Saturday, April 17, 2004
Apes And Angels: Contemporary Baseball Fiction and My Century of Misery by Michael Baker
“Did Cartwright say that his
endeavor was to balance the arithmetic
of the game against its geometry?
All of sport, from bushkazi to
baseball, is man’s endeavor to balance
his animal instinct against his civilizing
intellect. On the sporting field, to borrow
Mister Disraeli’s phrase, we are both ape and angel.”
Eric Rolfe Greenberg,
“Go fuck yourself.”
Albert Belle, to NBC’s Hannah Storm
The Seventh Babe, Jerome Charyn, 1979
Shoeless Joe, W.P. Kinsella, 1981
The Celebrant, Eric Rolfe Greenberg, 1983
The Greatest Slump of All Time, David Carkeet, 1984
Blue Ruin, Brendan Boyd, 1991
On April 22nd, 1901, the first game of the American League was played; the Chicago White Sox barely bested my later-to-be-loved Cleveland Indians, 8-2. And if you excuse the unlikely aberrations of the periodic anomaly—Bagby, Boudreau, or a Baerga—it has been downhill for the Tribe ever since, a ceaseless sadistic and masochistic contortion of cosmic athletic ineptitude, mind-bogglingly bad trades, selfish and preening players, shortsighted and greedy owners, and genius foes: Cobb, Ruth, Foxx, Greenberg, Williams, Mantle, and Killebrew. The Tribe that year finished 54-82; their clean-up hitter amassed 55 RBI’s; their leadoff hitter was Candy LaChance; their sterling reserves included Zaza, Truck, Shorty, and Paddy. Reading, however, baseball books, staring at muted TV’s in decaying bars in downtown Akron, listening to Herb Score on the radio, studying statistics, attending games for years in a near-empty stadium, and following, begging with, laughing over and sobbing because of my Cleveland Indians, have made me who I am, or am not: a complete shithead addled loser. And I wouldn’t change one called strike three, one late-August delusional hope, one dropped pop fly in the eighth. That absence of glory has become my cursed presence, the scarlet badge of a grinning drunk Indian.
There has been gleaned for me, however, some solace from baseball books. The ever present sense of spring renewal, the recognition of the latent potential in all human endeavor, the timelessness of a seven-run uprising, and the pouring over of stable statistics have called forth many a person, young and old, to whisper their secret fascination with this beautiful charade. And I am drawn to many of them: the dreamy and nostalgic non-fictions of Angell, Khan, Tygiel and Creamer; the saber-rattling of the hyper-zealous scientists, James and Palmer and their army of pencil pushers, who compare fielding statistics of Federal League third basemen; and, of course, the myriad fictionists. I prefer the odder ones: the game needs permanent debunkings, especially in opposition to the clichéd media heads or the seasonal comical angst of permanent losers—the Cubs, the Red Sox, and me. Some of the hallowed ones leave me cold, like forced eating of spinach or reading Tom Wolfe: they contain the same number of players and dirty jockstraps, but they call attention to their seriousness at every possible 7th inning stretch. Mark Harris’s “Henry Wiggins” novels are too homey, too winking at me because of their moral superiority. I prefer Thurber to Lardner. Period. Malamud—a great novelist—in his first, The Natural, uses many intelligent adjectives and way too many intellectual plot patterns, making me lament the dirt of my neighborhood ball field. Roth’s The Great American Novel blows up because of the comic tantrums, the great fabulist’s lack of details and perspiration. Better if one takes the game less mythically, with more immediacy, highlighting failed efforts, heroes in search of empty stadiums.
I prefer the protest and spirit of survival found in the non-Platonic pages of Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop., in the first third of DeLillo’s Underworld, and in the tiny men who inhabit their precarious tiny worlds of the five novels listed above. These celebrations and ceremonies, these mysterious powers of lost narrators, the prosleytizing characters who know not themselves, seek meaning, structure, and grace from the game. Marcus Aurelius, an opponent of the wild card and designated hitter, wrote that men need “sacrifice…the most primitive, the most natural and enduringly significant of old pagan sacrifices…and veritable consecration.” The characters in these books seek also to confirm beliefs: they have instinctive attachments to the order of 27 outs and 60 feet, 6 inches. While self interest, family, community, and the past may be crumbling, the game itself posits a radical morality, a set of codes handed down since Doubleday in hushed, secret conundrums exchanged in bars, dugouts, and hotel rooms. The characters here are anti-capitalists, anti-fascists. Although deeply washed in superstition, racism, provincialism, and hoary abstractions, these men, nonetheless, have predilections for the common, the same, the ordinary, free from the ache of longing. They are not liberated, or patriotic, or concerned with equality: they are ballplayers—adults in child-like games, attracted to patterns, and haters of dazzling interpretations.
