Baseball Was Never Like This South of the Border

Good yarn compromised by loose mix of fact and fiction

The VeraCruz Blues

By Mark Winegardner

Viking, 251 pp., $22.95

The 1946 Mexican League raid on the US major leagues is a fascinating story - not just in baseball terms, but across the entire spectrum of human emotions, drama, and history.

The postwar boom augured momentous changes in the social, cultural, and economic fabric of the country. And the national pastime mirrored these changes, particularly with its early rumblings of integration and labor unrest.

Into this mix came Jorge Pasquel, the flamboyant, almost mythological baseball aficionado who used his immense wealth to lure American major leaguers to play south of the border.

They came in droves: most notably Vern Stephens, the reigning American League home- run champion; Max Lanier, ace left-hander of the perennial National League champion Cardinals; Mickey Owen, All-Star catcher of the Dodgers; and Sal Maglie, who would go on to pitching stardom in the 1950s.

Already on the Mexican scene, meanwhile, were many outstanding blacks still shut out of the US majors by Jim Crow policies.

All these things really happened! What better time to relive the memories than in this 50th anniversary of that ''Season of Gold?''

But why make it a novel? The nonfiction genre is perfect for evoking a sense of such times (see David Halberstam's ''The Summer of '49,'' published by Avon; or Dom Dimaggio's ''Real Grass, Real Heroes,'' published by Zebra).

Yet despite an even more bizarre cast of characters and a true story better than anything he could make up, in ''The Veracruz Blues,'' Mark Winegardner chooses the route of docu-fiction, creating a mixture of real and invented characters, including Babe Ruth, Ernest Hemingway, and fictional sportswriter Frank Bullinger, Jr.

It is Bullinger who narrates the story via a series of imaginary interviews. But how much of what these people say and do is real, and how much is total fiction? The reader never knows. Ultimately, this can leave a bad taste in the reader's mouth.

The book does provide good insights into the hopes and dreams of black players in those days when integration was just around the corner. And there's the recurring saga of Danny Gardella, the popular, diminutive New York Giants' slugger who was one of the first to jump to Mexico and as a result incurred the ban imposed on those who did so, then sued baseball over its monopolistic policies, launching the legal struggle that led to today's powerful players' union and free-agent system.

These and other accounts paint a vivid picture while providing a history lesson for those who may not remember the era. But for a so-called fact-based book, the errors are just too frequent and too significant to be excusable.

Optimally, the author of a work that professes historical accuracy should be personally familiar with his material. If his experience doesn't go back that far, he owes it to his readers to do enough ''homework'' to avoid blatant mistakes. But Winegardner commits embarrassing gaffes on more than one occasion, sending up repeated red flags on the credibility front.

Stephens, for example, says that the St. Louis Browns' owners ''got into a salary dispute with our catcher, Walker Cooper....'' But Cooper played for the Cardinals, not the Browns! Moreover, he was a big name in that era, teaming up with 20-game winner Mort Cooper on a famous ''brother battery'' and playing on several pennant and World Series winners.

Anyone who could even accidentally put him on the other St. Louis team is immediately betraying his lack of knowledge of the times. And in the epilogue, the narrator says the Giants promoted Monte Irvin and Willie Mays in 1952 but passed over Ray Dandridge because of the ''unofficial quota'' of two Negroes, which Brooklyn ignored by having three.

Facts: Irvin came up in 1949, Mays two years later, and both played key roles in the famous ''miracle pennant'' of 1951; the 1952 Giants had at least one other black, Hank Thompson, and the Dodgers had at least five: Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Joe Black, and Sandy Amoros.

Once a reader starts encountering mistakes like these, the author's credibility quickly descends to zero. The obvious answer is to either: (a) Research things more thoroughly; or (b) Forget the pretense of ''fact-based fiction,'' change the names, and admit you are making the whole thing up.

Unfortunately, Winegardner chooses a hybrid method that, while engrossing at times, in the end leaves the reader confused and unsatisfied.

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