Marshall Umpleby: One who was one writes about the boys of summer
By M J Daspit
You donâ€™t have to love baseball to love baseball books. Just as Ray Kinsella found the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson in his Iowa cornfield, so skilled writers find poetry in the diamondâ€™s symmetry and the unforgiving mathematics of balls, strikes and outs. Local author Marshall Umpleby follows in this tradition with his new book Delayed Steal. In a recent discussion, he talked about how the book evolved and why baseball will always be close to his heart.
MJ: Delayed Steal is chock full of interesting â€˜what-do-you-knowsâ€™: that your father played in the bush leagues of New England against future hall of famer Leo â€œGabbyâ€ Hartnett, that Hartnettâ€™s sister Anna played alongside her brothers in the bush leagues, and that playing for Wesleyan University your father got a double off Columbia pitcher Lou Gehrig. Why did you decide to write your book as a novel instead of nonfiction?
MU: DS is definitely not a novel, nor is it non-fiction. My publisher insisted on calling it a memoir, but I won the battle and call it fiction. The original collection of short stories was written over a period of some 15 years. Most but not all of the stories concerned baseball, more or less. It was my daughterâ€™s idea to include only the â€œbaseballâ€ stories and link them via the father and the son. So I re-wrote the stories so that the names were consistent, hence it might seem to be a novel. Thus, much in the stories is true, but there is a great deal of fiction as well.
MJ: In the course of the narrative you recreate a lot of baseball games, sometimes pitch for pitch. How many years of score cards have you got in your attic?
MU: I have filled three books of scored games since 1994. Because of my unique (I like to think) scoring method, I can recreate these games pitch by pitch. Only a serious nut case would do this!
MJ: Why did you choose to call your book Delayed Steal?
MU: I chose to name the book after the first story, in part because it is the first story, in part because it is my favorite story.
MJ: So what does the term mean and is there a thematic significance in relation to the story of your fatherâ€™s game against the Hartnetts?
MU: Delayed steal has several meanings. First, it’s a baseball term referring to stealing a base. The younger brother wins the game by stealing home after the catcher returns the ball to the pitcher; hence, the delay. The second meaning refers to the younger brother “stealing” Anna from his older sibling at the very end of the story. And finally, Anna steals second base twice in that one game. What Freudian scholars would make of it, I haven’t a clue.
MJ: Delayed Steal is a book about a manâ€™s relationship with his father. Many of the stories depict the father as distant and not very supportive of a son trying to emulate him as a ballplayer. As the character of the son ages, he appears to accept his fatherâ€™s emotional limits, while harboring some resentment about the past. Does the fact that the two share a passion for baseball allow them to avoid the real issues dividing them while reminiscing about the game? Is baseball a healing agent or just a painkiller?
MU: Great question! To put it on a personal basis, baseball was the healing agent. My dad was never a warm and squishy guy. He was a typical independent, somewhat distant New Englander. But we shared many precious moments via our mutual love of baseball.
MJ: The book has one chapter about the father playing baseball as a kid and ten chapters primarily from the point of view of the son who ages progressively with each one. Which episode is your favorite and why?
MU: â€œDelayed Stealâ€ is my favorite story as I indicated above. It is pure fiction except that my dad and uncle did play against Gabby Hartnett and his sister Anna, and Anna did steal second base on him in one game as he noted in his memoir. That period of time on the edge of World War I seemed so idyllic to me.
MJ: In the course of the narrative the main characterâ€™s mother descends into hopeless alcoholism which is portrayed as a prime reason for her husbandâ€™s frustration and distance from the family. In the chapter called Mother and Son the mother is drinking and smoking in bed and sets the house on fire. Just before the fire erupts the son looks into his motherâ€™s room and finds her on the bed in a semi-nude poseâ€”one that leaves nothing to the imagination. What was your intent in tying those two events together?
MU: Because of the boyâ€™s guilt in looking at his motherâ€™s near nudity, he connects that act and the fire. He tries to tell his father that the fire was all his fault.
MJ: Hereâ€™s a Brian Lamb question. How do you writeâ€”in the morning, in the evening, on a computer, on a pad with a fountain pen?
MU: I write in the morning, as early as possible, on the computer with gallons of strong coffee as my only companion unlike my literary hero, William Faulkner, who would write all day with gallons of scotch. How he was able to do that remains a mystery.
MJ: Delayed Steal is your second book. Your first is a World War II novel titled On Falconâ€™s Wings. How did these two books differ in the writing? Do you feel that your craft has reached a higher level in the second book?
MU: The writing was very different. The short stories in DS were all inspired by real events in my life and were written over a lengthy period of time. Only one of them was written in the past two years. On Falcon’s Wings was also inspired by real events, i.e. the historical background of Reinhard Heydrichâ€™s assassination and its bloody aftermath for which I did considerable research. There is absolutely nothing autobiographical in it. The boys and their families are pure fiction. (Heydrich was a Nazi who had a major role in planning for the extermination of Jews. He was attacked in Prague in 1942 and died from his wounds.)
MJ: On the subject of writers and writing, what can you say about being a self-published author? Does it pencil out and would you recommend self-publishing to others?
MU: Had I to do it over again, I would not self-publish via iUniverse, PublishAmerica and the like. I would find an agent and suffer those slings and arrows. If I can be released from my seven year contract, I will revise On Falconâ€™s Wings, then seek an agent.
MJ: Whatâ€™s your next project?
MU: My second novel is entitled Tommie (working title). It is a tragic love story about a young girl and a boy who is desperately in love with her. Of course, they are both baseball players.