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Thursday, May 05, 2016

Baseball’s Naturals: There Goes Yet Another Roy Hobbs

Bernard Malamud’s first novel, “The Natural,” upon which the movie was based, was published in 1952 and with no lack of publicity (it was reviewed twice in The New York Times). But it doesn’t seem that many of that era’s sportswriters were inspired to compare their subjects to Malamud’s Roy Hobbs, even with both Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, 1950s versions of Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, just then bursting upon the scene.

Then again, Malamud’s Hobbs, however talented, was hardly an attractive character. Redford’s Hobbs, on the other hand, is largely pure of heart. Which allowed the post-1984 writer to compare a player to the celluloid Hobbs without insulting him….

Beginning with Terry Pendleton, a Cardinals rookie in 1984 who batted .409 in his first 22 games. His teammates began calling him the Natural, but Pendleton finished that season batting an un-Hobbsish .324. Superstardom (and a long-lasting nickname) would ultimately elude Pendleton, as it eluded Gibson. But Pendleton would, well into his career, win a Most Valuable Player Award. Just as Gibson had.

In 1993, Blue Jays first baseman John Olerud’s teammates took to calling him Hobbsy while he flirted with a .400 batting average until late in the season. A few years earlier, Giants first baseman Will Clark— like Olerud, a left-handed batter with a textbook swing — was commonly called Will the Thrill, but the Natural was another of his nicknames…..

In the mid-1990s, outfielders Andruw Jones and Karim Garcia would both be called the Natural, however briefly. Jones delivered on that early promise and Garcia did not, but neither was associated with the nickname for long.

RoyalsRetro (AG#1F) Posted: May 05, 2016 at 02:30 PM | 37 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: andruw jones, bryce harper, john olerud, karim garcia, kirk gibson, narratives, terry pendleton, the natural, will clark

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   1. Walt Davis Posted: May 05, 2016 at 09:51 PM (#5214072)
I guess I always assumed "a natural" was already in use when Malamud came up with his title. My memory as a kid was that the Hobbs character was already mis-represented in the general perception -- i.e. that "the Natural" was a hero. I was a bit surprised when I finally got around to reading the book.
   2. GGC:BTF's Biggest Underachiever Posted: March 20, 2017 at 06:34 AM (#5419704)
My baseball fiction sojourn this winter has taken me to this book. I'm about halfway through it now. I have read it before, but it was high school homework over 30 years ago.I think that I enjoyed it backthen. I'm enjoying the ride right now. There's carnivals, magic, and fortune telling; things that are usually missing from the baseball non-fictions I usually read.
   3. Fernigal McGunnigle Posted: March 20, 2017 at 07:45 AM (#5419708)
I read the book as part of an attempt to get on top of the greatest hits of modern books that dealt with or at least made use of the Arthurian legends. The book does a good job of actually getting something out of the Fisher King / Perceval / Grail stuff, without either pointlessly ticking off boxes or forcing the narrative into unnecessary directions.

Karim Garcia had as much natural power as anybody I've seen. He strikes me as the sort of player who was a BP monster. I suspect that if we ever have a proper "Natural" it will be someone along the lines of Garcia, who has a tremendous ability but who doesn't put it together for some reason or other and who isn't well liked, and who spends many years playing in Mexico or Japan or South Korea after a brief sojourn in US ball. Then the return to (or first appearance in) MLB, with a big season or two followed by a steroid revelation. Garcia would fit the bill if he came back from the Mexican league and hit a bunch of home runs. Cecil Fielder would have sort of worked if he'd spent five years in Japan instead of one (and was a player who was well-rounded rather than, well, round). Maybe if Mac Suzuki had harnessed some of his abilities after we washed out of MLB and went to Asia. A good Natural might be if Byung-Hyun Kim were to return to MLB as a slugger.

EDIT: Of course a miraculous appearance of Toe Nash would work best, but something like that only happens in the realm of magic realism.
   4. Lassus Posted: March 20, 2017 at 08:04 AM (#5419710)
Somebody get shot?
   5. Nasty Nate Posted: March 20, 2017 at 08:08 AM (#5419711)
Who is Karim Garcia?
   6. GGC:BTF's Biggest Underachiever Posted: March 20, 2017 at 09:08 AM (#5419721)
I read the book as part of an attempt to get on top of the greatest hits of modern books that dealt with or at least made use of the Arthurian legends. The book does a good job of actually getting something out of the Fisher King / Perceval / Grail stuff, without either pointlessly ticking off boxes or forcing the narrative into unnecessary directions.


