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spitballs & holy water

5 february 2007

As a bibliographer of baseball fiction, I had known about James F. Donohue's 1977 novel Spitballs & Holy Water for some time, but I had studiously deferred reading it. Originally produced in mass-market paperback, Spitballs has that zany ampersandy title, cover art that looks like a Mad Magazine cartoon, and taglines full of phrases like "hilarious saga," "roaring Twenties," and "epic sports confrontation," with plenty of exclamation points! Is it any wonder I kept reading in other directions.

However, as they say: book, cover. I finally read Spitballs because of an appreciative critical study of the novel by Allen Hye, and I am very glad I got to it at last. The cover is not inaccurate: the main plot does consist of "Sister Tim & Co. vs. The Yankees, sponsored by the Catholic Church and the Imperial Dragon of the KKK, with a million dollars on the line, and Al Capone insuring the bet!" As such, Spitballs & Holy Water is in the same general territory as its contemporary wacky baseball novels as All G.O.D.'s Children and Screwballs, which are of only bibliographical curiosity 30 years later.

But Donohue's novel is low-key, intelligent, and continually quirky. Narrated by [the fictional] Robert Henry Lloyd, the "black Babe Ruth," the novel takes time early on to establish Lloyd as a plausible, matter-of-fact observer; nothing in his language is overdrawn or strained, and there is no ramping up of rhetoric for comic effect. That done, it becomes easier to accept the bizarre Sister Timothy, a black nun called by voices from God to become an unbeatable junkball pitcher (with the help of a miraculous ability to freeze time and manipulate baseballs, belts, firearms, and anything else handy). Sister Timothy too, believe it or not, is underplayed, as are a host of other curious characters including a couple of venal archbishops, Babe Ruth, a slick-talking alcoholic Klansman, a puerile Al Capone, and the Devil himself, assuming the earthly form of Groucho Marx.

By the time that Sister Timothy has infiltrated the compound of arch-gangster Sudsy Rivkin with every intention of waxing the guy, the reader is neither rolling on the floor in laughter nor wincing at any forced humor in the scene, which proceeds instead quite organically out of a plot that has taken some weird twists indeed, but for its own quiet purposes. It is a very good comic scene, because Sister Timothy's constant earnestness doesn't try for comedy; it just lets it happen.

Spitballs & Holy Water is at heart a festive attack on the myths of American history, where some of the despised outsiders of 1920s popular culture (Negro Leaguers, Roman Catholics, the poor) have their way with some icons of the period (Long Island plutocrats, southern colonels, bejeweled mobsters). Still available only in yellowing pulpy form, it deserves another edition.

Donohue, James F. Spitballs & Holy Water. New York: Avon, 1977.