Friday, December 11, 2009

Book review: "The Veracruz Blues"

I feel like a fool.

That's not an uncommon condition for me, but particularly today. I finished reading "The Veracruz Blues" several weeks ago and put it on the shelf, thinking about what I'd write in my review. It's the second time I've read it and this time around I didn't necessarily love the book, but I didn't have anything bad to say about it either.

Finally, today I told myself to buckle down and write the review, even if it's terrible, just to get it out of the way. And I did. I wrote nearly a full review on "The Veracruz Blues," calling it a slightly-above average telling of a far-fetched fictional baseball league, much in the same vein as Philip Roth's "The Great American Novel." But then I stumbled upon a page at the front of the book that says "Although the events in this novel are based on things that really happened, this book is a work of the imagination."

Surely not, I thought to myself. Surely this ridiculous story of a Mexican baseball league couldn't be real.

Of course, I was wrong. The Mexican League was (and is) very real, and the characters in Mark Winegardner's novel are also quite real. I feel foolish for not knowing about this fascinating chunk of baseball history.

With one keystroke I deleted my previous review. This novel is so much more intriguing now that I know the story is not as far-fetched as I first thought.

"The Veracruz Blues" tells the story through the eyes of (fictional) aspiring novelist-turned-reluctant sportswriter Frank Bullinger, Jr., who is called away from his job covering the sad-sack St. Louis Browns to be the press agent for the Mexican League, operated by Jorge Pasquel (real). The story of the tumultuous 1946 season is told through a series of interviews with some figures important to the Mexican League, including Bullinger, players Danny Gardella (real), Roberto Ortiz (real) and Theolic "Fireball" Smith (fictional, I think), as well as Maria Felix (real), a famous Mexican actress portrayed as Jorge Pasquel's girlfriend (I think that's fictional).

During that '46 season, Pasquel and his brothers (real) try to entice several big-name American major leaguers to come play in the Mexican League for a lot more money (real). They offer big contracts to the likes of Ted Williams and Stan Musial (real) to no avail, but more than a few prominent ballplayers do "jump" to the Mexican League, including Sal Maglie, Mickey Owen and Max Lanier (all real, and all really jumped to Mexico).

Danny Gardella, one of the major characters in the book, seems to have a fascinating real-life history of being a bit of a clown prince on the field and one of the founding fathers of the free agency system in baseball, setting the stage for Curt Flood and others to give ballplayers the right to play for whomever they wanted.

And as I mentioned before, this is one of the few baseball books that is told, at least in part, from the perspective of a woman, Maria Felix.

So I'm gonna think about this book a little more. I may or may not write more about it. But now that I realize it's almost all true... wow. Fascinating.

--Matt Kelsey

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