Garden Road Shane Hill

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Shane Hill, perhaps the greatest barnstorming baseball team of the 19th century.

The odd thing about pitching a nonfiction work to literary agents is I don’t need to write anything, yet. A stark contrast to shopping a novel, where the manuscript must sparkle like a dragonfly’s wing in the sun. Or a book of poetry, which is often published through blind competition. With nonfiction, you either need a big name, a big idea, or both. At least, that is, if you desire to get paid for your work.

Shane Hill’s baseball team is perched like a perfectly groomed monkey on my back. Kind people have proclaimed it my burden to tell this story. I have gladly accepted. But I raise a family, run a newspaper, etc.

In conceiving the framework for Shane Hill, I have considered The Devil in the White City, in which Erik Larson is not content with one thread. The author follows the building of a massive, white, temporary home for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair lit by Tesla—and intertwines the worst serial killer in history picking victims from the swelling crowds.

I plan the Shane Hill story to end with the final called strike of the Great Flu. In the memorial Red Cross game of September of 1918, played to raise funds for the sausage factory of World War I, the virus spread in that crowd. For the sublimity of the real-life Field of Dreams, the reader must confront the hell of the worst pandemic in human history. All great art must deal with such contrasts.

Two main problems for me are gathering enough baseball material from second- and third-hand sources, and weaving the advent of the late 19th century renaissance of medical discovery with a bunch of farm kids good at throwing curveballs. One solution to the latter problem might be my own family, Doc Ingraham, who served during the outbreak of the Spanish Flu. As well, in 1890, while the fame of the Shane Hill baseball team was still at its height, the so-called Russian Flu killed an estimated one million worldwide. Modern travel spread it, as the Great War would spread the 1918 strain. Did the Russian Flu make its way through Wayne County? According to one source, more people died per capita in Iowa than any other State.

While my outline might resemble The Devil in the White City, the inspiration is The Field of Dreams. Hollie Souder is my Moonlight Graham. They both were one at bat away from stepping onto a Major League field. The pasture where Shane Hill’s story begins could not seem any farther from the New York Giants’ stadium. Next year, the gods of baseball will attempt to fit a regular season game between the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees into a former cornfield near Dyersville. If a work of fiction by William P. Kinsella could inspire such a strange sight, the Field of Dreams of the real world should draw its own crowd.

Local writers and historians Enfys McMurry, Shelda Lunsford and Brenda DeVore, to name a few, have already performed some heavy lifting. When McMurry contacted the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, they were interested in Shane Hill’s tale. That is a good start. More than any other sport, baseball is infatuated, haunted even, by its own history. Its roots don’t go much deeper than 1870s rural America, played by a group of immigrants and perfected by their children among hickory nut trees and stone bases.

And then there is Carl Whiteley, cartwheeling to his position at first base—he could’ve played himself in a film. In a photograph at Prairie Trails Museum of Wayne County in Corydon, Whiteley looks like a handsome movie star from any era of cinema, with charismatic eyes and hair perfectly combed. What I need are characters, and Whiteley is a good start; my hope is that his family lore has not been forgotten. I need details, like what made him angry, what kind of soap he used, did he wear a watch, write a journal, etc. In order to tell the story, I might have to visit with these players’ ghosts.