Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Review: Hutch by Shannon and Hannig

From Hutch: Baseball’s Fred Hutchinson and a Legacy of Courage
© 2011 Written by Mike Shannon Illustrated by Scott Hannig
by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc.
Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640.
NB: Having received permission to use the image on the right from the kind folks at McFarland & Company, I'm reposting this review to draw attention to Scott Hanning's lovely art work.

While the Pirates rolled over the Reds on Tuesday night, I read Mike Shannon and Scott Hannig's graphic novel biography of Fred Hutchinson, Hutch.

An under-appreciated pitcher in his era, Hutch boasted great command but never racked up enough wins to garner more than a single All-Star appearance. His Tigers teams of baseball's golden age were overshadowed in the American League by the Yankees, who would take the pennant in seven of Hutch's ten seasons. In the only World Series appearance of his career, at age 20, he pitched one inning, gave up a homerun and walked a batter.

Clearly, this is the story of a good man who never stood at the peak of his craft, but who loved the game and worked hard anyway. He'd become a player-manager with the Tigers, and then win Manager of the Year for the Cardinals. Then, he'd lead the Cincinnati Reds to the 1961 pennant. But the Yankees in '61 where the Yankees of Mantle and Maris, and the Reds would lose in five games. That was Hutch's last pennant; in the spring of 1964, he'd share with the world that he was battling lung cancer, and 3 weeks after the end of the season, he died. Baseball would create the Hutch Award in his memory.

Shannon and Hannig have set themself a difficult but admirable task: to bring a second-tier hero of the 50s and 60s to life. They do this in part by establishing (dubiously) Hutches' place in the history of the game: he's born the year of the Black Sox scandal; he makes his MLB debut May 2, 1939 against the Yankees, on the day Lou Gehrig removes himself from the lineup; his managerial career sees the arrival of Frank Robinson and Pete Rose. They try to position him as a bridge across distinct eras of baseball.

The book's big flaw is that neither the writing nor the artwork takes the lead at any point in the story. Rather than a series of scenes, rather than capturing voices and characters, the narrative is expository occasionally punctuated by a press quote. This "reading the box score" approach might be alright with visionary art to accompany it, but the books' 2x3 frames creep along page after page. Individually, Hannig's watercolor inspired frames are lovely, clearly the product of Hannig's search for the "specific, historical detail" Shannon references in the preface. And don't be deterred by this gentle criticism; in the same way that Hutch himself had a distinguished career without entering the Hall of Fame, this is a great book for baseball fans of all stripes, especially for those who love comics and graphic novels (like me!).

But because there is so little dialogue and so much of the action occurs on the field, Hannig's art feels like snapshots of ballplayers too cartoonish to be photo-realism, but not childish enough to capture the innocence of cartoons. I compare Hannig's work with the vibrant and evocative watercolor art of a book like Kate Williamson's in At a Crossroads: Caught Between a Rock and My Parents' Place, and I can't help seeing how a more dreamlike quality could have deepened the book's impact. If we're not old enough to remember these players, to bring with us our connections to them, Hutch doesn't bring them to life compellingly enough to make us cheer in the dramatic and heartbreaking moments.

And there are heartrending moments in Hutch; this is a story worth telling. The book is meticulously endnoted, with 20 pages of additional material, a bibliography and a detailed index of its 184 page story. This is a book of research meant for a classroom or for a museum.

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