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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Gateways to Geekery: Exploring the overlap between baseball and literature

Geek obsession: Baseball literature


Why it’s daunting: When thinking about baseball, fans often quote writer-historian Jacques Barzun, from his 1954 essay collection God’s Country And Mine: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and reality of the game.” Baseball may no longer be America’s pastime—that mantle has been passed in all but name to the financial juggernaut of football—but for American writers, no sport is as heavily romanticized. Baseball offers the patriotic symbiosis of a pastoral playground within an urban setting, where generations can come together and watch the purest corporate distillation of a game played, packaged, and televised from Little League up to the major leagues.

Baseball can be used to tell a specific version of American history over the past 150 years, with heavy mythologizing of Abner Doubleday, Civil War-era games among soldiers, segregation in the game, and the tight control owners held over players’ contracts until the players won the right to free agency in the 1970s. Stories about baseball tackle economic disparity, race relations, patriotism, religion, and the proverbial underdog, from 1888’s “Casey At The Bat” through Field Of Dreams to today. As for Barzun, he turned away from the game a few years ago, losing interest due to escalating commercialization and greed, yet another parallel to similar developments in other sectors of American economics and culture.

Though there are plenty of real-life stories about baseball encapsulated in books—Eight Men Out and Moneyball, to begin a list that could go on forever—this column provides an introduction to works of fiction set in the world of baseball, from the beginnings of the game to the modern era, from barnstorming to the majors.

The John Wetland Memorial Death (CoB) Posted: September 27, 2012 at 01:24 PM | 14 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: fiction, literature

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   1. Fernigal McGunnigle has become a merry hat Posted: September 27, 2012 at 04:50 PM (#4247499)
The novel picks up 16 years later with Hobbs as a journeyman player joining the New York Knights in the National League. With his trusty bat Wonderboy—a nice allusion to Excalibur—Hobbs invigorates the slumping Knights, while indulging his bruised ego and a weakness for mysterious women.


For the record, Wonderboy is not Excalibur, Wonderboy is the broken sword in the Grail Castle. The Fisher King can't be healed until, among other things, the broken sword is repaired by the Grail Knight, usually Percival. So when Wonderboy breaks at the end of the book we know that Roy Hobbs/Percival can't heal the Fisher King/Pops Fisher of the wound in his thigh/the athlete's foot on his hands. The rain started when Hobbs got his first big hit, making us think that the Wasteland will be made green again/the Knights will win the pennant, but it's not to be, and the drought/title drought that is the status quo at the opening of the novel is fated to return.

Also, fightin' words!

Where not to start: Though it’s a biting and often hilarious satire, Ring Lardner’s 1914 collection of epistolary columns, You Know Me Al, just isn’t the place to start reading about baseball.

   2. Fred Lynn Nolan Ryan Sweeney Agonistes Posted: September 27, 2012 at 04:56 PM (#4247506)
I think I've mentioned this here before, but I was fortunate enough to take a class on baseball in history & literature at SF State, taught by Profs. Jules Tygiel & Eric Solomon. Great stuff - though I could never figure out how Roy Hobbs kept his scars hidden from his teammates for the entire season.
   3. Tom Nawrocki Posted: September 27, 2012 at 05:01 PM (#4247510)
I can't believe Bob Dernier Cri didn't post this. Or write TFA.

He's right about "You Know Me Al." It's a collection of columns, not a novel; if you want to read it, I'd suggest you read only one chapter a week.
   4. AndrewJ Posted: September 27, 2012 at 09:05 PM (#4247681)
Tygiel's book Past Time would make a very good text for a college-level course on baseball history.
   5. Pasta-diving Jeter (jmac66) Posted: September 27, 2012 at 11:03 PM (#4247754)
He's right about "You Know Me Al." It's a collection of columns, not a novel; if you want to read it, I'd suggest you read only one chapter a week.

if you want to dip into Lardner, start with Alibi Ike
   6. Kurt Posted: September 27, 2012 at 11:18 PM (#4247765)
Well, this seems more worthwhile than the Velvet Underground Gateway to Geekery. Start with this album, then go tho that ablum and then that other one. Done.
   7. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: September 27, 2012 at 11:30 PM (#4247779)
Why it’s daunting: When thinking about baseball, fans often quote writer-historian Jacques Barzun, from his 1954 essay collection God’s Country And Mine: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball....”

I've always thought that that Barzun quote was hopelessly romanticized even then, but now it's even more dated. If you want to pick a sport that reveals the true heart and mind of America, you'd better start watching MMA.

