Oh, baby — O. Henry!

Autumn 2016
Joe Donnelly '86 reading his short story

Photo by Henry Cherry

Joe Donnelly ’86

Alumnus writes a grand-slam story for his wife

Joe Donnelly ’86 will tell you that he hardly ever writes short stories. After all, his career has centered around journalism and editorships, and he’s currently a professor of journalism and new media at Whittier College. But, when his wife asked for the story of a baseball player, Donnelly wrote a tale worthy of the prestigious O’Henry Prize Stories Collection.

“Part of our courtship was we would watch the Dodgers, and my wife, being a painter, loved watching pitchers, because they do a lot of metaphysical things painters do,” Donnelly explained.

“This one pitcher, who we could tell would be a fantastic pitcher if he would just stop thinking so much, made a great character because he wore his uniform in certain old-fashioned ways,” said Donnelly. And so the story of this baseball player was born.

“My wife wrote the first line — ‘I tug on my hat’ or something like that — and said, ‘Here!’” said Donnelly. From that line, he imagined the rich inner life of a second-rate pitcher who is struggling to get out of his head and play the game. Although the baseball game itself is packed with drama, the real tension is in the strategy, doubts, and self-awareness of a team player. Its title, “Bonus Baby,” refers to young players like the main character who receive signing bonuses.

For Donnelly, timing was everything. “I was between gigs, as we say in the business, so I had the time [to write]. And my wife was very pregnant,” Donnelly said. “She gave me an assignment to finish this story before our daughter, Olivia, was born. I read her a draft while she was in labor, which I think was a nice distraction.”

After the San Francisco literary journal Zyzzyva published “Bonus Baby” in 2015, it caught the attention of the O. Henry panel, who named it one of the best 20 stories of the year, out of thousands published in literary magazines in the United States and Canada.

“I nearly fell off my chair when I got the e-mail,” Donnelly said, partly because short story writing, like baseball, isn’t a field in which he has a lot of experience.

When the Scene last wrote about Donnelly in 2012, he was working on Slake, an award-winning journal of fiction, long-form journalism, poetry, essays, and art, which he co-founded and co-edited. Since then, he has been the executive editor at the digital journalism nonprofit Mission and State, and an assistant professor of narrative journalism at Occidental College. Donnelly considers professorship one of his most important jobs. “It’s super challenging and super rewarding,” he said — not unlike short story writing.

“Bonus Baby” is featured in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2016, which was published by Penguin/Random House in September.

— Lee Tremblay ’16