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.
This is gonna be fun. Today, I take my first look at a quintessential part of Bizarre Baseball Culture: “Strange Sports Stories”. A short-lived DC Comics anthology banner that popped up a few times during the 1960s and 1970s- at one point even having it’s own book for six issues- it’s title told you everything you have to know about them: they were sports stories that were strange. Sometimes they would be sports mixed with magic. Other times it would be sports mixed with science fiction. No matter what, though, they were most definitely bizarre. And, so, by definition, all baseball installments of “Strange Sports Stories” are going to be Bizarre Baseball Culture.
And we’ll begin with the very first “Strange Sports Stories” story, from waaaay back in December 1962 or January 1963 (it’s cover date was January, but comics often come out before the cover date, so it likely was already out in December- if not even earlier, as the GCD says it was on stands in late October), in The Brave and The Bold #45, the first “Strange Sports Stories” installment ever: “CHALLENGE OF THE HEADLESS BASEBALL TEAM!”
Let’s go below the jump for more.
Oh, first, a disclaimer:
- All images, characters, etc. belong to their owners, whether of copyright, trademark, etc.
- Screenshots are only used, under fair use, to emphasize the points and observations made within this post.
- General spoiler warning- I will reveal the end of this.
Now, with that out of the way, let’s have a look at the people responsible for this- you can skip it if you want, I’ll have a BOLDED note for when the actual analysis of the story starts.
First off, the people behind this are extremely notable, as the story was written by Gardner Fox and penciled by Carmine Infantino. These two are icons of DC Comics, who were involved in the creation of many of the publisher’s most notable characters in one way or another.
Fox, for example, was a co-creator of the 1940s version of The Flash, Hawkman, the Atom, the Barbara Gordon Batgirl (which hadn’t been create yet when this story written) and the Justice League of America. He would also spend time writing the Barry Allen Flash, with Infantino. Speaking of which…
Infantino, meanwhile, is perhaps most notable for his involvement with The Flash- his fingerprints are all over the new TV series on the CW. Characters like Barry Allen, Iris West, Captain Cold, Gorilla Grodd and Captain Boomerang all were initially drawn by him, as was Wally West, who would later go on to Barry Allen’s successor as the Flash in the comics.He also co-created Black Canary (who has appeared in various forms in the Arrow TV series) with writer Robert Kanigher and would later co-create the Barbara Gordon Batgirl with Fox.
Finally, Brave and the Bold. This series was used for various things by DC from 1955 to 1983. At first a anthology of tales about heroes from past centuries, it then became a “tryout” title for characters and stories that did not yet have their own book. The Justice League, for example, got it’s debut in the pages of Brave and the Bold. It was during this period also that “Strange Sports Stories” got it’s time to shine. After SSS finished, it became a team-up book, which it is now best known for. In fact, by complete coincidence (I swear), the episode of Arrow that aired the week this post first went up was a team-up episode between Green Arrow and The Flash, no doubt as a homage to the classic team-up era of Brave and the Bold
I’d like to thank the Internet for filling a lot of that in for me.
OKAY, NOW TO LOOK AT THE STORY.
We begin with a splash page of that is very similar to the cover, only at a somewhat different angle:
WHO WAS THE BASEBALL TEAM THAT DEFIANTLY CHALLENGED THE WORLD’S CHAMPION JETS TO A WORLDS’ SERIES GAME? NO MAN ON EARTH KNEW — FOR THE MYSTERY “NINE” WOULDN’T EVEN BE SEEN!
Now, a few things from this first page to look at:
1. The champion… New York Jets. Now, this came out in 1962/early 1963, so it was still before the NFL team was playing under that name (they were originally the Titans until the 1963 season). However, the Mets were playing by now, and it’s almost certain that Fox meant the “Jets” to be a stand-in for the Mets. So, after one of the worst seasons in the history of professional sports, the New York Mets got to be used in-disguise as world champions in a comic book. Yeah?
2. Man, look at that old baseball equipment that Infantino draws here.
3. The stadium they are in looks a bit like a mashup of the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium, but is probably just meant to be generic.
Now, after this splash page, we go back to the beginning of this strange trip: earlier in the day, during the final game of the “World’s Series”. Yes, the “World’s Series”. Now, occasionally the “World Series” has been referred to as the “World’s Series”, but I’m guessing this is more just DC’s way of not having to worry about confusion or copyright or anything like that. We see the Jets win the series thanks to some clutch pitching from “Lefty Clark”, who strikes out the side with the bases loaded to win it.
They celebrate, and also prepare to receive the actual pennant. Yes, this was back when there were actual pennants! And, what’s more, we find out they will receive their pennant right now, not on opening day of next season!
But, just before they receive their pennant… this happens:
Yes, it’s true, some aliens have come and encased the stadium in a dome… to challenge the New York Jets to a baseball game. And, they say, they’ve come from over 50 lightyears away to do it! When confronted by this shocking revelation that mankind is not alone in the universe, the American people respond by… sitting at the TV.
