Hit by the Pitch
Baseball is a sport fraught with nostalgia. Records broken today prompt columnists to write about the legendary players of yesterday. The powers that be even continue to taut baseball as “the national pastime” despite the fact that it may no longer occupy a privileged space in the national imagination.
The Golem’s Mighty Swing, the new graphic novel by James Sturm, offers a revisionist, realistic view of baseball’s past—and that of the nation as a whole. The story focuses on the Stars of David Baseball Club, a team of Jewish baseball players who travel from town to town to play exhibition games. Back in the early ‘20s, when Golem takes place, barnstorming teams like this one were very common. Although they played with excitement and flair, they rarely made much money. For many of the players, this didn’t matter very much, because being on a team like the Stars of David was a brief respite from a life in the factory or on the farm. The team’s manager, Noah Strauss, is wearied by the traveling, but he wouldn’t exchange his life for what he left behind. “Had I stayed in New York,” he explains, “I’d be a pushcart peddler or worse (like my father, a sweatshop tailor).” His religion would have forbidden him from playing baseball on the Sabbath, but that’s just what he’s doing, and he knows that his father would be angry. “He will always be a greenhorn. His imagination lives in the old country. Mine lives in America and baseball is America.”
Equating baseball and America is the kind of thing that’s commonly found in nostalgic writing about baseball, but Sturm’s novel goes deeper to reveal the divisions in America circa the 1920s. As the team rides into a Midwestern factory town, the citizens are more excited to see Jews (about whom they are clearly ignorant) than they are to see the ball game. The crowd shouts racial epithets at the players who answer with angry glares. Occasional arguments between players and umpires result in more than boos as bottles are thrown on to the field. The spectators aren’t unanimous in their dislike of the Stars of David, though. The team’s clean-up hitter, listed in the program as “Hershl Bloom, member of the Lost Tribe,” is really Henry Bell, a veteran of the Negro Leagues. When he comes up, the African-Americans in the crowd—segregated in the bleachers—roar with approval.
This grim, realistic, racially divided America is central to Sturm’s larger project, a three part examination of the history of the United States. The first installment, The Revival, was published in 1996 and focuses on religious revivalism on the 1801 Kentucky frontier. The second story, 1998’s Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight, examines life and death in an Idaho mining town in the later part of the nineteenth century. Both share Golem‘s bleak view of American history. The characters (it would be too much to call them heroes) lead hard lives, filled with incredible challenges that more often than not result in death. Hopes are dashed in The Revival as a preacher cannot deliver a promised miracle to raise a couple’s daughter from the dead. Greed, fear, and hatred push the white settlers of Solomon’s Gulch to slaughter the Chinese men working an abandoned gold mine in Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight. Sturm’s work in these two books portrays an America settled through vice, cowardice, and failure, not the noble motives so often depicted in popular films and literature.
The Golem’s Mighty Swing is similarly dark. Burdened with low ticket sales and a broken bus, Strauss is desperate enough to follow a promoter’s suggestion of having Bell wear a golem costume in order to double profits. The team knows all about the golem, the legendary monster created by the mystic Kabbalah to protect Jewish communities. The promoter fills the local newspapers with stories about the power of the golem, so that, by the time the team arrives in Putnam, interest among the townspeople is high. Unfortunately, talk of the golem turns this interest into fear. City leaders even begin to see the team as a threat and use the people’s latent anti-Semitism to turn the game into a battle for the soul of America. The local newspaper editor writes that the team must “vanquish” the Jews whom he portrays as greedy individualists poised to suck the money out of their town. It’s not surprising, therefore, when the game ends in a race riot.
Sturm’s art in the earlier books is sketchy and dark, reflecting his view of the past. But, by Golem, his style has become almost cartoony. The images have been lightened up, but the lines are still dark and substantial, perhaps suggesting that the characters may wear a civilized sheen, but they’re as motivated by fear and greed as much as the people in the earlier works. The members of the Stars of David may be playing baseball, but for them it’s a serious business. It’s filled with blood, swearing, and racial slurs; for the team, baseball is a way to scratch out a living, albeit it one with few benefits and little stability. There’s little glory here, just cheap rooms in bad hotels, long bus rides, and belligerent fans.
James Sturm’s The Golem’s Mighty Swing is a top-notch piece of comic book storytelling, and it illustrates a fascinating period of history. His choice to end his trilogy with a baseball story is significant—sometimes it seems as though baseball is the only place where average Americans deal with the past. But, even when they do, it’s through nostalgia, not the historical reality. Many people would like it if our history it was simply filled with great men (and women, happy to serve them) doing great and honorable things to help achieve America’s God-given destiny. Sturm’s historical fictions remind us that American history—even the history of something like baseball—is messy, many times filled with conflict, division, and hatred.