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!