Review: Hit By Pitch

Hit by Pitch
Buy at Powell’s

I am pretty indifferent when it comes to baseball, but Molly LawlessHit By Pitch (2012, McFarland & Company) was one of the comics I was looking forward to most this year.

In her book, Lawless tells the story of the fastball, thrown by pitcher Carl Mays, that killed shortshop Ray Chapman in 1920. But that one incident isn’t the whole picture — it’s also about two men — the charming Chapman and the dour Mays — and the culture and history that surrounded them. It’s less about the annotation in a box score and more about the people involved.

Lawless’ art is, as always, delightful, and is definitely this book’s strength. There’s a playfulness about it, as characters have vibrant expressions and slightly oversized heads. But her open page layouts and complex backgrounds give it a surprising formality. Much of the good stuff is in the little details — the way a character suspiciously eyes another, to the subtleties of period fashions. With her gorgeous crosshatching and distinctive lines, Lawless’ art doesn’t look quite like anyone else’s.

As far as the story goes, readers know what they’re getting into (the subtitle of “Ray Chapman, Carl Mays and the Fatal Fastball” gives it away!) but what happens isn’t quite the point. Lawless tries to humanize both these men. Chapman was clearly well-loved by everyone who knew him — Lawless recounts stories of how he charmed and married society girl Kathleen Daly along with his willingness to participate in his friend’s prank as passing him off as a famed Irish tenor. Mays, on the other hand, was uptight and unlikeable, for the most part, chastising fellow players for their drinking and deserting his team. Lawless injects humor and affection into her portrayal of both men (although if I were to guess, she’s clearly more of a Chapman fan — but how could you not be?).

Like most tales of history, there are no clear answers and the episodic nature can sometimes feel a bit choppy, but Lawless does a great job of organizing the story into coherent chapters. Still, some of the best parts are the asides that split from the main narrative, like when “Wamby” tells the tale of fight that three players got into before Chapman’s funeral. These pieces give more color and texture to the story than the straight historical facts ever could.

Hit By Pitch is a lovingly-told story of a piece of sports history most of us don’t know about. As you enjoy the beginning of baseball season, it’s worth knowing what’s happened before. Or, even if you’re like me, this may inspire you to think again about what baseball is all about.

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