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The mystery of baseball’s enduring literary supremacy.

October 27, 2010

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!

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    October 27, 2010 1:27 pm

    Thank you, Chauncey Mabe. I need that baseball book list for Christmas shopping. Seems all the males, and many of the females in my family love baseball as much as you do.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 27, 2010 1:57 pm

      Your family displays good taste, and sense, too.

  2. October 27, 2010 1:53 pm

    A wonderful blog post. It’s a topic near to my heart, because 1) I was a nonfiction writer on baseball for years; 2) my first novel, just out this past May, has a baseball theme as well; and 3) I love your list of baseball novels. Coover, Roth, Winegardner, and, above all, the three Mark Harris books. Wonderful! Thanks for reminding me why I’ve enjoyed spending so much time on the outskirts of this game and its marvelous history.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 27, 2010 1:59 pm

      Thanks, Joe. I tend to lose my head in the rush of enthusiasm whenever baseball or baseball books comes up in conversation. I don’t see how a baseball list could vary much from what I’ve got here, but I’m always on the lookout for additions.

  3. Connie permalink
    October 27, 2010 2:00 pm

    Well, I tried to read this column but when I saw the word “baseball” my eyes glazed over (much like they did when I tried to read Dennis Lehane’s “The GivenDay.” Still, I struggled through.

    I have read one baseball book in my life: Shoeless Joe, which I grant you is a pretty darn good book. (I liked the movie too, though not as much as the greatest baseball movie ever made, Bull Durham, which is only tangentially about baseball). But literature is literature, and sports are sports. One does not need to read a book about the West Coast offense to understand the beauty of a Dan Marino pass or a Lynn Swann catch.

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    October 27, 2010 2:09 pm

    The lack of decent football literature is a puzzlement, I’ll warrant. I used to think, back in my more judgmental youth, that football was such a brutal, militaristic gladiatorial contest that it neither let itself to good storytelling nor attracted the attention of good writers. I laughed, and pointed out as to how there were no good football movies, either, yet we have Bull Durham and Field of Dreams and Bang the Drum Slowly. Then Oliver Stone made Any Given Sunday, a damned fine sports movie in my estimation. So I don’t float that argument anymore. But I remained puzzled. If Stone can create a good football movie, why can’t someone write a football novel worth reading?

    Which is not to say that football is not a brutal, militaristic gladiatorial contest. Men’s Health magazine, just this month, recommends that men who want to avoid dementia in old age avoid activities that bang the brain up against the inside of the skull, warning specifically against football.

    And this quote cannot be repeated too often: “Marianne Moore loved Christy Mathewson. No woman of quality ever preferred football to baseball.” Wait, wait, don’t hit me! Thomas Boswell said that, not me!

  5. October 27, 2010 2:23 pm

    North Dallas 40 is a pretty good movie. Heck, even Mac Davis is good in it. And the ending has a bleakness to it that movies seldom attempt anymore. It’s not so much that the Nolte character screws himself that surprises, but that the David character floats serenely above the fray, seeing everything his friends has seen and refusing to sacrifice himself — and Nolte doesn’t even seem that mad or disappointed.

    Personally, I prefer baseball. I am very proud to have contributed to MURDERERS ROW and a recent collection about writers’ favorite players. (I chose Brooks Robinson, of course.)

    Finally, Roger Angell’s essay THREE FOR THE TIGERS is, I think, essential reading.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 27, 2010 5:24 pm

      I agree, Laura, North Dallas 40 is a good movie, for the exact reasons you enumerate. And it’s not a terrible book, much better than Semi-Tough. But it’s not great literature, like a number of baseball novels are. Brooks Robinson — my hero when I was a kid. My folks would visit relatives in Baltimore for a couple of weeks every summer, and we’d catch three or four games at Memorial Stadium. Those were the days, my friend.

  6. Amy permalink
    October 27, 2010 2:32 pm

    #2. You missed “Those Damn Yankees, The Not-So-Great-History of Baseball’s Evil Empire,” by Clarke Canfield. (
    Hey, Chauncy. Enjoy your blog immensely!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 27, 2010 5:27 pm

      Thanks, Amy, and thanks for commenting. I should take this moment to mention The Last Boy, Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, Jane Levy’s biography of the controversial slugger. It’s getting pretty fair reviews, though it’s way to early to tell if it will turn out to be a classic. But I have an obligation to mention relevant new books. Sometimes in the heat of the moment I forget.

