The author of this sentimental novel about early baseball obviously loves the national pastime and has poured his heart into the tale of an American Everytown coming to embrace it in 1867. In bucolic Mystic, he writes, “baseball helped new friendships blossom and grow” and gave people “something to talk about, other than war stories and frightful memories.”
This provides a compelling premise, but amid the usual nostalgic glow—a hallmark of most good baseball fiction, from Shoeless Joe to Bang the Drum Slowly—retired Pennsylvania school principal Peter Lamana commits several crucial errors. His batter-by-batter accounts of the Mystic Baseball Club’s games are overlong and grow wearisome. More hazardous to reader belief, Lamana’s central event—a Fourth of July game (nine innings, 75 pages) between all-white Mystic and a barnstorming “colored” team called the Drummers—reduces the black players, mostly former slaves, to crude, minstrel show caricatures who strum banjos, sing spirituals, cook up big pots of gumbo and say things like “Dat waz nigh onna two year now.” Well-meaning but wishfully fantastic, Mystic also suggests that in 1867 baseball was beginning to heal America’s post-Civil War racial wounds, even though Jackie Robinson didn’t get to the majors for another 80 years.
Lamana’s strength is technical research. He weaves into his tale a deft history of baseball’s evolution from “old cat” and “muffin ball” into the first versions of today’s game. We learn how a “feeder” became a pitcher, and how much the “second-base tender” looked forward to the “chowder call” that followed every “match.” But he also lets slip into his serviceable prose jarring 20th-centuryisms such as “body clock,” “do his thing” and “icky.”
Mystic ends, as it should, with a giant named Hercules Handson smashing a homerun that “shattered time itself,” recalling Roy Hobbs’s legendary blow in The Natural. In a mediocre baseball novel, here’s a transcendent moment that reminds fans of why we love the game’s old rituals.
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