Baseball Books Reviewed: Hutch: Baseball's Fred Hutchinson and a Legacy of Courage

HUTCH: Baseball's Fred Hutchinson and a Legacy of Courage written by Mike Shannon and illustrated by Scott Hannig. (McFarland and Co., 224 pg., $24.95.). PB, 2011.

As SPITBALL’s fiction editor, I have perused hundreds of short story submissions to the magazine, and as a collector of adult baseball fiction, I’ve read at least two hundred novels and have several hundred more sitting on shelves, waiting patiently for their turn.

So I’m still a bit taken aback when I see baseball books in the burgeoning graphic novel genre with a non-fiction, biographical subject like Roberto Clemente (See my review of Wilfred Santiago’s excellent effort, “21” on this website), or Fred Hutchinson. Yet it appears that this format is actually rather well suited for specific treatments, especially when the subject is sufficiently focused. In Santiago’s “21”, for example, we learn a lot about the immigrant experiences and familial struggles of a legendary and very well-known superstar, while very little game action is depicted or described (or needed: we know all about The Great One’s career already).

However, there are a plethora of baseball personalities whose stories may not fit very well into a traditional, full-length biography, yet their lives and careers are interesting, historically significant, even inspiring.

Fred Hutchinson may be the quintessential example of this, and Shannon and Hannig have forged an effective partnership to bring Hutch’s story to light.

Beginning with the cover, a lovely watercolor painting of the iconic manager from the waist up in his popular Reds’ sleeveless pinstriped home jersey, vividly rendered on a sky blue background (and a wonderfully clever homage to those fabulous Ozzie Sweet photographic portraits that graced the cover of SPORT Magazine throughout the 1950’s and ‘60’s), HUTCH sends a clear message to the reader that the illustrator loves both his subject and the era of baseball encompassed in the book.

The book’s illustrations – of course, the main vehicle used to move a graphic novel’s narrative forward - are a joy from first page to last, both in the quality and skill of the mostly representational artwork, but also in the playfulness and originality of the panel choices. Hannig, a multi-talented artist who also creates miniature stadium scoreboard desk clocks, takes every opportunity possible to include stadium scenes. We see aerial views, scoreboard advertising, even vendors and clean-up crews at work. And make sure you study each finely detailed panel closely, or you’ll miss a clever joke or a famous face. Hannig is also adept at realistic action poses and faces. Frank Robinson really looks like Frank Robinson, an essential task for any graphic novel illustrator.

Seamlessly melding art with the written word, Shannon employs a chronological structure, beginning with the dark events surrounding the 1919 World Series between the victorious Cincinnati Reds and the infamous Black Sox, to introduce Hutchinson’s story, who was born that year and seemed to possess a preternatural tendency to be present during some of baseball history’s most significant events -Hutchinson, for example, made his major league debut in the same game that ended "Iron Man" Lou Gehrig's consecutive games-played streak. In the first couple of chapters we follow Hutchinson from his Seattle roots through his minor league apprenticeship to his career in the majors, first as a good-hitting pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, next as a 33-year old player-manager for those same Bengals, and then as a "Manager of the Year" skipper for the storied St. Louis Cardinals. Appropriately, the lion’s share of the book covers Hutch's stint managing in Cincinnati, especially the gloriously unexpected pennant-winning 1961 season. And while the graphic novel layout does not usually lend itself easily to large amounts of factual information, there’s a surprising amount throughout the book, and even more in the well-researched endnotes.

The publisher also deserves a nod for including colored pages at the beginning of each chapter and also for each appearance of a team’s logo or mascot. After reading several pages of black-and-white type and artwork, the brightly colored bursts of the screaming Milwaukee Brave, Toledo Mudhen, or a full page of Hutchinson in a Detroit uniform are a delightful surprise at each encounter. There are only a few niggling typos, fewer than might be expected for a book containing hundreds and hundreds of illustrations.

Fred Hutchinson enjoyed a varied, successful, and important career in baseball, but his legacy of courage alluded to in the book’s subtitle refers to his early death from cancer and the strength and stoicism he exhibited as he vainly battled the disease during the 1964 season. The authors foreshadow his illness throughout the book, highlighting the devastating effects of smoking to readers of all ages. Still, the overall message of HUTCH is definitely uplifting, as is the award that bears his name, presented annually since 1965 to the baseball player who exhibits “the courage and character of Fred Hutchinson.”

Buy on Amazon

Reviewed by: Mark W. Schraf (August 5, 2011)