The "Black Sox" Scandal of 1919, in which eight members of the heavily favored Chicago White Sox conspired to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, was an event that far transcended the limited horizons of the world of sport. World War I, which had ended a year before, had mocked American innocence in an orgy of meaningless bloodshed and agony; now the Black Sox Scandal compounded the nation's brutal introduction to life's realities by showing that baseball, a game generally regarded as uniquely American and thus uniquely virtuous, was as susceptible to manipulation and chicanery as any of society's supposedly less scrupulous institutions.
Not surprisingly, the scandal has produced over the years a considerable body of legend and literature. From the myth of Shoeless Joe Jackson ("Say it ain't so, Joe") to F. Scott Fitzgerald's mordant immortalization of the gambler who "could start to play with the faith of fifty million people--with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe," the scandal has inspired more comment and reflection than many events of seemingly greater magnitude. But it has never inspired a work of serious fiction--scenes and vignettes and references, yes, but never an entire novel.
Until now, that is. Harry Stein, who writes an interesting column about ethical questions for Esquire magazine, has attempted to fill the void in this first novel. To the extent that he raises some pertinent themes and makes some provocative comments, he has succeeded. But as a work of fiction, "Hoopla" suffers from debilitating weaknesses, the most serious of which is an utter lack of anything resembling a center; it is offered as a novel about the Black Sox Scandal, but from the way it wanders this way and that, ambling off into fruitless digressions, it hardly seems a novel about anything at all.
It has two narrators. The first, and the most interesting, is a New York journalist named Luther Pond, an entirely fictional character; he is an old man as he writes this memoir of his early newspapering days. The second is Buck Weaver, who played third base for the Black Sox and was one of the eight men eventually barred from organized baseball for his role in the scandal; he is a historical figure to whom Stein, following current fashion, has chosen to give a new life as a character in a work of fiction.
Pond's narrative is the more appealing, notwithstanding his cynicism and self-aggrandizement, because he writes in an amusing prose style and has a knowing eye for the shortcomings of ballplayers and the sporting crowd. His judgment is that baseball players, "though often ignorant, occasionally illiterate and invariably less interesting than anyone else one dealt with in the course of life, tended toward bloated self-esteem," but his attempts to insinuate this view into his reportage are strongly resisted by his editors; when one tells him that "we happen not to be in the business of hero reduction in this paper," he speaks to one of Stein's central themes--that the Black Sox Scandal was the beginning of the end for the blind hero-worship in which athletes then basked.
As for Weaver's narrative, it suffers from a couple of serious drawbacks. The first is that although Weaver is represented as having written his sections of the book, they have the sound and rhythm of speech. The second, and the more serious, is that Stein places too heavy a narrative responsibility on someone he did not invent; that Buck Weaver was a real person is a truth from which the reader never manages to escape, and the knowledge of this is an annoying constant. It is never more so than when Weaver writes about his extramarital affair with a woman in St. Louis; since Weaver apparently has no direct descendants, there is no one around to object to this except the reader who feels it is one thing for Stein to put a historical figure in a work of fiction and another for him to play fast and loose with that figure's private life.
Be that as it may, Stein's "Weaver" addresses important points when he complains about the exploitation of ballplayers by the moguls of the game; as is by now generally accepted, a principal reason why the scandal occurred was that all but a few White Sox players were deeply angered, with ample reason, at the ways they had been cheated by the team's owner, Charles Comiskey, and this question Stein handles with considerable skill. As expressed by Weaver, his rueful but accurate point is that "the national game is a business, like shipping or something like that, and the magnates do what they please."
If Stein had stuck to this point and to the particulars of the Black Sox Scandal, he might have pulled off the mixture of fiction and fact that "Hoopla" aspires to be. But more than 250 pages have passed before 1919 is reached, and precious few of those pages are pertinent to anything except a rambling divagation on hero-worship and the relationship between hero-athletes and the journalists who can make or break them. "Hoopla" goes off in so many directions that in the end it goes nowhere. This is a pity, because Stein is a decent writer and has interesting things to say.