Happy Birthday to noted author and baseball player Jim Bouton!
His books are some of my favorites. And he was not a bad pitcher, either.
Best wishes on your birthday, Jim.
With baseball season just right around the corner, I’ve picked up a copy of Diamonds Are Forever at my local pre-owned book retailer. This is a good-sized book published in 1987 by the Smithsonian Institute, 159 pages full of baseball art and stories about the game we love.
The writing is mostly excerpts from longer works. Writers include John Updike, (“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,”) Carl Sandburg, Ernest Hemingway, Roger Angell, Thomas Boswell, W.P. Kinsella, William Kennedy, Donald Hall, Steven King, and more. I hope Philip Roth is in there, but I haven’t spotted him yet. (Which reminds me, perhaps it’s time I re-read his The Great American Novel again. It’s been a good long while.)
I really bought this book for the art. Some of these are familiar, and some I’ve never seen before. I loved this picture, to the left, of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett going toe-to-toe with an umpire. A lot of people don’t know that Beckett managed the White Sox for a few years back in the late 40s. Those were very dramatic years for the White Sox, though they didn’t win a lot of games. They were more focused on illuminating the tragi-comic nature of the human condition, by means of a legendary gamut of absurdist plays. One of the most well-known of these was the play of second-baseman Sonny Godot, who would take the cut-off throw from the outfield, but then keep the ball in his glove, pretending that he didn’t have it, though the whole crowd knew it was there. All the opposing runners would round the bases and score. Even though he did this every time, he continued to get cut-off throws, game after game. This was baseball for the thinking fan, the deeply thinking and ruminative fan, and, thus, the White Sox did not draw so well in those years. Which was just the way Beckett liked it. “The end is in the beginning and yet you go on,” he would say to the baseball reporters. In the end, a lot of the White Sox fans complained that they no longer understood the point of the game, and eventually Mr. Beckett got canned, which is the fate of all of us. Beckett-ball had its brief moment in the sun, and then that was it, back to Paris for Mr. Beckett. He never managed a professional club again, and, in his later years, denied that he had ever managed at all.
Anyway, back to the book. What’s not to like? Classic baseball prose. Any kind of baseball art you can think of. And it’s springtime. What could be better? Play ball, already.
Wednesday Evening, the 9th
Watkins has signed an agreement with some amateur ball clubs in the Java Athletic Association, allowing them to use Nicollet Park for certain games during the week this summer. Watkins says they’ll be glad to rent to anyone else for any open dates. The Java Association thus gives up their plans for building an amateur ballpark in Northeast Minneapolis.
11 March 1904 – Friday Evening
Goodbye Guy Murphy. President Watkins released him today. He played last year with Fort Wayne in the Central League, and then was claimed by Minneapolis, and now has been released by Minneapolis. I wonder if he ever actually came to Minneapolis? He’s not on the roster list from March 5th. I don’t even know what position he plays. And now, I guess, it doesn’t really matter.
As it’s a slow news day for Miller’s baseball, I’ll throw in a little space filler, a nice picture of well known author Marmaduke Pickthall, which was in the Journal on the 7th.
Looking him up to see what he wrote, I am surprised to learn that his real first name is Muhammad. Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall. Wikipedia identifies him as a Western Islamic Scholar, a convert to Islam known for his translation of the Qur’an. He was also a novelist, esteemed by all the famous British writers whose names start with initials – DH Lawrence, HG Wells, and EM Forster.
He converted in 1917, so at this point in time he’s still just plain old Marmaduke. And there’s a brief review of his book on the 7th – “a story of very considerable interest.”
Too bad it’s not about baseball, I would have picked it up for review.
I am still reading books about baseball, and I just finished Bernard Malmud’s 1952 novel, The Natural. I’d read this before, many years ago, before the movie, and before picking it up again I remembered that I didn’t care for it, though I couldn’t remember why. I don’t think that I liked the depressing (or realistic?) ending. But it’s the Year of Baseball, and so I felt obligated. What would the Year of Baseball be without The Natural? A hollow sham, is what. A farce. A sad charade.
