Tuesday, 16 April 2013


NOTE: About a year ago, I did an essay for BBC Radio 4's Open Book, about baseball novels. You can link to that post here, but the IPlayer link has disappeared, so I will try to find my original script and reprint it. 

Shortly after doing Open Book, I was interviewed by The Browser, a literary website, and asked to pick my five favourite baseball novels, something the structure of the Open Book essay hadn't allowed. I went to look at that interview, but it too seems to be suffering from the internet's missing link disease. Luckily, I had the website's rough draft of the interview available, so, with a few small amendations, I offer it here...

Michael Carlson on Baseball Novels

Why do you think that 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 the more important reason is that baseball recreates the quotidian nature of existence. Baseball is an everyday game. They play one hundred and sixty-two games a year but at the end of each one you win or you lose and then you start over, unlike 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 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 on 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 something like cricket, you have this battle between the pitcher and the hitter which is the centre piece of the game. But within that you also have a team sport. If you look at Japanese baseball, for example, they take the team sport part of it much more seriously than the Americans do and they look at it as a team sport in the sense that we might look at American Football or soccer as being a 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 and I was constantly fascinated by the depth within the game, the vast amount of information I just didn't know about it.

I know you could have chosen from any number of books about baseball so what made you pick, Robert Coover’s, Universal Baseball Association?
This is my favourite of all the baseball books and I actually think it is one of the great novels of its period. Coover is one of the most interesting but practically ignored novelists of that period. He was writing what we now call metafiction in the 60’s alongside people like John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. What I love about the book is the idea that someone who is a rather nondescript and average person uses 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 the simulation games existed because baseball is the best sport for them, because it is so well documented statistically. The way they generally work is on probabilities out of a thousand and so in some games you would roll three dice to get a three digit number (a one in a thousand probablilty) and you would then use number charts to get a result which would reflect the baseball statistics. That is what happens in Waugh's game.

Waugh 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 – the character-- rolls his dice and rolls his dice again and the charts say 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.

Yet as a character Henry is a normal, not very exciting accountant.
Yes. He is someone who goes to bars every night when he is not playing his baseball game. He has a very depressing relationship with a woman who we might describe as a floozy but he lives within his baseball fantasy. The full title of the book is, The Universal Baseball Association Inc. J. Henry Waugh, Prop and if you look at what J Henry Waugh anagrams into it becomes obvious what Coover is doing by calling him 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 was a very good writer himself and 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 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 which stars 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, and they 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, is the second in the series. The first three were written in the 50’s and then he came back in 1979 with a book called It Looked like Forever in which the aging Wiggin can't throw as fast anymore, and losing your fastball is a wonderful metaphor for aging.

What is Wiggin like as a character?

He is a bit like someone from a Ring Lardner story. And the tone is very much like Ring Lardner. Ladner wrote stories which were collected as You Know Me Al, letters written by a player to a friend back home. Wiggin's a sort of cracker barrel philosopher, not quite as smart as he thinks. This comes out best in Bang the Drum Slowly. What happens is that his catcher, whose name is Bruce Pearson, is kind of dim witted and his teammates make fun of him. Wiggin finds out that Pearson is actually dying from Hodgkin’s disease and Pearson doesn’t want him to tell anybody. And Wiggin doesn’t break his trust but what he does do is to 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 and they use it to baffle rookies and newcomers and they teach Pearson what Tegwar is. Tegwar actually 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.

What is really interesting is that 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 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! When the book came out it was done on television for the US Steel Hour, (note: which were hour long live dramas, broadcast from 1953-1963) and it had Paul Newman as Wiggin and Albert Salmi as Pearson. I have never been able to find a tape to watch but I think it would be fascinating as well.

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 book ends with one of the best closing lines in American literature. Wiggin after Pearson’s funeral says, “From here on in I rag nobody.”

Wise words. 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 an a lot and wanted to include it ahead of some of the better known books. It's set in the Mexican League, which was run by two Mexican industrialists, the Pasquel brothers, and in 1946 they had a dream. The brother in charge was Jorge Pasque, and he wanted to go into competition with Major League Baseball. So they started offering big money to steal players from the gringo Majors.

