February 25, 2017

Of Baseball, Booze and Bodies—“Mystery Ball ’58: A Season-Long Whodunit”

April 13, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

mysterycover“Tough to make out a dead body when it’s covered in peanut shells and Royal Crown Cola. But there it was.”

That’s how Jeff “J.P.” Polman’s baseball murder mystery, Mystery Ball ’58: A Season-Long Whodunit begins and from there it’s a wild ride full of…well…mystery and intrigue that expertly mixes real life characters from the era—Eddie Cochran, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg all make an appearance—with fictional ones in a melting pot of pulpy fish chowder with a side order of peanuts.  Lots and lots of peanuts.

The reader is immediately introduced to Milton “Snappy” Drake, a former Pacific Coast League pitcher turned Seals Stadium usher whose sobriquet harkens to his ability to snap off knee-buckling curve balls “before the thing stopped snapping altogether and hung there like an executed prisoner…”  It’s lines like that that keep the story moving along at a brisk and humorous pace, and I found myself liking and rooting for Snappy right off the bat (pun intended).

It doesn’t hurt that he’s an everyman who lives to listen to or watch baseball, pound down a beer or six (or the hard stuff after a particularly rough day), and shoot the breeze with his pals at the Double Play bar across the street from the stadium where Drake works and where the San Francisco Giants played for two seasons after moving from New York to California.

We learn that the dead body mentioned in the opening line of the book is a murder victim left in Drake’s section of the stadium for no obvious reason.  Early on, Polman introduces a blonde bombshell named Liz Dumas who becomes Snappy’s sidekick and eventual love interest.  As bodies and peanut shells pile up—the killer has an affinity for Salty Dog Peanuts, which are found on every victim—law enforcement from the locals all the way to the feds begin to suspect that either someone holds a serious grudge against Drake or that the former pitcher might actually be the murderer himself.

It doesn’t help that Snappy suffers from blackouts dating back to his childhood or that the killer stays so far ahead of Snappy, Liz, and the authorities that some question whether he really exists.  Is it possible Drake is blacking out, committing these heinous crimes, and just not remembering?  According to Polman’s brain trust that also includes Giants owner Horace Stoneham, the best way to find out is to pass Drake off as Giants bullpen catcher Nick Testa, who caught one inning for the team in 1958 and committed an error in his only fielding chance.  The killer has been showing up at stadiums across the country to torment Drake, and with Snappy (aka Testa) in the bullpen it’s believed that he can keep a closer eye on the stands in an effort to identify a suspect.

I can honestly say that had I an entire day that I could have dedicated to reading, I would have finished Polman’s book in one sitting.  It moves along crisply, had me laughing out loud thanks to lines like “my question became flypaper for a swarm of blank stares,” and kept me on the edge of my seat.  Polman employs clever titles such as “The Hunker Game,” “Double Indignity,” and “To Sirloin, With Love” to keep the humor flowing and uses fictional newspaper clippings to infuse the prose with subtle snippets of hilarity.

The April 28, 1958 edition of The Bronx Bugle Sporting Life trumpets TED WILLIAMS MAKES 2 OUTS in a nod to the 39-year-old legendary hitter. Other editions claim that “FRENCH KISSING LEADS TO MARXISM” and implores its readers to “SMOKE KOOLS.”  It’s all very funny.  But what makes the book impressive is that Polman, an old school Strat-O-Matic fanatic, wove his tale of mystery, murder, and mayhem around a season that played out through dice rolls and not on an actual baseball diamond.

The 1958 National League pennant was copped by the Milwaukee Braves who finished eight games ahead of the Pittsburgh Pirates and 12 ahead of the Giants.  But in Mystery Ball, the Braves had a tougher time, finishing only three games in front of the surprising Chicago Cubs and five ahead of the Giants, who won four more games in the Strat replay than they did in real life.  Polman does a great job bringing the players into the story and having them interact with Drake as if he actually existed, and they eventually look at him as a good luck charm who turns the team’s fortunes around just by warming up the likes of Johnny Antonelli, Ruben Gomez, and Mike McCormick prior to their turns on the mound.

Mystery Ball ’58: A Season-Long Whodunit kept me intrigued and entertained throughout and I couldn’t wait to pick it up whenever I had a free moment to see what would happen next.  It’s a fun and satisfying read that will keep you on the edge of your seat until the last delicious page.

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