Many people have seen the movie. Many people have hated the movie. Roger Ebert for one. Most people probably know that the book is somewhat different from the movie, and I think a lot of people who don’t like it have a big problem with them changing the story. In the movie, of course, Hobbs hits the home run, wins the game, wins the pennant, wins the girl, goes back to the farm. Happily ever after. The end of the book is much more complex. He doesn’t win the ball game or the pennant. He’s in on “the fix,” then tries to redeem himself at the last possible moment. And he fails.
This time around, I liked the book quite a lot – the writing is great, descriptive, varied in tone and style, and surprising. Malamud has a nice way with small simple details, and all of the characters come across as complete and complex individuals. Hobbs story is a sad one, and perhaps a familiar one to Malamud’s generation. Hobbs made a mistake in his youth, and was knocked off the rails of his life. Hobbs back story is shadowy, we pick him up in the book as he heads to the big city full of youth and promise and a tryout with the Cubs, and then – suddenly and out of no where – he runs into the femme fatale, Harriet Bird, and his life begins its downward spiral. Malamud only hints at Hobbs’ intervening years, and this leads me to wonder what it is that brings Hobbs back, how does it happen that he suddenly shows up in the Knight’s dugout? Mere fate? I wish Malamud was a bit clearer on this (though perhaps I just missed it.)
The book is dense and layered. There’s a lot going on here, more than I want to talk about in a baseball blog. The way Malamud uses colors, and nature, and names, is purposeful and evocative. Did you know that “Hobbs”, for example, is a variant form of the name Robert, old English in origin and meaning “bright fame”? I wondered, in a novel where names seem important, why Malamud chose the name Hobbs, and, knowing this, it now seems to make sense.
I love the baseball scenes in the book, the pennant race, which ebbs and flows, with the Pirates the favorite, and the Knights sneaking up from behind. And I love the way Malamud has written Roy Hobbs. He’s like a kid stuck at age 19, wanting to be the best there ever was at the game. A couple of times he’s confronted with the shallowness of such an ambition. Is that all there is, Roy? For Roy, that is all there is. He’s a baseball player, and he wants to be the best there ever was in the game.
I’d highly recommend The Natural to anyone interested in good writing. While using baseball as its setting, it’s not really a book about baseball. This is a story about a guy with a gift, an ability, a dream, and how that was the ruination of his life.
Now to see the movie!
The other day I was thinking about baseball nicknames. I’ve been buying some old cards on eBay, and noticing of course that players back then were called Duke, Pee Wee, Pinky, Babe, Campy, Pepper, Ducky, Preacher, and the Mechanical Man. And Handsome Lou Boudreau, of course. Which started me to thinking, do any of the Twins have a nickname, and if not, why not?
Well, no, the Twins are not much for nicknames. Not that I know of, anyway. In fact, major league baseball seems nickname-short. Not that I’m that knowledgeable about the names of all the players, (which makes this baseball blog perhaps a bit… lacking?) but the only nicknames I could come up with were Big Papi — which is a great nickname, I think — and The Hebrew Hammer (Ryan Braun – and also a pretty great nickname.) ESPN put together a list of “top” nicknames in April of 2012. There’s not much there of interest, really. Their Top Ten is not so great. King Felix? Kung Fu Panda?
So there’s one.
Looking over the roster, I don’t see many others, which is kind of a shame. Baseball without nicknames is like oatmeal without walnuts. Still pretty good, but why not have the nuts?
Perhaps they do have nicknames, but they are not generally bruited about in the press? In any case, as a public service, I’m going to suggest — and use — a few.
Last season I came up with “Sudden” Sam Deduno, which, while not very original, I grant you, still has a nice ring to it.
So who else do we have? Mauer ought to have a nickname, but so far I’ve got nothin’ for him. Chris Parmelee could steal an old nickname – seems like there was a pitcher some years back who was called “The Vaunted.” At the moment I can’t remember that guy’s name, but “The Vaunted” Parmelee does have a nice sound. Echoes of Camelot.
The Twins seem to have quite a few outfielders with nickname potential. Darin “Maestro” Mastroianni?