Presumably they wanted to set up the league as a status thing.
Yes it was a status thing and baseball is a big sport in Mexico, not to the level of soccer but it is still big. Winter leagues in Mexico had always attracted Major League players so they decided to upgrade the Mexican League. What’s interesting from Winegardner’s point of view is that the league is integrated like winter baseball was in the Caribbean so you have black players coming down from the States who were Major League calibre players but of course barred by the pre-Jackie Robinson apartheid. 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, and one of them, Danny Gardella filed a law suit against the League which was kind of a pre-cursor to all the antitrust suits that have gone on in the last thirty years or so. He lost his law suit.

What were the reserve clause and antitrust exemptions?
The reserve clause dates to the early years of baseball. In January 1903, the American and National Leagues united to form Major League Baseball. They included a "reserve clause" in their contracts (as had already been National League practice for 25 years), which bound athletes to the teams that first signed them. If they refused to sign a new contract, the old one simply rolled over, and it, of course included a reserve clause too. In effect, players were indentured servants. They could be released, sold or traded, but they couldn't simply sign with new teams when their contracts expired. It was obviously a restraint of trade, but after Major League Baseball saw off the challenge of the Federal League in 1914, Congress exempted them from anti-trust laws, so the reserve clause stood for another 60 years.

Thank you. 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 in it 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 issues of capitalism that make the whole story interesting. There is the whole forced servitude issue that baseball players were faced with in the 1940’s. And you see this 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 kind of a hiding to nothing but he does them quite 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. And some were older players being offered more money than they were likely to make in the entire rest of their careers. The most famous of them was Sal Maglie who was known as “the barber” for the way he pitched inside and 'shaved' players. He was a pitcher for The Giants. It wouldn't be until the 1970s, when Marvin Miller and the players union got the owners agree to binding arbitration, that they finally did away with the reserve clause, creating modern free agency.

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. But 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. John Sayles by the way has written a baseball book called, Pride of the Bimbos which is worth reading too, as is Asinof's baseball novel, Men In Spikes.

What happened in 1919?
Some of the players from The Chicago White Sox accepted money from gamblers to throw the World Series, hence the name Black Sox. In the end, despite resevations and second thoughts, and in the face of threats by gangsters, they lost the series to Cincinnati Reds. A couple of years later, after being acquitted in court, 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.

The fix is also one of the themes of W. P. 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 another fictional journalist, Luther Pond who provides the backdrop to the corrupt nature of baseball in those days and the corrupt nature of 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 going on in baseball?
Not game-fixing, but there is the whole issue of steroid abuse, for example. 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, but remember Pete Rose was barred from the game simply because he bet on games. 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” it is that same idea. No-one would ever say anything is against the spirit of American Football. It’s interesting because if you think of the film, Field of Dreams – there is a speech in the movie which is 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 certain contradiction that Kinsella and the movie makers never came to terms with and 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. I like the book a lot; he is a fine writer.

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

This was a tough call because I decided to pick a couple of lesser known books, 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 Great American Novel. Roth and Malamud share concerns about Jewishness and Americanism as well. I think The Natural wins it simply because Roth's is a very exuberant book and in some ways an essay about literature. If anyone has readThe Art of Fielding, that draws very heavily on Roth.

Malamud's is sort of 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 Parceval 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 although 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 and 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 came out 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 than that one. What is also interesting is that Malamud was born in Brooklyn just like Roth was but of immigrant parents. To people in that generation baseball was a major means of assimilation in 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.

Which is?
Mechanised, militaristic, violent, obsessive, not pastoral and not relaxed. This has been exacerbated by television and media. Dan Delillo wrote a story 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 which is a great book. 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 that 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? Which was basically 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 States?
College football was always a big thing, but not a pastime, like baseball. Pro football was a fringe thing, in the industrial north, on autumn Sundays. The first big thing was the 1958 NFL championship game, the first to finish with sudden-death overtime. Then the New York Times and CBS reported on 'The Violent World of Sam Huff', the New York Giants' linebacker. It really began taking over from baseball with the Kennedys who were big touch football players, and of course with the advent of television it was discovered that American Football fits the television screen better than any sport.

Do you think there are better baseball novels out there than the ones about American Football?
Definitely. And the reason for that is that 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 are using baseball simply as a metaphor for life itself.

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