  7. Amy permalink
    October 27, 2010 2:33 pm

    So sorry for type in your name, Chauncey! Typo only. Really, I do know how to spell!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 27, 2010 5:29 pm

      No worries, Amy. Through the years my name has been mangled in ways you could not imagine. Perhaps the best “Bahundi Mabe.” I got mail at the Sun-Sentinel under that name for years. Promotional stuff. Probably some poor fool who couldn’t make out my handwriting.

  8. Candice Simmons permalink
    October 27, 2010 3:21 pm

    Why don’t they have cheerleaders in baseball?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 27, 2010 5:30 pm

      Ah, but they do. There should be no cheerleaders in baseball — they are an effront agaisnt the game’s dignity, an abomination before the Lord — but, alas, several MLB teams have them now, including the Marlins and their (shudder!) Mermaids.

      We will never speak of this again.

  9. Duff Brenna permalink
    October 27, 2010 9:08 pm

    I’m baseball’s illiterate, Chauncey. The only book on your list I’ve read is The Natural, which is a continuing favorite, which I used in a class as an update to THE QUEST for the unattainable, the Holy Grail, the rise and the fall and the rise – and where all that really matters is what is within. Isn’t that baseball’s song? Is Barry Bonds a hero or a villain? Mark McGuire [sp?]? If I could grasp the Grail would I pump myself up with drugs as they did? I don’t know how you could decide such a thing unless you were actually faced with the decision. But I’m off track. I wanted to say that no matter how you see these things, baseball is a beautiful game, a manly ballet. I was never good at it. I can’t dance very well either.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 27, 2010 9:35 pm

      If you care to catch up with the best of these other novels — the Mark Harris books, especially — then you have much joy ahead of you, Duff.

      “Baseball is the hurrah game of the republic! That’s beautiful: the hurrah game! well — it’s our game: that’s the chief fact in connection with it: America’s game: has the snap, go fling, of the American atmosphere — belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.”
      –Walt Whitman

  10. October 28, 2010 8:09 am

    Trying to keep my potty-mouth in check but WTF does Thomas Boswell know about “any woman” and why should his opinion about women’s sports preferences rate even a micron of attention? Can he even throw a football?
    One of my favorite books back in the day was A Fan’s Notes — about a football fan. Maybe the thing is that football simply is what it is–pretty darn exciting action, hot athletic bods, and often thrilling choreography (I’m a ballet fan, too!). Also, I have to say “Friday Night Lights” had some good moments. So be a baseball fan or baseball books fan if you want. But please, leave a woman alone if she likes her Ravens or Cowboys or Gators or whomever. We don’t have to read about it to dig it. As for Boswell, well, I’m going to refrain from saying anything else.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 28, 2010 11:02 am

      Well…Boswell does have Marianne Moore on his side, which is something, but otherwise the only defense I can proffer for his presumptive sexism is that his baseball v. football column was written in 1987. It’s out of date in other ways, too, but still, I think, worth a look for its entertainment value.

      I was wondering if anyone would get around to A Fan’s Notes or Friday Night Lights, both very fine books — but both are nonfiction, and thus beside the point of the argument I am making (many great baseball novels v. no great football novels). Ultimately, it’s an artificial argument (but no less fun for that!). As my Daddy, who, it turns out, was smarter than I thought, used to say, “Never make fun of another man’s sport. He loves it as much as you love yours.” Yes, yes, today he’d have to say “man’s or woman’s,” but the point remains.

      But lest I start to seem too high minded, let me add: God, I hate football. A few seconds of horrific brutality and routine brain damage followed by interminable standing around. I have a friend, a devoted football fan, who TiVoed a game last weekend. On his way home to watch it Monday night, he said, “Fortunately, I can now watch in less than an hour and get to sleep by my normal bedtime.”

  11. Candice Simmons permalink
    October 28, 2010 2:28 pm

    Now, now, Chauncey Mabe. Cheerleading is a sport in itself. Just ask W. Bush iffin you don’t believe me.

  12. October 29, 2010 12:34 pm

    Am late to the ballpark here, Chauncey, and forgive me if this has been mentioned already. My vote for best baseball novel goes to Peter Lefcourt’s THE DREYFUS AFFAIR. Black humor about how baseball’s suits try to cope with a star player’s coming out party when he falls in love with a fellow player.

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