Burgess, Granville Wyche. The Last At-Bat of Shoeless Joe: A Novel. New York, NY: Chickadee Prince Books, 2019. Pp. 252. $12.99 trade paperback.
Reviewed by Gavin J. Woltjer
This fall will mark the 100-year anniversary of the notorious Black Sox scandal, arguably the worst scandal in the history of US professional sports. Fallout from the scandal has had lasting effects, rearranging professional baseball’s landscape in ways that resonate to the current day. Then Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who, through prior machinations, positioned himself as the sole commissioner of the sport, permanently banned eight Chicago White Sox players from participating—in any capacity—with professional baseball for purportedly intentionally losing the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Included in this group of players was Joseph “Shoeless Joe” Jefferson Jackson.
While there is ample evidence to support that many of the eight permanently banned players did partake in some game-fixing practices, it has been more difficult to prove that Shoeless Joe was a guilty party. Shoeless Joe batted .375 over the course of the series with 12 hits, and he never committed an error in the field against the Reds. If Shoeless Joe was guilty of anything, it was that he trusted the wrong people at the wrong time to help him explain his involvement, or lack thereof, in this scandal.
Granville Wyche Burgess’s novel The Last At-Bat of Shoeless Joe imagines the life of Shoeless Joe after the scandal. Returning to his southern roots, Shoeless Joe is now but an impression of his former self. A liquor store owner who no longer cares about baseball, Jackson goes throughout life just trying to make a living by keeping to himself. All goes according to plan until Jimmy Roberts, a local superstar for the Brandon mill team, decides to enlist Jackson’s help in becoming a better baseball player. Through a tumultuous series of events, Jimmy, rising prospect of the Textile Baseball League, finds himself on the outside looking in, a pariah in his own home town after one play cost Howard Stone, team owner, a considerable sum of cash.
A novel of redemption and personal ghosts, The Last At-Bat of Shoeless Joe provides interesting psychological examinations of the three main characters: Jimmy Roberts, Shoeless Joe, and Howard Stone. These men, based on station, privilege, or opportunity, overcome or succumb to their ghosts throughout the novel’s narrative. Battling personal ghosts past, present, and future, each man navigates their personal landscapes seeking escape or success or absolution. Executed through dreams and flashbacks and fictitious documentation, resolution occurs for each man only after addressing or accepting what haunts them. Burgess executes these separate storylines with skill and adroit craftsmanship. The reader is surely to find themselves rooting for Jimmy and Shoeless Joe while cringing at the malicious and conniving nature of Howard Stone.
But the novel is not without its flaws. Whereas the three main characters are fully realized, given depth and personality, many of the other characters in the novel suffer from being caricatured based on southern stereotypes. Characters like the sweaty, greedy preacher Reverend Bob, Rhoda, the mountain-girl love interest, Jellycakes, the African-American gambler and numbers man, and Crusher, the jealous baseball prospect who abhors Jimmy, add little to the story other than emphasizing the time period and setting of the events that transpire throughout the narrative. That being said, Burgess provides a wonderful read by mixing the comedic effects of the Bad News Bears, the hope of The Natural, and the magic of W.P. Kinsella. The Last At-Bat of Shoeless Joe is a welcomed addition to the trove of baseball literature.
Banishment from baseball, while not as exceedingly rare as once was, has been experienced by notable players of the game. Pete Rose is still pleading his own banishment stemming from gambling. In the 1980s Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays found themselves banished from the game for being greeters and autograph signers at different casinos in Atlantic City.
But one of the many great qualities of baseball is that it is a game of second chances. This novel is Shoeless Joe’s second chance with a different audience of baseball aficionados. And Burgess constructs a thoughtful and provocative tale about an event that needs to be reexamined, perhaps even forgiven. In this reader’s opinion, after spending time with this fictitious Shoeless Joe, the Hall of Fame owes it to the game to welcome an exiled son home.
Gavin J. Woltjer is the Library Director for the Billings Public Library in Montana. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.