Wednesday, April 3, 2013

One Hit and One Strike Out

The anthology book Strange Sports Stories (published by DC Comics) ran for just six issues in 1973 & 74.

It's easy to see why it had a short run. It's a fun idea (sports-oriented stories given a supernatural or science fiction twist), but I suspect that the theme was limiting enough to give a lot of the stories a very contrived feel.

The very first issue (October 1973) is a good example of this. There's two stories in this one, both written by Frank Robbins and illustrated by Curt Swan. In the first, a pro baseball team plays against the devil for their souls, while in the second a group of supernatural creatures teach a teenager to.. um, well, to bowl. Because that's what supernatural creatures spend their time doing.

The first story--"To Beat the Devil"--is pretty good. A team called the Meteors is flying to the World Series when their plane is essentially hijacked by Satan. Satan will play them in a game. If they win, they go free. If he wins, he gets their souls.

The set-up is a little sloppy. The devil is pretty much just forcing them to play, possibly dooming them to Hell whether they were destined to eventually go there or not. There needed to be more of a hook. For instance, in the Charlie Daniels song "The Devil Goes Down to Georgia," the fiddle player was given a choice about whether to compete with the devil and would get a golden fiddle if he won. That's the sort of thing that needed to be happening here. I suspect there just wasn't time for anything more complex in a story that only runs 12 pages total.

Also, the Meteors manager and players accept the situation with remarkable aplomb, but I kind of like that despite it's lack of reality. Heck, professional baseball players have to deal with the unexpected, whether it be a grounder taking a bad hop or being kidnapped by the universe's Source of all Evil.

Once the game itself starts, the story does get interesting. The devil plays all nine positions on his team, teleporting from one spot to another as needed. He hits one home run in the first inning, all while keeping the Meteors scoreless.

When the manager realizes that Satan can't be in two places at once, he comes up with a plan for forcing his opponent into a forfeit. But a little bit of improvisation from the first baseman will be needed to make sure the plan works.

So despite a sloppy set-up, the overall story is reasonably well-executed. I remember reading this when it first came out and deciding that this was a fictional retelling of something that really happened to the 1969 Mets when they were flying to Baltimore for the first game of the World Series. There's nothing in the story that suggests this, but it was an idea that simply made the tale all that much more fun for me.

The second story, though, doesn't really work at all. Swan's art work makes it work great, but the concept and execution are just weak.

A teenager named Rip Van Wynne is a lousy bowler, tossing gutter ball after gutter ball as he embarrasses himself in front of his friends. He goes for a walk in the nearby woods and stumbles across the same guys who had put Rip Van Winkle to sleep a few centuries earlier.

They don't put Rip down for a 20-year nap. Instead, they give him a few bowling tips--enough to turn him into an instant expert. Returning to the bowling alley, Rip proceeds to bowl strike after strike.

But he'd been warned never to bowl a perfect game, because then he'd be guilty of the sin of vanity. So when he ignores this warning and tries to throw his last strike, one of the little people supernaturally kicks the ball into the gutter.

It's a silly ending to a silly story, because Rip wasn't acting like an arrogant jerk. The worst you can say about him was that he was hoping to impress one of the girls in his group of friends, but that doesn't sound all that horrible. Heck, it's not as if he were burning an entire civilization to the ground for the sake of the girl! 

The story makes it sound as if an athlete is guilty of vanity if he simply performs at his best level. Which is, of course, just plain dumb. An athlete might let vanity get the best of him when he wins--but he might also stay a humble and decent person. Bowling a perfect game is not inherently prideful.

If the story had simply depended on charm or humor to carry through with the idea, it might have worked. But the characters are too flat to generate either charm or humor.

"A Tall Tale of Tenpins" is a good example of why Strange Sports Stories didn't catch on. It was simply too limiting a theme for a monthly anthology comic. Weak and contrived plots, with the writer desperately trying to force a sports story into a fantasy or science fiction setting, were pretty much inevitable.

But the idea of the '69 Mets beating Satan in a game of baseball is wonderful. Heck, if the worst team in baseball can take the whole world by surprise when they suddenly win 100 games and take the Major League powerhouse Orioles in five games, then they likely could out-play the devil.  There's a part of me that still believes it really happened. I still don't care that the story doesn't hint at all that the Meteors secretly represent the Mets.

So--despite its flaws--I'm glad Strange Sports Stories was around.

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