What is it about baseball that attracts the best of the scribblers in the land? Malamud had his Wonderboy, Lardner lots of alibis, and Roth wrote his great American baseball novel in an undisguised stretch of self-importance. Which was a pity, because it had already been written in the first person vernacular by one Henry Wiggen, with “spelling greatly improved” by Mark Harris, who died this spring at the age of 84
Wiggen first comes to literary life in The Southpaw (1953), Harris’ second novel, a wonderful account of Henry’s signing and first two seasons with the New York Mammoths—a peculiar hybrid of the Yankees and the Giants. Three other Wiggen novels follow, including Bang The Drum Slowly (1956) which most fans know from the Robert De Niro film, the Paul Newman TV movie or a trendy college course on baseball literature.
The books trace Wiggen’s 22 seasons and 247 victories in the bigs as he became the 27th winningest pitcher at the time—“who never threw to the wrong base or invested a bad dollar”—and were capped off by It Looked Like Forever (1979), with its apt epigraph: “I will be the first to know when it’s time to quit. – 189 baseball players quoted from time to time in newspapers and magazines of sport.”
You gotta love a ballplayer whose fame comes not from his 26 game seasons but from his writing. Fans don’t mob him with ‘I saw you in game one of the ’52 series’ or ‘I saw you close the door on Boston’ but rather ‘I read your book’. And he’s not shy with his literary opinions: “And there was Huckleberry Finn that begun ‘You do not know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’, and I told Aaron that was a dirty trick to start a book that you no more opened than the writer was telling you to read still another as well.” And then of course Wiggen, the author, goes on to do just that.
And if you are a real baseball fan, you smile quietly at: “I personally give up football when a kid and do not read about it and never look at it. If it flashes on the screen in the newsreel, I go take a leak.”
But the delight of Henry is not that he’s a southpaw in the Lefty Grove mode, with Spahnie’s guile and the conscience of the Christian Gentleman, Christy Mathewson. No, his DNA goes back further, to an earlier American original who also used an interlocutor to greatly improve his spelling. The aforementioned Huck Finn haunts these pages like the ghosts of Yankee Stadium.
But it’s not just Huckleberry’s voice we hear in Wiggen/Harris’ marvelously convoluted, run-on sentences (“He traveled according to rivers. He never knew their name, but he knew which way they went by the way they flowed, and he knew how they flowed even if they weren’t flowing, if you know what I mean, even if they were froze, which they were for a ways, knowing by the way the bank was cut or the ice piled or the clutter tossed up along the side when we ever got close enough to see the sides, which we sometimes did because he liked to stop by the water and urinate in it.”), or in his awkward racial conscience and his unflinching self-regard.
I suppose if this were a doctoral thesis you might find ole Huck’s voice in the stats Harris so casually tosses around, like the constant soundings of the riverboat man or in the nicknames (Ugly, Coker, Sad Sam or Horse) echoing Mr. Clemens’ brood (the Duke and the Dauphin, Pap and even Huckleberry—with apologies to the Scooter).
Harris achievement is something more. With this pissy, cantankerous narrator at his side, he has given us his version of our own great home-grown invention—the road movie. The Southpaw—and particularly Bang The Drum Slowly—are really just about buddies kicking down the road, ball and mitt with the American dream. The river, the glorious Mississippi in Harris retelling, is, of course, baseball.
Listen closely and you can hear Woody Guthrie and even Jack Kerouac, with strains of Lincoln and Jefferson: “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 kids on a sandlot.”
Wiggen, like Huck, is a watcher, content to watch the pageant roll on by, by turns amused, annoyed, angry and arrogant: “I rather play baseball than anything else. I do it best. I like the trains. I like the hotels. I like the boys. I like the hours and the money. I like the fame and the glory. I like to think of 50,000 people getting up in the morning and squashing themself to death in the subway to come and see me play ball.”
It’s here that the Wiggen departs from his older sibling, the equally facile, Alibi Ike. You Know Me Al are stories that a great sports writer might (did) write. Nasty, funny, but with the nagging sense that you had to be there, to really know the characters Ring Lardner was spoofing. Read them today and they seem quaint and dense, with the staying power of yesterday’s box score. Where Ike is a crank, Wiggen is a homespun philosopher with a soft spot: Here (from Bang The Drum Slowly) is one of the great endings in American lit:
“He was not a bad fellow, 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.”
Simple, elegant, unadorned. A lot of ball players would be happy with a eulogy like that.
When The Southpaw was published, reviewers loved its realism, and, in fact, Harris has something of the clear-eyed sportswriter about him. His description of the daylight play at second (actually from Bang The Drum Slowly) is one of the most lucid you’ll ever read. But Harris himself disagrees: “How could Henry Wiggen really have succeeded in baseball where the stakes are high and the viciousness of the rivalry proportionate … Henry is a nice guy who finishes first. It happens in dreams.”
When Harris died earlier last season, there was barely a peep from the tribe of scribes who cover the game. But I suppose he himself anticipated the slight: ”I was his pall-bear, me and 2 fellows from the crate and box plant and some town boys, and that was all. There were flowers from the club. But no person from the club. They could of sent somebody.”
I read the other day that a select Old Timer’s committee elected five managers and execs to the Hall. They needed a select committee because when the whole group got together they couldn’t agree on anything. Since increasing the pure joy of the game is already one of the Hall’s misty standards, here’s my suggestion:
Why not a wing for those great characters of fiction who have warmed the cold nights between the World Serious and pitchers and catchers in February? I’d nominate Roy Hobbs and Wonderboy, Frank X Farrell (Alibi Ike), J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.), Crash Davis and of course Annie Savoy and her church of baseball. And the inimitable Henry Wiggen:
“In the morning I woke up and it was like I dreamed a dream so fine
that you want to go back and dream it again, and I looked out the
window and I seen things laying there just like always, and I pounded
the window sill until the glass shook, and I said “Thunder, thunder,
thunder,” and I knowed that some day I would get up in the morning
and it would not be this view a-tall. It would be the big towns, New
York and Brooklyn, Cleveland and Chicago, Boston and Washington,
Pittsburgh and St. Louis, big towns and big parks, and there would be
30,000 people and my name on 30,000 score cards, and the music and
the singing and the cheering, and I would touch my hat when they
cheered, and I would wind and rear and fire, and they would see, and
they would know an immortal when they seen 1, and I dived back on
the bed and pounded the pillow, and I shouted again, “Thunder,
thunder, thunder and THUNDER,” and I felt better and went downstairs