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death on the diamond
6 february 2009
I got Cortland Fitzsimmons's novel Death on the Diamond via InterLibrary Loan. Copies are available here and there from Internet booksellers in the $10-$50 range, but I like my books free and well-handled. I had already put in a request for Death on the Diamond when I read Noel Schraufnagel's description of it as "the first baseball mystery" (The Baseball Novel, 6). Though Schraufnagel considers Fitzsimmons's book a "failure" (209) because of its far-fetched plot, I kind of liked it. You shouldn't pay five sawbucks for a copy, but if you like unique baseball stories, you might check your local library to see if one is mouldering on the shelf.
"Far-fetched" is putting it mildly, in fact. Our heroes are Larry Doyle, a rookie infielder in love with Frances Clark, manager Pop Clark's lovely daughter, and newspaperman Terry Burke, in love with a hastily-drawn character named Alice. When Larry starts the season for the New York Blues, Terry's beat, murder starts to stalk the ballclub – or rather, their opponents. The Blues are longshots to win the pennant, but their chances improve markedly when a Philadelphia pitcher is shot through the heart while circling the bases, a Boston star buys it in a taxi crash, a Chicago stalwart is felled by gripping a poisoned bat, a St. Louis hurler succumbs to a poisoned jigsaw puzzle, and for good measure the Chicago manager is impaled on a meat hook. A Cleveland star with a Ruthian appetite manages to survive a poisoned pot of mustard that he has slathered onto his five-hotdog dinner, but he too is out of commission for the stretch drive.
Meanwhile, Larry Doyle has gotten himself traded to Washington, where he leads the "Feds" into first place. Only the DC club stands between the Blues and the gonfalon. (The book doesn't actually use the word "gonfalon.") Terry Burke, who has discovered every previous dead body, stumbles on the killers' plans to put Larry on ice. These plans, rather hard to imagine in practice, involve a pet pigeon and some poisoned darts concealed in soda straws.
All ends well, naturally. Death on the Diamond survives both its preposterousness and its frankly loose grip on how to narrate a baseball season or a series of murders. The novel is written with such panache and at such a blistering pace that it remains a page-turner 75 years after its publication. At least if you are as inclined to turn the pages of pulp sport and pulp crime as I am. Fictions full of energy, extravagance, and implausibility have an evergreen hold on the popular imagination, particularly in times of trouble. Death on the Diamond is Depression fiction par excellence.
I wonder if Bernard Malamud read Death on the Diamond. Its baseball world is very much the one he created as a setting for The Natural. Not only do we have a longsuffering New York manager named Pop with a nubile young relative, but we have intra-team jealousies, gamblers, and pennant races that turn on the single-game efforts of representative stars. We even have a multiple-hotdog bellyache modeled on Babe Ruth's 1925 indiscretions. If we don't have Eddie Waitkus getting shot in a hotel room, it's just because the real Eddie Waitkus wouldn't get shot for another 15 years.
Death on the Diamond was evidently filmed in 1934 with Robert Young, Madge Evans, Nat Pendleton, and Mickey Rooney. (I wonder what the indefatigable Rooney remembers of the filming.) Cortland Fitzsimmons had a brief niche career in Hollywood as a teller of sport mystery stories; he died in 1949. He was no Malamud, but he had talent and lacked embarrassment. That talent and that lack are the requisites for enduring popular art.
Fitzsimmons, Cortland. Death on the Diamond: A baseball mystery story. New York: Stokes, 1934.