“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” Those words–written by American scholar Jacques Barzun—are now engraved on a plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
In his book, God’s Country and Mine: A Declaration of Love Spiced with a Few Harsh Words (1954), Barzun wrote that baseball was uniquely American, that it “fitly expresses the powers of the nation‘s mind and body,” that it has “a merit separate from the glory of being the most active, agile, varied, articulate, and brainy of all group games.” “It is,” he wrote, “of and for our century. Tennis belongs to the individualistic past–a hero, or at most a pair of friends or lovers, against the world. The idea of baseball is a team, an outfit, a section, a gang, a union, a cell, a commando squad – in short, a twentieth-century setup of opposite numbers.”
Over the six decades since he wrote those words, football has become the national sport, at least in terms of TV ratings. But baseball remains our national pastime–and, for we readers and writers, the inspiration for some of our favorite works of fiction.
As we approach the All-Star Game and its subtle shift from Spring to the growing tension of the pennant races, I pause to give a shout-out to my 6 favorite Great American Baseball Novels:
- The Great American Novel by Philip Roth: How can you resist a baseball novel with that title? As one reviewer wrote, “In this ribald, richly imagined, and wickedly satiric novel, Roth turns baseball’s status as national pastime and myth into an occasion for unfettered picaresque farce, replete with heroism and perfidy, ebullient wordplay and a cast of characters that includes the House Un-American Activities Committee.”
- The Southpaw by Mark Harris: While his second baseball novel, Bang the Drum Slowly, became a critically acclaimed motion picture starring Robert De Nero, my favorite Mark Harris novel–and one of my favorite novels of all time–is his first baseball novel, The Southpaw. This is the poignant and beautifully written coming of age novel about Henry Wiggins, the southpaw pitcher of the title. As the San Francisco Chronicle reviewer wrote, “Cheers to Mark Harris, who gives us by far the best ‘serious’ baseball novel published.”
- Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella: If you loved the movie version of this book, entitled Field of Dreams, you will be even more enchanted by the novel, which features a delicious added treat: the famous author kidnapped and brought to Iowa in the novel is none other than J.D. Salinger.
- The Natural by Bernard Malamud. Yes, when we think of The Natural we think of the Robert Redford motion picture with the happy ending featuring fireworks exploding after Roy Hobbs (Redford) hits that monumental home run, signalling his redemption. The novel–Malamud’s first–is a far darker tale that blends baseball and myth, particularly the Arthurian legends of Percival and the Fisher King. The ending will haunt you.
- The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover. Published in 1968, decades before the invention of fantasy baseball, this black comic novel features J. Henry Waugh, an unhappy accountant who comes home every night to immerse himself in an imaginary baseball world where everything–EVERYTHING–is ruled by dice. In a 2011 appreciation in the New York Times on the novel’s re-issue, Matt Weiland wrote, “The genius of the novel is in how Coover revels in the sun-bright vitality of the world Waugh has created, full of drink and lust and dirty limericks and doubles down the line — and yet brings Waugh face to face with its darkest truths.”
- You Know Me Al by Ring Lardner. Lardner was a baseball beat reporter in the earliest days of the game, and then became America’s most popular humorist during the Jazz Age. Colin Fleming paid homage to Lardner’s 1916 novel (his only novel) in an Atlantic Monthly article entitled “The Greatest Baseball Novel Ever Written.” As Fleming explains, “Lardner’s idea was brilliantly simple, and it came with expansive narrative possibilities: Have a fictional ‘busher’–that is, a fringe Major League player–named Jack Keefe make the show as a pitcher for the White Sox, and have him send dispatches back home to his friend in Bedford, Indiana.” That friend was the Al of the title, Al Blanchard. Jack is a boastful and oblivious knucklehead, and much of the book’s humor comes from Jack’s total inability to recognize when he is being manipulated or cheated.
Six wonderful books to enjoy this baseball season. Play ball!