About the time I sold Mudville, I missed the news that my favorite baseball writer had passed away at the age of 84 — a guy who had influenced the style of my own baseball book enough to rate an acknowledgment in that book. I missed noting it in this blog then, and so I intend to do it now, one year later.
Harris sold his first baseball novel, The Southpaw, while in graduate school at The University of Minnesota and sold it to Knopf (which are both true of me 50-odd years later). He admits that the success novels of Horatio Alger, which he enjoyed as a boy, are more a source for his work than the more estimable Mark Twain, which he claimed was the inspiration for the baseball novel he wrote at Gopher U. His department was American Studies; a department that turned me down when I applied with the intent of studying Alger (I ended up in Learning Technologies, where the seminal novel is Ender’s Game). Harris longs for sandlot baseball, which was the only baseball I ever played and is represented in Mudville by a player-led and managed team, though mudlot is a better name for their brand of ball. Heck, he even named his most famous book after a lyric from “The Streets of Loredo.” I, too, have a soft spot for old cowboy tunes.
All any of this means is that Mark Harris and I might have gotten along pretty well.
Mark Harris is best known for a four-book series following a baseball pitcher named Henry Wiggen. You might really call them a trilogy with bonus footage, since the third is a short, breezy affair that’s more novelty than novel, but the first two are among the finest baseball books you’ll read: The Southpaw, the aforementioned Alger-inspired success story, follows the rookie Wiggen as he leads his “Mammoths” (a thinly disguised New York Giants) into a pennant race. The Southpaw is notable mostly for the first-person voice of Henry, who is a tad better educated and smarter than Ring Lardner’s Jack Keefe, but mixes up that archetype’s classic vernacular with his own brand of savvy humor and wisdom.
When I first read The Southpaw, I marveled that it was really about baseball and not just using baseball as a thematic backdrop for something more profound. I was amused to read later that it was exactly Harris’s intention, though he may have failed: he wrote about baseball not as a Malamud-like metaphor for profound themes, but because it was interesting and poetic and compelling and meaningful enough to write a serious book about.
That novel is only surpassed by its sequel. Bang the Drum Slowly is the second volume, and is mostly about Henry’s friendship with a bullpen catcher named Bruce who’s dying of cancer. The dying athlete story is practically a genre, at least since Lou Gehrig’s graceful exit from the game (subject of the movie, The Pride of the Yankees), but if it is, Bang the Drum Slowly transcends it.
Bang the Drum Slowly is also mostly about baseball, and about big league baseball players: young, wildly successful, brash, sometimes ignorant, and rough-around-the-edges. What are they to do with something serious, like a dying teammate? Particularly when it’s not a graceful superstar like Gehrig, but a guy who’s over the hill, never that great a player, and rough and ignorant even by baseball player standards? The greatness of the book is showing their confusion and intermittent kindness without forgetting (as they can’t forget) that there’s also baseball to be played. Well, that, and TEGWAR.