I'm not familiar enough with Arthurian legends to get much from that level of reading.
   7. Zonk Tormundbane Posted: March 20, 2017 at 09:19 AM (#5419727)
I see Toe Nash has already been mentioned, so I have nothing more to contribute...
   8. GGC:BTF's Biggest Underachiever Posted: March 20, 2017 at 09:57 AM (#5419741)
  4. Lassus Posted: March 20, 2017 at 08:04 AM (#5419710)
Somebody get shot?


Not that I'm aware of. I just have a habit of ressurrecting threads about what's going on in my baseball life. Jim's the one whose software leaves these open ;).
   9. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: March 20, 2017 at 01:14 PM (#5419962)
Bernard Malamud’s first novel, “The Natural,” upon which the movie was based, was published in 1952 and with no lack of publicity (it was reviewed twice in The New York Times). But it doesn’t seem that many of that era’s sportswriters were inspired to compare their subjects to Malamud’s Roy Hobbs, even with both Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, 1950s versions of Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, just then bursting upon the scene.


That may be simply because few sportswriters of 1952 ever mentioned any literary efforts at baseball writing other than Casey At The Bat. That didn't really change much until Jim Brosnan's The Long Season, which got their attention more for reasons of gossip than for its considerable literary merit. The Natural may have gotten a fair amount of publicity, but it was in a genre (literary fiction) that back then was strictly confined to the Book Review pages.
   10. Morty Causa Posted: March 20, 2017 at 02:19 PM (#5420046)
I tend to think Ball Four showed that baseball could be a pretext for serious literary merit. There were many false starts. Ring Lardner's short stories and of course his You know Me, Al novel. Thurber's story about the midget predating Bill Veeck's trick play is a very fine short story. Early Zane Grey has instances where baseball is the subject. And others, too. Not to mention the many kid's biographies and "As Told To" autobiographies. Brosnan's books had a part, but I don't remember anyone really running with it. I think Updike's essay hit home with many serious literary types, as did Robert Coover's 1968 The Universal Baseball Association. But, Ball Four unleashed a pandora's box. After it, the deluge. Baseball was no longer sacrosanct. That went along with many things--institutions and beliefs--that started to be seriously questioned (and even derided) in the '60s and '70s.
   11. Sleepy's not going to blame himself Posted: March 20, 2017 at 03:11 PM (#5420081)
I suspect that if we ever have a proper "Natural" it will be someone along the lines of Garcia, who has a tremendous ability but who doesn't put it together for some reason or other and who isn't well liked, and who spends many years playing in Mexico or Japan or South Korea after a brief sojourn in US ball. Then the return to (or first appearance in) MLB, with a big season or two followed by a steroid revelation.
Rick Ankiel sure looked like he was going to do this in 2007, when he made his comeback as an outfielder and hit 32 home runs in 100 games at AAA, then joined the MLB team in August and jumped off to a .316/.364/.663 (1.028 OPS) start.

Sadly, it was all downhill from there. Hard to believe he's still just 37.
   12. simpleton & childlike gef the talking mongoose Posted: March 20, 2017 at 03:20 PM (#5420086)
Early Zane Grey has instances where baseball is the subject.


For some reason, his story "Old Well-Well" has stuck with me since I encountered it in our very small public library at age ... 10? I couldn't have been out of elementary school.
   13. Morty Causa Posted: March 20, 2017 at 03:47 PM (#5420111)
It's been such a long time since I read Zane Grey's baseball books, but the play described is pre-Babe. And it's described in detail. For that alone, the stories are valuable to us baseball fans.
   14. simpleton & childlike gef the talking mongoose Posted: March 20, 2017 at 04:05 PM (#5420131)
But, Ball Four unleashed a pandora's box.


