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Mark Harris remains the greatest novelist in the history of baseball.

April 1, 2011

Robert DeNiro, Bang the Drum Slowly: The book's better.

The long dark time, when the earth lies fallow and the soul cries out for relief, is at last over. “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball,” Rogers Hornsby, who retired with a .356 batting average, once said. ” I’ll tell you what I do.  I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

Yes, of course I’m talking about baseball, which resumed play with three games yesterday, causing the sun to smile, babies to burst into laughter for no reason, and trees to bud.

When the big-headed aliens, with their world eating death rays, come to judge whether we are qualified to join the federation of planets, the five things that might tip the balance in our favor: The Sistine Chapel, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Goodnight Moon, “Here Comes the Sun,” and Fenway Park.

Any species capable of expressing its yearnings through such beauty may yet be forgiven any degree of human brutality, the history of which is best exemplified in the modern gladiatorial contest known as “football.”

I will spare you the usual rhapsodies extolling baseball’s aesthetic, spiritual and athletic superiority, except to say that no other sport boasts such a distinguished literary pedigree. Whereas baseball provides the inspiration for any number of great novels, I defy you to name even one set in the world of football.

And while there are a few very good nonfiction football books — Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights; George Plimpton’s Paper Lion; Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, to name three — they are swamped by the yearly crop of outstanding nonfiction about baseball.

To celebrate the beginning of the 2011 baseball season, the Los Angeles Times has put together a fine package on baseball books, featuring pieces on Jimmy Breslin’s brief new biography of Branch Rickey; an ambitious book about the undersung Roy Campanella; and a round-up of other new books about the Nation’s Pastime.

I must take issue, however, with David Ulin’s otherwise excellent essay “The Nine Best Baseball Books” for excluding any mention of the three novels (and a novella) by Mark Harris, which are clearly the greatest fiction ever set in the baseball world.

I wish Ulin had restricted himself to novels, instead of including nonfiction, too, for I can not fault any of the books in his starting nine. Everyone who loves American literature, let alone baseball, ought to read Ring Lardners classic You Know Me, Al, beyond doubt the greatest baseball novel not written by Mark Harris.

Likewise praiseworthy: Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., and Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (very different from the wallowing sentimentality of the movie). And while I think more highly of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four than Ulin does, I can’t gainsay any of his nonfiction selections.

But I am baffled by the exclusion of Harris’s books. Beginning with The Southpaw (1953) and continuing through Bang the Drum Slowly (1956), A Ticket for a Seamstitch (1957; a novella), and concluding with It Looked Like Forever (1979), possibly the greatest title ever given to a work of fiction, Harris follows the career of a pitcher named Henry Wiggen.

Written in vernacular language (like Lardner’s novel), the four books follow a man’s life as he comes of age, establishes himself, grows cynical, and finally finds redemption in a failed comeback. Baseball here is not a metaphor for life, it is life. Harris resists sentimentalizing baseball, though he clearly loves the game, showing it as the serious business of serious men.

Bang the Drum Slowly is the best known of Harris’ novels, having been made into a 1973 movie starring Michael Moriarty as Wiggen and a young Robert DeNiro as the doomed catcher Bruce Pearson. The movie is beautiful, and captures the tragic friendship between the two men, but neither actor looks much like a baseball player.

For the real thing, read Harris’s books. The four together constitute a neglected classic of literary Americana.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Sean Piccoli permalink
    April 1, 2011 8:10 pm

    Robert Coover wrote a baseball book? What must that be like? I thought he was all abstract writing-about-writing. I’ve only read one of his short stories, “The Phantom of the Movie Palace,” which is great BTW. I read the first sentence of another, “Beginnings,” (“In order to get started, he went to live alone on an island and shot himself.”) but that was a citation in an article Tom Wolfe wrote ages ago criticizing post-modern literature for shunning messy, sprawling reality, a.k.a. the “billion-footed beast.”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 2, 2011 9:52 am

      Tom Wolfe, despite his skills as a reporter, storyteller and wordsmith, is also a tone-deaf, solipsistic nincompoop. I written elsewhere about how his “billion-footed-beast” essay from the late ’80s, calling for a return to realistic fiction, ignored the fact that realism in fiction never went away and had any number of distinguished and accomplished practitioners — Russell Banks to name one, Robert Stone to name another. I could go on for pages and pages. Raymond Carver was a realist, and so was John Updike, each in their own individual way, writing about “how we live now.” But it isn’t exactly precisely the way Wolfe writes, so, you know, it doesn’t count.

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