In Bizarre Baseball Culture, I take a look at some of the more unusual places where baseball has reared it’s head in pop culture and fiction.
1816 was the so-called “Year Without a Summer”, as a series of events (including the ash from a very large volcanic eruption in Indonesia) caused temperatures around the world to plunge. Against this backdrop, a small group of English writers and poets had their summer vacation at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva ruined by record cold and wet weather. Stuck inside the Swiss manor, one of their members, Lord Byron, suggested they try their hand at writing ghost stories. One of them, a young woman named Mary Shelley, came up with an idea that would eventually become Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. It differed from other scary stories in one major aspect: instead of having the monster come from magic or religion, it was about a monster created by mankind, by science. In fact, some say that it invented science fiction as a genre.
So, perhaps it isn’t surprising that eventually Bizarre Baseball Culture would come across the Frankenstein Monster, but it is surprising that it comes in Brittle Innings by Michael Bishop, as opposed to a baseball episode of The Munsters or some sort of obscure comic. Because, you see, Brittle Innings, published in 1994, is an honest-to-goodness classy novel written for adults that doesn’t even advertise the fact that it’s unusual, and it’s premise is simple: what if Mary Shelley had merely been an editor of the tale of Frankenstein and his monster, and what if the Monster survived, moved to America, and took up baseball?
Okay, maybe that premise isn’t that simple. Depends on your definition of “simple”, I guess. Still, go below the jump for more:
Brittle Innings is actually the tale of a young ballplayer named Daniel Boles, who loses his ability to speak after being viciously assaulted by a soldier while on his way to his first professional baseball assignment. Once he gets to his team (the deep-minors Highbridge Hellbenders), the now-mute Boles is given a roommate named Henry “Jumbo” Clerval. Clerval is an odd fellow, a gigantic and ugly man who plays a good first base, can hit well for power (although not average), and who enjoys reading philosophical works.
It doesn’t take long, of course, until we find out that “Jumbo” is actually Frankenstein’s Monster from the novel. It’s important to note that last part, since the novel and the movies are very different. This isn’t some Boris Karloff monster, it’s a man, albeit a unusually tall and ugly one. In fact, at one point of the book he actually comments on how the Universal Studio movies are gross distortions, although he correctly notes that Bride of Frankenstein is the best of the Karloff films.
And that, ultimately, is what makes Brittle Innings interesting. It just doesn’t just say “the Frankenstein Monster played baseball”, it gets into it, like how he would have ended up in America in the first place when he was last seen in the cold Arctic. And, even more importantly, it allows him to talk, to be a character, and not just a glorified prop. Some of the best parts of Brittle Innings are those dealing with “Hank Clerval” and his story, such as how he got into baseball and what he was doing for the century or two between the original book and Brittle Innings. Most of the monster’s memories are actually written in a style similar to the original book, which is a nice touch.
Sadly, though, that makes the less fantastic parts of the novel a disappointment in comparison. They aren’t bad, but when compared to the Clerval-centric parts of the novel, the parts about Boles’ muteness, his romance with a local girl, conflicts with the teammate who’s spot on the roster he took, and subplots involving the African-American assistants on the team are dull in comparison. Thankfully, by the end of the book, they start to all sort of weave together, and the climax centers around the Frankenstein Monster and his actions both past and present.
Along the way, there are some great moments and homages to baseball and Frankenstein. Some of these are important: for example, the haplessness of the real-world 1943 Phillies directly affects Boles and Clerval, since Philadelphia is their parent club. Others, like having an umpire named after another participant in the Villa Diodati, are just little nods. This nice attention to detail also helps the novel during it’s low points, as it makes it clear that Bishop did his research, and you can’t help but take a look for more little homages.
Anyway, overall I’d recommend Bishop’s Brittle Innings, although I’m sure it would not be everyone’s cup of tea and parts of it are not for the squeamish. I just recommend that you read the original Frankenstein novel first and don’t go in expecting it to be awesome as the concept suggests.
Next Time In Bizarre Baseball Culture: Ripken! Larkin! Jeter! A-Rod!
Prologue: “Rockets on the Mound” (short story)
19. Brittle Innings by Michael Bishop (YOU ARE HERE)