The Writer’s Game: The Field Of Play

This article was written by David Sanders

This article was published in The National Pastime: Premiere Edition (1982)

FOR ALMOST A CENTURY baseball has engaged layers of the imagination that other sports have only begun to penetrate; the game lives without the stadium as well as within.  Its intricacies may be summoned up by collector’s cards, table games, statistics, halls of fame, and burnished memories.  It complemented card games and pinball in their day, and will adapt to video games.  No other sport confronts the computer so fiercely, megafact for megabyte.  And baseball is surely the writer’s game. 

What is baseball’s hold on the mind (or Roger Angell’s “interior stadium”) where we replay it endlessly?  More than any other game, it is a world in itself, and so it draws writers, whose occupation it is to create other worlds.  This, although its action inspires no more writing than any other action in sports.  The tireless writers of juveniles work easily and impartially with all sports; Ralph Henry Barbour, for example, published both The Long Pass and Relief Pitcher in 1927 in a career of two or more books a year that stretched from 1899 to 1942.  The writer’s game goes on from this view of baseball’s surface to what the players call “the mental game, “or what happens beside and beyond clear-cut skill.  To browse in baseball books is to move through a succession of imagined worlds.

Alibi Ike’s hitting is simply the excuse for his excuses.  When he starts talking, we are off the field and into the dugout and the lobby, and Ring Lardner has delivered the world which the ballplayer inhabits.  It is at once a realistic place where fictional batters face Walter Johnson and a richly imagined tale where a reporter’s observation has been the springboard for more comedy and irony than ever occurred on the Cubs and White Sox.  Mark Harris invents Henry “Author” Wiggen, a player-narrator somewhat on the order of Huckleberry Finn, to tell his own story of big-league celebrity and thereby creates the most realistically detailed of all fictional baseball worlds.  Through four novels complete with rosters taken directly from New York Mammoths scorecards, Harris’s imaginary big leagues point up the glories of the mid-’50s and the commerce of the mid-’70s.  Philip Roth invents a lost third major league, as romantic as Atlantis, and calls the collection of its legends The Great American Novel.  Robert Coover invents J. Henry Waugh, a recluse completely drawn into the imaginary baseball league he has created from a table-top game.  If we read J. H. Waugh (JHWH) as a symbolic Jehovah, then Coover’s Universal Baseball Association becomes the ultimate baseball fiction, the end of the line for fictional baseball worlds.

The game is only one item on a long list in “Song of Myself’ when Whitman mentions “enjoying picnics or jig&’ or a good game of baseball.”  It is an allusion to American character in The Great Gatsby when Fitzgerald introduces Meyer Wolfsheim, whose shady deeds include having fixed the 1919 World’s Series.

Perhaps its earliest significant literary appearance was in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court when Mark Twain divided the knights of the round table into opposing batting orders as an alternative to their absurd jousting.  In the Yankee’s scheme of imposing progress on a backward people, the game is a force just below bicycles, Sunday school, and the patent office.  Whether Twain respected baseball or thought it ludicrous depends on how we understand Hank Morgan, his Yankee, to whom he referred once as an “ignoramus” and whom he so clearly endowed with many of his own deepest loves and prejudices.

Ernest Hemingway invoked baseball in The Old Man and the Sea where his heroic fisherman, his hands cut and bleeding from the line hooked to his marlin adversary, is strengthened by the example of “the great DiMaggio” playing despite his bone spur.  It would be pleasant, Santiago thinks at one point in his struggle, to have a radio out in his boat and listen to games or at least get the scores ahead of day-old newspapers.  Lacking this, the old man turns to his memories of Dick Sisler’s home runs in Havana during the first spring exhibition season after World War II.

Twenty-five years earlier in Paris, Hemingway wrote of baseball with amusement bordering on contempt in “The Three-Day Blow,” which is basically a record of the marvelous flights of conversation by two boys on a rainy day in the North Woods, their intellectual gusto soaring with each swig of a parent’s Scotch.  They begin by wondering (probably in 1916) if the Cardinals will ever win a pennant.  No, they agree, of course not.  Not as long as McGraw can trade for any good player he wants like Heinie Zimmerman.  ”There’s always a lot more to it than we know,” one says.  “Of course,” the other replies, ”but we’ve got pretty good dope for being so faraway.”  They go on to literature, more intricate and mysterious.  Finally, at the pinnacle of human utterance, there is fishing, too beautiful to talk about.  They drink to it.

