Ring Lardner was the first baseball writer to get down on the page the words of a player expanding upon his experiences on and off the diamond, and You Know Me Al (1914) established most of the conventions for the genre, beginning with the “busher” as narrator and hero (with a proper degree of false modesty) and running through the basic human elements — the tyrannical and long-suffering coaches, the eccentric players, the girl you pine for, the fickle fans, the arrogant and envious sportswriters, plus a few others. There is an inevitability to the plot structures of narratives about baseball, since it is a self-enclosed universe.
But what a universe! Baseball is as big as America, for more than any other sport, maybe more than any other entertainment, including the movies and television, it shows us who we are as a people and a society, it tells us how we do business, it records our passing political fashions, it indexes our race relations, it is, in short, like Walt Whitman, expanding, revising, reviewing the first edition, perennially.
The Southpaw (1953) was the first of a series of baseball fictions by an interesting, somewhat neglected, rather leftist — but in the American grain, as befits a baseball writer — belletrist (novels, critical essays, etc.) and college professor named Mark Harris, who was born in 1922 and died in 2007. Narrated and written during the off seasons by Henry W. Wiggen himself, in his words and syntax, the four books chronicle his triumphs as a big (six-two, one-ninety-five), friendly, profoundly observant, and compassionate young rookie who leads the mighty New York Mammoths (modeled on the Giants of yore) to the pennant in his phenomenal first season and then settles into a Hall of Fame career. Wiggen is a decent man in a mean world — which is exactly as, say, John Adams would have expected — an American type as true as the ones that emerge, to take examples at random, in Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories or e. e. cummings’s verse.
Not to detract from Harris’s achievement, but the caveat here should be added that, with all due respect, Harris is not Hemingway or cummings, nor Mark Twain, whose great opening line his own echoes — “First off I must tell you something about myself, Henry Wiggen, and where I was born and my folks.…” Which surely is no sin. He is in the American tradition, with a boundless interest and passion for the characteristic mannerisms and vernaculars and foibles of his compatriots and the details of their lives.
Henry (“Hank”) writes in a deceptively simple, straightforward manner well suited to his chronicle, with all the important and trivial dramas, on and off the field, that he steps into after leaving his home town of Perkinsville, N.Y. Sometimes he chooses conflict avoidance — an attitude for which Holly, the childhood girl friend he wants to marry, praises him when it represents the better part of wisdom (“Henry the Coward,” she calls him affectionately) — and sometimes he stands firm, when, as Holly reminds him, the issue is one of manhood — real manhood, not the winning with which pro athletes are necessarily obsessed nor the money that derives from winning, but the manhood that comes from staying true to principles.
The characters are perhaps just within the limits of stereotype, but people often are that way, though it never ceases to surprise. Sports bring this out with their stark fundamentals — you win or you lose, and the difference is due to whether you are serious or trivial, dedicated or lazy, willing to sweat the guts in order to get the glory. “Pop says you got to believe in yourself and know every time you pitch that ball that it is the best pitch you ever throwed,” Henry writes, and he already knows on his first day at the recruitment camp that “Tomorrow is always time enough for your second-rater.”
Henry recognizes the reasons for the contrasting characters of key actors in the drama; for instance, there is the fatherly manager of Henry’s AA farm team, and the tyrannical maniac who is in charge of the Mammoths. Compare the former, Mike Mulrooney, whose parting words to Henry are worth quoting at length:
“Yes, you are ready,” said he. “But you have still got many things to learn.… I will tell you the truth, for you will hear nothing but lies from now on.… Do not relax too much at first. When you are in trouble rely on your curve and forget the fast 1. Do not forget that the boys you will be throwing against will be hitting harder then any you have ever faced. Remember that you will be throwing against the very best ballplayers in the world. True, some of the best ballplayers in the world will be on your side, too.… The damn truth is that I can tell you no more about baseball. You are already a fine young pitcher. When you are up there you will be playing the same game you been playing all your life. The ball will be the same, and the bases will be the same 90 feet apart, and there will be 9 men to a side, and the game is still decided by who scores the most runs. The main thing is not half so much the other teams but your own men that you will be playing with and traveling with and be close to every hour of the day from February to October.…” ;
And the latter, Herman H. “Dutch” Schnell:
“I am the boss. Joe Jaros and Clint Strap and Egg Barnard is my right-hand aids. … If there is more then 1 man giving orders then you have not got a ball club but a mob, and I have never saw a mob win a flag yet and never will.”
