By Bill Ballew and James Bailey
Read enough books and it becomes readily apparent that few have much of a lingering impact on either end of the spectrum. Fortunately there are exceptions to the rule, which makes even the most horrid examples of writing worthwhile, if for no other reason than to establish the depths that no author would wish to tread. At the same time, there is more good than bad, a trend that causes the hearts of at least a few of us to beat a little faster when we see something that possesses at least a little promise on the shelves.
What is the best baseball book of all time? That all depends who you ask. We invited several baseball book aficionados to join some of our Hardball Cooperative regulars in considering the question. Our distinguished ringers are Ron Kaplan, editor of Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf and sports and features editor for the New Jersey Jewish News; Tim Morris, editor of Guide to Baseball Fiction and Professor and Associate Chair for Graduate Studies in the English Department at the University of Texas at Arlington; and D.G. Myers, editor of A Commonplace Blog and Literary Historian and Professor in the English Department at Texas A&M University. From HC we had Bill Ballew, Bill Begley, Elizabeth Finn, and James Bailey. Today we’ll be looking at baseball novels. Wednesday we’ll discuss non-fiction books (Non-fiction picks range from Bill James to Jackie Robinson).
|James Bailey||The Southpaw||The Natural|
|Bill Ballew||Play for a Kingdom||Slider|
|Bill Begley||If I Never Get Back||Revisionist re-dos|
|Elizabeth Finn||Bang the Drum Slowly; The Natural|
|Ron Kaplan||The Great American Novel||The Big R: An Internal Auditing Action Adventure|
|Tim Morris||The Celebrant|
|D.G. Myers||The Southpaw||Summerland|
Eric Rolfe Greenberg’s novel The Celebrant (1983) is one of the finest American historical novels on any subject. It meticulously recreates the life, in the 1900s and 1910s, of a Jewish family divided in their attentions between the jewelry business and their love for baseball. Narrator Jackie Kapp is a wry, deft, understated voice. He is the “celebrant” of Christy Mathewson, who celebrates Jackie’s designs in return. Fate ultimately overtakes the characters, in the form of an early death for Mathewson, the corruption of success for the Kapps, and the Black Sox scandal for America. The baseball detail is splendidly hyper-realistic, but I also love the way that the novel verges on symbolism, even magic (in the character of the dying Mathewson) without ever becoming overwritten. It’s the kind of historical novel that knows it’s a historical novel, full of self-conscious narrative devices. But at the same time, it’s completely believable as a period piece and as a commentary on American cultures.
The Great American Novel, by Philip Roth–An overlooked gem in both Roth’s list of work and baseball fiction in general. The story of a third major league that was eliminated from the history books, a la Stalin, is especially interesting right now as sports pundits blather over what to do about records set with the taint of steroids and who should be considered worthy of Hall of Fame induction. Roth captures myriad personalities well. Sure they’re “stock” characters–the brash rookie, the quiet slugger, the worldly sportswriter–but he did it just as well, if not better, than Harris, Kinsella, or Malamud. (Second place: Brittle Innings, by Michael Bishop)
The Southpaw (1953). Some readers prefer Bang the Drum Slowly (1956), which served as the basis of the best baseball movie of all time, but the sequel is even better after reading the original Henry Wiggen novel. A small-town rookie lefthander makes it in New York, pitching for the Mammoths. He tells his own story, although he “don’t speak the King’s English,” Harris wrote in a later preface, “nor the Queen’s neither.” Half the fun is the book’s salty colloquial language. (My favorite: the relief pitcher nicknamed “Piss.”) Although a comedy, it is a surprisingly exciting account of a tight pennant race: a combination that almost no baseball books are able to bring off.
Bang the Drum Slowly may be Mark Harris’ best-known work, but I give a slight edge to The Southpaw, which came out three years earlier and introduced us to Henry W. Wiggen, the hero of both books as well as two others penned later by Harris. There’s a little bit of Huck Finn in the brash lefthander, in both language and attitude, and Harris owes a minor debt to another earlier American writer, Ring Lardner, whose You Know Me Al, broke much of the ground Wiggen walks four decades earlier. But where Lardner’s Jack Keefe never quite worked his way into loveable, and was often borderline likeable, Wiggen is an easy guy to root for, despite his propensity for shooting his mouth off from time to time. The Southpaw follows him from youth through his first season in the big leagues, when he helps lead the New York Mammoths to a World Series title. It’s more lighthearted than Bang the Drum Slowly, which tells the story of Wiggen’s teammate Bruce Pearson’s season-long battle with cancer. For someone who never played the game, Harris captures the lifestyle of the players, the travel, and the games realistically, and his dialog is brilliant, especially Wiggen and Pearson.
Play for a Kingdom by Thomas Dyja-The setting is centered amongst the battles of the Civil War, during which the Union and Confederate soldiers met on makeshift diamonds, thereby planting seeds that made the game the national pastime. Dyja’s captivating writing style, including graphic details on the bloody aspects of war as well as his impressive character development, make this book impossible to put down.