He's right about "You Know Me Al." It's a collection of columns, not a novel; if you want to read it, I'd suggest you read only one chapter a week.

Actually if you want to get the best version of You Know Me Al, you should get the collection of daily comic strips that was distributed nationwide in the early 1920's. Lardner wrote original scripts for every one of these strips as well as for the stories that made up the book, and the artwork complements the dialogue perfectly.

if you want to dip into Lardner, start with Alibi Ike

And if you want to dip into Alibi Ike, start with the hilarious 1935 Joe E. Brown movie version. That's one of three baseball films that Joe E. Brown made, and every one of them is a keeper.
   8. Gonfalon Bubble Posted: September 28, 2012 at 04:51 AM (#4247855)
Actually if you want to get the best version of You Know Me Al, you should get the collection of daily comic strips that was distributed nationwide in the early 1920's.

You're the pro. Should we get the $4.24 copy, or spring for the $176.80 one?
   9. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: September 28, 2012 at 06:43 AM (#4247863)
Actually if you want to get the best version of You Know Me Al, you should get the collection of daily comic strips that was distributed nationwide in the early 1920's.

You're the pro. Should we get the $4.24 copy, or spring for the $176.80 one?


Well, the $176.80 copy has an "X" on the flyleaf, which is what Shoeless Joe used for his signature. But OTOH since that one doesn't come with a Certificate of Authenticity from Barry Halper, you may want to settle for the $4.24 version.
   10. BDC Posted: September 28, 2012 at 09:23 AM (#4247903)
I can't believe Bob Dernier Cri didn't post this. Or write TFA

Thanks, Tom!

McFarland makes some good points and has excellent suggestions. The Golem's Mighty Swing is very much worth reading, as is Sturm's other graphic novel Satchel Paige. He's also right about You Know Me Al – I've found that difficult to get into with college students. It seems slow and forced to them, and its cultural framework is getting more alien all the time. I've come to admire The Natural more and more over the years, but I'd say that Bang the Drum Slowly or The Celebrant would be equally good, perhaps better if your preferred tastes are realism and/or historical fiction (The Celebrant, which also has a shot of magical realism). The Celebrant is set in Jack Keefe's day, but it leads the reader into its historical context really well (something Lardner, of course, had no need to do, writing contemporary columns).

Great to hear you studied with Tygiel and Solomon, FLNRSA. Eric is one of my most important mentors in academics and life.
   11. Alex meets the threshold for granular review Posted: September 28, 2012 at 09:35 AM (#4247911)
Well, this seems more worthwhile than the Velvet Underground Gateway to Geekery. Start with this album, then go tho that ablum and then that other one. Done.


Haha, that one still trips me up. I mean, I'll read anything about the VU - they're likely my favorite band - but if you need help tackling a band with four albums all of which are excellent, maybe music isn't for you.

Anyway, it was mentioned in the comments section over there, but "Pafko at the Wall" is so so good. I can see why Underworld as a whole would rub many the wrong way, despite my own love for it, but the opening is unimpeachable.

And if you want to dip into Alibi Ike, start with the hilarious 1935 Joe E. Brown movie version. That's one of three baseball films that Joe E. Brown made, and every one of them is a keeper.


Hrm...I'm intrigued. I only know Brown from Some Like It Hot, which is of course absolutely fantastic (and he fantastic in it).
   12. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: September 28, 2012 at 11:00 AM (#4247987)
TCM shows all of Brown's baseball movies at least once a year, usually in conjunction with either Opening Day or the World Series. Elmer The Great is scheduled for Friday, October 12th. Brown was a huge baseball fan, and his son Joe L. Brown was the Pirates' GM for about 20 years.
   13. Alex meets the threshold for granular review Posted: September 28, 2012 at 11:18 AM (#4248010)
Sweet, I'll set that up to record. I need to get back into the habit of following TCM now that I've got HD and a DVR.
   14. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: September 28, 2012 at 12:44 PM (#4248070)
I need to get back into the habit of following TCM now that I've got HD and a DVR.

AFAIC TCM (for classic film) and Pacifica Radio (for jazz) are the two greatest offline institutions for cultural preservation that this country has. Before TCM came along it was like the Stone Age if you didn't live in a tiny handful of big cities or college towns. And while museums and libraries are great, they can't come into your home or your car with a push on a button.

One big time recommendation: Subscribe to the TCM Now Playing program guide ($12.95 a year) so that you can get a full scale advance look at the upcoming month's schedule without having to check the listings every day. Either that, or consult this TCM web page for this month and the two months ahead of it.

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