These five novels share, besides the obvious, many things: enervated protagonists scarred from past falls, and fearful of future pink slips. They hate the owners; they are not even on firm ground regarding their fearless allies, the spectators. Each of the five novels share a love for the more ancient variety of the sport, when fans could walk up a buy a draught for their heroes; when the same couple thousand fans came to every game; when the salaries, gloves, and home runs were miniscule; when gamblers outnumbered the temperate. Except for Kinsella, whose famous novel became the more famous, and moribundly sanitized, Field of Dreams, the novelists here are wary of veteran players enjoying the sunsets from their southern porches, warm gins in their hands, daydreaming of Stonewall Jackson or Walter Johnson. These novels, and Kinsella’s, achieve what most great fiction achieves: prickings into our collective consciences; diagrams of failed dreams; a miniaturized and entropic present, harshly counter pointed with the bright promise of spring. The leaders of these fictions are jumpy, sad, seeking the balance between individual glory and collective action. Teamwork is often extolled, and as also with corporate America, iconoclasm is deprecated, caged, but these characters have secret weapons: they play brilliantly with beautiful bodies this game of chance and skill.
Shoeless Joe, W.P. Kinsella’s superb novel, restrained and tender, is about fathers and sons. Voices tell the narrator, Ray Kinsella, a struggling Iowa farmer, to build a baseball field. Once done, it is inhabited by members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox, architects of that year’s World Series scandal and their own dooms. The novel, like Caesar’s Gaul, is divided into three parts: the voices and the dream and the field; the bonding with another silenced artist, J.D. Salinger, who like Shoeless Joe Jackson of the Sox, wonders why he was chosen; and the long coda, where a former player who only got into one game with the Giants and another lost soul who for a half a century has claimed spurious professional experience add colorings of hope and integrity. They all seek reclamation, and they all get to rectify mistakes, or at least live second chances. Much sports fiction suffers from excessive idolatry, which partially mars this sad and thoughtful book. Bad baseball books, like French operetta or Lake Erie wineries, do not have a life outside their simplistic souls. Here, farming, fresh starts, and fathers take precedent, as the game, although sacred, is played for joy, more pitch and catch, less standing ovations. And the heroes, Jackson, Salinger, and the elder Kinsella are demystified, miniaturized. The strokes of portraiture are swift; the balance between cornball and baseball is taut. This is America: falling apart, isolated, seeking redress for long ago grievances. Although the character of the wife is transparent, and although the morality of gambling is never discussed, the book renders well the dignity of athleticism, the art of narrative making, and the fragile holds to positive delusions. The wicked bankers are beat back, the pristine players welcome all competition, and the narrator fights through his fear and trembling, putting on a glove and re-imagining the not-so-towering image of his father.
Because Kinsella’s book actually reaches concordance, and because it actually centers around decent people—delusional and felonious, but indefatigably decent—it is quite unlike the other four novels under consideration here. The tone and execution of Shoeless Joe is timorous, restrained, plangent in it its need for connections. The other four books celebrate chaos and cursing, doldrums and defeats—these multiple tongues can’t be shut down, so don’t bother inviting the Vicar for tea. Three of the four—excepting Carkeet’s novel of team and individual pathological depression—take place near the 1919, baseball’s watershed year. The shock of that scandal, the declining moments of glory of true heroes like Mathewson and Wagner, the war, the baseball fiscal disasters made pregnant by the Federal League War, uncertain boundaries extolled by Einstein and Freud, and the advent of Babe Ruth’s celebrated entrance to immortality in Yankee pinstripes cause these baseball worlds to collide with each other. Like the scales of measurement in Lilliput or Brobdignang everything becomes helter-skelter. Before 1919 there was a technical need for fantasy, but now with gambling and the Babe, the verisimilitude itself has become freakish and distorted. And obstacles are now the given: the curse of a banal democracy is that split between the shared principles of a unified shared purpose versus the fragmented individual’s search for identity. These novels depict America’s frightening embrace with onrushing darkness. The world was once safe and flat, and Cher was once a virgin, but now Babe Ruth out homers entire rosters.