Honorable Mention: Snow in August by Pete Hamill, The Fan by Peter Abrahams (the movie was as awful as the book was great), Long Gone by Paul Hemphill.
If I Never Get Back by Darryl Brock – With respect to W.P. Kinsella (author of Shoeless Joe, the book the movie “Field of Dreams” was based on), this a “favorite,” if not the “best” in this category. Kinsella’s tone and touch are deft–like a nicely laid-down bunt–and imagery vivid and unrestricted. If I Never Get Back, however, is fantasy on a different level–kind of like “Bull Durham” really being a chick-flick disguised as a baseball comedy–that takes the hero, a disconnected journalist named Sam Fowler, back in time to 1869, where he becomes the catcher for the original Cincinnati Red Stockings, watching the birth of baseball as part of a nearly unbeatable team. It is rich in period detail, though it sometimes bogs down in play-by-play, but also has fun with the time-travel fantasy and even includes a cameo by Mark Twain. Along the way, the fable delivers lessons on relationships and life–kind of like a post-Civil War visit with Crash Davis and Annie Savoy.
Bang The Drum Slowly by Mark Harris — A lovely baseball story, but, more importantly, an important metaphor for life that manages to be relateable to anyone who’s experienced love or loss.
The Natural by Bernard Malamud–I’ve only read this once, but I ordered it today for my permanent collection. Though part fantasy, the way Malamud creates settings and the humanity of his character makes Roy Hobbs almost an amalgamation of the players fans have followed since childhood. His desire to be the best is universal, and so are his struggles.
The Big R: An Internal Auditing Action Adventure, by D. Larry Crumbley, Douglass E. Ziegenfuss and John J. O’Shaunessy. The “Plan 9 from Outer Space” of baseball fiction. (Second place: ’64 Intruder)
Summerland by Michael Chabon (2002). Little League baseball as written by Tolkien or J. K. Rowling. Everything that makes a bad baseball book bad is here–lyricism laid on with a trowel, the “mythology” of baseball and its deep meaning, aching fancy in place of hard exactness. Supposedly a Young Adult novel. Give it to your son only if you want him to hate the sport forever. “A baseball game is nothing but a great slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer day,” Chabon writes. No, it isn’t, any more than cream cheese is a ready smooth device for measuring the contours of a bagel.
Slider by Patrick Robinson – In a class by itself. Absolutely the worst book–baseball or otherwise–I have ever read. This book wasted no time reaching rock bottom and continued to dig deeper. I paid $23.95 for this piece of crap, and I would have been pissed if I had paid a dollar. The cover states, “You won’t read a better novel about baseball. Ever.” That quote is attributed to Jeff Reardon, who later endured a personal crisis that included robbing a jewelry store. Obviously, his quote was a cry for help that went unheeded.
For pure unreadability, it’s hard to top Slider, though unlike Bill Ballew, at least I didn’t pay full price for my copy. I bought it for a dollar in a library used book sale, and I got my money’s worth in mocking it. The dialog is worse than any book I’ve ever read before or since, and the characters just simply don’t act realistically, for human beings if not baseball players. I was more disappointed, however, with The Natural, as I’d seen it on several lists of “best ever” baseball novels. You can see from this list that there’s a wide range of opinion on this book. For me, the movie was much, much better. Hollywood gave us a likeable, if flawed, Roy Hobbs, who delivered in the end. Malamud’s Hobbs was narcissistic, gluttonous, and self-centered. His immature pining for Memo Paris got old in a hurry. As did the book in general. Hobbs’ last revenge on Memo, Gus the bookie, and the Judge is ludicrous: “Roy slugged the slug [Gus] and he went down in open-mouthed wonder. His head hit the floor and the glass eye dropped out and rolled into a mousehole…. Roy snatched the gun and dropped it in the wastebasket. He twisted the Judge’s nose till he screamed. Then he lifted him onto the table and pounded his back with his fists. The Judge made groans and pig squeals. With his foot Roy shoved the carcass off the table. He hit the floor with a crash and had a bowel movement in his pants.” Why is this considered great literature?
Yeah, yeah–wouldn’t it have been great if your team won. And, yeah, yeah, the other team is evil and filled with nose-picking, crotch-scratching cheaters. And man, if the good guys had won, it would have been so cool–and probably would have even helped rid the world of disease and famine. Get over it. Teams win. Teams lose. End of season. Come April, everyone gets to start all over again. Writing badly disguised revisions of history don’t change things. Fantasy and fiction is good, and unless hammered out by chimps or Mike Lupica, it’s hard not to find some redeeming quality. Pouting in print, however, is different. No team is perfect. Even “Wonderboy” broke. And Crash did not get to take one last trip to the “Bigs” with Nuke. The only thing more offensive is the as-told-to biographies, which are more sanitized fiction than truth more often than not.