The story begins with a phone call. It is the off-season and Henry W. Wiggen, baseball player, is home. Happily married, he is getting prepared for fatherhood and worries about money. He has a sense of humor and answers “Triborough Bridge.” But when the operator tells him it is a collect call from Rochester, Minnesota, he continues, according to his narration, as recorded by Mr. Mark Harris, a fine American writer of the 1950s and 1960s and even beyond, “’I do not know a soul there,’ said I, ‘and I do not accept collect calls under any circumstances.’ I used to accept a lot of collect calls until I got wise to myself.”
But it is Bruce Pearson, the third-string catcher of the New York Mammoth baseball club, of which Henry is the ace left-handed pitcher, and he pleads over the operator’s voice, “‘You have got to come and see me,’ he said. ‘I am in the hospital.’”
Henry resists, there is no reason for this, he does not even know Bruce very well and does not think highly of him as a catcher. “He been up there a long time, yet nobody ever really knows him. I doubt that anybody [i.e., opposing teams] even keeps a book on him [to know how to pitch to him].… He cannot guess a pitcher, cannot remember what that same pitcher threw him the last time.…”
But Holly, Henry’s wife, who is as sensible as she is strong-hearted and good, says simply, “You have got to go,” because Bruce, who is a Georgia farm boy with no excess of mental strength, “‘would not be in Rochester, Minnesota, if it was not serious,’ she said. ‘I do not like the look of it.’”
This is Bang the Drum Slowly, published in 1956, one of the finest novels ever written about baseball men and men in general and American men in particular and, too, of a certain quality in American life, a quality we are, always have been, in danger of losing, it is the quality that comes from acts of heroism, small and large, when duty clashes with self-interest and, notwithstanding our national ideology of not-my-problem-individualism, duty, including very specifically altruistic duty, wins out.
Baseball epitomizes this American dilemma. It is a selfish business. The owners, the players, the fans even, conspire to make it one of the most ruthless win-or-sit-down activities in American life. The plot, sportswise, in Bang the Drum Slowly is based on the premise that the mighty New York Mammoths are the run-away favorites to win the pennant. We first encountered them in The Southpaw, similarly written down by Henry Wiggen (the southpaw hisself) as recorded by Mr. Mark Harris. These Mammoths are loosely based on the 1950s New York Giants but with a high degree of literary license nonetheless. They have the great Wiggen, and they have Sid Goldman, who may just break Ruth’s homerun record, and they have a solid infield and they have a great near genius manager in Dutch Schnell, plus what ever else you need, including a devoted fan base. But they are human, and all manners of foibles including greed and selfishness and orneriness and plain dumb stupidity can trip them up and throughout the season that is what they are in danger of, tripping up and getting overtaken by one of their perennial rivals.
So the issue is this. Are they going to think small or are they going to think big? Are they going to pull together or are they going to stay small and mean? What begins with a personal dilemma for the ace, whose first instinct is to let the third stringer deal with his own problems, over the course of the summer becomes the team’s issue, and by resolving it generously, well, you see, it is a sad story but in the end it is a story of human decency, though with reservations in that department, because Mr. Harris was no sentimentalist.
Holly’s female intuition is right, Pearson is at a famous hospital, diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, in effect a death sentence. Holly is possibly the best fictional sports wife in American fiction, her devotion to her man being absolute but likewise severe as she will not let him slip and slide into anything other than a maturing -- they are now expectant parents -- version of the high school prodigy she always loved. Without words ever getting spoken to this effect, Wiggen and Pearson agree that the ace will protect the journeyman, keep his precarious condition a secret so he can play another season.
The reason for this decision is never explicitly stated, but Holly’s immediate and unhesitating prodding is the initial cause. He has not been heretofore close to Pearson, finds him more than a bit of a lout, and not particularly interesting. Nor is he by any means indispensable to the team. He is not even a very good catcher, with a chronic inability to read signals, let alone captain the team’s defensive plays the way catchers are supposed to do. Not to put too fine a point on it, he is slow, though he improves markedly under the relentless urging or Wiggen, who by contrast is very smart ball player. Pearson also annoys his new best friend because he wants to marry a madam who is only interested in his life insurance policy, presently naming the catcher’s father as beneficiary. Wiggen hates this sort of grasping opportunism, and feels a responsibility since he sold Pearson the policy.
