There is a story that, during one of their several hundred attempts to assassinate or overthrow Fidel Castro during the 1960s, the CIA considered sending him baseballs that would, after a time, explode in his face.
With that in mind, perhaps the story featuring the “Fantom of the Fair” in Amazing Mystery Funnies #22 has more truth to it than it appears.
(more after the jump)
The “Fantom of the Fair” is a hyper-obscure superhero, that, according to Wikipedia and Toonopedia, was created by Paul Gustavson (who also wrote and did the art in this story, and who also played a role in creating a few other characters, including some that are now minor parts of the Marvel and DC universes) to capitalize on two things happening in the late 1930s: the beginning of the golden age of superhero comics, and the New York World’s Fair. If his main shtick had been punching out Nazis, it would have been able to claim him the Triple Crown of late-30s/early-40s zeitgeist. Marvel was able to pull this feat off in the recent Captain America movie. But I digress.
Anyway, needless to say, the fact that the Fantom was so much tied to the World’s Fair meant that the character didn’t exactly have a long lifespan. The fact he was more-or-less a low-rent Batman clone didn’t help matters either. No wonder he ended up in the public domain. Still, he stuck around long enough to be in a story that featured baseball. That Fantom of the Fair feature, from July 1940, can be found here.
First off, let’s start off with the cover:
Here we see the “Phantom” (not Fantom, despite the fact that is what he’s called in the story and everywhere else) leaping down to save ballplayers and a umpire from the an explosion. The stadium, though, looks a bit weird. It appears to be being played in a park where there is no dirt in the batter’s box, and the stands look all wrong. There aren’t people right behind home plate, the backstop (which is getting blown to bits) seems to be a few yards in front of the stands themselves. Why, looking at this, it looks almost as if they were trying to play a baseball game in a football stadium.
However, that isn’t the focus, the focus of anybody who was thinking of buying this comic would have been of the image of the Fantom leaping down. However, uh, there’s the problem that the Fantom really doesn’t seem to have a constant look during the story, something I’ll highlight.
Anyway, to the story :
So, we open at the office of the local baseball team (the “Pioneers”), where a no-doubt legitimate businessman arrives and tells Fennell, the team’s president, that he should consider getting insurance on his ballplayers. Fennell, for his part, punches out the racketeer, who then vows vengeance:
“BOP” doesn’t have the same onomatopoeic excellence that POW, BAM, BIFF, VRONK and WHAM have, by the way. And the mobster doesn’t seem to like it either, because he follows through on his threats. The second-string catcher for the Pioneers is in a car accident, for example. And then the utility outfielder has an “accident”.
What kind of accident, try having a potted plant fall on his head:
Baseball players have a long history of humiliating injuries that extends to the modern day, but I don’t think anybody has ever gone on the DL due to a flowerpot falling on their head. It seems awfully peculiar to the other players too, including Jim Brown, who then has an accident of his own as his car is run off a bridge. But before Brown can fall to his doom, the Fantom of the Fair (not seen: the World’s Fair) shows up to save the day.
He also is able to change his costume between panels somehow, going from having a full-black covered mask to something a bit more Batman-like. He keeps this look as he goes and grabs the driver of the car that ran Brown off the road. The driver says Conroy (the racketeer from earlier, who hadn’t been named until here) is behind it, and then recounts what Conroy’s next plan is. Which brings us to the title of this blog post.
Exploding baseballs. Take it, criminal mastermind!
Yes, excellent. Put nitroglycerin into a baseball. Of course, their lawyers, no doubt, would claim that they are completely legitimate sporting goods businessmen, and that these exploding baseballs are the result of a misprint in their copy of the MLB rules:
(Also, I’m guessing that a pitcher would be able to realize if the ball was even a little different due to tampering, explosive or not. They have a sixth sense about those types of things.)
So, somehow, they sneak the exploding baseball in all well and good, and they appear to be ready to succeed in their plan, when the Fantom flies (he can fly now?) down and saves the day with the tackle from the cover. Only it is a lot less well drawn. Seriously, did Gustavson have any sense of scale? Oh, and I think he left out a “g” somewhere. Can you spot where?
That isn’t all though, because although the day appears to be saved, the Fantom realizes it isn’t over. So he grabs the explodo-ball and goes after the mobsters who have orchestrated the whole thing, culminating in this scene:
And that, friends is how the story ends. With an exploding baseball taking out a racketeer’s car. Oh, and notice how by the end the Fantom is once again all in black.
So, what does this artifact of baseball in pop culture tell us? Well, it shows us one of the plots that will be pretty common in future Bizarre Baseball Culture tales- the influence of gamblers, mobsters and racketeers. If you were to believe the funnybooks, baseball was under constant threat of being fixed, attacked, held for ransom or otherwise getting caught in criminal enterprise. This is probably because of two things:
First, the Black Sox scandal was still relatively fresh in everyone’s minds, only have happened a little over twenty years before.
Second, having superheroes fighting gangsters and crookedness was kind of a standard plot in the early days of the genre- probably a result of the fact that this was the era in which J. Edgar Hoover liked trumping up how the FBI was taking down mobsters and killers, so, much like the World’s Fair, it was something in the cultural zeitgeist at the time.
I have no idea how to draw some sort of meaning from the exploding baseballs, though.
Previous installments of “Bizarre Baseball Culture”:
Prologue: Short story- “Rockets on the Mound”
Installment 1: Comic story “Captain Marvel Plays Baseball On Mars”