I have no idea of the author, but I remember reading a juvenile around 1972 in which a Bouton-like author of a tell-all was excoriated for his sins. (That wasn't the main thrust of the novel, but it was definitely an element.)
   15. Crispix reaches boiling point with lackluster play Posted: March 20, 2017 at 04:16 PM (#5420137)
I thought Jason Heyward might be mentioned. When Jason Heyward came up with the Braves I noticed a bunch of quotes about how "the ball just sounds different off his bat" and some scout had not experienced this ball-sounds-different phenomenon since Mays, or Aaron, or Barry Bonds, or Jose Canseco or something.
   16. What did Billy Ripken have against ElRoy Face? Posted: March 20, 2017 at 04:45 PM (#5420153)
When Jason Heyward came up with the Braves I noticed a bunch of quotes about how "the ball just sounds different off his bat" and some scout had not experienced this ball-sounds-different phenomenon since Mays, or Aaron, or Barry Bonds, or Jose Canseco or something.

Actually, IIRC in the mid-'80s the "ball-just-sounds-different" guy was Bo Jackson rather than Bonds or Canseco.
   17. BDC Posted: March 20, 2017 at 07:19 PM (#5420268)
Heywood Broun wrote an interesting novel in the early 1920s called The Sun Field, which has a Babe-Ruth-like central character.

Lardner was an intriguing figure. His short stories, You Know Me Al, and the later (and weirder) novel Lose With a Smile clearly have high literary ambitions, and he was admired by no less a modernist than Virginia Woolf. But Scott Fitzgerald thought that Lardner was wasting his time interested in baseball. It's interesting now that people gravitate to the one mention of the Black Sox in The Great Gatsby ("one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe") as if it were a big deal; but it's a throwaway. Fitzgerald didn't hold that sport was valuable. In Gatsby, it's to Tom Buchanan's discredit that he played football at New Haven; and Jordan Baker cheats at golf.

Among literary critics who even care about dead white guys of that era anymore, I think a lot would rank Lardner comparable to Fitzgerald; they were comparable in ambition and skill. They were both great short-story writers, and it's really only Gatsby that sets them apart, as great a novel as that is.
   18. PreservedFish Posted: March 20, 2017 at 07:42 PM (#5420282)
Among literary critics who even care about dead white guys of that era anymore, I think a lot would rank Lardner comparable to Fitzgerald


Interesting. From my perspective, as a guy with an undergraduate English degree that spends time in used book stores, Fitzgerald is considered a great(ish) writer, and Lardner is stuck in the ghetto of the sports shelves, near the golf swing tutorials and such.
   19. Morty Causa Posted: March 20, 2017 at 07:51 PM (#5420289)
J. D. Salinger thought highly of Ring Lardner. Indeed, they are quite similar in some ways. Both are prone to and expert at structuring their short stories through dialogue rather than narrative. (Although not exclusively, though--see Salinger's The Laughing Man.)

Lardner in those stories and in You Know Me, Al adroitly uses a lower-class, semi-illiterate dialect that is quite a linguistic accomplishment. YKMA isn't Huck Finn, though, and that's because Lardner has neither the theme nor the characters. Neither his protagonist nor Al come alive, much less memorably so. Lardner did have a knack for absurdist comedy, which makes him sort of a forerunner and ahead of the curve there. That tendency usually finds himself in plays or closet plays. Lardner is ultimately not a great writer, but obviously a talented one who never found a way to husband those talents toward a goal.
   20. Morty Causa Posted: March 20, 2017 at 07:54 PM (#5420291)
Fitzgerald was not that good or expert at dialogue. Many of his more successful Hollywood contemporaries and competitors attested to that. He might have envied Lardner's facility in that area.
   21. the Hugh Jorgan returns Posted: March 20, 2017 at 09:32 PM (#5420335)
When Jason Heyward came up with the Braves I noticed a bunch of quotes about how "the ball just sounds different off his bat"


Well sure when compared to Joey Votto.

