Notes from the Shadows of Cooperstown: May 7, 2007
Bernard Malamud's famous novel was first published in 1952, when I turned six. I was reading a lot of baseball in the fifties. I was hooked on John R. Tunis and the "juvenile fiction" of the day, and easily found room for baseball among the biographies and books on dinosaurs and prehistoric man that I raided from Carnegie's North Side library in Pittsburgh. I loved Wallop's The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, a 1954 fiction that later became Damn Yankees. I didn't get hooked on the Pittsburgh Pirates till 1957, but read baseball regularly in books, and in Peanuts. Somehow, The Natural slipped past me.
So when I was devouring Dan Nathan's excellent Saying It's So [reviewed in Notes #285 in February 2003], I was confused by his spending a whole chapter on The Natural and Eight Men Out. Asinof's book, of course. But Malamud's? That was the first time I realized that the Robert Redford film was not Malamud's book. The ending had been changed -- it was as if John Sayles decided that Asinof's book was too dark, and decided to end his film by having the Chicago Eight conspire instead to cross up the gamblers by sweeping the Reds in five, then turning in the crooks and handing over the bribe money to charity. Well, that's the difference between Roy Hobbs, book, and Roy Hobbs, movie.
Now that I've finished the book -- the ending was suspenseful, even though I knew Hobbs was not going to set off fireworks by destroying the stadium lights with a mammoth home run -- I find myself reluctant to review it. I'll recommend it, with some caveats. If you read it because you enjoyed Robert Redford and Glenn Close and Kim Basinger and Randy Newman's music and the great old ballparks and the special effects of the film -- you just might be disappointed, because that ain't the book.
On the other hand, if you read it because you know that the book is very different than the film, you may still be disappointed because the book -- now a classic -- really isn't, in my view, great literature. Much of it is like the baseball books I read in the fifties, and no surprise there. Except that The Natural seemed, well, not natural, but a bit forced or stilted. It is heavy with baseball cliches, bits and pieces of history and lore sprinkled throughout the book. Ruthian stuff, Eddie Waitkus' bizarre tragedy borrowed to explain Roy Hobbs' delayed arrival in the majors, superstitions galore. You even recognize some of the fans. It's not annoying, exactly, but it didn't seem natural either.
My problem with the book was that somewhere early on -- too early, I think -- I stopped liking Roy Hobbs. That surprised me, because of course I was thinking Robert Redford, and in his films, I usually like the characters, beginning to end. I know some folks think Hobbs fails because he strives to be the best player ever, but that didn't bother me, it only echoed the goal of Ted Williams. I have nothing at all against people who want to be the best, and to be known as the best, as long as they don't call themselves the best before that is the consensus. But when Muhammed Ali called himself the greatest, in fact, he was; we all knew it was temporary, but it was true when he proclaimed it. I don't think that was Roy Hobbs' problem.
He seemed surprisingly selfish to me. Baseball is such a team sport, that ego gets noticed. His Ruthian appetite for food and women surprised me, too -- it was hard to imagine Redford stuffing himself with a snack of six hamburgers. Ruth was forgiven all, of course, because he was regularly leading his team to pennants and leading his league in all kinds of things. But Hobbs was a rookie, whose heroics seemed unbelievable. I kept wondering if Hobbs would be more likeable if he was a more ordinary rookie pheenom, hitting maybe .330 with 25 HRs and 95 RBI, and more sacrifice bunts.
And he seemed surprisingly stupid at times, no match for the gambler sharks to whom he ends up in debt. Or to the crooked Judge -- for some reason, Kenesaw Mountain Landis came to my mind, and that bothered me. The Judge is the team owner, not the Commish; was Malamud suggesting Comiskey was the real villain in the story from 1919? Or Landis? No, I don't think so.
I was not sure, at the end, that Roy Hobbs had learned a thing in the time I had spent with him. I don't want to describe the ending, because I know many people have not read the book, even though they have had the opportunity, like me, to do so for 50+ years now. Did it have to end with "Say it ain't true, Roy?" Sheesh. I didn't personally know Shoeless Joe Jackson -- a great natural hitter, they say -- but Mr Malamud, Roy Hobbs was no Joe Jackson. Don't get me started!
I really thought that Roy Hobbs might come out of the book OK -- if not a hero, then, well, someone who would not make fans ashamed to wear a Knights cap or jacket. Because I see that stuff on sale in catalogues and stores. Obviously, someone is counting on fans not reading the book, and on their knowing only Robert Redford's Hobbs. (I can't wait to run into someone wearing a Knights jacket or shirt or cap. "Read the book" is what I'll say.)
I confess that sometimes I am too hard on books that are called must-read classics. Hype makes me skeptical. Maybe it's like players called "the greatest." It puts an extra burden on them. Prove it. To be fair, if I had read The Natural when I was ten, it would have been my favorite book -- until I read Wallop's. It's better fiction than most 1950s baseball fiction, but I'm not sure I'd take Malamud over Ring Larder or Mark Harris. Both of those authors rely on baseball and cliches, too, but do more with them.
