Home Book Reviews If I Never Get Back by Darryl Brock

If I Never Get Back by Darryl Brock

by Matt Smith

(Ballantine Books, 1991), 470 pages.

The Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869 have an important place in the history of baseball.  As the first all-professional team, they can be said to be the pioneers that paved the way for the multi-billion dollar industry that exists today.  The team and the early days of pro baseball are brilliantly brought to life in this extraordinary novel that combines expert historic detail with a gripping story. 

Published in 1989, Darryl Brock’s debut novel revolves around a divorced man called Sam Fowler who collapses at a train station in the late 1980s and wakes up in 1869 with a steam locomotive, carrying the Red Stockings, waiting at the platform.  Fowler tentatively gets on board, beginning an incredible journey for both the character and the reader.

Brock gives us a glimpse of the historic research behind this book in the acknowledgments page.  Here he explains:

“It pleases me that most of the characters were doing in 1869 what I have them doing, and that many events – even minor ones – occurred as I have shown them. Some, of course, do not”.

Brock uses his artistic licence to slip a 1980s character into the real story.  If you look through the records you won’t find an S. Fowler getting a hit here and there.  But you will find all of the other characters, from Fowler’s best friend on the team Andy Leonard to the player-manager Harry Wright.  The latter is particularly interesting for Brits as he was born in Sheffield, England and was a ‘club pro’ cricketer before lending his expertise to this emerging bat and ball game.   

The author can’t resist using many of the familiar set ups that you find in most tales when a modern person goes back in time; such as the bafflement caused by unfamiliar phrases and clothing, and the lead character ‘messing with history’ by introducing new ideas into the world well before their time. 

That’s no bad thing though as it produces many hilarious moments.  Fowler’s use of a bunt does not go down well for example, yet his inspired creation of a culinary snack called a ‘hot dog’ provokes a much more favourable reaction.  As for the ‘fish out of water’ passages, this is just one example of many that brings a smile to your face:

“With the sky overhead blackening, Andy stepped to the plate, jaw clenched and knuckles white on the bat.
    ‘Over the fence!’, I yelled.  ‘A homer, buddy!’
    ‘Over the fence here is but two bases,’ Millar said snidely. ‘
Didn’t you hear the captains?’
    ‘C’mon, Millar, don’t be a jerk.’
    ‘Just what does ‘don’t be a jerk’ mean?’ His glasses flashed at me. ‘You’re not exactly the cheese, Fowler.’
    ‘What?’ “

Where the sense of displacement and confusion works best is in drawing attention to the differences and similarities between the game being played by the Red Stockings and the game played by the Reds today.  Pitchers bowled the ball underarm after being instructed by the hitter whether it should be a high or low ball.  Fielders deliberately dropped easy pop-ups to enable them to double up runners (brilliantly demonstrating why the ‘infield fly’ rule is necessary), while the lack of gloves (except for the catcher – although he was hardly shielded by the ‘tools of ignorance’) made muffs more common and left fingers and hands in a permanently banged-up state.

Yet a crucial point is made forcefully in the first moment Fowler sees the Red Stockings in action.  Our modern day observer is taken aback by the ability of the players, making brilliant stops and over-the-head grabs that would be replayed time and again in this age.  The current generation always sees itself as the latest in a long line of progress, naturally supposing that what came before was primitive compared to the world today.  Through the voice of Fowler, the author makes it clear that these Red Stockings could really play.  

News of the Red Stockings spread throughout America as they continued an incredible winning streak, defeating all challengers in their way including the teams they faced on a tour to San Francisco.  The experiences of these trailblazing ‘ballists’ are brought to life here, as are the reactions of contemporaries to their exploits, the dangerous problems caused by gamblers and the genuine doubts felt over whether the game had a professional future.  

