Monday, August 13, 2018

"So Sorry"

Sports Fiction magazine was a fiction pulp begun in 1938 by Louis Silberkleit’s Columbia Publications, a low-rent publisher even in the world of cheap fiction in the twentieth century. The magazine never really caught on and the neglect it suffered at the hands of its owners is evident when viewing its publishing history: only 43 issues of the magazine are known to have been published between 1938 and 1951, and even that’s questionable. It rarely published the same number of issues in any given year, and it shut down completely between 1944 and 1946. I only own one issue of Sports Fiction and just looking at it one can see all the corners that were cut in putting it together: second-rate artwork, messy, uneven printing, sleazy ads -- the kind one never sees in a Popular or Street and Smith publication -- and authors even pulp aficionados might have trouble recognizing.

John D MacDonald wrote three stories that appeared in Sports Fiction, all dating from his early years as a writer, years he was living in Clinton, New York (1947 and 48). The first was a boxing story, the third is unknown to me (at least by the title: “They Never Quit” -- probably a team sport) and the middle one was about golf. These were years when MacDonald was happy to get anything published, by any paying publisher, so he may not have cared where these tales ended up. And given Columbia’s reputation, he was probably paid the rock-bottom rate of a penny a word.

But there’s something about this middle tale -- titled “So Sorry” and appearing in the magazine’s July 1948 issue -- that transcends its sports setting and the cheap magazine it appeared in. Yes, it’s about a golf tournament and the competition between several disparate personalities, told by a non-participating bystander, but the real subject MacDonald deals with here is racism.

MacDonald had done this before in a sports pulp, and for another Columbia title no less (Super Sports), in 1947 with his “Big John Fights Again,” a boxing story featuring a black boxer. I own this magazine (it’s somewhere in the house) but I’ve never written about it. John Dinan, in his excellent 1998 study Sports in the Pulp Magazines, has, and here is what he had to say:

MacDonald’s boxing story in the December 1947 Super Sports was also as good a piece of fiction as one will find in the pulp mags. MacDonald uses terse first-person style to advantage in describing the dark underside of the world of boxing as the story moves toward the BIG fight. “Big John Fights Again” is a story reminiscent of The Harder They Fall and Requiem for a Heavyweight, told from the reporter’s point of view and with a bit of a twist -- the fighter is black. Not wanting to fight, Big John tells the reporter he’s afraid of what might happen to him. The reporter naïvely responds: “That’s nonsense; people don’t do that.” Big John responds: “Maybe not to white folks,” and proceeds to enlighten the reporter on some hard facts about prejudice.

One has to wonder, was Columbia the only place MacDonald could sell stories with this kind of subject matter? Were they rejected by others before ending up with this publisher?

The setting is the Southland Open, a big, nationally coverd golf tournament played at the Upland Club, in an unnamed city and state. The story is told in the first person by Dave Able, a representative of the Miramar Sporting Equipment company of Los Angeles. Dave isn't there to play golf, he's there to sign golfers to endorsement contracts, always hoping to find a little-known golfer who suddenly breaks big. He's been around the game for a long time and knows many of the regular players.

For readers who don't know the rules of golf tournaments (read: me) MacDonald dutifully explains it all in a long paragraph: Following a qualifying round where the player must score 80 or less, the tournament is played for three days: two days of eighteen holes, the third for thirty-six. Each player plays against one other player, a process chosen by lots. At the end of the first day the high fifty percent of the group are eliminated. The same process is followed for the second day, usually leaving around twenty survivors. After the first eighteen holes on the morning of the third day, only eight players are still standing to play the final afternoon round. First money is $7,500 (around $75,000 in today's money), second place takes $1,750, and so on.

The story opens with Dave attending a get-together in a suite at the Upland Club. Four of the golfers who will play in the tournament are there and Dave briefly introduces each one to the reader.

You know them all. Mart Snyder is a thin, dark, expressionless man with ulcers. He's been on the circuit for thirteen years now and in spite of his dead pan, he's always tied in knots. Harry Crebson is the big blonde guy who started to knock them dead just after he got out of the army. He has freckles and a grin. Hal Lovelord is a Canadian who has a vague expression, a dim wispy mustache and a deadly eye on the putting green. Jimmy Ratchelder is, of course, the plump pink little guy with the shrewd grey eyes who has made more out of tournament golf than any man in the last twenty years. It's a business to Jimmy -- pure and simple... It was practically an even money bet that one of the four in the room would knock off the $7500 they give you for being best man.

