The Golem’s Mighty Swing by James Sturm
Originally published in 2001, James Sturm’s The Golem’s Mighty Swing is a masterful but fleeting confluence of comics and American history, beautifully drawn in clean inky lines and paced with cinematic control. This short graphic novella follows a ragtag Jewish baseball team called the Stars of David as they tour America in the 1920s. Their exoticism provides viewers with not just a well-needed depression-era distraction but the means for an unfortunate turn towards xenophobia, revealing how thin the line is between curiosity and prejudice. “Well I’ll be, Hetty Douglass in a ballpark…” one fan remarks upon seeing an uppity woman sitting in the stands dressed in her Sunday best. “I’m not here for the baseball,” she scoffs, “but to see the Jews…thank you very much.” Despite this casual discrimination, The Stars of David have built up quite a following and manage to repeatedly sell out their games.
In fact, the team plays up this mystique: while the majority of the team is Jewish, their “clean-up batter” is a large, lumbering black man from Chicago who has essentially been given a stage name. “As a Star of David, he is Hershl Bloom… as a player for over twenty years in the Negro Leagues, he is Henry Bell.” He’s the team’s best player: when he’s not cracking balls out of the park, he’s cleaning up from first base.
After a particularly exciting game, a man named Victor Paige from the Big Inning Promotional Agency introduces himself to the team’s manager (and third baseman) with a business proposal. Paige is a classic snake-oil huckster-type (complete with checkered three-piece suit) who offers the Stars of David a ploy to make their intriguing team even more of a catch. “Seven hundred dollars a game–that must be twice what you’re making now,” he promises. And all the team needs to do is to dig back through the mysticism of their orthodox forefathers and create a golem. Traditionally, “a golem is a creature that man creates to be a companion, a protector, or a servant. To give a golem life, esoteric rituals are performed, ancient incantations are spoken. Only a kabbalist who has studied for ages possesses such knowledge. But only God can grant a creature a soul and inevitably golems become destroyers.”
Paige’s agency “procured the actual costume” from the silent horror film Der Golem by Paul Wegener and he proposes that the massive first baseman Henry dress up like the monster during games and they market him like a sideshow attraction. “The public,” he tells them, “is eager for a spectacle.”
The subsequent game, of course, goes poorly and the antisemitism that had once casually carried the Stars of David grows to a violent apex. While it’s fascinating to pinpoint where in The Golem’s Mighty Swing the melting-pot exoticism of America tips towards exploitation (and at whose hand this tipping occurs), it’s perhaps more interesting to consider a book like this being first published in 2001 and how the world’s changed in sixteen years. There’s no specific reason why Sturm’s book is coming back into print now, besides it being a great little story — no movie tie-in or new “deluxe” format, and it’s not particularly timed to coincide with the 2017 baseball season. But in conjunction with this year’s political turns, to hear of a public that’s “eager for a spectacle” is a markedly different sentiment in the year of the 9/11 attack than it is in our current age of viral videos, fake news, and celebrity politics. The Golem’s Mighty Swing may have initially began as a story of America’s favorite pasttime but has since evolved into one about America’s time passed. Sturm’s writing is chillingly portentous, transcending baseball into a warning about the destructive potential of soulless spectacles.