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the big leaguer

16 october 2015

I got a copy of William Heyliger's Big Leaguer a few months ago in an antique mall in South Texas, its dust jacket in flithers and its pages acidulously browned; but I was able to read it and stow it away on my shelf between Baseball Joe and Bomba the Jungle Boy. It may never be opened again, but here I am to report on it before it fades into complete oblivion.

The Big Leaguer is a no-nonsense (or possibly all-nonsense) tale of high-wire suspense on the pitcher's mound. The pitcher, Sparky Woods, is not really the hero of the book, though: he's more like a punching bag that the other characters use to vicariously work out their peer-group and Oedipal aggressions toward one another. The protagonist is Marty Gage, catcher for Arrowhead School, who has gotten his head swelled up by "big league wind." Marty's father is Silent Bill Gage, a big-league manager who never seems to have much success, but is utterly competent and knowing. His Panthers have only one star, the great slugging catcher Buck Olsen. Buck is full of arrogant advice and seems unhealthily attached to Marty, who travels with the club in summers when Arrowhead is out of session. Buck in fact is such an egotist that Silent Bill releases him after a few weeks of the season even though Buck is batting .362. But the poison that Buck has exuded in the Panthers' clubhouse has already seeped into the red brick walls of old Arrowhead.

Buck never really seems to be that bad a guy, except for his penchant for following Marty around town in a cab so he can "say goodbye" to him at train stations. And even that is ostensibly harmless. His malignant piece of bad advice isn't that bad either. Sparky can throw a fast ball. But Buck warns Marty that Sparky cannot get by as a "one-ball man." That would be "pink-tea baseball!" Sparky must develop a second ball to get by as a moundsman. A third would be even better.

But the Arrowhead coach Darclow is dead-set on turning Sparky into a one-ball man, and Marty fears the worst. He undermines Darclow's authority by informing Sparky that a reliance on one ball is the path to ruin in prep baseball. Sparky goes to pieces after this, and Darclow bitterly resents a big-league brat telling him how to run his ball club.

The released Buck shows up at Arrowhead and tells the boys that you actually can get by on one ball as a prep pitcher. He warms Sparky up: "Maybe I've got enough mitt here to take your speed anyway, Sparky" (151).

Buck's voice came to [Marty] in the familiar hoarse, urging drone: "Give it to papa, baby. Make it smooth. Syrup on hot cakes. Yah! That's the way to give it to papa." (152)
Familiar! You mean Marty's heard that more than once? It was a different world, I guess, and prep pitchers dealing with double entendre from professional catchers was just part of the game. Meanwhile Darclow has started to stalk Sparky. The coach says of his ace pitcher:
"I wanted to study him off the field when he didn't have baseball on his mind; at close range. Preferably, in his own room, away from everybody." (159)
Everyone eventually gets on the same page (after several scenes where they all squeeze into one room barely big enough to hold them, for purposes I'd rather not guess at). The consensus is that Sparky can succeed as a one-ball man, provided he changes pace now and then and occasionally throws a curve. I must say that this is among the weakest points of conflict, and one of the most dissatisfying plot resolutions, I have ever encountered in fiction.

I'm not even quite sure what the point is, if you look past the lousy writing and the clumsy plot and the hilarious sexual innuendo. There are salutary messages, I suppose: don't be arrogant; don't make end runs around the chain of command (even though Marty does both, is vindicated, and everyone ends up listening to his advice even though they consider it both good and bad depending on what page you're on). I don't think the author was actually paying much attention.

And Heyliger was a pretty well-regarded writer of teen pulp stories between the wars; this isn't scraping anywhere near the bottom of the barrel. I'd advise against reading The Big Leaguer except that I'm not sure anyone would ever read it again anyway. Sometimes society has to send a man on a lonely mission into areas better left untouched, and in the case of some reaches of popular culture, that man is me.

Heyliger, William. The Big Leaguer. Chicago: Goldsmith, 1936.