August 20, 2017

“Havana Heat” by Darryl Brock

February 16, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Fans of Darryl Brock will find much to admire in his novel Havana Heat. It is very reminiscent in feel and tone to his classic If I Never Get Back and its sequel Two In the Field. There is no time traveling in this novel but it is a  travel back in time.

The hero of the novel is  one of the unique characters of both American and baseball history,  Luther Haden Taylor,  known to baseball fans everywhere as “Dummy Taylor.”  As his, by today’s standards, politically incorrect  nickname indicates, Taylor was deaf.   He was a good pitcher active from the years of 1900-1908, nearly all of that time with the Giants. If not for a rainout in 1905 he would have been the first deaf player to participate in a World Series.  Brock  explores Taylor’s worlds of both the arena of baseball and the utterly alien world to most folks, that of the deaf.  Based on a ton of research Brock gives the casual reader and those familiar with Taylor’s story insights into his personality and deaf culture.

With the Giants, Taylor taught his teammates to sign and as a player he revolutionized that art of players signs. The first signs that the Giants used were simply American Sign Language spelling out words like S-T-E-A-L. His roommate was his polar opposite, gregarious, hard drinking, skirt chasing, Mike Donlin. The two became life- long friends.

The jumping off point of the novel, after an introduction of the elderly Taylor, is a 1911 trip to Cuba by the New York Giants.  While the tour itself was very real, Dummy Taylor was not  involved in it.  Brock  imagines the now struggling minor league Taylor latching onto the tour in an attempt to get one last shot at the majors.  Through Taylor’s eyes we meet John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, Mike Donlin and other members of the Giants. We also get insights into the  culture and politics of Cuba, racism, disability, and American imperialism.

It is the Cuban phase of the novel that really shines. The Giants play games against a Cuban All-Star team. The contests are nearly blood battles as the combative McGraw hated to lose no matter what the circumstances. The Cubans also play ruthlessly as they seek to knock the Americans down a peg or two. Not only are the Americans in an alien land, there is a palpable air of antagonism from the Cuban citizens as a left-over of the Spanish American War. Especially vociferous in their resentment of the Americans are the Cubans who had lost positions and titles as a result of Cuban independence.

The plot revolves around these various elements in the person of  Luis, a  Cuban phenomenon discovered by Taylor as he explores the Cuban countryside as the result of an injury. Like Taylor, Luis is profoundly deaf.  As his own marriage to Della is unraveling in the States, Taylor involves himself with Luis’s fatherless family which is deeply tied to revolution and Cuba’s new order.

Opposing Luis is Nico, representative of the old guard. The two are rivals not just on the ball field but also politically. Nico is able to hear and resents Luis’s ability all the more because Luis is disabled.   They are also on opposite sides of a racial divide. Taylor finagles a tryout with the Giants for Luis leading to the novel’s checkered denouement.

Havana Heat works on several levels. The baseball sequences are well drawn and lively. The political intrigue and Cuban color are fascinating as are the wonderful personalities of McGraw, Donlin and the Cubans of all stripes. The insights into deaf culture are enlightening.

As to the novel’s weaknesses. The tension between Della and Taylor seems a bit forced. In actuality Della and Luther were married for life and by all accounts a happy couple.  At one point Dummy Taylor talks about his love of movies and notes, “I hope they never add  sound.”  It seems very unlikely that anyone either deaf or hearing,  outside of a few scientists,  anticipated sound  motion pictures in 1911.  Aside from those few qualms, this novel comes highly recommended.

Elfers wrote the book The Tour To End All Tours: the Story of Major League Baseball’s 1913 -1914 World Tour. It won the 2003 Larry Ritter Award and was a finalist for both the Seymour Medal and the Casey Award. In addition to that he has written chapters in Deadball Stars of the American League (Jimmy Callahan) and When Boston Still Had the Babe: the 1918 World Series Champion Red Sox.  He’s also contributed book reviews and articles to the “Inside Game,” the Deadball era committee’s news letter; had a review published in World War II History Magazine.(“Playing for their Nation: Baseball and the American Military during World War II” in the January/February 2005 issue). He’s published two articles about the tour in the Diamond Angle online magazine.

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