by Frank Nappi, 2012, Skyhorse.
Nappi continues the story of 18-year-old pitching sensation toiling for the 1949 minor league Milwaukee Brewers, whom he introduced in his 2008 publication, The Legend of Mickey Tussler.`
If Tussler doesn’t have many the problems associated with a youngster trying to fit in with a group of older men in the years following World War II, it’s because he comes with another set of issues: although the term was not in popular use at the time, Nappi’s character suffers from a form of autism. Needless to say, in an more unenlightened era, he is the subject of scorn and ridicule from opponents, fans, and even some of his rough-hewn teammates (Legend deals with Tussler’s attempts to deal with those problems, with the help of Arthur Murphy, the Brewers’ compassionate manager; Mickey’s mother, and a stand-up guys on his team.)
Sophomore Campaign throws into the mix the emergence of African-American players following the debut of Jackie Robinson in 1947. The Brewers return to spring training anxious to make up from their previous season’s bitter loss to their arch-rivals, despite Tussler’s incredible accomplishments. There is added with pressure from below, in terms of their veteran catcher/leader “Boxcar,” cast in a Bruce Pearson role; and above, from a seemingly duplicitous owner right out of The Natural.
In an effort to rebuild, the progressive Murphy signs Lester Sledge, a young hot catcher from the Negro Leagues, much to the chagrin of just about everyone else save Mickey, whose innocence prevents him from thinking about sociological implications.
Needless to say, Sledge ( “Hammer,” of course) is not welcomed with open arms for a number of reasons. First, his presence is meant to replace the popular veteran, not a great position for anyone to be in. And second, he’s black, which even in the relatively tolerant Milwaukee is deemed a serious problem by the owner. For all the white-hoods, name calling, threatened lynchings, and corrupt law enforcement, you’d think the book was set in the Deep South.
It’s difficult to determine for whom Nappi — who, according to his bio, “has taught high school English and creative writing for over twenty years” – is spinning his tale. Several passages seem too high-falutin’ for young adults, who would benefit from the “lessons” Mickey and Murphy teach, but too flowery for regular adult purveyors of baseball fiction (“The savagery was deliciously wicked, and had all but begged for immediate satisfaction when a fragment of their attention caught some movement in the distance….”; “The alteration of his deportment was alarming.”). At one point Nappi describes six assailants as “a mob.”
In the author’s notes, Nappi writes that he has taken “certain artistic liberties…with regard to timeliness and the chronology of other baseball occurrences to facilitate the telling of this story.” Perhaps that’s his way of working around some of the time-out-of-place moments: did fans in 1949 wave promotional placards or wear regalia from their team? (He also apologizes for some of the language used in an effort to be true to the times, which leads me to believe that he’s reaching out to a younger audience.)
While the premise behind Sophomore Campaign is admirable, the execution comes off somewhat clichéd and predictable, with little nuance for the secondary characters. The ending, on the other hand, stuck me as somewhat too upbeat and unbelievable. But after all, this is a work of fiction. Nappi dose not elaborate on Tussler’s growth as a person as he continues to dominate on the mound. In fact, given his “screen time,” Murphy comes across as the main character in Sophomore, which does little to add to the teaching opportunities the author began in Legend.