Anyway, the Jets agree (as if they have any choice), and the challengers from outer space take the field. As you know if you’ve looked at the cover or the first page of this story, they are invisible men- their uniforms visible, but their bodies not. The skipper of the Jets, having now seen his opponent, decides to stick with Lefty Clark, since he only pitched one inning in the first game. Man, I bet he didn’t expect to play a doubleheader when he woke up in the morning, huh?
The invisible team strikes first. The leadoff man reaches on a single up the middle, then he gets to second when the next guy reaches base on a bunt single. The 3-hole drives the lead-off man home with a double, but then Clark is able to avoid further damage with a strikeout, a pop-out, and a grounder. The invisible men strand a man on third. Meanwhile, the Air Force is just kind of… sitting around.
Fox and Infantino get through most of the rest of the game pretty quick, as a pitcher’s duel ensues that that sees Lefty keep the invisibles off the board but the invisible pitcher holds the Jets to just one hit. And so, as is required by comic book baseball law, we go to the ninth inning, where this happens:
Ouch. Now, I’m sure that this will just fill Lefty with more determination, as he ignores obvious signs of head trauma and concussion and stays in the game, right?
Well, sort of, because first, we must interrupt this unusual baseball story with a ALIEN SPACE BACKSTORY, courtesy of some sort of psychic transmission… oooooo!
Above is just the first page in which we see the adventures of Enath of Kalomoor. Basically, his folks have been getting attacked by the Krann warriors, who have Kamma-Rays and a metal called Protana, which make them unstoppable. Enath, however, discovers something startling about the Protana and the Kamma (“Protana and the Kamma”, of course, would make a great name for some sort of female hippie space-age band): the Krann are going to run out of Protana if they keep shooting the Kamma, so they need to come up with a more protana-efficient death ray!
The Krann start guarding the Kamma-Ray to make sure it doesn’t accidentally fire away the last of their Protana. Enath takes advantage of this shift of resources to… steal the Protana. Yes, apparently, they basically moved all the guards away from the Protana. Whoops. So, Enath escapes, and then decides that the best way to make sure it isn’t detected is to hide it in some gold, which messes with the Krann’s sensors, or something. So, Enath heads to the nearest planet with gold on it. Three guesses on what that planet is, and the first two don’t count.
Yup, it’s Earth. And where does Enath decide to hide this little sphere of Protana? Why… in the championship pennant, of course! Oh, and he made the box it came in radioactive with something that only kills Kranns, or something like that:
So, it turns out that the Krann then came to Earth to win the pennant and get their Protana sphere back, but to play baseball and win the pennant, they need to wear some sort of sunblock that has the side-effect of making them invisible.
Yeah, this was basically a story that had an interesting image and then had to come up with some way to make it happen, why?
Anyway, back to the game, where Lefty Clark has awoken to be told that maybe he should be taken out- only subconsciously aware of what Enath had told him mentally:
Lefty quickly convinces his skipper to keep him in (because concussions weren’t a thing back then, or something) and holds the Krann scoreless for the rest of the inning, bringing us, as required by baseball fiction law, to the bottom of the ninth. At first, it looks like the Jets will go quietly:
Anyway, with two outs, Chopper (the catcher, who also appears to have stayed in the game despite his massive head injury earlier) comes to the plate, as Clark tells him to get on, since he’s a “good-hitting pitcher”. He gets on base thanks to a Baltimore Chop, so up comes Clark, who for some reason isn’t pinch-hit for. Man, he must really be a good hitter for a pitcher if he’s not being pinch-hit for down one with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. I mean, jeez, it’s not like…
Oh, who am I kidding? Of course he hits the walk-off home run to win the game. The last pitcher to hit a walk-off home run, by the way, was Craig Lefferts in 1986.
The Krann take the loss poorly, fly into space, prepare to death-ray Earth into dust but then are punished for their poor sportsmanship by blowing themselves up because Enath had plugged up their weapon with a magnetic disc earlier in the story (I told you that panel would be important!).
And so, with Earth saved, poor Enath finds himself trapped. But, don’t worry, it was for the best. Besides, he reveals at the end that he helped Lefty get that high fast all for the walk-off:
So… there you go, “Challenge of the Headless Baseball Team”.
It’s fun. I mean, hardly groundbreaking and there are several leaps in logic, but the visuals are neat and the story does a good job of setting up plot devices (such as the pennant and Enath’s sabotage of the Krann ship) that end up paying off. Certainly, there have been far worse stories I’ve read on Bizarre Baseball Culture than this.
This isn’t going to be the last Strange Sports Stories you see here at the Continuum, though… because NEXT TIME ON BIZARRE BASEBALL CULTURE, A 1970s STRANGE SPORTS TALE!
Previously on BIzarre Baseball Culture:
Prologue: “Rockets on the Mound” (short story)
20. Shortstop Squad
21. Cosmic Slam
23. Mariners Mojo
32. Mr. Go
36. Dick Cole
40. “Challenge of the Headless Baseball Team!” (you are here)