With baseball season nearly over, it's fascinating to note that Carole Lombard is a prominent character in one of the more interesting baseball-related novels of recent years, "All The Stars Came Out That Night" by Kevin King.
The premise deals with a baseball gane that purportedly took place in the fall of 1934 between the best players of the all-white major leagues and the top Negro Leagues' stars at the behest of Henry Ford. (It was supposedly kept a secret, with no publicity.)
How does Carole figure into this? Well, first of all, we know she was a baseball fan, as the photo above makes evident. (It was taken at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, home of the minor-league Los Angeles Angels, when the New York Giants held spring training in L.A. in the early '30s.) While there's no record that Carole ever attended an official major-league game -- remember, there was no big-league ball played west of Missouri until the Giants and Dodgers fled New York City for California in 1958 -- Lombard went to her share of Pacific Coast League games involving the Angels or crosstown rival Hollywood Stars, as this late '30s photo with Clark Gable makes clear:
Anyway, Carole is making a movie with George Raft, who played semi-pro baseball with Leo Durocher, who with St. Louis Cardinals teammate Dizzy Dean is helping organize the major-league team. (Satchel Paige does likewise for the Negro Leagues stars.) Dean, famed attorney Clarence Darrow and two kidnapper-enforcers hired by Ford go out to the West Coast to see if Raft can help them recruit Joe DiMaggio, a teenage phonom with the San Francisco Seals. Lombard tags along and eventually winds up as one of the few spectators allowed to witness the secret game.
We don't meet Lombard until nearly halfway through the book, but the first description of her makes it worth the wait: "Carole was wearing the kind of gown for Carole-kind-of-women, the kind of garment you don't want to see Little Orphan Annie in." Oh, the narrator? Walter Winchell, speaking from the grave; he too saw the game but was sworn to secrecy. Perhaps his posthumous status gave him a sort of omniscience, but at least he actually did know Lombard -- witness this "gag" photo from a San Simeon costume party:
There's later a party at Lombard's house on Hollywood Boulevard, where the guests include Louella Parsons, William Haines, Joan Crawford and W.C. Fields. And before the big ballgame, Carole plays tennis with one of Ford's hired men, then spends some intimate time with him.
King has a pretty good sense of Carole's character, as evident from this response when one of the henchmen said he was privileged just to talk to her:
"When you get to know me, you'll know I'm just plain folks like you. When you're on the big screen, you seem bigger than life. Your head gets swelled and you walk around like it's just as big as it is in the movie theater. It's a trick sometimes to shrink it down to where it's reality-sized."
You can imagine her saying something like that -- and it encapsulates why she still has legions of admirers nearly two-thirds of a century after she left us.
The book as a whole? Good, but not entirely satisfying. The game takes place at Boston's Fenway Park (supposedly the portable lighting system is stashed nearby), but King has residents of Boston talking about the "curse of the Bambino" -- a phrase that nobody used at the time (it was the creation of Boston sportswriters in the 1970s). So there is a sense King is playing to the current audience, for whom the Red Sox have become a quasi-literary yuppie obsession. (Boston was a two-team town in 1934, but from his account, you would never have known the Braves existed.)
And while DiMaggio was the best teen player in the Pacific Coast League, he wasn't its MVP. That honor went to Frank Demaree, 24-year-old first baseman of the Angels, who won the PCL Triple Crown that year (45 homers, .383 average, 173 RBI). In fact, the '34 Angels, one of the legendary teams in minor-league history, posted an incredible 137-50 record for a .733 winning percentage, finishing an amazing 35-1/2 games ahead of the second-place Mission Reds. They so dominated the PCL from the outset that league officials, fearing late-season lack of interest, decided to go to a split-season format after the season began -- but the Angels won the second half too, then beat a team of PCL all-stars in a postseason series. None of that is mentioned in the book, even offhand.
From a Lombard perspective, there's an especially egregious error: it shows Carole in a quasi-romantic relationship with Gable in the fall of 1934. While she and Clark occasionally ran into each other at the time, nothing went on between them until early 1936. And mid-October 1934 had been about only six weeks since the bizarre death of Russ Columbo, Lombard's love at the time, and he's not even mentioned.
King cites Larry Swindell's Lombard biography "Screwball" as one of his references, and even notes that he was going to have Lombard face Alice Marble in a tennis match until learning that Marble was recovering from a serious injury in the fall of '34. One wishes he had exercised similar care elsewhere.
The book is fun; there's a scene during the ballgame (the results of which I won't spoil for you) where an emergency umpire is needed and Paige, looking towards the few people in the ballpark, says, "There's Carole Lombard up there. Guess she'd know what balls is, but I don't know about strikes." However, it's a novel you merely like on subjects you dearly love. "All The Stars Came Out That Night" swings for the fences, but is only a ground-rule double, not quite a home run.