Friday, October 2, 2009

A Pennant for the Kremlin

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of A Pennant for the Kremlin (Doubleday, 1964).

There's not much available that I could find about Paul Molloy, the late Chicago Sun-Times columnist who penned this Cold War-era comedy. I ran across a copy at a long-forgotten used bookstore here in Atlanta's Poncey-Highlands neighborhood and chuckled at the cover art by "Franklyn Modell," about whom I can find no information at all. It reminds me of a style you used to see in Playboy cartoons in the sixties and seventies and so I figured, rightly, that it was worth a couple of bucks.

A Pennant for the Kremlin suggests that through a quick comedy of errors, the Soviet government ends up owning the Chicago White Sox. In a fit of pique that would one day inspire the sort of behavior that would drive my parents to loathe Ted Turner, an ultra-rich hotel magnate wills everything to the Reds - no, not the ones in Cincinnati - while finalizing plans to buy a consortium that owns, apart from some desired hotel properties, the White Sox. Then he dies and the Soviets end up owning an American baseball team, and send a Hollywood-approved group of Russians to manage their interest. You've got the wiser-and-shrewder-than-he-looks new manager, who dresses in a half-suit/half-Sox uniform, and his cute twentysomething daughter, who gets to fall in love with the world-weary team star, and you've also got a minder who keeps grouchily reporting everything back to Moscow and who signs all the players up for subscriptions to the worker's newspapers, and if you can read this guy without visualizing Peter Bull, who played the Soviet ambassador in Dr. Strangelove, then you weren't paying close enough attention to the movie.

I say "Hollywood-approved," and frankly, the whole thing feels like the novelization of a film that never actually happened. Even setting aside the unchallenging nature of the storyline, from one plot contrivance to the next, it really feels like everything happens in an entirely predictable series of beats. You can even see the slow dissolves from one scene to the next. If you tried to film this today as a period piece and even got the designers from Mad Men to make it look right, I doubt it would work. It's emphatically a product of its time.

That's not to say it was a disappointing read, just a quick and dated one. There are certainly some funny moments, particularly when Pravda sends a propaganda-spewing idiot to cover what's going on, and he sends back a scathing first-hand report of a Cubs game while the Sox are out of town. There are also some really well-written and touching moments, especially when our Soviet friend - his eventual defection coming as no surprise whatsoever - reflects on the great variety of truly different people that he's encountered in pre-Wal-Mart America, a scene which goes on for several beautifully-written pages.

But in the end analysis, this is hardly a book screaming out for a new edition and a reappraisal. The grouchy, played-by-Peter Bull character pulls a third act Kremlin scheme to replace the Sox with ringers from Cuba, a ploy which explodes in his face (guess how) and prompts an international incident which must be discussed at the United Nations. The resulting scene is the most dated thing you can imagine, and not just in the way it starts so solemnly and importantly before all the diplomats start engaging in light-hearted banter about their countries' national pastimes. Never mind that the book was written in a time when the Athletics were still in St. Louis, this was written back when the general public still held a great deal of optimism and hope for what the UN might accomplish. These days, one way or another, people's minds have been made up. Worth tracking down as a curiosity for readers intrigued by how perceptions have changed over the last several decades.


Anonymous said...

I love your "review"
of my dad's book. It, "A Pennant for the Kremlin,"
was written by a guy (my dad) who was there at the dawn of television, and who came to the U.S. via Montreal--- Canada--to work as, none other than an American Journalist! His first language being French, he was given, after his first year/beat (the morgue), a better job--journalist--from Time Magazine to Chicago Sun Times--

Not long after this, he was promoted to radio/t.v. critic for the Chicago Sun Times.

He really did fall for baseball in America. Maybe I should say "baseball and America," as they were sort of conjoined back then.

At any rate, you put a "dated" story, by way of criticism, into perspective. It was a different time, then. The "Cold War" was the "bogeyman" defining America.

Interestingly,the rights to the book were bought way back when ---a movie was to be made that never was made--Walter Matthau was to be the "star." It wasn't written to be a movie, necessarily...but in its day it had "movie" written all over it.."

So, uou got it right. Dated, it is, to put it nicely. On the other hand, plug the Taliban in where the "Russians" are in the same story... And, well..perceptions have changed...but...a good deal stays the same--no?

James Hull said...

I read this book as a kid not long after it came out and it has stuck in my memory to this day. I actually think it is a better book than anybody gives it credit for. And is it a Cold War artifact? Absolutely so. But maybe one getting at some of nuances, complexities and ambiguities of Cold War attitudes in a more subtle fashion than might be obvious to somebody reading through it today. And I say that as a professional historian.

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

One of my dad's favorite books in the '60s. When I found it in a used bookstore in the '80s I bought it for him and he was delighted. He died in 2002 and it now holds an important place in my own collection. Dated? Sure. But it really reflects the zeitgeist of the times in a way "Mad Men" didn't.
How cool that the author's son commented!

Anonymous said...

As A 10-year-old White Sox fan, I loved this book (except for the ending, when the Sox -- as in real life -- failed to win the World Series). Slight correction to your review, however; the Athletics played in Kansas City, not St. Louis.

Anonymous said...

The book was turned into a play and, for reasons I will never understand, our high librarian chose it as our senior class play. (I had a very, very small part. And, yes, there are small parts along with small actors.) It turned out to be a perfect tonic for a group of students who over the years seemed to draw very deep, heavy plays as they moved along grade by grade. It was a very fun play to do and some of my classmates had us rolling with their "Russian" accents. A very fond memory.

Randy Davison said...

I discovered my love for technical live theatre when our high school class produced "A Pennant for the Kremlin" in 1965. My overriding memory of the class' reaction was how much fun it was to make fun of the Russians. We were children of the cold war. My house had a fallout shelter in the basement. So making light of the boogey men seemed to make them less...
In retirement I'm now the Technical Director of a local community theatre group and it all started with "A Pennant for the Kremlin."