David Carkeet’s The Greatest Slump of All Time is tender, mournful, and hilarious. The great painter Max Beckman promoted “a raw, average vulgar art which doesn’t live between sleepy fairy-tale moods and poetry but rather concedes a direct entrance to the fearful, commonplace, splendid, and the average grotesque banality in life.” This novel, about an entire starting roster on a National League team profoundly depressed, is as funny and as raw as any sporting book written. The ineffectual manager narrates a seemingly endless pornographic joke, constantly interrupted; the players devise or dream up improbable strategies that leave opponents open mouthed, bitter, and defeated. As the winning continues, the individuals fall apart, scared of success, resistant to the marital obligations, paranoid of teammates’ hitting streaks. There are bitterness, superstition, and roving day-to-day theories of life rejected and accepted; sad about the game, but terrified of life, these somehow sympathetic players endure each other, like Sisyphus. They batter the media’s clichés, fight for fathers’ and fans’ affections, and make it into the World Series. They, like Richard III, hate the idle pleasures of the day, and seek solace in guns, hotels, bars, and fantasies, all the while playing baseball expertly and gracefully. To one “the action on the field is like an orgasm taking twenty-three years to happen.” The skipper seeks patterns. Routine plays become baroque, confusing all except the individual engineer. Mothers sit silent. Many players “withdraw into silent, ardent resentment.” The novel, as with its depicted final game, never reaches satisfactory resolution. The players stalk off, and allow the reserves the glory, or the bitterness. One suicide and a mini rebellion and the players are soon prepping not for batting practice but post-career sadness, lives of deprivation, serious pain, and persistent disappointment. As with the running joke, and the fireballer pitcher’s virginity, and the season itself, there are no endings here, no voluntary mirth: just racism, grey depression, solitude, and no patterns; except the Yankees are in the World Series so the players go on a fishin’ trip, a few days earlier than they should have. Let their child conspire, and let the fans be ignorant of the players’ constant on-field panic. Fish neither talk back, nor carry weapons. There are no scores kept.
As rich as Carkeet’s book is about the fear of playing, similarly textured is the gambling fabric of Brendan Boyd’s Blue Ruin: A Novel of The 1919 World Series. As good as Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men Out is, Boyd’s fictionalization of the same topic rings truer: the conflation of post-War euphoria, the greed of gamblers and players, the profane slang, the depiction in to the minutiae of sadness of lost men, all sing here, through the eyes and voice of Joseph “Sport” Sullivan. Sullivan, a real actor in the drama of the Chicago team throwing, engineers a big payoff for himself, and once accomplished, the novel traces his fall; once Hamlet-like, contemplative, rueful, restrained, he was a pretty big fish in a dirty pond who owned a gambler’s code; after the bets were paid off, everything changed. Girlfriends were actually hookers; Hollywood was more real than the East Coast; money slipped through hands like water through a shot-up corpse. Ironically, the purposeful direction, conventions, and quotidian honor of Sullivan’s life were most in evidence in the planning and execution of the crime. Once it was discovered that a few people could manufacture such a catastrophic illusion-busting of this magnitude, the mosaic of life changed. There was no longer a bottom. Society failed in that it felt, as in slavery, mere codification, as in baseball player’s contracts, was mutual, or produced serenity. Just because a system works does not make it fair, moral, or desirable. The rebellious players and their sad lives; the gamblers who add, but don’t subtract; the owners and their pontifical avarice: no one at the advent of the Roaring Twenties was a winner. Sleep was forgotten. Money had no value. And every athletic competition could be fixed. In Mexico at the end, exiled, but safe from prosecution, Sport Sullivan is no longer a person: cut off from his language, his family, his way of life, he is rewarded with nothingness, no action, no wagering. All bets are off. He can dream of his foreign America, but that too is gone.
Another lost world, more tender, more simple, more moving, is conjured in Eric Rolfe Greenberg’s beautiful The Celebrant, a story about baseball at the turn of the century, the assimilation of Jews into society, and hero worship, here the larger than life pitcher for the New York Giants, Christy Mathewson, an immense figure, physically, athletically, and morally. Blue Ruin was slang for bad liquor, or disgraceful ruin, but here the sadness comes from within. Jackie, a pitcher of promise, a conflicted son of immigrants, and a master jeweler, traces Mathewson’s rise, and the Giants’, through a series of games realistically and accurately rendered: Matheweson’s perfect game; New York’s World Series win in 1905; Merkle’s boner; Snodgrass’s muff. Jackie’s brother, an inveterate gambler—friend to Hal Chase and John McGraw—provides the parallelism; at a time when the game itself provided the spectacle (as an execution) the viewer could only watch: the activity itself had a time-table, a rigid set of established rhythms and regulated repetitions. Fans were fans, that’s all. The physical elaboration of the event was all. But with the intercession of gambling, hero worshiping, stakes were raised, breaking the spirit of the contests and Jackie’s confidence in the American system, things as the dawn of the century had just promised. The game, and life, became reductionist parodies, thwarted by merely conventional ball playing or logical methods. There was too much pressure to bear; as the stakes rose, the play became a play. The naïve narrator maintained a nostalgic view of the game and as the ballplayers and owners exposed themselves as the brutal barbarians that they were, perception clouded. In the search for values, Jackie couldn’t maintain the balanced tension between vicarious fervor and the inherent naturalism of an action that ended either winning or losing. As a religious Jew, as an idealist, as a fan, he demanded transmogrification, not betting slips, mockery, or failed intentions. He lost his faith.