At times, I honestly thought that I was reading a version that Malamud had not edited for a final time. He seemed to toss in parenthetical phrases, uncertain about whether to keep them or lose them. Here's just one example: "True, he [Hobbs] was the same majestic-looking figure up there, well back in the box, legs spread wide, and with Wonderboy [his bat] gleaming in the sun, raised over his shoulder (he had lowered it from his head)." A few lines later: "He didn't feel himself (wondered if he could possibly be sick)." Why the parentheses, unless Malamud left the decision to keep or cut to his editors, but they missed the sign, and these extra phrases are scattered throughout the book. Well, it's too late now, it's a classic.
There's a troubling paragraph late in the book that begins, "The fans dearly loved Roy but Roy did not love the fans." Ouch! So he got booed a little during his incredible slump. Part of baseball, Roy. Same paragraph: "He gave it [the ball] no rest (Wonderboy, after its long famine, chopping, chewing, devouring) and was not satisfied unless he lifted it (one eye cocked as he swung) over the roof and spinning toward the horizon." It is as if Malamud tacks on these parenthetical phrases, in case he falls short on the number of pages needed -- then forgets to remove the parentheses. OK, OK, maybe I'm being too picky. Classic.
Is The Natural a classic? Well, once in the Hall of Fame, once your mug is on a bronze plaque, there is no going back. So why raise the question? But it's too late, I raised it.
I think sometimes baseball has been overly quick to enshrine. And it's probably happened more in literature, than in Cooperstown's Hall. I'm not sure that Malamud would be a famous writer if The Natural was his only book, although it was his first, so it probably made it on its own merits.
But he did so well with so many other books, that The Natural was -- naturally -- elevated. Baseball literature's unofficial Hall of Fame in the 1950s was, I think, Charles Einstein's Fireside collections. Malamud didn't make the first volume in 1956, but did show up in the second, in 1958.
Zane Grey made the first volume, with The Redheaded Outfield, but I suspect his fifty-plus western novels were a factor. Baseball wanted to enshrine him, claim him. Famous writer cares about baseball. Fame sells, fame begets fame. George Will didn't need Men at Work to be famous, but his book helped baseball. Also in the first Fireside, by the way, is a five-page excerpt from a report from the county behavior clinic of Philadelphia, to Felony Court, on the gal who shot Eddie Waitkus. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia. It's a fascinating read, with mental illness and gun control back in the news.
Jim Bishop, famous for many books, including The Day Lincoln Was Shot, made Volume Two, along with Sherwood Anderson and Jacques Barzun -- baseball really enshrined his sound bite! Since Judge Landis' reign, baseball has been careful about its image. Has been quick to associate itself with greats in just about any and every field. Baseball, great by association. But great anyway, because look at all the great folks who are fans -- not just presidents, but Robert Frost.
Now that I've read The Natural, I'm anxious to see the movie again. And I want to re-read that chapter in Dan Nathan's book. And I just might get a copy of The Fixer, because I saw that film, too, and maybe the book will be different, and better.
I did re-read Nathan's chapter, and I recommend his book Saying It's So: A Cultural History of the Black Sox Scandal (University of Illinois, 2003) all over again. Dan puts Malamud in perspective, better than my essay above, and offers readers a variety of criticisms. Which made me feel better -- I am not the first to be confused by what most call Malamud's mythology and symbolism. Clearly, my pragmatic, investigative approach to the B-Sox makes it hard to connect with Malamud's mysticism.
And I re-watched the film. I was surprised at how little was familiar. I had remembered best, it turned out, the beginning and the end. Young Hobbs, dueling The Whammer in a pasture, and stealing his Ruthian allure, but becoming blind in the process to the deranged female assassin who derails his career. And then, the climactic home run, one we've all seen a hundred times by now, maybe the best home run ever caught on film -- after Bill Mazeroski's, of course; Joe Carter's; Kirk Gibson's; and you can insert your own list here. What our homers have over the movie version is that they happened, there were no actors involved, no script, no special effects, no music. Our emotions recalling each are real, not artificial or contrived, they are not fake.
The film not only changes the book, it simplifies it, for better and for worse. It is gorgeously filmed, a delight for the eyes. The script works because it gives the book the editing it needed all along. But it fails because it disneyfies the story, transporting it from Cooperstown, that village at the intersection of baseball history and mythology, to Hollywood.
Watching a movie after reading the book, especially right after, is almost always disappointing, in my experience. But I can't say that it was, this time. The film is such a visual treat, the music so satisfying, the casting so on target, and the acting -- well, so professional -- that the film works. I know many fans who treasure this film, and I bet they haven't read the book, because without that distraction, it works even better.