Local author uses failures to inspire writing of baseball novel

| February 16, 2018 | 0 Comments

Tom Murray holds a copy of his novel about baseball in rural Iowa. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Tom Murray’s novel about fathers, sons and baseball in rural Iowa is a product of failure.

Its seed was planted after he made a big mistake during the football season his junior year at Burlington Notre Dame High School in southeast Iowa. Murray, 61, recalled the time when he was summoned off the bench to play defense during a game against West Burlington High School. It was only the second time he got to play in a game.

“I was a terrible football player,” Murray recalled. “A coach asked me to get into a game. I weighed about 170 pounds, looked like a broom handle with a football helmet on it.”

The coach asked him to do one simple thing: run three steps forward from the line of scrimmage into the opponent’s backfield after the ball was hiked, and stand there. Murray did so, but chased the quarterback when he ran away from him. That put him out of position when the quarterback handed off to a wide receiver running the opposite way on a reverse. Murray was caught off guard and was not ready to make the tackle.

“He came running right by me and went through the hole that I was supposed to be guarding, 89 yards for a West Burlington touchdown,” said Murray, who belongs to St. Joan of Arc in Minneapolis. “And, I never got to play again.”

He sat on the bench for the rest of the season.

He was 17 at the time, and he spent the rest of the year’s games watching what was happening around him. He noticed three coaches on the team who had retired from a different school and decided to help out at Burlington Notre Dame. He also caught teammates looking over their shoulders at their fathers in the stands. The shouts from the dads during games told Murray they were “living vicariously through their sons on the football field.”

By the time the season ended, he knew he wanted to write a novel based on his observations from the field, and he started it after graduating from the College of St. Thomas in 1978 and starting teaching in the Minneapolis school district.

Rather than football, however, he chose to write about baseball, a sport he also played, and he wrote about a town in northwest Iowa, Bancroft — which he calls Cottage Park in the book — rather than his hometown Burlington. “Fathers, Sons and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball” was published by Beaver’s Pond Press in Edina last year.

He finished his original manuscript in the late 1980s, and it quickly seemed to become another failure. He and his brother went to a book signing by J.F. Powers, a Catholic Minnesota writer he idolized, in 1989. When his turn came to meet Powers, he mentioned his book and boldly asked Powers if he could send it to him. Powers agreed.

Two weeks later, Murray received a letter from Powers.

Powers wrote that he hated Murray’s book and that he was too disgusted with it to even finish reading the full manuscript.

“He basically read the first 50 pages and said, ‘This is very bad. It’s not good at all. Life is too short. I can’t continue reading. Why do you punish the reader and, more importantly, why do you punish yourself?’” Murray recalled.

Murray said it was devastating. “I would have to say it was one of the low points of my life.”

He put the manuscript in a box on a shelf and didn’t touch it for 25 years.

In 2014, his father’s health began to decline and he decided to make some revisions and print a copy for his father before dementia completely settled in. But, he couldn’t finish it before his father’s death in 2016. So, Murray then decided to print four copies to give to each of his children.

An unexpected inheritance that could cover printing expenses inspired him to print 250. Then, a Catholic friend, Minneapolis City Council member Blong Yang, read it and asked for 200 copies to hand out to volunteers and supporters.

“Then I had to do a second edition of 750 books, and I was off to the races,” he said. “The people in this tiny little town of Bancroft, Iowa, started buying it for their sons and daughters who lived all around the United States.”

He just received his third edition of 1,000 copies and does readings at booksellers, including Barnes and Noble. Further publicity is coming from radio and TV appearances in Iowa.

The story centers on the intersection of baseball and Catholicism in rural Iowa, where towns have two bars and a Catholic church.

“This in a nutshell, is about a place where the lines between religion and sport — that being baseball — converge in all sorts of different places,” Murray said. “The seven sacraments are practiced on the baseball field or in the context of that baseball environment. So, baseball and Catholicism are one.”

Central characters are three grumpy old men who are always on the field chiding the boys in uniform. He named one of these characters, a catcher, “Powers” — out of gratitude, he said. He now has a different view of the criticism the author leveled against his book.

“It wasn’t until many, many years later that I recognized that his criticism was right on,” Murray said. “He helped me tremendously with my craft. … I think I learned something about old men. This is almost exclusively a story about old men. You’ll see the flavor of J.F. Powers come out in these three old guys who are bristling with anger all the time at these kids.”

Murray hopes that readers will not only learn about life in rural Iowa, but use the book as a springboard to reflect on their own lives.

“The biggest reason why I want people to read this story is it forces you to consider your own legacy,” he said. “A lot of people don’t know what their legacy is. If you stop somebody on the street and say, ‘What’s your legacy? How do you want to be remembered?’ … A lot of people will look at you and say, ‘It beats me. I don’t’ know.’ It’s impossible to read this and not start thinking about your legacy. That’s what I’m hoping will happen with my story.”

Category: Local News