Give novelist Gregory J. Lalire credit for a truly original storyline: What if the sport of baseball originated in America’s western frontier early in the 19th century?
That’s the plot of “Our Frontier Pastime: 1804-1815,” starring one Benjamin Batman Bunt. He got his middle name because he was born in a cave that his mother had to share with bats. But soon enough, bats of the wooden kind found today at Busch Stadium became a key part of Bunt’s life.
As the tale begins, Bunt tags along with the Lewis and Clark expedition as it heads west toward the Pacific. As a frontiersman, Bunt has little to offer. But as a creator, he’s carrying in his mind the outlines of a game involving bats, balls and bases. And here and there on the trail, he finds Indians willing to try this new game.
Trouble is, that storyline begins to fray when it’s stretched out for more than 400 pages. And some local women may take umbrage at this conversational passage, set in St. Louis:
“‘You don’t got a woman, huh?’
“‘Coin shortage? No work?’
“‘Too often they go hand and hand in this town.’
“‘Work and money?’
“‘Coin and women.’”
Oh sure, author Lalire sprinkles some witty gems on his pages. For example:
• “Home base” becomes “home plate” when an honest-to-goodness plate gets pressed into service.
• When Indian players kill and cook Bunt’s pet, the term “ballpark hot dog” gets a new meaning.
• Among the book’s key players is pitcher Early Win. Readers of a certain age will instantly get the reference to real-life pitcher Early Wynn. He won a bunch of 1950s games for — of course — the real-life Cleveland Indians.
Otherwise … well, Abner Doubleday can rest in peace. He’s still safe at home in Cooperstown.
Harry Levins of Manchester retired in 2007 as senior writer of the Post-Dispatch.