The mystery of baseball’s enduring literary supremacy.
Pausing from the daily grind of condemning e-books (resistance is futile!), mocking Jonathan Franzen (who doesn’t totally deserve it), or touting the Miami Book Fair, we are talking baseball today. Specifically baseball books–among which there is a surprising degree of literary greatness.
I’m not going to make the mistake (this time!) of waxing lyrical about why baseball, of all sports, inspires writers to heights of glory. Going on and on about the pastoral setting, the summertime rhythm, the lack of a clock, the way a baseball field resembles a Buddhist mandala, or how baseball is a metaphor for life — it just makes you sound like a twit.
Or I should say makes me sound like a twit–the kind of twit intent on universalizing a personal preference (baseball is too better than football, Connie!) who therefore gloms onto any random fact that might be substituted for actual evidence.
I even used to argue that baseball players are better athletes than football players, when, in sober middle age, I realize that all athletes train to the demands of their sport. Comparing them is an apples-oranges kind of deal.
However, anyone who still buys the old canard that baseball is less physically demanding than, say, bowling, or tiddly-winks, need only gaze upon this recent photo of the Marlins’ star infielder, Hanley Ramirez, who proves not only to possess a supremely athletic figure, but the proportions of classical male beauty as exemplified, say, in Michelangelo’s “David.”
Yes, like most baseball fans, I can lose perspective when discussing the game, but before I return to matters literary let me say that no one has dissected the differences between baseball and football better than comedian George Carlin, nor made the argument for baseball superiority as a sport better than Thomas Boswell.
What got me off on baseball is not only the World Series, which opens tonight with San Francisco vs. Texas, but also this Huffington Post feature, “Readers Pick 7 Great Books About Baseball.” It goes nicely with another HuffPo feature from earlier in the season, “16 of the Greatest Books About Baseball.”
From Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer to George Will’s Men at Work, Al Stump’s Cobb to Richard Ben Cramer’s Joe Dimaggio, Roger Angell’s The Summer Game to Pat Jordon’s A False Spring, Jim Bouton’s groundbreaking Ball Four to Michael Lewis’s The Money Game, HuffPo has the baseball beat covered.
At least when it comes to nonfiction. But one of the amazing things about baseball is the way it has inspired fiction writers. Here baseball really does display a superiority over football — name one great football novel, Connie! I dare ya! In fact, here’s a little essay by an erudite football fan, discussing the problem. Short answer: There aren’t any.
But I can list you any number of good-to-great baseball novels:
The Natural, by Bernard Malamud; You Know Me, Al, by Ring Lardner; The Great American Novel, by Philip Roth; The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., Henry Waugh, Prop., by Robert Coover; Sometimes You See It Coming, Kevin Baker; Shoeless Joe, by W.P. Kinsella; The Veracruz Blues, by Mark Winegardner; The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, by William Brashler.
And of course the Mark Harris novels, my nomination for greatest sports fiction ever written: The Southpaw, Bang the Dream Slowly, and It Looked Like Forever, following the career of the pitcher Henry Wiggen from raw prospect in the early ’50s to rich, jaded star in the mid-’70s.
Ring Lardner? Bernard Malamud? Philip Roth? Robert Coover? Those are some gaudy names, against which football can set –what? Peter Gent? Dan Jenkins? Thomas Harris? Puh-leeze!
Okay, I’m gloating now, and I know it’s unseemly. I’ll stop soon. Or eventually.
I leave you with three assignments: 1) If you know of a great football novel, please do the world a favor and announce it; 2) HuffPo missed a few great nonfiction books (Eight Men Out and Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning rush to mind), so please help close the gap; 3) if I missed any great baseball novels, please say so.
Otherwise: Play ball!