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shortstop shadow

19 april 2013

Howard M. Brier's 1950 juvenile novel Shortstop Shadow has the unsubtlest of cover illustrations. In Jay Hyde Barnum's drawing, a shortstop stands, ball in hand, ready to flip to second base, and he seems bowed by the weight of something insubstantial but terrific. Above him looms a grotesque, beastlike shadow. At any rate, so it is with the library-binding copy I got from the University of Utah. (And yes, I confess, I removed the DO NOT REMOVE InterLibrary Loan Label so that I could see the illustration. I am sorry, University of Utah. I do some wild and dangerous things in support of my robust research agenda.)

There's trouble brewing for the Western University Bulldogs. (For some reason Brier italicizes the names of all baseball teams.) Star shortstop Pooch Wilson is a pro prospect, but his college eligibility is threatened by suspicions that he's already played some pro games under an assumed name. Pooch's roommate Randy Barlow sets out to solve the mystery. The trail leads to some abandoned gold mines near Mineral City (in some generic Northwestern state). Meanwhile, Pooch has been consorting with a shady lepidopterist. And is Pooch's rival teammate Snag Keller planning to throw ballgames at the behest of a dubious grifter named Paraloni? Things come to a head when Snag and Pooch wrangle in the dugout over Pooch's habit of whittling small baseball bats out of … larger baseball bats, I guess. Where will it all end?

Page 246, actually, shortly after all these problems have melted away into benignity. Shortstop Shadow is one of those sanguine old juvenile novels that doesn't even work very hard at cultivating the threat of plot complications. Pooch turns out to have been settling some mining claims, not playing outlaw semi-pro ball. His near-twin half-brother was the ballplaying ringer! (And in a nice, and nicely untipped, Dickens allusion, that near-twin is named Jess Carton.) Pooch'd always wanted to be a mining engineer, not a shortstop. Randy becomes shortstop, Snag cleans up his act, the lepidopterist buys himself a pro ballclub and sets his cap for shortstop Randy, and Paraloni goes directly to jail.

Well, I've spoiled that one. But seriously, nobody wants to read this book but me, and I'm not really sure why I wanted to. I reckon I like uncovering problems beneath the surface of placid mid-20th-century popular culture. But there are no problems here; move along, people. The book has an unprogressive take on gender, an all-Anglo cast (except for the dastardly Paraloni), and a decidedly upper-middle-class milieu. Yet it's nascently politically correct; when Brier invokes Joe DiMaggio as an archetypal star, he quickly invokes Jackie Robinson too. It's one of those cultural items that gets to be colorblind because everybody in it is white; but it doesn't scandalize me 60+ years later.

Brier, Howard M. Shortstop Shadow. Illustrated by Jay Hyde Barnum. New York: Junior Literary Guild / Random House, 1950.