WASHINGTON — As I plunged into Cardinals history for a book several years ago, one of the minor stories that always felt like it had major possibilities was the legend spun by pitcher Flint Rhem. A righty with the Cardinals, Rhem went missing for several days in September 1930 while the team was in New York, set to play a key series against the Brooklyn Dodgers. He returned to the team with this fantastic tale of kidnapping, thugs, and forced binging. It was all fiction, of course. Longtime Post-Dispatch columnist and Cardinals chronicler Bob Broeg wrote that Rhem had all the talent in the world but would drink himself out of the game. He certainly drank himself into this story. Still, it was fertile ground for writing. The gaps in memories are always fun to fill, and here were two days — two whole days — carved out of Cardinals history that were blank. What did Rhem do during his “kidnapping”? What could have Rhem done during his “kidnapping”? Maybe he really was ambushed by thugs and forced to chug grain alcohol for two days. Maybe there was a gambling element, because isn’t there always? Maybe he raced around New York saving cats from trees, apprehending robbers, and doing so much good that no one would believe him anyway. Or, as I thought when the opportunity to came to write this story, maybe he saved baseball.
Many months ago, I was asking at the comic shop about a local St. Louis group, Ink and Drink Comics, and the anthologies they had produced in recent years — sci-fi, romance, horror, wild west. A lapsed cartoonist with a comic sweet tooth, I always wanted to try my hand at writing a comic book story. It would be a good challenge.
Jim Mosley, an artist and a friend, offered me that chance.
Ink and Drink was putting together another anthology, this one to celebrate the 250th anniversary of St. Louis. All of the stories would have a St. Louis vibe or St. Louis inspiration or involve a St. Louis theme. If I had a story, I could contribute.
It took some time, but eventually I found the story: old friend Rhem.
The idea was to use Rhem’s tale of kidnapping as a setup for why baseball means so much to St. Louis, and how all of these highlights have found the Local Nine. Driving back from St. Paul on The Avenue of the Saints this winter, I was able to find a way to connect Rhem’s excuse — thugs, benders, clothes drenched with alcohol — with highlights from St. Louis’ baseball history, stirred gently around a Babe Ruth-signed baseball that does exist (with one key bit of creative license) and time travel, which we assume even for Rhem does not exist. The result I hope is a fantasized retelling of completely untrue but actual event. Let’s call it an inebriated legend.
The first page of the six-page story we put together appears at the top of this entry. Below are some of the first breakdowns and scripts that I put together. The graphic novel, “Home Brew,” goes on sale this weekend in St. Louis, and there have been few times in my life when I’ve been giddier. I am thrilled that they let a baseball writer take part in their comic. As the character of Rhem explains in the story, his nickname is “Shad,” and he got that nickname because Shad is a type of fish and he was always going on and on about something fantastic happening. This is how we put together his fish story:
ROUGH DRAFT OF SCRIPT, Page 1
BREAKDOWNS FOR PAGE 3
ROUGH DRAFT SCRIPT — Page 3
Jim (and then Jenni and Jason) did a tremendous job converting my sketches,scribbles, and script from this spiral bound notebook, which you can see above, into these living, vibrant pages. When writing an article for the paper or a chapter in a book, all of the action happens on the page, within the paragraphs. As I wrote “Shad’s Tale” I learned that the action has to jump off the page — and that is entirely the artist’s doing. This wasn’t like writing a screenplay or a play or even a short story. The art has to tell the story as much as the words do. Maybe even more. Without the art the story doesn’t have any soul and it also doesn’t have any readers. Some of the things I wanted to try — the highlight pinwheel, the rapid-fire exchange on page 3 — wouldn’t have had a chance without Jim’s art.
This weekend I get to find out what readers think. Did I say giddy? OK, now a little nervous…