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The best books on Baseball Novels

recommended by Michael Carlson

The sports pundit says baseball reflects an American ideal which is now an American fantasy. It works well as a metaphor for life, which may be why there have been so many good novels written about it

Michael Carlson

Michael Carlson is a broadcaster and journalist in Britain, best known as the American football television pundit for Channel 4 and the BBC. He has also reviewed books for many newspapers and magazines, and written three books about film directors. Carlson blogs on the arts at Irresistible Targets, and you can follow him on Twitter @carlsonsports

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Michael Carlson

Michael Carlson is a broadcaster and journalist in Britain, best known as the American football television pundit for Channel 4 and the BBC. He has also reviewed books for many newspapers and magazines, and written three books about film directors. Carlson blogs on the arts at Irresistible Targets, and you can follow him on Twitter @carlsonsports

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Why do you think baseball forms the basis for so many great American novels?

In a sense, it is because baseball symbolises something that was at one point an idealised version of American life. Today I think it is an idealised version of a fantasy American life – which is pastoral, honest, competitive and entertaining. But most importantly, baseball recreates the quotidian nature of existence. It is an everyday game. They play 162 games a year, but at the end of each one you win or you lose and then you start over, unlike in real life. So it gives you a vast canvas on which to paint an equivalent of real life, but one that is more dramatic each day and which builds to a more dramatic climax as the season comes to an end.

What do you personally enjoy so much about the game?

I think baseball is the most interesting game, because of its variations of a simple theme. It is almost like an enclosed table game, in that you have a very simple structure within which myriad possibilities take place over and over again. It is also the only sport I can think of that puts an individual confrontation into the middle of a team game. Even more so than cricket, you have a battle between the pitcher and the hitter as the centrepiece of the game. But within that there is a team sport. If you look at Japanese baseball, they look at it as a team sport in the sense that we might look at American football or soccer as a team sport, where you have to cooperate with all nine players together. I worked for Major League Baseball for four years and during that time I got a lot of exposure to baseball players. I was constantly fascinated by the depth within the game, the vast amount of information I just didn’t know about it.

You could have chosen from any number of novels about baseball. What made you pick Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association?

This is my favourite of all baseball books, and I think it is one of the great novels of its period. Coover is one of the most interesting but ignored novelists of that time. He was writing what we now call metafiction in the sixties, alongside people like John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. What I love about the book is the idea of someone who is a rather nondescript and average person using baseball as a way of elevating himself into being the creator of a universe.

For those who haven’t read the book, what is going on to allow him to do that?

He has invented a simulation game of baseball – these existed in the days before fantasy sport, which is a different thing. Fantasy sport is more or less asset-stripping the statistics of the game. But simulation games exist because baseball is the best sport for them, as it is so well documented statistically. The way they generally work is on probabilities out of a thousand, so in some games you would roll three dice to get a three-digit number – a one in a thousand probability – and you would then use the number charts to get a result which would reflect the baseball statistics, and that is what happens in the game.

Henry Waugh [the protagonist] has his own teams and players, and when the son of one of the great players of all time comes along as an exciting rookie, Henry rolls his dice. Then something bad happens. And at that point, as the creator of the universe, he is forced to make a decision. But I don’t want to give it all away.

As a character Henry is a normal, not very exciting accountant.

Yes. He goes to bars every night when he is not playing his baseball game. He has a very depressing relationship with a woman whom we might describe as a floozy, and he lives within his baseball fantasy. The full title of the book is The Universal Baseball Association Inc. J. Henry Waugh, Prop – and J Henry Waugh anagrams into “Jahweh”, which of course is the Hebrew unspeakable name for god. I went back and looked at the original review of the book in The New York Times, by Wilfrid Sheed who is a very good writer himself. He said,

“Not to read this because you don’t like baseball is like not reading Balzac because you don’t like boarding houses. Baseball provides as good a frame for dramatic encounter as any. The bat and ball are excuses. Baseball also involves a real subculture, a tradition, a political history that were, in some sense, preordained, … That the players and fans might be shadows in the mind of a Crazy Accountant up there is not only believable but curiously attractive.”

I think he is absolutely right, and the idea of God as a crazy accountant makes as much sense as any other. This book most definitely deserves to be read even if you are not a big fan of baseball. There is a mythic element to baseball because in effect it is a pursuit of dreams, but not just the dreams of the player. You can look at it almost as a science-fiction novel, but it is prescient in the sense that fantasy baseball has taken over the sports fans’ universe. He is a wonderful writer in complete control of what he is doing.

Next up you have chosen Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris, starring Henry Wiggin who has been described as America’s best-known fictional baseball player.

