Fielder’s Choice by J. Mark Hart

No information is given in Fielder’s Choice (TradeWorks, 470 pp., $16, paper) indicating that author J. Mark Hart has military experience. The biographical information on the back cover notes that he “grew up in Birmingham during the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras dramatized in this novel.”  We are also told he is an avid baseball fan. The handsome cover features a photograph of a red-stitched baseball with a black peace symbol in the upper left corner. 

Given these clues and the title it was my conclusion this is a baseball book. I grew up in Yakima, Washington, in the 1950’s, just a couple of blocks away from the stadium where the Yakima Bears played every spring and summer. But I was not a baseball fan then and am not now. I found this book interesting and a page turner, anyhow, due to the considerable story-telling skills of the author.

The first word of this book is “baseball.” I will quote the sentence: “Baseball might save my life—it just might—if I didn’t get my young white skinny ass shipped off to Vietnam, that is.”  Next, we learn that it is the spring of 1969.

I immediately began worrying that this book would turn out to be a Vietnam War novel written by an author who never set foot in Vietnam. I worry too much. The narrative voice of this book, from the very first page, reminded me of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, which I liked.

By page two, the novel was a “world of work novel,” specifically the world of Birmingham’s steel mills. I love a well-written novel about men working, and the steel mill pages are powerful and evocative, right down to the detail of the men plugging their nostrils with Vaseline to catch some of the black smoke inhaled, since they didn’t wear protective masks. Then you’ll blow out “a bunch of black snot,” just like we did in Yakima during the fruit tree smudging season.

The author does equally well with the concrete details of high school baseball, family life during the last 1960’s, church attendance, and antiwar activities. He also gets the painful details of young love right.

The plot and suspense of this fine novel of life in Birmingham, Alabama, during this time period for a talented baseball player in a barely integrated high school hinge on not knowing if our hero, Brad Williams, gets a college baseball scholarship or if he gets a bad lottery number and is destined for Vietnam.

Much of the plot is driven by the fact that he has lost his shortstop position to the only black player on the team, Robbie Jones. There is a lot of racial discord and racial name-calling in this book, and I believe it is accurate to the time and place. The baseball coach is portrayed as hitting the players and using abusive language to inspire them to work harder. He is not portrayed as a racist, though. The teams they play and the spectators from other towns do not deal well with Brad’s team having a black star shortstop.

J. Mark Hart

I enjoyed the accurate portrayal of mothers and fathers of that era. The mothers are concerned with what the neighbors think, and Brad’s father is deftly shown to be a man of his times. He was a “serious, unpredictable, irritable, middle-aged-man who worked overtime hours” so that his wife did not have to work, and he could be the sole breadwinner of the family.

The Vietnam War is present in every chapter and just about on every page of the novel. The draft lottery, something I never really gave any thought to as I got my draft notice in 1965, is much on high school kids’ minds. Young people who are perceived as hippies are also characterized by some of the folks in the novel (not the author) as communists.

When antiwar protesters appear late in the novel, they are presented as thinking it was a nifty idea to obtain sheep’s blood to throw on soldiers returning from Vietnam. Our hero and his girlfriend are outraged at that, as I was.

Of course, I found myself wondering if arrival logistics actually allowed for such a thing to be done. I hope not. Brad Williams’s closest hippie friend goes off to Woodstock near the end of this book. Brad never hears from him again.

I enjoyed this novel. I will not spoil the story by giving out information about whether Brad gets a good or bad lottery number, or if he slides into college on a baseball scholarship.

I’ll leave that up to your imagination. If you are a lover of baseball books, this book is for you.

—David Willson