Emmy-Nominated Author Granville Wyche Burgess has written a new historical fiction book, titled The Last At-Bat of Shoeless Joe (Chickadee Prince Books, May 1, 2019).
Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the Black Sox scandal, The Last At Bat of Shoeless Joe re-imagines the final days of disgraced baseball legend Joe Jackson and his relationship with a young ballplayer trying to escape the tough mill life in Greenville, South Carolina with a ball and his glove.
Ken Davidoff, baseball columnist for The New York Post, writes "The Last At-Bat of Shoeless Joe brilliantly bakes wish fulfillment into a period piece. A gripping story that is both illuminating and emotional, it'll hook you early and won't let go. Great for baseball fans, and even true-crime enthusiasts, of all ages."
Burgess recently answered some questions about his newest work and his thoughts on Joe Jackson and baseball. What gave you the idea to write The Last At-Bat of Shoeless Joe, and do so in the vein of historical fiction?: When I played baseball as a youth in 1950’s Greenville, SC, as an all-field no-hit second baseman, nobody ever mentioned that Joe Jackson, whom many considered the “greatest natural hitter of all time,” lived in my hometown! Such was animus towards Shoeless Joe because of the Black Sox scandal. I think Joe himself wanted to keep a low profile. Years later, when I read about the scandal, I became convinced of Joe’s innocence and wanted to put the truth, as I saw it, out into the world. An added plus: I love baseball, I think it’s a great game!
I originally wrote this story as a screenplay. Baseball is a very visual game and the baseball sequences can be very exciting when filmed, with cutting between shots greatly enhancing the action. I also was drawn to the fact that no movie has ever been made about the Textile Baseball League, which was the precursor of the minor leagues and had a very quirky and amusing culture. Or course, writing the story as a novel allowed me to delve more deeply into character, which has its own rewards.
I wrote THE LAST AT-BAT OF SHOELESS JOE as historical fiction because I love history. I majored in History at Princeton University. I created an educational nonprofit, Quill Entertainment Company, whose mission is “Teaching America’s Heritage Through Story and Song.” We have performed our musicals drawn from American history before thousands of students and families as well as producing musicals like BATTLECRY, about the Battle of Gettysburg, and COMMON GROUND, about the remarkable friendship between Frederic Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, for general audiences. I enjoy turning history into drama, whether on the stage or on the page, so it was quite natural—and immensely enjoyable—for me to weave the history of the Black Sox Scandal into my fictional account of a young ballplayer who wants to become the next Shoeless Joe Jackson.
What is your background with baseball?: For some reason, when I was growing up in Greenville, SC, in the 50’s, the Brooklyn Dodgers games were broadcast on the radio. I have an older brother, Frank, (to whom my novel is dedicated) who loved baseball, so naturally I loved it, too. I played Little League ball for the Lions Club—second base, just like Frank. I wasn’t a very good fielder. One play sticks in my mind: a batter hit an infield fly and I remember seeing the ball heading my way over the top of my glove and then I remember being on the ground because the ball bonked me on the head. But we didn’t have a backup infielder, so time was called while I was allowed to go to the water fountain and drink, and then I was put back in the game. Naturally, the very next batter hit a blooper right at me. I remember to this day how my hands quivered in fear. The ball hit the middle of my glove, but I didn’t have the presence of mind to close it, so the ball fell to the ground. Those were two of the many errors I made that day.
That was it for my days in organized baseball. But I continued to play stick ball in high school, and I was a “social chairman” kind of guy so I organized a lot of pickup games along the way. When I was an actor in New York City, I played for Actors Equity, the actors’ union softball team. And, of course, I always followed the game and loved the team wherever I lived: the Red Sox, the Phillies, and, now, the Mets.
Did you have any personal experiences with Joe or his family?: I was only 4 years old when Joe died so I didn’t know him, or, as I’ve said, even know about him. He and Katie had no children, so there was really no family to whom I could talk. Alas, I have no personal experiences with Joe or his family.
Are any of the fictional characters in the book based on anyone in real life?: All of the fictional characters are really an amalgam of people I have known in real life. I suppose the closest thing to a character drawn from someone in real life is Piggy, the inept and frightened ballplayer. I did have a friend growing up whom, in the casually cruel way of kids, was called Piggy. Crusher is based on another friend against whom I played ball. He was bigger than the rest of us and he was a pitcher who could really throw hard, which made him very scary to bat against. He was a nice guy, however, not the ego-driven Crusher of my novel.
What are your thoughts on how the Black Sox scandal and Joe Jackson are portrayed in modern popular culture?: There have been several movies about the Scandal and Joe. EIGHT MEN OUT and FIELD OF DREAMS, come to mind. The former seemed to take the tack that Joe was guilty of conspiring the throw the World Series, and the latter was a fantasy that had little to do with the real Joe, although its popularity certainly thrust Joe back into the public consciousness. They are both excellent movies.
I believe Joe was innocent, so of course I am going to disagree with any portrayal that paints him as guilty. Without going into detail, I think his Series average of .375 (the highest), his no errors, and his 12 hits, a record that lasted until 1964, show a man who played to win. As for the Scandal, there were definitely players who conspired with gamblers to cheat for money. But let’s not forget: two juries found Joe and other players innocent. If Kennesaw Mountain Landis hadn’t declared them all banished from baseball for life, we probably would never have given the Scandal much thought.
If I have any gripe about how Joe is portrayed in today’s modern culture it is that I don’t think any of it succeeds at humanizing him, at showing his pluses and minuses, at emphasizing not whether he was a cheater or a hero, but whether he was someone who loved his wife, loved his community, and, ultimately, loved the game. This is what I have tried to do in my novel: bring to life not a ballplayer involved in a scandal, but a man involved in living.
Are there other baseball figures you are drawn to and would like to write about?: There are a ton of interesting baseball stories. I’ve always loved Satchel Paige, but he’s been written about often. I am also drawn to the man who made being second famous: Larry Dolby, who was the second African-American to break the color barrier, joining the Cleveland Indians just a few months after Jackie Robinson, and becoming the second African-American baseball manager.
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I have also authored a number of books (eBook and paperback) an topics of baseball that are available on Amazon.