The love of baseball has always been a small but persistent element in Stephen King's fiction. It has also provided the impetus for such nonfiction pieces as Head Down, his memorable depiction of Little League baseball in Maine, and Faithful, a lively fan's-eye view (written with Stewart O'Nan) of the Boston Red Sox 2004 championship season. Now King brings us Blockade Billy, a swift, colorful novella set against the backdrop of major league baseball.
The narrative is an oral reminiscence by George "Granny" Grantham, former third base coach for the mythical New Jersey Titans. Speaking from the retirement home he calls the "zombie hotel," he re-creates the opening weeks of the 1957 season, when a succession of accidents left the Titans without a starting catcher. Desperate, the team called up an untried rookie named William Blakely. Against all expectations, Blakely excelled, hitting in virtually every game and blocking the plate with a ferocity and fearlessness that earned him the nickname "Blockade Billy."
At first, as Granny himself notes, the story sounds like a juvenile sports novel. This, however, is a Stephen King story, so it inevitably takes a more sinister turn. Billy had a secret in his past, too large and too shocking to remain hidden. When it bubbled up, the Titans' season unraveled, and Billy's name, and the details of his brief career, were struck from the official history of professional baseball forever.
Blockade Billy works as well as it does for a couple of reasons. The first is the narrative voice that King has conjured up. Funny, sharply observant and casually profane, it is the voice of a quintessential baseball insider. Equally important is the lovingly detailed evocation of the game as it was played in 1957, when, with few exceptions, players were neither celebrities nor millionaires. King's descriptions of these tough, hard-bitten men and the hardscrabble contests they engaged in add both a dash of nostalgia and a touch of gritty reality to this dark, absorbing portrait of a vanished era.