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.