Race and Baseball in the 1920s—With a Mystery As Well

The Babe Ruth Deception, by David O. Stewart, (Kensington), 304 pages, release date 27 September, 2016

David O. Stewart, author of The Babe Ruth Deception, is a constitutional lawyer, historian, and novelist, which means he’s got a pretty interesting body of knowledge to draw upon when working in any of these fields. The Babe Ruth Deception is his third Fraser and Cook novel, though it’s the first one I’ve read. Fraser is Dr. Jamie Fraser, a wealthy medical researcher and physician married to a Broadway producer. Cook is Speed Cook, who played in the major leagues before they were segregated and is now a promoter of Negro baseball. The pair make for an unlikely team. Between them they’ve got an interesting body of knowledge to draw upon—just like the author himself.

The Babe Ruth Deception is set during and after the 1919 Chicago Black Sox investigation. There’s a new commissioner of baseball, former judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who is determined to uncover any remaining corruption in the game. This is where Babe Ruth comes in: the Commissioner is now investigating the 1918 World Series in which Ruth played. Ruth has secrets he doesn’t want uncovered and seeks help from Fraser—the two men live in the same luxury apartment building. Fraser brings in Cook because of his knowledge of baseball. They face mobsters, who happen are unhappy investors in a film starring the Babe and produced by Fraser’s wife. They also face government investigators. And then there’s the bootlegging…

The mystery here is interesting, but the novel’s strongest point is the relationships among its characters. Fraser shares the racist attitudes of his time, and his individual respect for Cook is counterbalanced by a sense of paternalism and distrust toward the Negro community at large. When it turns out that Fraser’s daughter and Cook’s son are dating and plan to marry, neither Fraser nor Cook (nor either of their wives) is pleased. Fraser imagines his daughter becoming a social outcast; Cook imagines his son becoming the target of a lynch mob. A reader may pick up the novel for the puzzle it offers or for the pleasure of a glimpse of Ruth as imagined by a capable writer—but it’s the genuine tension among characters that propels this story.


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