“It’s better than baseball.”

“There isn’t any comparison.  How did we get to talking about baseball?”

“It was a mistake.  Baseball is a game for louts.”

Whitman’s passing mention precedes a stream of baseball in American poetry that included poems by Marianne Moore, Rolfe Humphries, and Horace Gregory, a wild variety of verse in the irrepressible anthology, Baseball, I Gave You the Best Years of My Life; and, even more recently, Spitball, a review devoted to poetry about baseball.  Perhaps the most thoughtful reference to the game by an American poet is in “Birches,” in which Robert Frost’s “swinger of birches” is a boy “who lives too far from town to play baseball.”  By himself in the woods, he shinnies up the young trees to the precise point where they bend to the ground under his weight—reaching out toward heaven, dropping gently back to earth.  What would have happened to that metaphysical youngster if he had lived nearer town?  Were most of us on our playgrounds and sandlots given any intimation of swinging on birches?

Growing up, most of us probably pored over a hundred issues of The Sporting News and thousands of box scores for every baseball book we read, yet by far the greatest number of titles in baseball fiction are, of course, those written especially for the young.  What will surprise anyone who skims through Anton Brogani’s valuable A Guide to Baseball Literature is that their appearance continues apace, decades after the advent of network television.  Any baseball fan ought to be curious about how writers like Bill Knott and C. Paul Jackson contend with the electronic barrage that Ralph Henry Barbour never lived to see.  Unless these juveniles are being read only by nostalgic middle-aged men, we have grounds for wondering if little league and instant replay are strangely congenial to fiction.  The times may even produce a new John R. Tunis.

Ballplayers themselves–and their agents-have been tempted by the writer’s game ever since Christy Mathewson’s five ghosted novels (Won in the Ninth, First-Base Faulkner, Second-Base Sloan, Pitcher Pollack, Catcher Craig.)  Most of these efforts deserve the treatment given them in Mark Harris’ The Southpaw and Ring Lardner’s “A Caddie’s Diary.”  Harris’ “Author” Wiggen discovers upon joining the Mammoths that the author of the cherished baseball books he grew up with is probably the most vicious and ignorant of all his teammates.  Lardner’s illiterate caddy starts keeping a dairy so he can learn how to write the books about his future career that would otherwise make sportswriters rich.

Very few readers, even smaller children, from Mathewson’s era to the early ’60s, ever took up a player’s book, fiction or otherwise, without hefty skepticism.  Then several things happened to throw the whole field into a new era of gullibility.  Ghosts still abound, but players’ contributions to “their” books are now often greater than the mere use of their names.  Miniaturization of tape recorders meant that the creative process could help kill time on road trips.  The concurrent removal of most taboos in print meant that player-authors could follow Henry James’ injunction to ”be one on whom nothing is lost.”  Confessions replaced the old guides to play and conduct.

What is most remarkable about the whole movement, which takes in such names as Bouton, Lyle, and Durocher, is that two players emerged as bona fide writers.  Pat Jordan wrote an affecting memoir of his aborted career in the Braves organization (where he was Phil Niekro’s teammate at McCook) and went on to become a free-lance journalist.  Jim Brosnan’s The  Long Season is the journal of the relief pitcher’s 1959 season; it was followed by Pennant Race, some juveniles, and a few pieces for national magazines.  Then came the barrage of his successors who fashioned their tapes, usually with help, into other formats besides seasons and pennant races.

Baseball also appeals to writers (except possibly the expose specialists) because it is inherently humorous.  Its complex rules are matched by sly evasions and circumventions of those rules.  In no other American sport, perhaps in no other American pursuit, including politics, have so many humorous types flourished: the rube, the braggart, the trickster, the innocent.  Lardner caught them whole, but also-called “serious” baseball fiction has humorous underpinnings.  All of it is funnier than the joke books sold as baseball humor.

Finally, there is the work of the baseball writer, a specific term excluding novelists, poets, confessors-for the men and women who report on the game for newspapers and magazines.  The working press encompasses an enormous range of careers: Lardner, Fred Lieb, Bob Broeg, Roger Angell, Roger Kahn, Heywood Broun and Westbrook Pegler who went on to other beats, the ghosts, the sportswriters who became “publicists” and “information directors.”  Going from sportswriter to commissioner, was Ford Frick the prototype of J. Henry Waugh?

DAVID SANDERS is Professor of English at Harvey Mudd College in California.