By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
College was, as he puts it, "my period of falling away from the Church," which was existentially apropos, given that he spent most of those years at Northwestern, a scant 45-minute train ride north of the shrine to hopelessness known as Wrigley Field. He briefly considered a career in broadcasting and then started writing. "I started with poetry," he says (cue self-deprecating groan). "I did free verse. Then I decided I wanted to write fiction."
Schuster's first wife was a St. Louisan, and they moved here in 1977, where he slowly fell back into the habit of following the Cardinals as he pursued a career in journalism. He spent several years in the mid- and late-1980s on the staff of St. Louis magazine and then Riverfront Times before switching over to teaching full-time and freelancing for other magazines, including the Cardinals' own Gameday and the late, lamented Sport. In total, he estimates, he has written 600 articles.
During his time at RFT, his editor assigned him a review of the most recent edition of the Baseball Encyclopedia, an enormous, ungainly compendium of a century's worth of major league teams, players and statistics. Paging through the data-drenched volume, wondering how one might properly "review" such a beast, he noticed something: There were a lot of entries for players who had spent very little time in the big leagues, logging only a handful of plate appearances or innings pitched — and in some cases no statistics at all.
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Like Doug Clarey. "He played a handful of games for the Cardinals in 1976," Schuster says. "He had four at-bats and one hit." That hit, the Encyclopedia indicated, was a home run. Nowadays an Internet connection and a few clicks of a mouse can tell you pretty much everything you could possibly want to know about Doug Clarey's dinger. Twenty-five years ago, Joe Schuster had to do it the old-school way: He tracked down Doug Clarey. "It was a home run in the 16th inning to win a game," the writer recounts, adding that Clarey had long since left baseball and was making a living selling commercial real estate. (He now runs a pizza restaurant in LA.)
Doug Clarey and his extraordinary baseball career arc stuck with Schuster: What stories lay behind the scant stats of these "cup of coffee players," guys who accomplished the rare feat of reaching the big leagues, only to vanish from the box scores with barely a trace? Clarey, it turned out, was one of the wiser ones, who understood when his time was up and went willingly back out into what Edward Everett and the other players in The Might Have Been refer to as "the World." ("Sell straw," Edward Everett's Triple-A manager counsels him after the hobbled rookie receives his official release from the Cardinals.)
"He pitched a short time for the Cards in 1945 — seventeen games," says Schuster. "After that he hung on in the minor leagues, sinking further and further. By the time he left, he was managing in Class-C ball. The sad thing was, in the archives I came across a letter from his widow from after he died. A researcher had contacted her to confirm some facts about his life and get his death certificate. He'd become a bartender and died of cirrhosis. In the letter she'd written that if there were any funds for widows of ballplayers, she'd like to know about it, because she could use the money.
"It was such a sad story," Schuster continues. "It epitomized the notion that you get a taste and then you're not able to let the game go until the game gets rid of you."
Quietly, that germ of a story line put down roots in a cool dark corner at the back of Joe Schuster's mind. Then, finally, it emerged in the form of Edward Everett Yates, whose stint in the bigs begins and ends within the novel's first twenty pages and makes Clarey and Gardner seem like grizzled Hall of Famers by comparison: Fresh off the bus from Springfield, he makes his major league debut at Busch Stadium as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the 17th inning. He does what he's told and lays down a successful sacrifice bunt to move the game-winning run from second base to third, tallying for himself neither a hit nor an out nor even an official at-bat. Weeks pass before he gets his next chance, a spot in the starting lineup on a soggy afternoon in Montreal, where he proceeds to hit a single, double, triple and home run in the first four innings — a rare feat known as hitting for the cycle. But with two outs and rain pouring down in the Expos' half of the fifth, Edward Everett makes a futile leap for an inning-ending catch and one of his cleats gets stuck in the chain-link fence in Jarry Park's right field. By the time he's carried off the field, the umpires have halted play and sent everyone home.