Exploring the overlap between baseball and literature
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Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre, series, or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: Baseball literature
Why it’s daunting: When thinking about baseball, fans often quote writer-historian Jacques Barzun, from his 1954 essay collection God’s Country And Mine: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and reality of the game.” Baseball may no longer be America’s pastime—that mantle has been passed in all but name to the financial juggernaut of football—but for American writers, no sport is as heavily romanticized. Baseball offers the patriotic symbiosis of a pastoral playground within an urban setting, where generations can come together and watch the purest corporate distillation of a game played, packaged, and televised from Little League up to the major leagues.
Baseball can be used to tell a specific version of American history over the past 150 years, with heavy mythologizing of Abner Doubleday, Civil War-era games among soldiers, segregation in the game, and the tight control owners held over players’ contracts until the players won the right to free agency in the 1970s. Stories about baseball tackle economic disparity, race relations, patriotism, religion, and the proverbial underdog, from 1888’s “Casey At The Bat” through Field Of Dreams to today. As for Barzun, he turned away from the game a few years ago, losing interest due to escalating commercialization and greed, yet another parallel to similar developments in other sectors of American economics and culture.
Though there are plenty of real-life stories about baseball encapsulated in books—Eight Men Out and Moneyball, to begin a list that could go on forever—this column provides an introduction to works of fiction set in the world of baseball, from the beginnings of the game to the modern era, from barnstorming to the majors.
Possible gateway: Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (1952)
Why: The best stories about baseball struggle mightily to resist being pulled too far in either direction between the realistic and the mythic. Malamud’s novel draws on both the remarkable comeback story of Eddie Waitkus and the Fisher King of Arthurian legend in telling the story of Roy Hobbs. As the novel opens, 19-year-old Hobbs is on his way to Chicago for a tryout with the Cubs, and strikes out Walter “The Whammer” Whambold (a character based on Babe Ruth) at a carnival along the way. Once he reaches Chicago, a mysterious woman invites him to her room, where she promptly shoots him.
The novel picks up 16 years later with Hobbs as a journeyman player joining the New York Knights in the National League. With his trusty bat Wonderboy—a nice allusion to Excalibur—Hobbs invigorates the slumping Knights, while indulging his bruised ego and a weakness for mysterious women. The Natural touches on elements of superstition (still prevalent in the game), bribery, and corruption that leads to distorted or even thrown games (supposedly rooted out, but hey, Pete Rose), and such temptations prove to be Hobbs’ downfall. He’s a tragic hero, gifted with one last chance at baseball stardom, but ultimately too proud, weak, and old to overcome a pitching phenom reminiscent of a young Hobbs.
Malamud’s story is a realistic tragedy wrapped in the promise of an underdog triumph, with a protagonist who falls victim to the circle of life in baseball—a much starker depiction of late-career resurgence than the Robert Redford film, which undercuts the ending of the novel by changing the outcome and providing a more underdog-friendly story for a big-time Hollywood star. The book, however, blends the realistic and the mythic together in a way that alternately celebrates and demonizes baseball in all its cruelties.
Next steps: On the realism-to-mythic scale, W.P. Kinsella leans heavily toward the mythic in Shoeless Joe (the basis for Field Of Dreams) and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, but a logical progression of complexity would lead to Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel. This is a sprawling, picaresque novel about the Port Ruppert Mundys of the Patriot League (both entirely fabricated), which leases out its stadium at the beginning of World War II and becomes the first homeless baseball team. Only Roth would be able to get away with a title as arrogantly self-congratulatory and sardonically tongue-in-cheek as The Great American Novel, and this, one of his least-known and most underappreciated novels, pushes so far into mythic fantasy and satire that it lands some powerfully funny blows.
The Mundys’ roster includes Gil Gamesh, a pitcher who once tried to kill an umpire; frequently drunk “Babe Ruth of the Big House” John Baal; a peg-legged catcher; a one-armed right fielder; and a 14-year-old at second base. The list goes on. Roth ties in several big ideas—American exceptionalism, the Depression, capital-vs.-labor squabbles, and especially anti-Communist sentiment, which according to narrator Word Smith, led to baseball scrubbing the Patriot League from memory—all within a sprawling, often hilarious epic about a baseball team with a penchant for futility and the bad luck to get mired in a communist conspiracy.
One of the few modern novels to follow Malamud and Roth’s skillful blend of realism and myth is Chad Harbach’s The Art Of Fielding. The n+1 editor’s first novel is set at the fictional Westish College in northeastern Wisconsin, a school with a Herman Melville obsession and a baseball team almost beyond salvation whose ranks include Henry Skrimshander, an otherwise unexceptional shortstop with a preternatural gift for, as the title suggests, fielding the ball. In a novel organized by insular sports teams within an already-insular college, Harbach focuses on paired relationships: Skrimshander with his roommate and walk-on right fielder, Owen Dunne; Owen and college president Guert Affenlight; Affenlight’s daughter Pella; and Mike Schwartz, the two-sport athlete who recruited Henry in the first place. The Art Of Fielding carries the tradition of intricately layered baseball novels into the modern era.
James Strum’s graphic novel The Golem’s Mighty Swing tells a poignant, engrossing tale about a barnstorming team of Jewish ballplayers in the ’20s. The Stars Of David, led by “Zion Lion” Noah Strauss in the dugout and their former Negro League star Henry Bell on the field, travel the country playing small-town all-star teams and clobbering every one of them, until one factory owner digs deep with a team full of ringers. It combines the mythology of barnstorming-baseball gimmicks with Jewish myth to show that America’s ardent devotion to baseball as a great equalizer didn’t always trump outrageous racism and anti-Semitism.
In the theater world, Christopher Moore’s brilliant play The Last Season centers around the final season of the Montgomery Black Kings, back-to-back Negro League Champions. Set during the season that Jackie Robinson broke through with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Kings’ championship team begins to fracture into stat-mongering individual players trying to make the jump as the Negro League’s future becomes uncertain. When the majors finally integrated, one of the least-publicized aspects of the change was the disappearance of some of the most prominent and successful black-owned businesses at the time: Negro League baseball teams. The Last Season negotiates the line between a united front and a team of individuals while emphasizing the racial politics and economics of the era.
Where not to start: Though it’s a biting and often hilarious satire, Ring Lardner’s 1914 collection of epistolary columns, You Know Me Al, just isn’t the place to start reading about baseball. One of the first serious pieces of baseball fiction ever published, it’s the story of hotheaded bush leaguer Jack Keefe as he tries to make it as a big-league pitcher. The colloquial language and semi-literate spelling has its charms, and it’s easy to laugh at Keefe’s ineptitude and uncanny ability to fail upward, but You Know Me Al represents a slice of baseball history that’s too far in the past to serve as an introduction.