Harris books top panel’s list of best baseball novels

July 7, 2009

By Bill Ballew and James Bailey

Related: Join us for Hardball Cooperative’s new online book club, starting with Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times.

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).

Best Worst
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

Best Books

Tim Morris
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.

Ron Kaplan
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)

D.G. Myers
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.

James Bailey
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.

Bill Ballew
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.

Bill Begley
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.

Elizabeth Finn
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.

Worst Books

Ron Kaplan
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)

D.G. Myers
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.

Bill Ballew
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.

James Bailey
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?

Bill Begley
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.

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D G Myers 07.07.09 at 8:07 am

Many thanks to James Bailey for inviting me to participate in this symposium. Somehow the author’s name was dropped from my selection of the Worst Baseball Novel Ever. Summerland was written by the overrated and insufferable Michael Chabon.

I agree totally that Bernard Malamud’s Natural deserves to be ranked among the worst, not among the best, baseball novels of all time. At my Commonplace Blog, I discuss the background to the novel and why, in an age in which Bill James has taught us to think more clearly and precisely about baseball, the saga of Roy Hobbs is particularly bad.

James Bailey 07.07.09 at 9:57 am

DG, sorry about that. I’ve added Chabon’s name so he can take his rightful place on the “worst” list.

cubnut 07.07.09 at 10:24 am

Great article. Thanks, all.

I recently read “The Natural” for the first time and while I would be hard-pressed to identify it as “the worst baseball novel ever,” I was sorely disappointed by its relentless melodrama.

A personal favorite of mine is “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant” by Douglas Wallop, from which the movie and stage musical “Damn Yankees” sprouted. It is a charming, funny, touching book, which, like all great novels about baseball, speaks to much bigger things than a game played with a ball and a wooden bat.

I don’t recall how I found this site several weeks ago, but it has become a regular read and is consistently a treat. Thank you again.

Bill 07.07.09 at 11:37 am

A wonderful idea James … so many well-written slections have inspired me to read and re-read them all … am looking forward to tomorrow’s installment.

D G Myers 07.07.09 at 12:30 pm

Completely agree with Cubnut about The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant. “[L]ike all great novels about baseball,” he says, it “speaks to much bigger things than a game played with a ball and a wooden bat.” True. It is a retelling of the Faust legend. But also like all great baseball novels, it gets baseball right. My favorite scene is where Joe Hardy spoils Bobby Shantz’s bid for a no-hitter with a solo homerun, even though he tries to strike out. (Applegate, his Mephistopheles, reverses his good deed.) The image of Shantz on the mound, his shoulders sagging with disappointment, has remained with me ever since I first read the novel as a kid.

Ron Kaplan 07.07.09 at 1:16 pm

I would recommend The Baseball Novel: A History and Annotated Bibliography of Adult Fiction, by Noel Schraufnagel (McFarland, 2008). Makes me realized how many I missed, for better or worse. A year-by-year analysis, with appendices breaking the novels into themes such as race, gender, cass, and ethnicity; science fiction and fantasy; mysteries; and more.

DavidS 07.07.09 at 1:46 pm

I can’t believe nobody’s mentioned The Dixie Association by Donald Hays – easily my favorite baseball novel. Aside from all the many pleasures of its salty language and action, it’s an education on the spitball, the history of independent minor leagues and Native Americans in baseball. Incredibly funny too.

I’m also a big fan of The Universal Baseball Association by Robert Coover which posits God’s dilemmas through the creator of a fantasy league.

Matt 07.07.09 at 6:28 pm

So happy to see the great Mark Harris get his due. The two small novels that round out the Henry Wiggen books — “A Ticket for a Seamstich” and “It Looked Like Forever” are also worth reading. I agree with Bailey and Myers, putting the “The Southpaw” at 1 and “Bang the Drum Slowly” at 1a. I love “The Celebrant” as well.

There just aren’t that many good novels about baseball. (One of the Harris novels contains an exchange that goes something like: “Someone should write a good book about baseball.” “Someone should write a good book.”) The small ball theory of sportswriting doesn’t really translate across to fiction. You named almost all of them here, in my opinion, except “You Know Me Al,” by Ring Lardner and maybe “Men at Work.” (Well, it seems like fiction to me…)

Richard 07.08.09 at 1:40 pm

“Underworld” by Don DeLillo certainly should have been mentioned. The first 60 pages of that book are not only surely the best baseball writing of all-time, but some of the finest fiction ever written.

Owen 07.08.09 at 1:51 pm

Great call on Play For A Kingdom, but no one could find space to write about The Kid from Tompkinsville or any other of John Tunis’ fantastic baseball novels? That’s a shame.

Ethan 07.08.09 at 2:05 pm

That no one even mentioned Waiting for Teddy Williams by Howard Frank Mosher makes me question the overall value of this article.

Simon DelMonte 07.08.09 at 2:26 pm

Ah, there is nothing like the sheer contempt the literati have for fantasy novels. Summerland wasn’t the best book I ever read, but it’s clear that such things don’t matter when comparisons to Tolkien and Rowling are meant as putdowns.

Karyn Ellis 07.08.09 at 11:43 pm

There seems to be very little love here for Kinsella. Is he regarded as a one-trick pony?

Blue 07.09.09 at 12:14 pm

The Greatest Slump of All Time by David Carkeet is a wonderful look at the most dysfunctional winning team ever. A really fun read.

Joe Anson 07.09.09 at 12:45 pm

How about a best/worst baseball book list for teens/kids?

Greg Kannerstein 07.09.09 at 1:01 pm

Great discussion. Here’s another vote for The Universal Baseball
Association by Coover. Really gets the historical dimension.

Best novel about umpires I ever read was the unjustly unknown
The Conduct of the Game by John Hough, Jr. (Full disclosure: author is a personal friend.)

george grella 07.09.09 at 1:10 pm

I am quite amazed at the choices and the justifications; sure, the Harris books are very good, and Roth’s is indeed often overlooked, but trashing The Natural, the first really brilliant novel that examines the depth of myth and magic in baseball in a remarkable stylization of sportswriter prose and conventional vernacular, and then ignoring Coover’s Universal Baseball Association seems to me woefully insensitive and ignorant. The respondents, I am sorry to say, lack a real understanding of both literature and baseball, which by the way, despite popular belief among SABR folks, Bill James did not invent.

James Bailey 07.09.09 at 1:47 pm

I’m not sure why people can’t disagree with selections without tossing around words like “woefully insensitive and ignorant.” As for the panel lacking a real understanding of literature, two of the seven are English professors with pretty solid credentials, and Ron Kaplan probably reads more baseball books in a year than most fans do in a decade.

I have read Coover’s book and found it, in a word, strange. It got hard to read at times because it was just so damn weird. It obviously has its fans, which I’ll refrain from personally insulting, but I didn’t find it to be an enjoyable book.

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