While the baseball content proves that Brock is a considerable historian, the many other features of ‘If I Never Get Back’ show that he is also an excellent novelist.  The level of detail relating to baseball are mirrored by the vivid descriptions of 1860s America that allow you to lose yourself in the story in the same way that Fowler does.  From the meetings with his hero Mark Twain, to the romance and political intrigue, they all blend together to make this a novel that compels you to keep reading.   

A sequel was released in 2002 called ‘Two in the Field’, which contains less baseball content but is reportedly another fine effort.  After reading ‘If I Never Get Back’, I could easily believe it.  For baseball fans, it’s an incredible insight into the early steps of professional baseball, albeit with some storyline embellishments thrown in.  More generally, Brock’s eye for historical detail is combined with a great story to make this an excellent read.

Have you read “If I Never Get Back’? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.

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6 comments

Joe Cooter January 28, 2009 - 12:48 pm

I’ve never had a chance to read that book, but I am well aware of the book but sadly haven’t had a chance to read it. My dad has a paperback copy of the book and said that it was a great read.

That being said, the Wright Family is more important families in the early history of both baseball and Cricket. In addition to founding the first professional baseball club in the united states (which is still in operation by the way) Both George and Harry Represented the United States in Cricket at the international level.
Here are George’s stats courtesy of Cric Info : http://content-usa.cricinfo.com/usa/content/player/25849.html

Here are Harry’s bio courtesy of Cric Info: http://content-usa.cricinfo.com/usa/content/player/328880.html

Finally, Here is their father Sam’s bio from Cricinfo: http://content-usa.cricinfo.com/usa/content/player/318980.html

Basically the family came to the States when Sam Wright took a Job in New York as the head groundskeeper and club professional at the Saint George’s Cricket Club. Sadly, that club is no longer in existence, although I’m not sure what happened to it. The last reference I have found is from an Article in the New York Times around 1930. AFter that it seems to have disapeared.

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Matt Smith January 28, 2009 - 7:00 pm

Thanks for the info Joe. It’s interesting to read their profiles on Cricinfo, not least because they show how cricket and baseball coexisted in America in the mid to late 1800s.

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Joe Cooter January 28, 2009 - 7:09 pm

It’s certainly true that Baseball and Cricket co-existed. I still think they can co-exist under the right circumstances. By the way, it would come as a surprise to most baseball fans that Cricketers use baseball gloves in their warmups. Although, they aren’t allowed to use them in competition. I have had this fantasy about english cricket lately, that maybe they’ll follow the trend set forth by other countries and hire a coach with baseball experience to work on their teams fielding. It just so happens that going on at the same time of their tour of the West Indies is the WBC, it’s not that long a flight from St. Kitts to Puerto Rico, or even Toronto. Maybe they can pay a vist to one of these locations and recruit a coach with professional experience.

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Matt Smith January 28, 2009 - 7:41 pm

Certainly other teams have benefitted from using the expertise of baseball coaches to help with fielding; Australia being the prime example. England’s coaching structure is in a bit of disarray at the moment though, with the manager/head coach having been sacked recently.

I found an article from 2007 about cricket and baseball coaches which includes a quote from Craig Savage of the sadly now defunct Brighton Buccaneers baseball team. This states that he did have some involvement with Sussex County Cricket club.

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Joe Gray November 17, 2009 - 10:57 pm

I didn’t want to comment till I’d read the book – hence the 10-month delay here…

The only annoying thing about this book is that the historical context of the book has been given so much care and attention that it’s difficult at times to become immersed without suddenly snapping back into reality with another thought about just how much effort the writer put in.

Take away this historical detail and you still have a great story. And take away the gripping story too and you still have some fine baseball writing.

A truly incredible work of fiction – and probably more important to read (and more educational) than many well-regarded non-fiction books on baseball.

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BaseballGB » Book Review: Strike Zone by Jim Bouton and Eliot Asinof October 17, 2010 - 9:42 pm

[…] too, as you can tell from reading his excellent reviews that the following links take you to) are If I Never Get Back by Darryl Brock, Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris, and The Universal Baseball Association by […]

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