Monday, July 14, 2014

The Bridgeport Hammer: A Parallel Baseball Universe

Readers who pick up a copy of my World War II baseball novel, The Bridgeport Hammer, will notice something radically different about the National League. I have fielded numerous questions about this already. Surprisingly, no one has inquired about the Nazi spies roaming the U.S. or the assassination plot against President Roosevelt. (Apparently, I sold that pretty well.) Instead, readers want to know why I changed the names of the players and teams.

The answer is simple: I felt that alternate history should take place in a slightly altered reality.

The book is not really a departure from the facts at all. I have taken great pains to preserve the conventions, strategies and culture of the game during the war era. But I did give the National League a bit of a facelift. Avid fans of the sport will have no difficulty tracing the origins of the team names. For baseball neophytes, here is a complete rundown of my revised NL lineup:            

Philadelphia Mustangs: The Philadelphia Phillies started out as the Quakers in 1883. The team name was quickly changed to the Philadelphias then gradually shortened to its current form. They are the oldest one-name, one-city franchise in the majors. A “Filly” is also a female horse, so I came up with the name “Mustangs” to make them sound more masculine.

Boston Wranglers: The Atlanta Braves were originally based in Boston. They played as the Red Stockings and the Beaneaters between 1876 and 1906. After that, they went through a rapid series of ownership changes. In 1907, they altered their name to the Doves. In 1911, they became known as the Rustlers. That’s where I got the “Wranglers” handle from.

Brooklyn Superbas: Back in the day, the borough of Brooklyn was inundated with an elaborate network of trolley routes. People who lived there were jokingly referred to as “trolley dodgers.” The current team handle originated from the antiquated slang. Long before they became permanently known as the Dodgers, they played as the Atlantics, Grays, Bridegrooms, Robins and Superbas. They carried the “Superbas” handle from 1899 through 1910.

Chicago Orphans: Cap Anson was one of the greatest players of the nineteenth century. The first player to collect 3,000 hits, he led Chicago (then known as the Colts) to six National League pennants between 1876 and 1886. He was released in 1897 when the club compiled a 59-73 record and finished in ninth place. After Anson’s retirement, sportswriters began referring to the Colts as the “Orphans.” They were known as such from 1898-1902.       

St. Louis Perfectos: When streetcar moguls Frank and Stanley Robison, owners of the Cleveland Spiders, purchased the lowly St. Louis Browns after the 1898 campaign, they came up with a hare-brained scheme to strip the Spiders of their best players and ship them off to St. Louis. As a result, the 1899 Spiders compiled the worst record in major league history at 20-134. The St. Louis squad—renamed the “Perfectos,”—fared much better with an 84-67 mark. The Spiders were ousted from the league after that ill-fated season and the “Perfectos” became known as the Cardinals thereafter.   

Cincinnati Redlegs: The Reds carried this nickname from 1954-1959. Many sources agree that the name change was an effort to disassociate the team from any ties to communism. After all, it was the era of the infamous "Red Scare."

New York Titans: This one’s a no-brainer. Titan is a synonym for Giant.

Pittsburgh Bandits: Pirates…Buccaneers…Bandits—different names for the same brand of outlaw.  

In regard to the players in my novel, the names have been changed, but most are based on real people. Some are composites of multiple personalities. For instance, the novel’s chief protagonist, Emmett Drexler, is an amalgam of two war era players—Moe Berg and Rip Sewell.

---Berg spent fifteen years in the majors as a catcher for several clubs. Selected for an all-star squad that toured Japan in 1934, he took films of the Tokyo landscape that would later be used by the U.S. government to plan bombing raids during WWII. Known for his remarkable intelligence, Berg was fluent in several languages. Teammate Elden Auker referred to him as “the most fascinating” and “mysterious” man he had ever known. Upon retiring as a player in 1939, Berg became a member of the Office of Strategic Services—precursor to the CIA.

---Rip Sewell, a right-handed pitcher who spent most of his career with the Pirates, was the cousin of Hall of Fame infielder Joe Sewell. After sustaining a serious injury to his right foot in a hunting accident, he was forced to alter his mechanics on the mound. He began experimenting with a quirky blooper pitch that traveled in a high arc (roughly twenty feet or so) on its way to the plate. The novelty offering was nicknamed the “eephus” by teammate Maurice Van Robays. Supposedly, “eephus” is a variation of the Hebrew word for “nothing.” Sewell’s super-blooper quickly made him one of the hottest gate attractions of the war years. He won 59 games between 1942 and 1944 while appearing on two all-star teams.

Baseball-minded readers will undoubtedly recognize other iconic heroes in disguise, but I don’t want to give away too much. It’s all part of the fun. Unlike some works of fiction, similarities between my characters and actual people living or dead are purely intentional.   

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