By Stephen King
Cemetery Dance Publications ($25.00, 112 pp.)
Stephen King owns the book world.
When he wanted to publish a nice fat hardcover book like “Under the Dome” – weighing in at just over 1000 pages and listing for $35 – Simon & Schuster laid out two million of them in the first printing along with 25,000 “limited” editions and an “unlimited” electronic book edition.
When he wanted to bypass any publisher at all, he posted the serialized novel “The Plant” on his website. When he wanted to do a comic, Marvel stepped up and sold several hundred thousand copies of a graphic version of his “Dark Tower” series. When Amazon released the Kindle, he sold them an exclusive electronic version of “Ur.”
If he ever wants to write a 140-character story, I suspect he will Tweet it. What Stephen King wants to do, he does.
So it is gratifying that what King wanted to do this year is a baseball novella “Blockade Billy” and to give exclusive first edition rights to Cemetery Dance Publications, a small, independent publisher in Baltimore specializing in horror and suspense books.
Cemetery Dance, as its part of the deal, has agreed to restrict distribution of its 10,000 printing of “first editions” to direct on-line consumer sales on its website and to independent bookstores.
If you want the dust-jacketed $25 hardcover with special interior artwork by Alex McVey, you better hurry to your local non-chain bookstore in person and hope it has not sold out like the ones on Cemetery Dance’s site. Otherwise you can wait until the end of May for a mass market Simon & Schuster version.
Why should you want this little 112 page book? Let’s hope it’s not just because you are a Stephen King fan. King, a long time Red Sox fan who, no surprise, gets great seats for any Fenway game he wants to see, has written a book that captures the soul of baseball – its characters, its language, and its drama – and has the inevitable King twist at the end.
A Beautiful Book
The beauty of this small press first edition lies, in part, in its dust jacket and interior artwork. A special retro William Blakely shrink-wrapped baseball card alone may make it a valuable collector’s edition. But for readers of books, the true beauty lies in the story.
George “Granny” Grantham narrates “Blockade Billy” in the unmistakable voice of the old ballpark rat that he is. Now living in a “zombie” old folks home where “virtual bowling” and Polka night are the only action he sees, Granny can hardly wait to kick back and share his memories. “Mr. King”, the narrator, has come to him to get the straight dope about the 1958 season when the New Jersey Titans fielded the mysterious, crowd thrilling catcher William “Blockade Billy” Blakely. Perched on a chair in the Common Room, Grantham can hardly wait to tell his story…”an awful story, of course, but those are the ones that last the longest.”
He begins with spring training, as all baseball begins. The Titans suddenly lose both of their catchers: the starter to the hazards of drink; his skinny backup to broken limbs when he tries to tag big Ted Kluszewski rolling into home plate.
Starter Johnny Goodkind, was one of those old school players who “hit damn near .350 that spring, with maybe a dozen ding-dongs…but he was also a heavy drinker, and two days before the team was supposed to head north and open at home, he ran over a woman on Pineapple Street…Johnny Goodkind’s career in baseball was over before his puke dried.” With little time and no catcher, the Titans call their Davenport Cornhuskers farm team to send up anybody who can hold down the plate until they can trade for a real catcher.
Anyone who grew up reading his dad’s “Baseball Joe” library (like my brothers and I did) knows that all good baseball stories start with a rookie out of nowheresville who sets the team on fire. “Blockade Billy” is square in the middle of that tradition.
Although Granny warns us that “this ain’t no kids’ sports novel,” we can see King winking in the background knowing that with all the illustrations and heroic story line, it is exactly that. It’s just not for kids. When the rookie Blakely prepares for his first game catching star pitcher Danny “Doo” Dusen, Granny advises him “if he shakes you off, don’t you dare flash the sign again. Not unless you want your pecker and asshole to change places after the game, that is.” Did I mention? This is not a kids’ novel.
Billy Earns His Spurs
That first game set the fans on fire. Billy proves farm boy tough (or dumb as dirt) when he blocks the plate on his first play at home and sends the charging runner ass over teakettle with a bleeding Achilles tendon.
No one quite knows what happened to the tendon, but the crowd begins to call the new kid “Blockade Billy.” And he can hit too, even against Boston’s ace Dave Sisler. As Granny recalls, “So Dandy Dave throws a get-me-over fastball right down Broadway and the kid loses it in the left field bleachers.”
The first month of the season is just more of the same as the Titans roll. “Blockade Billy” continues to hit, and more importantly, to stop nearly every play at the plate, solidly blocking the runner and then “a tag on on the back of his neck just as gentle as Mommy patting oil on Dear Baby’s sunburn.”
Meanwhile, the Titan pitching ace Doo mops up the opposition. “His fastball hopping, his curve snapping like a whip…Just wave the stick and take a seat, fellows.” Late in May, the umpire makes a bad call and Granny rips into him with a mouthful of ballpark cursing and gets tossed. Doo lets his anger trash his control and the crowd roars “Kill the ump.” And so it’s time for the Stephen King twist.
The Stephen King Twist
Anxious-to-please, farm boy Billy takes the crowd’s exhortation a little too literally. And certain events transpire. The exploits of “Blockade Billy” are stricken from the official record books. They live only in the stories of old-timers like Granny Grantham, who shakes his head and concludes his interview with Mr. King with a line that might fit every great ballplayer who put on the spikes: “That kid was the real thing, crazy or not.”
Stephen King, who can pretty much do whatever he wants with his writing, has given us all a gift in this fine book. Richard Chizmar and his four employees at Cemetery Dance Publications have done all they can to present it to us in a fine fashion. “Blockade Billy” is a gift to small publishers and independent book people everywhere because it reminds readers that, although they can get “content” pretty much anywhere, a real baseball story still belongs in a real baseball book that is sold in a real bookstore.