Journeymen, a novel of historical fiction, is set in post–World War II Florida
and centers on aspiring sportswriter Jersey Paige, who, by creating and
defining his own life, attempts to escape the looming shadow of his influential
father, a U.S. senator. Fresh out of college, young Jersey apprentices
for the local newspaper, the Gainesville Sun; but instead of writing sports,
he is relegated to proofreading the society page with the self-important and
glamorous “Busy” Bee Beasley, with comic results. When the Sun editors
assign Jersey a feature on Myril Hoag, a one-time Yankee well beyond his
prime, Jersey discovers quite a different Hoag than expected: drunk, bitter,
depressed, and desperate for one last chance at the majors—and with it the
pension denied ballplayers before the war. This is Jersey’s first introduction
into the tragicomic world of a journeyman.
The forty-year-old Hoag, player-manager for the Class D Gainesville
G-Men, begrudged management’s decision to recruit fellow journeyman
Jake Powell, three year’s removed from the majors, because of a slanderous
racial comment. The two former teammates sustained a mutual hatred—
each perhaps afraid of seeing too much of himself in the other.
Both players experienced their own brief moments of baseball glory, memories
not entirely escapable. Hoag placed thirty-first in the 1939 MVP voting,
striking out in a single pinch-hit at bat in the All-Star Game that same year.
Powell and Hoag each won three World Series, batting .435 and .320, respectively,
in their postseason careers. They were teammates on the Yankees’ 1937
and 1938 championship teams before Powell was traded the next year to the
Senators for Ben Chapman.
Meanwhile, Jersey and Powell form a special bond, if only because Powell
freeloads off the more fortunate senator’s son. In many ways, the novel is a
coming-of-age story for the innocent Jersey, as he is exposed to the journeymen
but then becomes his own journeyman, weathered by a mess of ordeals
and mishaps. The once-naïve rookie becomes his own grizzled veteran, far
away from the pampered world offered to him by his politician father.
Throughout the novel, Jersey pursues his ex-girlfriend Katina, a Greek
waitress who chooses to ignore the love-struck reporter. Jersey laments his
estranged lover and her suspected fling with another man, and he repeatedly
attempts to win her back, with unsuccessful and absurd results. Jersey’s
desire for Katina often conflicts with his attempts to secure an exclusive
interview with one of the journeymen ballplayers, and his constant failure
on both fronts makes him aloof to the world in an isolated Emersonian way,
but also in a nihilistic, embittered, Holden Caulfield way.
Jersey is, indeed, an Emersonian. He studied literature and journalism as
an undergraduate, having acquired this literary passion from his mother,
who attended college following her politically expedient separation from
the senator. He is largely influenced by his mother, but she never appears in
the novel; only her looming shadow of influence is seen. This is bothersome
too because his father shows up but once. For having so profoundly affected
Jersey’s life, his parents are fringe characters.
Journeymen is a historical novel that explores the omnipresent themes
of baseball and life: the urgency of youth, the tragedy of death and aging,
and failed second chances. At times, the book’s plot wanders. Readers may
become frustrated with the series of happenstances (intentional or unintentional),
and the novel’s disjointed plot is uncomfortable and restless. Despite
its bleak themes, the book is not depressing like a Russian novel read by
candlelight on a frigid winter’s night. It retains a levity that isn’t necessarily
incongruous with Rychlik’s themes of love and loss, making Journeymen a
fun read that respects the history of the game.