Jay Martin turns history into fiction - and 'Magic'
All sports have histories, of course, but baseball, more than any other, seems part of some larger history of America, Latin America and beyond.
This sense of history is part of what makes Jay Martin's new volume of stories, “Baseball Magic,” so involving. He's not known chiefly for his fiction. He's a professor of humanities and government at Claremont McKenna College who wrote a classic history of late 19th-century American literature, “Harvests of Change: American Literature, 1865-1914,” as well as major biographies of Nathanael West, Henry Miller and John Dewey. (He was an inspiring mentor in my long-gone grad school days.)
But in the last couple of years Martin has been working on a biography of Alexander Joy Cartwright, the father of modern baseball, and “Baseball Magic” is a different expression of this same immersion in the history of the game.
Martin's tales, 11 in all, are mostly short. They don't deal with actual players, but fictional ones – amateur and professional.
“The Boy Who Became a Bloomer Girl,” set in 1908, depicts an era when barnstorming teams still entertained people and made a little money doing it. The narrator, a teenage boy, wants desperately to take up a career as a baseball player but knows his father would forbid it. But the boy gets his chance to become something of a baseball hero when he's enlisted to play (in disguise) for an all-female team one Sunday.
“Reconstruction” takes place a few decades earlier, in 1876. One Southern town wants to rid itself of the federal government's Reconstruction projects and the mayor makes a wager with the supervising northern captain. If the Southern team wins, the Northerners will exit. But the drama spikes when the Northern team includes black players and the mayor of Jefferson, Miss., declares, “You and I agreed that baseball is an American sport. These players have no part in it.” Ah, but they will, as the story unfolds.
Baseball shows up where you least expect it in Martin's stories, from Jane Austen's England to a venerable Buddhist monastery in China – and in ways that somehow seem utterly natural.