The historical and literary “pitches” that Soos tosses mostly land outside the strike zone in this sojourn through the baseball season of 1912, when Fenway Park was brand-new and when the Red Sox were on their way to a pre-“Curse” World Series victory.
That golden summer, as hero and narrator Mickey Rawlings recounts it, was a blood-tinged affair. A utility player recently acquired by the Boston Americans (as the Sox were officially known back then), Rawlings no sooner arrives at Fenway than he stumbles upon the freshly dead body of a Detroit Tiger, its face turned to pulp by a baseball bat. Other incidents, among them an ominous warning to keep quiet—a favorite bat appears on Rawlings’s hotel-room pillow, suggesting that his head might be next in line for a not-so-sporting clout—place the tale firmly in the realm of hokey melodrama. The characters that surround Rawlings, meanwhile, are as stale as yesterday’s open bag of ballpark peanuts. There’s a plucky suffragette who helps Rawlings play detective; a matronly Irish boarding-house keeper who serves him hot stew and stern, worried looks; a beef-brained police captain, ready to wield his billy club for the next take in a Keystone Kops two-reeler; and a crew of snuff-spitting teammates, each of them as pure of type as when Ring Lardner first conjured them up as short-story characters. Finally, there is Rawlings himself, an ingenuous 19-year-old who has little credibility either as an observer of life or as a solver of crime.
The crimes that he sets out to solve have their roots in an actual scandal that involved the legendary Ty Cobb, the 1910 American League batting title, and efforts by gamblers (in a kind of warm-up to the Black Sox scandal of 1919) to throw the title to Cobb’s nemesis Nap Lajoie. Baseball in those “dead-ball” days was more innocent yet also more corrupt than it would be in later years, and the one solid strike that Soos throws comes when he brings that paradox into focus.