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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS
Island of Redemption
Book Review by Andy Silberman
Darryl Brock. Havana Heat. New York: Total/Sports Illustrated, 2000, 320 pp., $24.95, cloth.
It's kind of hard to imagine today, given Darryl Strawberry, John Rocker and Comerica-Coors-Safeco-Miller-Corporate Swine Fields, but once, a long time ago, professional baseball captured the imagination of this country. And not just this country, either. In the early 1900s, barnstorming major leaguers regularly traveled to Cuba, playing to great acclaim before rabid fans who flocked to see the famous New York Gigantes and other teams.
Of course, Cuban players were pretty good, too, and the best Cuban teams were often capable of holding their own against the big leaguers. Most of the stories behind these Cuban tours are long gone. That's why it's especially enjoyable to read Darryl Brock's Havana Heat, a fictional treatment of a New York Giants visit to Cuba in 1911, just after the John McGraw-led Giants lost the World Series to Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics.
Actually, the games themselves are secondary to the story of one Luther Taylor, widely known as "Dummy"a nickname traditionally given, in those non-politically correct times, to deaf ballplayers. Dummy is in his late thirties, attempting a comeback to the bigs after arm trouble has sentenced him to the bush leagues. His nagging wife wants him to stay home with her, in a desolate Kansas town, to work on their farm, but Dummy yearns to escape. He liked New York when he played there, enjoyed the camaraderie of his rough-and-tumble teammates, and, above all else, loved playing baseball in the majors.
Short of pitchers, McGraw agrees to take Dummy with the Giants on their Cuban tour. Dummy knows it's probably his last chance to prove that he can still pitch, and he's determined to make the most out of his opportunity. He pitches well against the Cubans and quickly becomes a fan favorite, along with superstar hurler Christy Mathewson ("El Caruso del beisbol"). Things seem to be going well for Dummy, although he's never sure of where he stands, thanks largely to the never-satisfied McGraw, who's described in all his delightfully irascible, vile, and conniving glory.
Dummy becomes a hero to deaf Cuban fans, particularly to Luis Avelar, a nineteen-year old with a blazing fastball and a tragic family history. Soon, Dummy becomes more concerned with boosting Luis' prospects than in salvaging his own. He helps assemble an all-star team of young Cuban players to take on the mighty Giants, but he can only control events so far, and his hopes for Luis eventually clash with Cuban political turmoil and standard major league racism.
There's not a lot of subtext in Havana Heat. It's a good story, skillfully told, and what you see is pretty much what you get. Apart from the father-son connection, which seems to be almost obligatory in any baseball fiction, there are not a lot of broad themes in this book. If you're an English major, that might not be a good thing, but if you're mainly reading a book for the sheer pleasure of it, then Havana Heat has much to offer. The book appears to be meticulously researched, with abundant references to the Cuban baseball and political scenes of that era. Modern baseball fans, starved for true color, can be justifiably envious of Havana Heat's cast of characters: the sneeringly brilliant McGraw, the regal Matthewson, and the carousing Giants, most of whom seem never to have met a wager they didn't like.
Dummy Taylor himself is an extremely well-drawn character. He moves through the world of the hearing with remarkable ease, relying on superb lip-reading skills and an ever-present pad and pencil. He's intelligent, unprejudiced and empathic, but he's also a clown, a smart-ass and an enthusiastic brawler. He has transcended his deafness to the point where it's more of an annoyance than a barrier.
The only minor criticism I had of this book was that it tended, at times, to drift into a sort of clunky storytelling mode. When Dummy prepares his team to face the Giants, there's too much warmhearted stuff about Brotherhood, Friendship, and Uniting For A Common Cause, much of it expressed in language that could have been lifted from the fiction section of Boy's Life magazine.
Still, the overall merits of this book far outweigh any quibbles over a few sappy interludes. It's truly entertaining, and it brings the early days of big league baseball to life. We won't ever pass that way again, and it's probably a shame.
ANDY SILBERMAN is a free-lance business writer based in Minneapolis.
© 2000 Andy Silberman
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