Monday, October 5, 2009

"The Legend of Mickey Tussler"

The American Association Milwaukee Brewers have been largely overlooked in baseball's remembrance. Other minor league teams of the era, such as the San Francisco Seals and Seattle Rainiers, have been memorialized for contributions to their respective cities and to the tapestry of 20th century baseball, while the Brews remain in relative obscurity.

That is beginning to change, and Milwaukee's rich baseball history is finally being recognized as such. Nowhere is that more evident than in Frank Nappi's choice to set his stirring coming-of-age story The Legend of Mickey Tussler against the backdrop of old Borchert Field in 1948.

Mickey is an Indiana farmboy with a once-in-a-generation arm, an autistic teenager at a time when the disorder was unknown to the general public and only beginning to be understood by doctors. He is battered and dismissed as a "retard" by his thuggish father, and nurtured by a mother who can't even protect herself. Mickey is balanced precariously between adolescence and adulthood, between the "normal" world outside which doesn't understand him and the farm which brings him comfort but cannot shelter his spirit, when he is accidentally discovered by Arthur Murphy, the Brewers' manager-cum-scout.

Mickey accompanies Murphy back to Milwaukee and begins his journey into the greater world around him. Murphy, for his part, sees a measure of redemption in Mickey, a chance to save the struggling ballclub while vicariously re-living his own youthful dreams cut short by injury.

At Borchert Field, Mickey finds fame and frustration, friends and enemies. His journey is reflected in those of his new teammates, who linger at their own crossroads - some on their way to making the final step up to the Bigs, some are transitioning out of the game entirely. Several respond positively to the new pitcher, while some fear and mock his disability. These conflicts build to a head as an old enemy of Murphy's resurfaces, seeking to wreak his revenge through Murphy's new protégé, and the Brewers are forced to face their preconceptions in both the dugout and the diamond.

Nappi's prose is clear and concise, and keeps the action moving right along. His choice to set in this time and this place is an inspired one. Milwaukee, like the ballplayers who played there, was at a crossroads in the late 1940s. An industrial town in an era when the End of American Industry was just over the horizon, the Cream City was outgrowing the minor leagues but hadn't made it to the Majors. Nappi captures this uneasy position with grace: a cameo by Boston Braves star Warren Spahn is at once wonderful and painful, giving the young Brewers a glimpse of the Big Leagues while reminding them (and us) that few would actually make it there.

Students of the Brews might find some of the story's elements historically jarring - the nickname "Brew Crew" wouldn't be coined for thirty years (and for another team), the Brewers weren't a Braves affiliate in the 20s, and you'd have to go a lot farther back than 1948 to find a dirt roads leading to Borchert Field. But those quibbles are minor, and entirely beside the point. The Legend of Mickey Tussler is, at its heart, a parable. The characters are drawn in very broad strokes, good is good and evil is evil. The ending is somewhat marred by a stunning deus ex machina, but the moral lesson is clear.

As such, it undoubtedly draws comparisons with the ultimate baseball parable, Bernard Malamud's The Natural. There are some thematic similarities - The Natural's Roy Hobbs was an older man trying to find his place by returning to the pursuits of his youth, while Mickey is a young man out of his element in an adult world that doesn't understand him.

Stylistically, Nappi makes the opposite tack from Malamud. Malamud's New York Knights are a a touch of fancy in a very real world, a clearly fictional team facing off against very real competition in the Brooklyn Dodgers, Pittsburgh Pirates and other National League clubs of the era. The Milwaukee Brewers of Nappi's novel are the one historically accurate element in a very fictionalized setting. Instead of taking the field against the Minneapolis Millers, Indianapolis Indians and Kansas City Blues, Nappi's Brewers play in a league with teams called the Sidewinders, Bears, Colts and the Spokane(!) Rangers. The choice narrows the story's focus to Mickey, Arthur and their shared journey.

It's wonderful to see the Brews make inroads into pop culture. And when the inevitable film adaptation is made, I think I can recommend some excellent historical consultants to the producers....

EDIT: Rex Hamann (of the invaluable American Association Almanac) has written not one but two reviews of The Legend of Mickey Tussler, one on its Amazon page and one for Be sure to check them out - I can't recommend his work highly enough.

1 comment:

  1. I just watched the movie starring Luke Schroeder. He did a fantastic portrait of this youngman. I know people with asberger's (a nephew and others). They are slow and shy but have talents like all of us. As portrayed in the movie many are whiz's with math.

    Luke you are a chip off the old block; I look forward to seeing you on the screen again.