters remark in bewilderment near the end of the novel, this club could win a professional pennant in the majors. Instead they must be content with being the barnstorming champions of the upper Midwest, and winners of a progressive-minded tournament in Wichita, Kansas.

Nick's fictional father is a catcher too, and he's pushed to the bench by this influx of pro talent. But he graduates to bench coach and interim manager, and his relationship with the comely widow helps him lighten up and accept age, responsibility, and fatherhood. Meanwhile ol' Satch gives Nick some magic linament he's scored from an Indian tribe that has adopted him. (That episode is fictional, but Satchel Paige did stranger things in reality.) Nick and Emma play catch; she and Paige get Nick throwing off a mound again, and at least six other subplots drive the book toward a suite of happy endings.

My only real beef with Tooke's novel is that it's in eighteen chapters and of course they are titled Top of the First, Bottom of the First, and so forth. An astute reader pointed out to me that child readers may not be as tired of this cliché as I am. But it will only take a novel or two to make a kid as alert to clichés as a jaded bibliographer ☺.

Tooke, Wes. King of the Mound: My summer with Satchel Paige. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012.