Blue Ruin

A Novel of the 1919 World Series

by Brendan Boyd

New York: Harper Perennial, 1993 (orig pub 1991)

I picked this book up in the remainder bin because about 20 years ago Brendan Boyd coauthored The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book, with Fred C. Harris. It's one of the funniest sports books ever written. The authors' photos are on the back of it and they look like baseball hippies. Fred Harris, who incidentally was my creative writing teacher at UMass, was pretty close to a hippie in those days. He went on to become a card shop proprietor in Belmont, Mass. According to Blue Ruin's cover, Brendan Boyd is a native of Boston who now lives in Paris with his wife, Elaine. "This is his first novel."

Blue Ruin is a baseball book with practically no baseball action in it. The world is that of high-rolling gamblers. Since the characters are actual historical figures, it helps to have some background on the 1919 World Series, which the Chicago White Sox lost on purpose to the Cincinnati Reds. The Sox were owned by Charles Comiskey, a well known skinflint. The eight players who went into the tank were led by first baseman Chick Gandil. The most notorious gambler involved was Arnold Rothstein, who had no direct contact with the players; the lesser gamblers included Abe Attell, Sleepy Bill Burns, Billy Maharg, Nat Evans, and Joseph "Sport" Sullivan, a native of Boston who is the narrator and central character of this novel.

The idea for a fix was initiated by Gandil and Sullivan at the Hotel Buckminster in Boston's Kenmore Square. Boyd depicts the Buckminster as a sleazy dive chosen by owner Charles Comiskey for its low prices. But according to other sources it was a staid "little old lady" hotel (which it still is); the rowdy White Sox had been thrown out of their regular Boston accommodations. There are some other inconsistencies in his depiction of Boston, making for a minor distraction. Boyd writes most of the dialogue in 1919 slang; I can't vouch for its accuracy, but it works most of the time.

To put the plot in a nutshell, Sullivan gets the fix started and goes to Rothstein & Atell for financing. Sullivan double-crosses both the players and Rothstein, Burns & Maharg try to horn in but lose out and go home, Atell double-crosses Rothstein, the players double-cross Atell, and think they are double-crossing Sullivan, but he's outfoxing them. The players end up with a little, Sullivan with a bunch, and Rothstein with a fortune. A year passes before the scandal becomes public. During this year Sullivan wanders the country aimlessly with his girlfriend Rose, spending and losing money as fast as he can. When the Black Sox story hits the newspapers in the Fall of 1920, Rose splits with half his remaining cash, and Rothstein sends Sullivan to Mexico and Atell to Canada. Sullivan never returns to the U.S., content to live on a dollar a day with $100,000. (It works out to 273 years.)

As a character study of Sport Sullivan the book is depressing enough to make you wonder why Boyd ever wrote it. Sport is a smalltime crook who reads the classics and dreams of the big score, of living like his hero Arnold Rothstein. But when the big score comes, he has no idea what to do with it. He's too intellectual to be as ruthless as Rothstein, and too lazy to work at anything. He loathes the other gamblers and the ballplayers. His love affair with Rose seems to be based on her attraction for his money. Sport's most interesting characteristic is irony. There's one section of the book -- when Sullivan travels to the West Coast -- where Boyd's writing style becomes exactly like that of Clive James. (James is an Australian on PBS television who visits various cities around the world and makes wry comments about them.) Here is Sullivan checking up on Gandil in California:

Calistoga was the precise jerkwater I'd imagined it, all wooden shacks and tar-papered abjectness. It looked like six blocks of Indianapolis dropped in the middle of Valhalla.

At Spud's Sunoco I received grudging directions to Chick's. His fame apparently cut several ways even here. -- p. 226

Sullivan meets up with several famous historical figures, like George M. Cohan, Jesse Lasky, Black Jack Pershing. Everyone seems to know he's a gambler who helped fix the Series, and the implication is that the fix was tolerated by the "smart set".

Chick Gandil retires from baseball after the Series, but in this book Swede Riisberg takes over as chief fixer, and the White Sox are sloppily throwing ballgames during the 1920 season. Sullivan tries to get back in the fixing business. Ty Cobb agrees to strike out on purpose, but Sullivan backs off because he can't stand Cobb. Sullivan approaches Cleveland's Tris Speaker about throwing the 1920 Series, but Speaker tells Sullivan that Brooklyn has already agreed to go into the tank. This is a work of fiction, remember. Believe what you will.

The best factual book on the Series fix remains Eight Men Out by Eliot Asinof. In Asinof's book there is no account of what happened to Sport Sullivan after the fix; he simply disappeared. The best book for people who believe in the innocence of Joe Jackson is Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella (the basis for "Field of Dreams"). In Brendan Boyd's book, thank goodness, Jackson is not a saintly martyr. He is an illiterate simpleton who is led into the fix by Gandil and the others.

Book Review by David Nevard

Return to

The Library of Book Reviews