by Robert B. Parker
(Putnam, 304 pages, $24.95)
This is an article from the July 12, 2004 issue
Had mystery writer Robert B. Parker been a baseball player, he
might have been Wade Boggs--an All-Star with a superb batting
average but little interest in swinging for the fences. Parker
has written more than 40 potboilers, most featuring Spenser, a
beer-chugging, poetry-reciting private investigator. Millions of
Americans include these books in a foolproof recipe for
summertime contentment: You get ahold of Parker's latest yarn,
tune a radio to a ball game and settle down on a beach towel.
This summer, the recipe is even simpler, because Parker has
folded baseball right into his book.
Double Play is a fantasy, set in 1947, in which the fictional
Joseph Burke, still an emotional wreck from World War II, is
hired by Dodgers G.M. Branch Rickey to guard rookie Jackie
Robinson from racist thugs. Between selected chapters of this
tale, Parker offers priceless first-person (presumably
autobiographical) reflections on the era through a narrator he
Some writers depict the racism of the 1940s, the essential
backdrop to the Robinson story, as a sort of thoughtless
rudeness, but Parker's tale is unflinching, describing how
Bobby's parents--in general, kind, hardworking
Americans--sacrifice $500 rather than "betray our neighbors" by
selling their house to a Jew. They also warn their son not to
make friends with black people, because "if there was trouble ...
I'd be blamed too." He's taught to use racial epithets to refer
to licorice candies and Brazil nuts. That, the narrator recalls,
"was what I knew of black people." At age 14 the kid isn't
interested in learning much more because "what I cared about was
sex and the Brooklyn Dodgers." Since sex is unobtainable, he
spends his time in front of a radio, scribbling on a scorecard
while Red Barber calls the games in his own unique language: The
Braves are "tearing up the pea patch"; Stanky is "on his mule....
And then, suddenly, the world changes, with the unforgettable
sight of a photo of Rickey "with his cigar and bow tie" and
"Jackie gleaming black." Unforgettable, too, is Barber's call of
the first game, when he notes that the new first baseman is "very
definitely a brunette." Above all, Parker conveys the explosive,
ridiculous arguments that break out among Bobby's teenage friends
over the Robinson phenomenon. Once, for instance, the
neighborhood boys considered whether or not they would condescend
to sleep with an attractive black woman. Bobby boldly insists
that he would. "Embarrassingly," he confesses, "that was... my
first public position on racial equality."
These portions of Double Play are so honest and vivid that, in
comparison, the suspense story seems shallow. The fictional
Robinson is tough and heroic but, in contrast to the genuine
article, not very interesting. Rickey is a minor character, the
other Dodgers are all but absent, Ebbets Field is a nondescript
setting for intrigue, and we barely meet Robinson's wife, Rachel.
Indeed, Parker doesn't seem to trust himself to depict a
well-drawn female character. Burke's love interest is a stock
1940s dame named Lauren who comes across like an extremely
screwed-up Jessica Rabbit.
In a word: disappointing. But for Parker, there are sure to be
more trips to the plate, and he'll doubtless pop one into the
seats before he hangs 'em up.