Winning is all that matter to Dutch, something of a John McGraw-Leo Durocher composite, and he uses every tool at his disposal, from intensive drilling (“I have seen too many clubs that about the middle of August they are dragging their ass like a bunch of goddam gymnasium teachers…”) to benching, fine-tuning the lineup, heaping praise and sarcasm on his players (invariably referred to as “boys”), screaming at umpires (“they should retire if they are blind”), and, always, reminding everyone that money is riding on every pitch and at-bat.
During the last do-or-die series in the regular season, against the second-place Boston team (the reference is to the old Boston Braves) that has been on a roll just as New York has come close to a September collapse, Henry, who is on his way to being named MVP, succumbs to the pressure — few books on baseball convey the intensity of the baseball season as effectively as this one — and gets away with a spitball, as his team catcher throws it into the outfield where it is wiped dry on the grass before the umpire can see it. New York clinches. But Holly knows.
“I seen you throw that spitball at the man from Boston. And your Pop seen it clear up in Perkinsville, and he said only a few words. He said, ‘I am sorry to see Henry stoop to do a thing like that…” She is unrelenting, accusing him of losing his manhood because manhood is not only winning or making a lot of money. “You will go on playing baseball till your feet trip over your beard.… It is a grand game.… But I will be damned if I will sit back and watch you turn into some sort of low life halfway between a sour creature like Sad Sam Yale [the Mammonths’ over-the-hill ace] and a shark like Dutch Schnell.” And then she says a truth in a way that ought to be inscribed in Cooperstown:
“You are a lefthander, Henry. You always was. And the world needs all the lefthanders it can get, for it is a righthanded world. You are a southpaw in a starboarded atmosphere. Do you understand?”
“Sure I understand,” said I. “I am not such a stupid goon as you might think.”
Holly loves him and does not think he is a stupid goon. But to be sure he gets it, she concludes: “In most places of the world hardness is a mark of credit. I do not believe that. I believe the best hand is the soft hand, the best heart is the soft heart, the best man is the soft man. I want my old soft Henry back…”
Hank notes, “And then she busted out crying all over the place…” But he gets his chance to show her he lives by her values, and he even sweats through another off-season chronicling how he does this (“I will give 1 word of advice to any sap with the itch to write a book — do not begin it in the first place.”) The resulting novel, the second in the series, is Bang the Drum Slowly, which we will review in a future issue.
Until then, since spring training is upon us, The Southpaw with its steadily warming flow and its lyrics to the intricacies of the game well played is the book for the sport’s fans. “The hit and run is 1 of the prettiest plays you will ever see, ” Henry says in a typical aside on what really goes into sound baseball strategy. And confident and eager as he is, he remembers where he is from, as all true athletes do: “I have seen many a pitcher, but there’s few that throw as beautiful as Pop, ” he writes, and it is Holly who “give me the best advice concerning baseball and how to play it. She said, ‘Henry, Henry, you must play the game like it does not matter.… Play ball, do your best, have fun, but do not put the game nor the cash before your own personal pride,’ and I said I would.”
He cannot resist saying how much he cares for his game: “That was the first time I ever seen kids playing ball from a train. I have saw many since, and you always think when you see them that maybe right there before your eyes is some immortal of tomorrow, for 1 of the beautiful things about the game is that the immortals rise up from nowhere, and you think about it every time you see a kid on a sandlot…”
That last line is fitting for a coming of age novel, because it is when you are coming into your own that you know, with all the serene joy of knowing, that others are coming up behind you, eager and hungry, and the game will go on.