These immigrants’ sons—on and off the field—were drunken and disaffection scions of a hopeless heritage. The dialogue in all of these books resembles not so much a synthesis, or compromise, or communication, but jagged peaks of illogic. The characters can’t write about themselves because when they look into the mirrors they say “who the hell’s that?” Each of the novels loses momentum, writes about women badly, zigzags their tonal keys, and struggles for authenticity. But no sports book I know—not even Exley’s The Fan’s Notes—is as abrupt, vile, comic, horrific, or degenerative, with inane small talk, failed sexuality, questionable honor, as Jerome Charyn’s The Seventh Babe, a great American novel by a great American writer. Charyn practically re-invented, not merely re-invigorated, the American detective novel in his series about Marilyn and Isaac Sidel, and Blue Eyes and the Guzmans, and here his aim is equally rambunctious and high. The character, the seventh Babe in Baseball in the year 1923, Babe Raglan has a name that simultaneously echoes the motif of a Bildungsroman (a babe, around adult men for the first time), and Lord Ragland, creator of a literary chart of mythological patterns. Here, Charyn debunks these myths and re-applies them, for these baseball players, either in the big leagues or the outlaw Negro Leagues where Babe spends playing and managing the majority of his career, or for the hangers-on: truth and redemption come to the faux-foundling as he asserts his rugged individualism, frontier democracy, communion with and conquest of the natural world, and America’s sense of exceptionalism.
This books hums with life: it is wicked, scared and profane—almost a raw expose of the failure of sports, society, race, and the market during the 20’s and 30’s. Wounds, gaping physical ones and inner, figure preeminently, harkening to Sophocles’ last tragedy, Philoctetes, which is referred to several times near the end. As with all these books the past of baseball serves as a grand design that somehow becomes pale, and each of our heroes needs to grip with absent or unloving fathers, often hilariously symbolized by the wayward managers and their obtuse coaching staffs. No one knows the score at these contests. And if the story here is Adamic, searching for a prior Eden, the story is Oedipal as well, a tragedy that fathers get slain, before their time. Babe Raglan’s need for clarity is simply a need for the box scores of his daily life to measure concretely against the haziness of the dark hotel rooms. All five of these novels are picaresque and ribald, if also hollow inside: there are no benchmarks of greatness: Babe is no Babe Ruth no savior; Mathewson was gassed in France and died too young; Shoeless Joe, an illiterate hick with a magic bat, chased flies in South Carolina’s sandlots during his early fifties, fat, sweaty, and guilty; gamblers are exiled, outfielders commit suicide. The pockets of affirmation come from the relentless authorial zeal to depict the minor, but daily, struggle for domination in a game for children. Charyn does not curse democracy. He eviscerates it.
These fictions keep us warm during the long dark nights of our wintry discontent. They connect us to the past, create heroes from static box scores, and posit conflated vernacular, profane slang, and sporting lexicon to foment our limited vocabularies and imaginations. Virginia Woolf, noted switch hitter, said novelists were to “record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected….Any method is right, every method is right…no perception comes amiss.” These methods found in these five books are fundamentally the psychic disturbances of ambivalences. We love and hate. We pass, fail. Win. Lose. We yearn—or we should—for the underdogs, but loathe the congress of failures, the confederation of misery. And these fictions here are agent provocateurs stressing the potential sorry state of hero worship: we would probably be better off collectively mowing our lawns, painting our falling-apart porches, holding our children tighter, longer. Me? I have no porch. But I do have Albert Belle’s rookie card in my wallet, firm against my backside.
Michael Baker teaches composition at New Jersey colleges, where his students write about their fierce hatred of the New York Yankees.