But then again, Joey never pops up. Zing!
   22. GGC:BTF's Biggest Underachiever Posted: March 21, 2017 at 06:17 AM (#5420419)
Salinger and Bouton were straightforward writers. So were Eric Rolfe Greenberg and WP Kinsella. Coover and Malamud are tougher for me to follow, but I'm about 80 pages from the end of The Natural. Roy just met Iris.
   23. You Know Nothing JT Snow (YR) Posted: March 21, 2017 at 06:56 AM (#5420423)
When I think of baseball's greatest naturals, I think of Morganna.
   24. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: March 21, 2017 at 10:25 AM (#5420490)
I tend to think Ball Four showed that baseball could be a pretext for serious literary merit. There were many false starts. Ring Lardner's short stories and of course his You know Me, Al novel. Thurber's story about the midget predating Bill Veeck's trick play is a very fine short story. Early Zane Grey has instances where baseball is the subject. And others, too. Not to mention the many kid's biographies and "As Told To" autobiographies. Brosnan's books had a part, but I don't remember anyone really running with it. I think Updike's essay hit home with many serious literary types, as did Robert Coover's 1968 The Universal Baseball Association. But, Ball Four unleashed a pandora's box. After it, the deluge. Baseball was no longer sacrosanct. That went along with many things--institutions and beliefs--that started to be seriously questioned (and even derided) in the '60s and '70s.

My point in citing Brosnan's book was simply that The Long Season was the first non-humorous "literary" baseball book that was widely discussed the the Sports sections of newspapers, as opposed to the Book Review sections. Updike's New Yorker essay came out a year later, and until it was included in his 1965 anthology Assorted Prose, it was only available in its original magazine format.
   25. BDC Posted: March 21, 2017 at 12:02 PM (#5420581)
YKMA isn't Huck Finn, though, and that's because Lardner has neither the theme nor the characters

You Know Me Al was of course a magazine serial, or really just a set of magazine stories, cobbled together into a novel. In fact there are several other "busher's letters" published after the book and not collected till much later. So the whole thing lacks coherence.

Huckleberry Finn by contrast was conceived of and published as a unit, and it shows. (In fact Twain was a bit innovative with Huck Finn, because he too wrote a lot of shorter pieces and serials for newspapers and magazines, but he saw HF from the start as an all-at-once book to be sold by subscription.)


   26. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: March 21, 2017 at 12:36 PM (#5420602)
You Know Me Al was of course a magazine serial, or really just a set of magazine stories, cobbled together into a novel. In fact there are several other "busher's letters" published after the book and not collected till much later. So the whole thing lacks coherence.

By far the best version of You Know Me Al was the syndicated comic strip that was later collected in a book format in 1979. To call it sublime is to damn it with faint praise.
   27. jingoist Posted: March 21, 2017 at 12:44 PM (#5420609)
By the time in her career when Morgana began running onto baseball fields her main equipment was no longer natural.
   28. Morty Causa Posted: March 21, 2017 at 01:38 PM (#5420660)
   29. GGC:BTF's Biggest Underachiever Posted: March 21, 2017 at 01:42 PM (#5420663)
I'm getting towards the end of the pennant race. A lot of references to gluttonous amounts of food in this part of the book.
   30. You Know Nothing JT Snow (YR) Posted: March 21, 2017 at 02:55 PM (#5420706)
By the time in her career when Morgana began running onto baseball fields her main equipment was no longer natural.


Reality slapped me in the face like a huge set of HH-sized jugs.
   31. BDC Posted: March 21, 2017 at 04:38 PM (#5420787)
an old movie with what looks like a "Base Ball" pinball machine

That's very cool. Can be added to the baseball detail in a number of old films. I believe you alerted me to the baseball story in the newspaper in The Maltese Falcon. There's also Dana Andrews' little pocket baseball puzzle in Laura.
   32. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: March 21, 2017 at 04:54 PM (#5420798)
Not a book, but an old movie with what looks like a "Base Ball" pinball machine. Anyone ever seen an actual machine like that? I wish more of it were shown.

That's Scarface from 1932, but the Old Erie Book Shop right near Jacobs Field had one that was even older than that for sale in 1994. IIRC they were asking about $2000 for it. It was totally mechanical, not electric, with none of those illuminated flickers that we associate with the "classic" pinball machines from the 50's. In fact I think the owner said it was from the late 19th century.
   33. Nasty Nate Posted: March 21, 2017 at 05:01 PM (#5420803)

Not a book, but an old movie with what looks like a "Base Ball" pinball machine. Anyone ever seen an actual machine like that? I wish more of it were shown.
I was at the Pinball Hall of Fame in Vegas a few years ago, and I remember an old-timey baseball one, but not exactly like the one in that picture.
   34. Jack Keefe Posted: March 21, 2017 at 05:02 PM (#5420805)
You Know Me Al was of course a magazine serial, or really just a set of magazine stories, cobbled together into a novel. In fact there are several other "busher's letters" published after the book and not collected till much later. So the whole thing lacks coherence

Hey how would you like a Nuckel Samwich you Boob.
   35. Zach Posted: March 21, 2017 at 08:03 PM (#5420887)
The book does a good job of actually getting something out of the Fisher King / Perceval / Grail stuff, without either pointlessly ticking off boxes or forcing the narrative into unnecessary directions.