This point ties in with a subtheme of the novel, which is the constant financial pressure the ball players, including the top pitcher, are under. The story takes place before free agency, and a few other signal changes in American society, and ballplayers are not rich men by today’s standards or even by the standards of those days of yore. They play winter ball in Cuba because they have to as much as because they love their jobs. Henry Wiggen has sidelines as an insurance agent (he has sold about 90 policies so far, all to big league ball players plus one to his old English teacher) and as an author. Like Mr. Tyrrell, and why not, he rarely misses a chance to remind readers that his previous book, The Southpaw, is available in hard and soft cover editions. The year is 1954 or ’55, and even on a team expected to get to the Series and repeat the victory Wiggen helped it secure three years earlier when he was a rookie, every player thinks the owners are merciless Simon Legrees and every owner thinks of the players as either stick-up artists with delusions of entitlement or fools to be exploited. It is, like any professional sport, a cruel game.
Wiggen is holding out for a raise, and finally settles on bonuses for every win over 20, but with a codicil the manager, the crusty and crafty, mildly paranoid Dutch Schnell, knows stinks and spends about three quarters of the book trying to figure out, namely: if either Bruce or Henry is traded or let go, the other must be traded or let go too. This is a clause no baseball club in its right mind can accept, but one of the beauties of Mark Harris’s books is that they show as well as any other baseball writing ever did that professional baseball organizations are not right in the mind.
The Mammoths are a great team, but they are fractured by all kinds of problems and in danger throughout the summer of losing their lead: the ordinary story line of a baseball season, in other words, not the exception. But in addition there is the secret Henry Wiggen is carrying, with intensifying difficulty. Bruce is an easy target for ragging. Yet when finally the truth leaks out, most of the players rally to his defense. Henry, whom Bruce characteristically calls “Arthur” because he misunderstands the nickname “Author” the other players gave him after the publication of The Southpaw, replacing “Hank” of his earlier years, has been coaching him to play his position better and go for the clutch hits -- he is in fact a solid hitter, but because he never was used regularly this was not appreciated.
The relationship between the ace and the hick is portrayed beautifully in an undeniable successful example of the book-into-movie category, as I doubt not Mr. Bowman will agree. In a 1973 film by John D. Hancock, Michael Moriarty took the Southpaw’s role, albeit as a righty, and a young Robert De Niro was stunning as the catcher. There was also a remarkable, rarely seen television drama version (made in 1956) starring Paul Newman. De Niro’s extraordinary performance, on the big screen, was decisive for his career, comparable in this sense to Newman’s The Left Handed Gun.
Given its premise, there is a certain inevitable sentimentality built in to the novel, but then baseball has a degree of that with its seasonal cycle that imitates life. Baseball imitates life because it is hard nosed and sentimental. It seems altogether normal, which is why it is such a fine touch underscoring Harris’s literary skill, that the story is told in the ordinary conversational language that the southpaw and the people inhabiting his world employ. When a new catcher is called up from the minors as the first-string player falters (but with the presumption that he eventually would replace Bruce, who anyway is still viewed by Dutch as best used to warm up relievers in the bullpen), it is, with no doubt heavy handed symbolism but also with normal baseball-story logic, a Texas boy who wears cowboy boots and plays guitar. Without the slightest awareness of Bruce’s situation, he sits down and gets going on the gunfighter dirge, “Bang the Drum Slowly.”
By now most of the players know Bruce’s fate, and somehow this knowledge allows then to get past their petty quarrels and put at least temporary dampers on their mean streaks while getting a grip on their better selves as players. They begin hitting and fielding again like a championship team. They rally in the last weeks of the season and get the pennant. Bruce is by now too sick to take part in the World Series, but he at least manages to sit on the bench for the first two games, played in New York. He goes home to Georgia and dies a few days after the Mammoths sweep Detroit. “He was not a bad fellow,” Henry concludes, “no worse than most and probably better than some, and not a bad ballplayer neither when they give him a chance, when they laid off him long enough. From here on in I rag nobody.”
Which, you figure by the end of this fine book, is how you should feel at the end of the season, if you have been, knowingly or not, paying attention to what matters about the game.