Mark Harris wrote four books where the main narrator is Henry Wiggin. The first one was called The Southpaw because he is a left-handed pitcher, who are baseball’s oddballs. It’s no coincidence the lefty’s signature pitch is called a screwball. Bang the Drum Slowly, which I think is his best book, is the second in the series. The first three were written in the fifties, and then he came back in 1979 with a book called It Looked Like Forever, in which the ageing Wiggin can’t throw as fast anymore, a metaphor for ageing.

What is Wiggin like as a character?

He is a bit like a character from a Ring Lardner story, and the tone is very much like Ring Lardner. Lardner wrote stories which were collected as You Know Me Al – letters written by a player to a friend back home. Wiggin is a sort of cracker barrel philosopher, not quite as smart as he thinks. This comes out best in Bang the Drum Slowly. His catcher, whose name is Bruce Pearson, is dim-witted and his team mates make fun of him. Wiggin finds out that Pearson is actually dying from Hodgkin’s disease and doesn’t want him to tell anybody. And Wiggin doesn’t break his trust, but he does start to integrate Pearson into the team.

But the book is not about what the team does, it is about how we deal with life. Wiggin is always playing a card game with one of the coaches called Tegwar. They use it to baffle rookies and newcomers, and they teach Pearson what Tegwar is – it stands for The Exciting Game Without Any Rules. There aren’t any rules, they just make them up as they go along, and in a sense that is what life is.

A lot of baseball novels have been made into movies, and there have been a lot of great baseball movies as well, but not that many good novels have translated into fine films. This one was made into a movie quite successfully with Robert De Niro as Pearson and Michael Moriarty as Henry Wiggin, even though Michael pitches with his right hand.

For all the reasons you have just given, this is widely regarded as one of the best books in baseball fiction.

Yes, it is really entertaining. It’s bittersweet, and what I really love are the silly things about it. For example, Henry Wiggin’s nickname on the team is “author” because he has written this book, but Pearson is so dim he thinks its “Arthur” and calls him that through most of the book. The novel ends with one of the best closing lines in American literature. After Pearson’s funeral, Wiggin says, “From here on in I rag nobody.”

Your next choice takes us to Mexico, with Mark Winegardner’s first novel The Veracruz Blues.

This book came out in 1997 and isn’t particularly well known. But I like it a lot, and wanted to include it ahead of some of the better known books. This is the story of the Mexican League, which was started by a couple of brothers in 1946. The one in charge was Jorge Pasquel, an industrialist in Mexico who wanted to start a competitor to Major League Baseball, which they stole players away from.

Presumably they wanted to set up the league as a status thing.

Yes, it was for status and baseball is a big sport in Mexico – not to the level of soccer but still big. Winter leagues in Mexico had always attracted Major League players, so they decided to create a Mexican League. What’s interesting from Winegardner’s point of view is that the league had black players coming down from the States who were Major League calibre but barred by the apartheid pre-Jackie Robinson. And then the white players who jump to the Mexican league get barred from going back to Major League Baseball, for violating the reserve clause in their contracts. One of them, Danny Gardella, filed a lawsuit against the League which was a precursor to all the antitrust suits of the last 30 years or so. He lost.

So the book includes some real life characters?

Yes – Gardella is a character in the book, and so is Pasquel. It’s based on real events, but narrated by a fictional sports writer named Frank Bullinger, and through him we meet other real people including Ernest Hemingway – down in Mexico for the bullfights or the fishing, I forget which. Hemingway pops up in a lot of fiction these days!

Winegardner is really exploring issues of racism and capitalism, or the issue of forced servitude that baseball players were faced with in the 1940s. You see their effort to get a better deal for themselves using these crazy Mexican tycoons. Mark Winegardner is an interesting writer. Recently he has been doing Godfather sequels, which is a hiding to nothing but he does them well.

So did the players who went to Mexico and were then barred realise that was a possibility?

They realised it would probably happen, but they thought they would be able to get back into the Major League again. The most famous of them was Sal Maglie, who was known as “the barber”. He was a pitcher for the Giants. I was talking about the “reserve clause”, which meant that if they didn’t sign a new contract the old one would be extended for one more year. The legal issue which eventually got resolved was that the new contract included a reserve clause as well, so in effect they were perpetually bound to their teams. That was an issue and made it difficult for them to move about. But finally courts ruled in favour of the players, so they had more flexibility.

Harry Stein’s Hoopla looks at one of the biggest scandals in baseball history.

This book is really overlooked. It deals with the Black Sox scandal in 1919. There is a very good nonfiction book called Eight Men Out by Eliot Asinof which deals with the same subject. So this book was kind of lost, particularly when John Sayles made his film of Eight Men Out, which is one of my favourite baseball movies.