I see that ESPN says that Josh Willingham is known as “The Hammer” –I’ve never heard that before. Willingham is from Alabama, which is also known as “The Yellowhammer state.” (I didn’t know that either.) Yellowhammer doesn’t quite have the right ring to it for a nickname. How about The Willinghammer? Or, better yet, The Alabama Hamma?
Well, I’ll be working on this. (Well, somebody’s got to.) Mauer needs an appellation. And what about Albers? And Tonkin? Worley? Hicks? There’s work to be done there, and I’m just the guy to do it.
On a side note, I saw an article last week that talked about the possibility (the very slight possibility) of the Twins going after free agents Johann and Ervin Santana. I think that would be worth doing. Johann has some good innings left, I think, and Twins fans are the sentimental sort that would love to see him come back home after spending time in the big city. Ervin is a quality starting pitcher, and the Twins could use — and will probably not want to shell out the money for — a quality starting pitcher. And, most of all, the Twins already have a player named Santana, shortstop Danny, and the idea of having Los Tres Santanas on the team is just too good to pass up. If only there was another Presley, to go with Ryan (Pressly) and Alex (Presley).
The title of this post is, of course, a tip o’ the cap to Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel. Oliver Damur is a skinny, fleet, fourteen-year-old second baseman for the Rupert Mundys, who came to the club desperately wanting to be called something other than Oliver. He tried everything – tugging on his cap so that somebody might call him Cappy, walking in an odd manner, so that he might be called Ducky, talking incessantly so that someone might call him Gabby. But no. Instead they called him Nickname, which, of course, he hated. He comes to a bad end, as I recall.
Well. I have finally finished this small collection of short stories, and found in it a few home runs and a few foul balls. I struggled a bit in the early part of the book, but the later stories were all pretty good, and the writing also seemed stronger and more sure of itself, more distinctive and precise.
The last couple of stories I thought particularly good. “His Big Chance,” by John Hildebidle, tells the story of a small town kid, a ball player who is pretty good and is trying to decide on going to college or taking up baseball as a career. His uncle arranges a game, the home town team against a negro barnstorming club, to lure some scouts to town to see the boy play. It’s a big event in the small town, and the boy looks forward to the game confidently. Unfortunately, he seems to run into Satchel Paige, and things go a bit differently than what had been expected.
The last story, “Browning’s Lamps,” also was particularly enjoyable. The main character, Howard Gammill, is a writer, working on a book of interviews with old baseball players — something akin to The Glory of Their Times, I guess. At the start of the story he’s interviewing an old ball player who says the at the he ever saw wasn’t himself, it was a guy named Pless.
“Pinch Pless they called him. Worst glove ever, couldn’t catch a pea in a bushel basket… but stick a bat in his hand, man, that sucker could hit a apple seed blowed off a barn roof”
The odd thing, for Gammill, was that he had heard Pless’s name before, mentioned in the same context by another old ball player. So he does some research and finds out when and where Pless played, and also his batting statistics.
“He picked up a paper and pencil and began making columns of Pless’s batting achievements, going all the way back to 1921. When he finished he caught his breath. Pless had an average in organized baseball of .447, and once led the Bluegrass League in homers and triples despite having fewer than 100 at bats.”
Gammill places an ad in the Sporting News, asking anyone with knowledge of the whereabouts of Walker B. Pless to contact him, and several weeks later, an envelope arrives.
This story in particular was very nicely developed, I thought. The writer, David Nemec, really set the stage well, and reeled the reader into the story. There’s an unfortunate twist to the story about half way through, that I thought diminished the story. I suppose it just changed the story into something a bit less interesting for me, it wasn’t the sort of story I was looking for. Despite that, this was still one of my favorites in the book.
The book concludes with a couple of lists. First, “Baseball’s Dozen Best Adult Novels” – I’ve only read four of these, and the ones I read were certainly good, so this is a list worth exploring more. Now that I’ve finished this book of stories, I’m looking for something else, but I’m inclined a bit more now towards nonfiction, perhaps history, so the novels will have to wait a bit. The second list seems a bit redundant, “Fifty Recommended Baseball Novels.” Some possibilities there as well, but for a later time.