By: Kevin Grace
There’s too much snow, too much cold, and too many gray skies, so we need to refresh ourselves a bit. After all, the Reds are in spring training out in Arizona, and Opening Day is just a month away! So let’s talk baseball and a little Cincinnati baseball story published 130 years ago.
In 1885, a quirky little tale was published in a Cincinnati humor tabloid called Sam the Scaramouch (SpecCol RB F499.C5 S16). The anonymously-written story is entitled “O’Toole’s Ghost” and its plot centers around a young immigrant by the name of Mickey McGonigle who dreams of becoming the best baseball player ever seen. Late one night, he is visited by the ghost of a deceased pitcher by the name of Barney O’Toole, who offers to fulfill this dream on one small condition: never argue with the umpire. McGonigle accepts the offer, and for a brief time he is indeed the greatest player in the land. But during one game, he forgets that agreed upon condition with the ghost, violates it, and sees his prowess quickly and publically stripped away. He spends the rest of his days consumed with regret and humiliation.
On simple analysis, “O’Toole’s Ghost” is a trifle of a tale, complete with all the elements of modern baseball in terms of ethnicity, carping against the umpire, and the avarice of owners. The only thing changed over a hundred years is the scale of finances. But it points to an element of American literature that is often repeated in male-oriented fiction: the visitation of ghosts who can either create or restore the masculinity and homosocial standing of the protagonist through sporting achievement. The theme reflects a peculiar national concern with the definition and expression of masculinity, i.e., the male validation or non-male rejection that arose in an immigrant culture consumed with a confluence of ethnic identity, individuality, group behavior, self-expression of authority, and achievement over a perceived loss of manhood – with the American hope of a chance at redemption in the social order. We like to believe that even with the intervention of the supernatural, our own ethic will triumph in the end. Or, at least often enough that we keep the faith.
In examining the plot elements of such stories and novels, one discovers a sense of loss – or a lost opportunity – that threatens to leave the characters without the means to carry themselves successfully through stages of male camaraderie, sexual mating to create a home of an admiring wife and adoring children, and thus achieving the American “dream.” That is, unless they welcome an intervention by the spirits of those who have gone before, like Barney O’Toole. In a capitalist society, however, bargains must be struck: it is a quid pro quo Faustian arrangement, financial success with the failure of fulfillment being a living and miserable “hell” on earth.
This theme of ghosts in American baseball fiction, from W.P. Kinsella’s notable Shoeless Joe Jackson Come to Iowa to stories involving American ethnic, racial and religious groups such as Peter Levine’s The Rabbi of Swat and LeAnne Howe’s Miko Kings makes the baseball genre a larger part of fictional corpus. These literary ghosts appear to rescue the protagonist from an imagined or self-imposed loss of masculinity within a framework devised and developed by a cultural currency of sport. But beyond all the analytical back-and-forth, “O’Toole’s Ghost” is just a very funny story, and precedes by three years Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s classic doggerel, “Casey at the Bat,” with the same elements of failed Irish heroics.
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