What happened in 1919?

Some of the players from The Chicago White Sox accepted money from gamblers to throw the World Series, which is why they were then referred to as the Black Sox. In the end, through threats and whatever, they lost the series to the Cincinnati Reds and eight of the players were banned for life by the new commissioner of baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. The White Sox at the time were considered the best team in baseball by far.

It’s also one of the themes of WP Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe, which got made into the movie Field of Dreams. Shoeless Joe Jackson was the best player on that Black Sox team. Harry Stein’s novel is told from two points of view. One point of view is a fictional journalist, Luther Pond, who provides the backdrop to the corrupt nature of baseball – and Chicago – in those days. The other chapters are narrated by Buck Weaver, who was one of the players on the team. Although he didn’t throw any games himself, he was barred from baseball because he knew about it and didn’t tell anyone.

Do you think there is still corruption in baseball?

Not game-fixing, but there is the whole issue of steroid abuse. Some things never change within the sport. The money is a lot bigger these days, so gamblers couldn’t really afford to make it worthwhile. The cheating that still goes on in baseball is sometimes referred to as gamesmanship. Taking steroids wasn’t against the rules of the game, but it is against the spirit of the game – and against the law, of course, without a prescription.

I think baseball is the only sport in America where we still consider the spirit of the game to be important. When the British say “it‘s not cricket”, that is that same idea. No-one would ever say anything is against the spirit of American football. In the film Field of Dreams there is a speech delivered by James Earl Jones about how baseball stands for everything good in American life. But he is saying it about a bunch of guys that threw the World Series! So there is a certain contradiction that Kinsella and the movie makers never came to terms with. This is brought out by Harry Stein, who is something of a contrarian writer. He wrote a very interesting book a few years later about how he became a right-wing Republican after growing up a leftist, and that attitude is what gives this book a certain edge.

Your final choice, The Natural by Bernard Malamud, is a baseball classic first published in 1952.

This was a tough choice because I decided to pick a couple of lesser known books first. So when it came to choosing which one of the real baseball classics to go for, it was between The Natural and Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel. Roth and Malamud share concerns about Jewishness, and American-ness as well. I think The Natural wins, simply because Roth’s is an exuberant book and in some ways an essay about literature. If anyone has read The Art of Fielding [by Chad Harbach], that draws very heavily on Roth.

Malamud’s book is a perfect, mythic take on baseball in which he plays with the myth of the Fisher King and the Holy Grail. His character, Roy Hobbs, is a Percival or Lancelot and he succumbs to corruption. The movie tacks on a happy ending which isn’t there in the book, which kills what is a pretty good movie. Robert Redford really is too old for the role, although he plays it rather well. The book ends exactly the way you expect those myths to end – he is brought down by his own hubris.

It came out in 1952, and a couple of years later a novel called The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant was published, which became the musical The Damn Yankees. I think that was inspired by Malamud, because it retells the Faust story as a baseball story. But Malamud’s novel is much richer and deeper. What is also interesting is that Malamud was born in Brooklyn, just like Roth, but was of immigrant parents. To people in that generation, baseball was a major means of assimilation into American culture. You find that in all kinds of writing about the immigrant experience. The way to become American was to learn baseball.

Why do you think that the National Football League has become more popular than baseball?

As I said at the beginning, I think baseball reflects an American ideal which is now an American fantasy. Football reflects what America really is.

Namely?

Mechanised, militaristic, violent, obsessive, not pastoral and not relaxed. This has been exacerbated by television and media.

Don DeLillo wrote a novella called Pafko at the Wall, about the famous 1951 playoff game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants. The story reappeared as the opening segment of his novel Underworld. As a novel itself it would be a great analysis of what baseball means to America. But he also wrote a novel called End Zone, which in effect says that the reason we are in the Vietnam War is because we love American football. And, oddly enough, Robert Coover wrote a novel about Richard Nixon called Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?, about Nixon’s failures as a football player and with his sex life. He was a scrub in college but never quit. He would drive Pat Nixon to dates with other men when he was first trying to date her.

When did football become popular in the US?

It began taking over from baseball with the Kennedys, who were big touch-football players. Then with the advent of television, it was discovered that American football fits the television screen better than any other sport.

Do you think there are better baseball novels out there than the ones about American football?

Definitely. That is because, although there are some very good novels about football and boxing and some other sports, they tend to be more about the sport itself. They use the sport to show the characters of the people in them. But even non-fiction about baseball has more depth. The best baseball novels tend to be about something bigger than the sport. They use baseball as a metaphor for life.

Interview by Eve Gerber

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