vol. 1, #31, April, 1996
AMERICA IN 9 INNINGS
The surest sign in a depressing winter that spring will surely come is when the baseball players head off for spring training in February. The second surest sign is that the publishers start releasing their new baseball novels. Since I review sports novels for Library Journal, I am lucky enough to receive a fairly steady stream of them.
I love baseball novels. There is no problem or issue in American life that can't be discussed in them. You can talk about race, masculinity, competition, excellence, greed, capitalism (but I repeat myself), labor relations, lost innocence, and the power of celebrity; all of them fit nicely into books about a boys' game, played by [only] men [white, black, Hispanic, straight, and gay], for money, at the behest of rich owners, in front of fans who invest their own hopes and dreams in their team's success.
I'd like to tell you about some of the very best baseball fiction, some of it funny, some dead serious, some ineffably sad. Even if you don't understand baseball much better than I understand cricket, you should still appreciate these books and learn a lot about America the while.
You probably already know about W.P. Kinsella, whose novel Shoeless Joe was so beautifully adapted into Field of Dreams. But you may not know just how obsessed Kinsella is with baseball, and how much other stuff he has written centering around it.
For Kinsella, baseball is a metaphor for the best things about America, many of them now lost or corrupted. Some of his finest writing is in his short stories about baseball. "K-Mart," for instance [from The Further Adventures of Slugger McBatt] is a story about the timelessness of childhood, that sense of infinite possibilities that gets lost when you grow up and face a world where people die and baseball lots are turned into K-Marts. "The Thrill of the Grass" [in The Thrill of the Grass] is about a game rightly played on grass, a small green jewel in the middle of a concrete landscape, a game that for all the wrong reasons is now being played on a poor green plastic imitation. And it's also about the fans striking back and reclaiming their playing fields, so rightly known as "diamonds."
Another of our best contemporary writers, Robert Coover makes use of the fact that baseball is a perfect, closed, self-contained world in his book The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.. Our hero has invented an imaginary version of baseball, played with dice, complete not just with hits, runs and errors, but also with the normal fluctuations of luck, including injuries to the players he has created and come to love. He has given them names, histories, and statistical records; he has created classic rivalries between them. And as he becomes more and more immersed in the reality of his game, he becomes grayer and more ghostlike until he finally disappears completely into the game.
This is an interesting variant on another theme in baseball novels, the intense involvement of the fan, the person whose own identity becomes tangled up in the success of his team. An excellent novel about the pathology of fandom is Peter Abrahams' book The Fan. Here a man who thinks he "could have been a contender" himself has had to settle for being a salesman, and a lousy one at that. He's barely hanging on to his job (he's already lost his wife and son). The more his life falls apart, the more he counts on a well-paid superstar bringing his team victory. When the superstar fails to deliver, the salesman feels personally betrayed, and seeks violent revenge.
One unpleasant element of fan identity has sometimes been race. Because the major leagues refused to admit black players for most of its history, the Negro Leagues sprang up to allow enormously talented black players to show their stuff. You get some sense of their impressive physical skills and stamina in William Brashler's book The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. Winters, between baseball seasons, the poorly paid black players often went barnstorming; they would travel from south to north, offering to play the best talent each town along the way had to offer. You get a sense of just how carefully they had to balance their talent against the tolerance level of each community--no town put up gracefully with black players defeating local white heroes, but in some communities it could result in violence.
To get a real sense of how strongly many white men felt that the game belonged to them, you need to read Donald Honig's book The Plot To Kill Jackie Robinson. The book is a novel, but the story is fundamentally true: some white fans wanted to kill Robinson for being the first black player in the major leagues (just as later they wanted to kill Henry Aaron before he broke Babe Ruth's home run record). Robinson was threatened with death repeatedly. He was spat on and viciously insulted by the fans; he was insulted or ignored by his teammates. We in American still have a lot of problems with race, but the kind of commonplace vicious bigotry you see in this book will come as a revelation to people who came of age after the civil rights revolution.
But if white men could finally bring themselves to accept black players, what about women? The whole question of masculinity gets tested in a number of baseball novels. There are several books that posit a rabid reaction to the first female player in the major leagues, although that is often accompanied by fan acceptance when the women show themselves to be outstanding team players. Among the best of these are Barbara Grigorich's She's on First, Michael Bowen's Can't Miss, and Gorman Bechard's Balls.
If letting women play is a challenge to the notion of masculinity, homosexuality may be a greater one. Peter Lefcourt's The Dreyfus Affair is a terrific novel about two players on a world series team, not allowed to play because they were found out in a homosexual relationship. A sportswriter composes his own "J'Accuse" column, asking which is more important, the ideal of heterosexual masculinity, or the ideal that the world series pits the best players on the best teams against each other in fair competition. Other novels dealing with this theme include Bernie Bookbinder's amusing Out at the Old Ball Game, about a major league team composed entirely of gay players, and Steve Kluger's hilarious book, Changing Pitches
Which brings me to the really funny books about baseball. It stands to reason that a book about a bunch of grown men playing a boys' game for a few hours a day, wandering from city to city with only their teammates for company, would lend itself to a certain earthy, if not raunchy, humor.
Jay Cronley's book Screwballs is the funniest baseball novel ever written (and if anybody ever finds a copy of it in a used bookstore, please let me know; I've been trying to find my own copy for years). The hero is a manager, who loves baseball, and cares about playing it well. He has to use every strategem known to man and God, plus a few he makes up himself, to motivate his team to play well. With main force and awkwardness, he armwrestles them into a world series championship.
Changing Pitches is about a pitcher who is horrified to realize he may be in love with his catcher. This is partly a reflection of the deep understanding between pitcher and catcher that is required for consistently good pitching, and partly a matter of the pitcher's being scared to death of growing up and committing to a relationship with the woman he loves. While he is working all of this out, a very funny baseball season rolls along.
And let us not forget John Craig's All G.O.D.'s Children, a competitor in the richly filled ranks of books about stupid, greedy owners. Happily, an owner that is idiotic enough can turn a bunch of weird individual personalities into a team united by their shared loathing. The World Series (in which the manager this owner fires is immediately hired by the other world series team) is wildly amusing.
There are so many other baseball books I'll probably have to write another column about them someday. But just briefly, among the books about corruption and greed in baseball, Sparky Lyle's The Year I Owned the Yankees comes to mind, a book in which he mercilessly skewers Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, the most hated man in sports. And there's also Jerry Klinkowitz's Basepaths, about a minor league team whose venal and stupid owner is the least of its problems.
There are murder mysteries centering around baseball, of which my clear favorite is Richard Rosen's Strike Three, You're Dead.
There is, of course, a lot more serious fiction centered around baseball. I hardly need to recommend Bernard Malamud's The Natural or Ring Lardner's You Know Me, Al, because anything you ever read about baseball fiction has already told you to read these. But David Carkeet's The Greatest Slump of All Time and Mark Harris' The Southpaw are also splendid works of fiction and craftsmanship.
Then there are the works of purest whimsy. Gordon McAlpine's Joy in Mudville tracks a home run hit by Babe Ruth as the ball travels across the country, pursued by a man who believes it to be proof that the Martians have come to visit earth. Douglas Wallop's The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant (basis for the musical, Damn Yankees) is about a hopeless fan of the hapless Washington Senators ("first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League") who sells his soul to the devil for a chance to be a baseball player good enough to help his team beat the unstoppable New York Yankees.
But this has got to stop sometime, so I send you off to your bookstores and libraries, to read about baseball and learn about America. It's cheaper--and safer, I hear--than visiting Florida.
NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at netexpress.net. Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.
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