By Bill Sheehan
Wednesday, April 21, 2010; C04
By Stephen King
Cemetery Dance. 112 pp. $25
The love of baseball has always been a small but persistent element in Stephen King's fiction. It has also provided the impetus for such nonfiction pieces as "Head Down," his memorable depiction of Little League baseball in Maine, and "Faithful," a lively fan's-eye view (written with Stewart O'Nan) of the Boston Red Sox 2004 championship season. Now, just in time for a brand-new season, King brings us "Blockade Billy," a swift, colorful novella set against the backdrop of Major League Baseball.
This illustrated edition has been handsomely produced by Maryland publisher Cemetery Dance. (King completists should note that another edition containing a bonus story will be published by Scribner in May.) The narrative takes the form of an oral reminiscence by George "Granny" Grantham, former third base coach for the mythical New Jersey Titans. Speaking from the retirement home he calls the "zombie hotel," Granny re-creates the opening weeks of the 1957 season, when a succession of accidents left the Titans without a starting catcher. Desperate, the team called up an untried rookie named William Blakely to play the position until a suitable replacement could be found. Against all expectations, Blakely excelled, hitting in virtually every game and blocking the plate with a ferocity and fearlessness that earned him the nickname "Blockade Billy."
At first, as Granny himself notes, the story sounds like the kind of juvenile sports novel made popular by John R. Tunis, author of "The Kid From Tomkinsville." This, however, is a Stephen King story, so it inevitably takes a more sinister turn. Billy had a secret in his past, a secret too large and too shocking to remain hidden. When it bubbled to the surface, the Titans' season unraveled, and Billy's name, together with the details of his brief, eventful career, were struck from the official history of professional baseball forever.
"Blockade Billy" works as well as it does for a couple of reasons. The first is the narrative voice that King has conjured up for Granny Grantham. Funny, sharply observant and casually profane, it is the voice of a quintessential baseball insider who happens to be a natural raconteur. Equally important is the lovingly detailed evocation of the game as it was played in 1957, when, with few exceptions, the players were neither celebrities nor millionaires but "working stiffs" who earned, on average, $15,000 a year. King's descriptions of these tough, hard-bitten men and the hardscrabble contests they engaged in add both a dash of nostalgia and a touch of gritty reality to this dark, absorbing portrait of a vanished era.
Sheehan is the author of "At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry Into the Fiction of Peter Straub."