BooksForKidsBlog

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Play Ball! The Brooklyn Nine: A Novel in Nine Innings by Alan Gratz

It's 1981, Brooklyn, New York, and Michael Flint is one out away from pitching the perfect game for his team.

The count is three and two. He's already thrown his best pitch--an at-the-corners fastball--until his arm feels like an overdone noodle. His curve only works part of the time, often refusing to break and floating up to the plate like it's got "HIT ME" written all over it. Still, he hasn't thrown a single curveball all day, and he knows the batter won't be looking for it.

It was baseball's day, a day when the Earth said, "That's pretty good Earth, but I'll show you perfect."

It was a day like Michael had never known and knew he would never see again. Like Sandy Koufax and his perfect game, it was a special gift in a special time and a special place, one that he shouldn't examine too closely.

It wasn't up to Michael anymore. He saw that now. He stepped back up on the mound, worked his fingers into the right grip, shook Carlos off until he dropped two fingers for a curve, and let the ball fly.

And in Alan Gratz' The Brooklyn Nine (Dial Books, 2009), it is baseball's story that becomes the ties that bind this novel of nine generations of the Schneider/Snider/Flint family, culminating with Michael's son, fourteen-year-old Snider Flint, convalescing from a broken leg, trying to price a box of baseball memorabilia for his Uncle Dave to sell online.

Told in "nine innings," the story begins with Felix Schneider, a stowaway German immigrant who landed in Brooklyn in 1841 in the days when baseball was played by local clubs and the favorite local team was the Knickerbockers. Felix calls himself "the fastest boy in America" and his speed pays off on the diamond and at his job, a messenger for the garment industry. When the great fire of 1841 begins to rage through Manhattan, Felix meets fireman Andrew Cartwright and volunteers to set the charge to blow up a building and stop the fire from destroying Germantown where he lives. Burned in the explosion, Felix can no longer run the bases, but he handcrafts a baseball from the leather of his ruined shoes and passes it down to his son as a good luck talisman.

Gratz then picks up the story as this son, Louis Schneider, is about to be mustered out of the Union Army in 1865. Bivouacked in Spotsylvania, Virginia, his unit, the Brooklyn 14th, called the "Red-legged Devils" by the enemy, start up a game, only to be attacked by a ragtag group of Rebels. The lucky ball is lost, but as Louis slips back to find it by night, he meets up with a wounded Confederate still lying on the field where their game is played. Louis helps him back to his lines, and the two talk baseball all the way. Finally Louis gives him his father's baseball for luck, and the Rebel returns the favor, giving Louis his handmade bat, the first "Louisville Slugger."

Baseball is the common thread which appears at pivotal moments in the family's life. Arnold Schneider uses his great hand-me-down bat to try to get chosen by the neighborhood boys who play on a pig lot that has just been christened the Polo Grounds and meets the legendary player, King Kelly, who borrows the bat and pawns it for train fare out of town.

But an old bat possibly turns up later in the hands of Babe Herman, the favorite Brooklyn Robin's player of Frankie Snider (the name changed for the less-Germanic version during World War I), a girl with a head for figures which makes her the best numbers runner in Flatbush. Frankie makes the acquaintance of John Kiernan, famous sports writer for the Times, and together they pull off a scam which enables Frankie to put her skill with numbers toward earning a mathematics degree.

But Frankie's daughter Kat cares little for education. Playing ball is everything to her. It's the spring of 1945, men's baseball has been decimated by the draft, and Frankie's skills at the plate and on second base earn her a place on the Grand Rapids Chicks, one of the women's professional teams which has grown up to fill the void. Later Kat's son Jimmy Flint turns out to be not so great at baseball, but he knows a lot about the game and excels at baseball card flipping, a game kid collectors played in 1957 to capture the most valuable cards.

Which brings us back to the "eighth inning," Jimmy's son Michael and his nearly perfect game. From the dugout he begs his little brother David to get his Grandma Kat to come down and tell him how to handle his final three outs. Between visits to the concession stand, David reappears and through the fence passes on Kat's advice:

David appeared again, eating a hot dog. "She says she won't come."

"What?"

"She says you're not supposed to talk to somebody with a perfect game. She won't even say 'perfect game.'"

David leaned close to the fence to whisper to his brother. "I'm running out of ideas, here, David.... She didn't say anything?"

David finally swallowed. "She says 'there's a time and place for everything.'"

And in chapter nine, "Ninth Inning," Snider Flint begins with a bat, an old wooden bat with "Babe Herman" and the remains of some 1926 stamps and an address, "Spalding, Chicago, Illinois, almost illegible on the handle. Snider turns to Google and unravels the story of Babe Herman, finally turning to library microfilm to read John Kiernan's story of the man who hit a triple that left three Dodger players thrown out, all on third base at the same time, an historic triple play if there ever was one. Snider manages to sell Herman's bat for $1200, and turns with excitement to the other objects in the box, among them an antique handmade baseball, marked with an S, a couple of worn baseball cards from the fifties, a scorebook from a Little League team in 1981, and a 1945 beauty kit for a girl's ball team.

Family history and the history of baseball are skillfully woven together in The Brooklyn Nine, showing, as Grandma Kat says, that "there is a time and place for everything" in history.

In his appended "Author's Notes," Gratz explains the significance of each of his "innings," in the history of baseball, with such fascinating facts as the story of Knickerbocker Volunteer Fireman Andrew Cartwright, the "Johnny Appleseed" of modern baseball, whose gold rush trip to California spread the "Knickerbocker rules" across the country, and the myth that former Civil War general Abner Doubleday (who makes a brief appearance in chapter two,) invented baseball on a cow pasture in Cooperstown. Lovers of the game--players, fans, collectors, and historians--will find something to love in this excellent piece of historical fiction, a piece that shows that indeed we are all in history as a ball is in the game.

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