I've said this before, but possibly the worst moment of Roger Ebert's career is when he suggested that Hobbs's injury magically healing after the home run was a major plot hole.

Let's begin at the end of "The Natural". Redford plays Roy Hobbs, a middle-aged ballplayer making his comeback. It's the last out of the last inning of the crucial play-off game, and everything depends on him. He's been in a slump. Can his childhood sweetheart, Iris Gaines (Glenn Close), snap him out of it? She sends him a note revealing that her child is his son. The fact that he has not already figured this out is incredible. But he is inspired by the revelation. He steps to the plate. He has been having some trouble with his stomach. Some trouble, all right. A stain of blood spreads on his baseball shirt. It's a pretty badly bleeding stomach when it bleeds right through the skin. Roy swats a homer that hits the lights, and they all explode into fireworks, showering fiery stars upon him as he makes the rounds. In the epilogue, Roy plays catch with Iris and their son -- a son who has not been allowed a single onscreen word -- and a woman whose role has been to sit in the stands, wreathed in ethereal light, and inspire him.

Come on, give us a break. The last shot is cheap and phony. Either he hits the homer and then dies, or his bleeding was just a false alarm. If the bleeding was a false alarm, then everything else in the movie was false, too.


Like, stop me if I'm reading too much into this, but maybe his unhealed wound, which he got when he betrayed his youthful ideals, goes away when the woman clad all in white forgives him. What's that word you use when one thing stands for something else?

   36. 6 - 4 - 3 Posted: March 21, 2017 at 08:18 PM (#5420889)
Karim Garcia had as much natural power as anybody I've seen. He strikes me as the sort of player who was a BP monster. I suspect that if we ever have a proper "Natural" it will be someone along the lines of Garcia, who has a tremendous ability but who doesn't put it together for some reason or other and who isn't well liked, and who spends many years playing in Mexico or Japan or South Korea after a brief sojourn in US ball. Then the return to (or first appearance in) MLB, with a big season or two followed by a steroid revelation. Garcia would fit the bill if he came back from the Mexican league and hit a bunch of home runs. Cecil Fielder would have sort of worked if he'd spent five years in Japan instead of one (and was a player who was well-rounded rather than, well, round). Maybe if Mac Suzuki had harnessed some of his abilities after we washed out of MLB and went to Asia. A good Natural might be if Byung-Hyun Kim were to return to MLB as a slugger.


Josh Hamilton would seem to fit the narrative that you're describing.
   37. Morty Causa Posted: March 21, 2017 at 08:47 PM (#5420900)
You Know Me Al was of course a magazine serial, or really just a set of magazine stories, cobbled together into a novel. In fact there are several other "busher's letters" published after the book and not collected till much later. So the whole thing lacks coherence

I'm certainly no expert, but from what I do know, I think that many novels from the early 20th century through the '30s were serialized first in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, and Liberty magazines. First, an author would have his novel serialized in a magazine, perhaps in some truncated or fragmented form, then it would be published as a book, often revised to one degree or another.

Even before, Twain did this. So did Dickens even earlier and to great success, too. Doyle, Wodehouse, too. Many authors had their works serialized first. I don't think Lardner's deficiencies in coherence can be laid entirely at the door of serialization necessarily, or certainly not entirely, anyway. But, even if You Know Me, Al had been published in fragments, that doesn't mean it couldn't have been cobbled together more cohesively for publication as a novel if Lardner was so inclined.

The fact is, I think, Lardner's longer stuff is episodic not because of the constraints of the magazine medium, but because that's all he had in him to do. He was a sprinter. Some very accomplished writers, especially of the comic or light humor school, were the same way. Thurber was the same. Except for his fairy tales, his longer stuff like My Life and Hard Times is episodic also.

EDIT: clarity.

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