There ostensibly to commiserate with a fifth golfer who failed to make the qualifying round that day (and who’s drunk and asleep on a couch), Dave finds the four in what sounds like a serious discussion. An unknown golfer qualified that day with a score (63) that broke the club’s course record. Are they worried about a young upstart who could possibly beat them all in the tournament? Yes, but only to a point. The real problem, at least with Snyder and, especially, Ratchelder, has less to do with how he plays and more to do with who he is.

He’s a Japanese American.

The boys were talking about Tommy Suragachi of Oregon... The press hadn't noticed Tommy, a slim, nervous acting boy, until he had banged out that miracle round of sixty-three... Then the press had picked him up. He had played golf before the war and had been a caddy. He served with the infantry in Italy during the war. He had brought himself and his clubs to the tournament on a bus. He was being staked by a whole bunch of Japanese farmers on the West Coast who had kicked in a little bit apiece. Apparently it was a very little bit because Tommy Sonagachi was living in a down-at-the-heels tourist cabin a mile and a quarter from the course.

Based on MacDonald's physical description of Ratchelder he's clearly the bad guy of the story, and he doesn't disappoint.

"You men better think about the game and what it means to the country... Golf is one of our biggest national games. It will hurt the game and hurt us if a Jap wins a big tournament like this one. It may be that some of the private clubs that have tournaments now will cancel them if they find they've got to put a Jap in the club...If this Sura-something wins they'll have a national holiday in Japan. What the hell was the use of licking them if we've got to make heroes out of them?"

The three others are in varying degrees of disinterest on the subject. Big, freckled Harry Crebson laughs it off, pointing out that “Japs” were pretty handy to have around when he fought in Italy. Snyder and Lovelord emphasize the fact that it is highly unlikely that a young player could win the tournament and that all they have to do to prevent Sonagachi from winning is for them to play their best. But Ratchelder is adamant. He even suggests that the four of them quit the tournament in protest, but Snyder points out that it would only make a martyr of the young man.

"Besides," Snyder continued, "the public might take the wrong slant on it. They wouldn't realize that we were doing it to help the game. They might think we were doing it because we were prejudiced or something. I'm not prejudiced against him."

"Neither am I," Ratchelder said. "I just don't think that a Jap ought to be given a chance to win the Southland Open or any other major tournament. Maybe they should be allowed to play in some of the small city tournaments on the public courses."

Crebson winked at me and said, "Well, to hear that you boys aren't prejudiced sure makes me happy. It surely does!"

The party breaks up with Ratchelder adamant about finding a way to “get to” Suragachi in order to rattle him .

Able drives over to the motel where Suragachi is staying and finds a very nervous young man. Naturally uptight, he bemoans his chances of winning and reveals that he is well aware of the racism he is the victim of.

"I saw the way Mr. Ratchelder looked at me today. And Mr. Snyder. You can tell when people look at you like that. I've gotten used to it out on the Coast. They hate all of us out there. Most of them do."

Able manages to sign Suragachi to an endorsement contract, provided he does well in the tournament.

Of course all four of the seasoned golfers make it to the final round, along with Suragachi, who plays spectacularly despite his obvious case of nerves. And, also of course, in the final round he is paired with none other than Ratchelder, giving the older golfer his perfect opportunity to rattle his opponent with an small act of racism that the observing crowd picks up on and imitates…

“So Sorry” works well on both the level of a sports story and as a tale of prejudice, although it would be too much to ascribe any real greatness to it. Its unusual characteristics and the fact that a heavy subject is dealt with in a cheap pulp magazine story is not completely out of the ordinary. Yet the fact that the editor of Sports Fiction made a special mention of the story’s connection to “Big John Fights Again” on the title page indicates that they knew they had something a bit different in their magazine and wanted readers to know it. I wonder how many other MacDonald stories like this are out there, a serious step up from the average penny-a-word tale, unread since their publication and mouldering away as time slowly destroys them.

“So Sorry” has never been anthologized or republished.

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