Mark Richardson —
Mickey Rawlings is a baseball player. He’s also a sleuth. He does not solve murders because he has a yen to be a detective. Rather, he has murders thrust upon him–murders which neither the police nor anyone else seems to want solved. And that leaves Mickey to solve them.
Rawlings is a major league utility infielder whose skills are good enough to keep him in the major leagues, but not polished enough to allow him to secure a starting job. He is something of a journeyman, finding himself on a new team each season. He is the central character in a series of mysteries (not surprisingly called The Mickey Rawlings Baseball Mysteries) penned by author Troy Soos. Rawlings plays in the 1910s and 1920s, and it is during this time frame that each book is set. He was first introduced in the 1994 novel called Murder At Fenway Park. This was followed in short order by Murder At Ebbetts Field (1995), Murder At Wrigley Field (1996), Hunting A Detroit Tiger (1997), The Cincinnati Red Stalkings (1998), and Hanging Curve (1999). Soos then put the Rawlings series aside and concentrated his attention on a group of historical mysteries set in 1880s and 1890s New York City, featuring a different crime solver. Then, in 2014, fifteen years after we had last seen him, Mickey Rawlings returned in the reprise of the baseball murder mysteries with the publication of The Tomb That Ruth Built. This was a title to make a baseball fan smile, as anyone who follows baseball knows that New York’s Yankee Stadium was called The House That Ruth Built, as it was erected just as Ruth came into his own as the greatest slugger of all time.
I had never heard of Troy Soos, or of Mickey Rawlings, until a friend, with whom I was discussing a mutual love of detective fiction, asked me whether or not I had read these books. Knowing that I also love baseball, he recommended them very highly, and I am so appreciative that he did. But, as with any good mystery, you don’t really have to have a baseball background to enjoy them. You do, however, have to be willing to absorb a lot of baseball history, as the books are filled with it, peopled by real ball players, managers and owners of the time and real events which envelop the mystery. I have, to this point in time, only read Murder At Wrigley Field and Murder At Fenway Park.
So, Murder At Wrigley Field (the first one I read) is set during the 1918 season, a season which was shortened by America’s participation in World War I, and a season in which the Cubs won the National League pennant. Rawlings has been acquired by the Cubs to fill the role of utility man, and he is assigned as his road roommate, a young player of German extraction. This is during a time when anti-German fervor was running high–coleslaw was referred to as “liberty cabbage,” German Americans changed their names to Smith and Jones–and Mickey’s new roommate becomes the target of this misguided patriotism. He is insulted and assaulted by fans and teammates alike, but holds steadfastly to his roots. He refuses to change his name or to deny his heritage. One day, as he is standing in the outfield at Wrigley Field just a few feet from Rawlings, a gunshot rings out, and the young player falls dead on the grass. The police, without doing any real investigating, call it an accidental killing, the result of someone’s Fourth of July celebration having gone awry. Rawlings doesn’t think so. But when he approaches the team’s owner (actual Cubs owner Charles Wheegman, who later sold the team to the Wrigleys), he is told that the police have closed the case and he had better just leave it alone. Needless to say, he does not.
The story goes on, the mystery deepens, and Rawlings finds himself the target of the killer’s next move. The police are calling the murder accidental, no one seems to want to look at the facts, and Mickey is left to his own devices to try and understand why his roomie was killed. He digs and digs, asking all the wrong people all the right questions, and he spends more time having to watch his back than watching pitches. When all is said and done, Rawlings does determine who and why, and Wrigley Field is restored to its status of ballpark instead of murder scene.
In Murder At Fenway Park, one of the game’s great historic ballparks is again the scene of a brutal murder. This was the first book in the Rawlings series. Mickey is a raw rookie, just called up to play for the Red Sox during the 1912 season, Fenway Park’s inaugural season. As the new kid wanders around the tunnels beneath the stands looking for a way out onto the field, he comes upon the badly beaten corpse of a man lying in the dark of the underground area beneath the park. The man has been beaten to death with a baseball bat, which is still lying nearby, his face pounded beyond recognition. The stadium police are summoned, a Red Sox front office official arrives, and after a little questioning, Rawlings is free to go. He has no blood on him, but is told that he is a suspect, nonetheless, and is instructed to say nothing to anybody. For several days, he searches the newspapers looking for the story about the dead man at Fenway, but no story ever appears. Then, one day a story shows up about a major league player, Red Corriden ( a real-life player), whose badly beaten, badly decomposed body has been found under a bridge several miles from Fenway. It takes some time, and some twists and turns, but it becomes evident to Mickey that the body of Corriden is the same one he stumbled upon in the ballpark. So how did it get placed under a bridge so far away, why, and who was responsible? As in Murder At Wrigley Field, the police are singularly undisposed to solve the case…they deny that there is really even a case to solve. The official story is that Corriden was mugged, robbed and beaten to death. There is no record of a body being found at Fenway Park. So Rawlings has a complex mystery on his hands. As in the Wrigley Field book, baseball’s officials want no questions asked, and asking them ruffles all the wrong feathers. Again, Mickey becomes the killer’s next target, barely escaping with his life twice. The murder turns out to revolve around a true baseball event. In the previous baseball season, 1911, Ty Cobb and Napolean Lajoie were involved in a neck-and-neck race for the American League batting title. At stake was a Chalmers automobile, which was the finest, most expensive car of its day, and one of which had been promised by the Chalmers Company to the winner of the batting crown. On the final day of the season, Cobb led the race by a small margin and he elected to sit out the game to preserve his average. Lajoie’s Cleveland Indians were playing the St. Louis Browns. The Browns players and manager, like most others in baseball, hated the volatile, vitriolic Cobb, and wanted to see Lajoie win the title, and the car. So, upon orders from his manager, the third baseman – yes, it was Red Corriden – played almost out in left field, leaving the whole left side of the infield open to Lajoie, who took advantage of the situation and laid down bunt after bunt for a series of infield hits that gave him the batting championship. This calumny did not go unnoticed by the American League president Ban Johnson, who ordered the Browns manager fired and the player whose idea had originated the scheme banned from the game. So, thinks Mickey, there were two guys who just might feel some anger toward Corriden, who they suspected had defended himself with Johnson by telling him that he did not play deep on his own, but that he had been ordered to do so.
Mickey learns all of this, and with the help of his newspaperman friend Kael Landfors (who is a recurring character in the books and serves as a kind of “Watson”), he puts two and two together. After all the necessary twists, he figures out what’s been going on and who is responsible. Rawlings’ character is kind of an endearing fellow, if a bit of an inept ballplayer. As one of his teammates says, Mickey “don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew, don’t chase broads, don’t gamble, and you still can’t hit .250. You’re the kind of guy who gives clean living a bad name.” But his investigatory skills are well-honed, and in the end he solves another complex mystery.
Each of the books is rife with red herrings, the requisite number of plausible suspects, lots of action, and many perplexing clues. In each, one of the most intriguing suspects is killed, thereby eliminating him as the murderer. There are patterns which are repeated, but each is its own original story, and they are great fun. I have not read the rest of the series yet. I find that there is something about mysteries that causes me to muddle them together if I read two or three in a row by the same author, whereas I can keep them straight quite nicely if I read something else between them. I have the other books in this series lying in my “To Be Read Soon” pile, and I will be getting to them in short order. I have a taste now for Mickey Rawlings and his bad luck in becoming involved in murders at the ballpark.