Science fiction author Rick Wilber is best known for writing about baseball, including a series of alternate history stories about real-life catcher-turned-spy Moe Berg. Wilber’s preoccupation with the game is understandable given his upbringing.
“My father was a major league baseball player,” Wilber says in Episode 412 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “Then he was a minor league manager—AAA manager—for many years. So I grew up in dugouts and clubhouses of major league teams through the 1950s into the ’60s.”
Baseball and fantasy are a natural fit, and many writers have combined the two, including Michael Bishop (Brittle Innings), Michael Chabon (Summerland), and W.P. Kinsella, whose 1982 novel Shoeless Joe was adapted into the movie Field of Dreams. But these days Wilber is probably the most prolific author of fantasy baseball stories.
“Maybe I’m wrong, but to the best of my knowledge, I’ve published more science fiction and fantasy baseball short fiction than anybody else,” he says.
Fantasy and science fiction readers aren’t known for being the biggest sports fans, so Wilber’s baseball stories aren’t always beloved by his intended audience. “I don’t know how many people in the science fiction community, among readers, really enjoy baseball stories,” he says. “I’ve had reviewers start their review by saying ‘I loathe baseball,’ so you know the review is sort of going south after that.”
But Wilber, undeterred, intends to keep on writing fantasy baseball stories for many years to come.
“In 1999 I had a collection of my baseball stories called Where Garagiola Waits,” he says. “I think maybe it’s time to do another collection of the baseball stories.”
Listen to the complete interview with Rick Wilber in Episode 412 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Rick Wilber on his story “War Bride”:
“Soldiers fall in love—or they fall in lust—and then they have to leave people behind, and I thought, ‘That’s kind of a tragic story.’ And then I began to think, ‘What if that happened to Earth?’ And I just made it sort of a more global—or even galactic—story. I wanted to turn things on their ear, in terms of gender issues, so I had it be a guy, and a basketball player, and he’s successful, but he’s also the lover of an alien. … He’s had a good life with this alien, but now a much more aggressive alien race is coming, and wants to boot out the nice guys and take over, and they’re going to wipe out Earth while doing that. So the nice aliens are leaving, and a few very lucky people get to go with them. If you think of the United States in the Vietnam War, you’ll see all sorts of parallels there as well.”
Rick Wilber on Moe Berg:
“[My story] ‘Something Real’ features Moe Berg, a very famous baseball catcher in the 1930s and 1940s, who became a spy for the OSS—the American secret service—during the war. He was a brilliant guy who spoke at least seven, and maybe 12, languages, most of them European languages, so he made for a very good spy, and he had a very successful career as a spy. The story that I tell an alternate history version of in this collection is based on a real story. Moe Berg was sent to neutral Switzerland in 1944 to listen to a speech by the head of the German A-bomb program, Werner Heisenberg, and Moe was there with a gun, and if he thought Heisenberg hinted that the Germans were close to building an atomic bomb, Moe’s job was to assassinate him.”
Rick Wilber on the Dell Award:
“The first time I met [Michael Bishop] was at the World Fantasy Convention in Pine Mountain, Georgia in 1992. Pine Mountain is where Michael Bishop lives, so at that conference I actually played one-on-one with Michael Bishop on his outdoor court—we played basketball together. And Sheila Williams and I, over breakfast one day—my wife was there as well—we were just talking about how we should try to start something that got young people—college people—interested in writing science fiction and fantasy. And we sort of conjured up this award, and by 1994 we were starting the award, and many, many terrific writers and editors have gotten a leg-up on their careers, we think, by being finalists or winning the Dell Award.”
Rick Wilber on college:
“I had a creative writing teacher where all I wanted to write was science fiction and all he wanted to ban was science fiction, so we did not get along. As the years went by, I did meet a couple of people on the English faculty—they did not teach creative writing, unfortunately—who liked fantasy, mainly because of Tolkien, and they allowed me to get my master’s from the English department at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. Dickie Spurgeon and Roberta Bosse, I cite their names all the time, because they made it OK. They said to the rest of the faculty it was OK. And I did a master’s thesis on Robert Heinlein, which was the first science fiction master’s thesis. It was terrifying, I’ve got to tell you, it was so much pressure.”