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Out at First: The History of the World Series Novel

By Brian Hoey. Oct 19, 2014. 9:00 AM.

Topics: American History, Literature

“(It) belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.” - Walt Whitman on baseball

With this year’s World Series rapidly approaching, it is not difficult to see what Whitman means.  Even after falling behind football in popularity, baseball dominates America’s October conversations.  And, if we take a look at recent literary releases like Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding (2011), Michael Chabon’s Summerland (2002), and David James Duncan’s The Brothers K (1992), it is clear that baseball dominates not just our national attention, but our national imagination.

coover_universal_baseball_association

The above paragraph might give one the impression that there is a century-long tradition of writing about our national game.  Bizarrely, however, this is not quite the case. Whitman spoke and wrote of baseball (as did Melville and a few others) well before the turn of the twentieth century; however, it was not until Bernard Malamud’s 1952 work The Natural that the first novel about baseball was produced.  That’s more than half and century in which our national literature and national game failed to coincide. 

Malamud’s novel, of course, opened the floodgates.  The Natural prompted responses from Malamud’s fellow postmodernists Robert Coover, who penned The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. in the late ‘60s, and Philip Roth, whose ambitiously titled The Great American Novel follows a communist plot to the destroy the fictitious Patriot League.  And these are just the tip of the iceberg.  Baseball may never be as popular a plot as star-crossed lovers, but it has inspired dozens of books.

Possibly more bizarre than the half-century gap in baseball literature is the seeming blind spot these books have for the World Series.  Somehow, it is only with great rarity that the climactic moment of a baseball season makes its way into novels.  Of the books listed above, none depict World Series contests, opting instead to portray failed professional seasons (The Natural), college baseball (The Art of Fielding), or baseball that is completely imagined (The Universal Baseball Association). These examples are hardly atypical. 

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This is not to say that there are no depictions of the Fall Classic in American Literature.  Mark Harris’ 1956 novel Bang the Drum Slowly portrays the world-champion New York Mammoths struggling with their catcher’s impending death from Hodgkin’s Disease.  And, of course, there is Bettie Bao Lord’s children’s classic In The Year of The Boar and Jackie Robinson, which draws a parallel between a young immigrant’s assimilation into American culture and Jackie Robinson’s historic desegregation of baseball, culminating in a World Series between the Yankees and Dodgers.  While others touch tangentially on the topic of the world series (Don Delillo’s Underworld begins with Bobby Thompson’s ‘Shot Heard ‘Round The World,’ which catapulted The Giants to the 1951 Series and W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, the basis for ‘Field of Dreams,’ concerns itself with the lingering betrayal of the 1918 Black Sox Scandal), a novel actually about the World Series remains extremely uncommon.

That the highlight of the baseball year is largely absent from fiction begs an obvious question: Why?  Could it be that we crave a sense of pastoral purity that modern corporate sponsorship can no longer deliver?  Or is it that we know that the types of storybook endings that are written on baseball’s biggest stage each year would be unbelievable on the page?  Whatever the reason, we are left with a history of the World Series novel that is hauntingly sparse.         

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Brian Hoey
Writer and all around book nerd, Brian puts his English degree to good use turning words into magic. A great lover of beer, baseball, and books, he can write on Baltic Porter and Katherine Anne Porter with equal ease.

 

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