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the baseball novel

27 january 2009

The Baseball Novel, a new annotated bibliography by Noel Schraufnagel, lays claim to be the most comprehensive treatment of baseball novels for adults ever written. This may seem a niche item at best, but Schraufnagel has itemized over 400 novels, a generous swath of American fiction from the late 19th through the early 21st century. When so many story-tellers conspire to tell such a vast cycle of stories about one cultural practice, that cultural practice must be worth a second look.

The Baseball Novel complements the other leading bibliographies of baseball fiction nicely. James Mote's Everything Baseball (1991) is an eclectic list of baseball-related items in both high and popular culture, including a sampling of novels. Andy McCue's Baseball by the Books (1991) is an exhaustive list of baseball novels, for both adults and children, published to date. Grant Burns's Sports Pages (1987) includes some novels and some short stories in its section on baseball. And my own Guide to Baseball Fiction (1998-2009), while much less comprehensive than the others, aims for some of Mote's eclecticism – and exploits the capacity of on-line publication for growth and updating.

I list only 240 adult novels, for instance, while Schraufnagel has found 400. Though the line between adult and juvenile fiction is never absolute, it's clear that Schraufnagel has read more baseball novels for adults than anyone else with the possible exception of Andy McCue. He has also written more about such novels than anyone, ever, including those of us who have ventured on critical monographs on baseball fiction.

The richness of Schraufnagel's treatment lies not just in its checklist, but in the exceptionally thorough annotations that accompany each entry. Summary and analysis of each baseball novel runs from a third of a page to well over a page apiece for the more important and unusual texts. Schraufnagel is as concerned about the generic links among these texts as about their individual content. In an extensive introductory essay and several customized essays and checklists that follow his main bibliography, Schraufnagel charts the development of the genre of baseball fiction, grouping similar texts, assigning pride of place within subgenres, and noting paths of influence and affinity. I expect to return to The Baseball Novel continuously as I teach and study sport fiction for (God willing) years to come.

Schraufnagel is not chary with his opinions, perhaps sometimes going out of his way to deride some unpresumptuous self-published fiction that would be better catalogued without comment. He also falls prey to the assumption that juvenile fiction can't be any good, and that any good juvenile achieves adult status by virtue of its superior quality. (I don't agree; good juveniles are just plain good books, yes, but they don't thereby move up in reading level.)

Schraufnagel offers a "top ten" of baseball novels: The Natural, The Universal Baseball Association, The Cuban Prospect, The Veracruz Blues, The Celebrant, Shoeless Joe, Shadow Ball, Tyrus, Toot-Toot-Tootsie, Good-bye, and You Know Me Al.

I confess to never having heard of Toot-Toot-Tootsie, Good-bye, a 1981 novel by Ron Powers that centers on broadcast-booth rivalries. Tyrus and The Cuban Prospect, both very recent, didn't seem to offer much new, but I may have to revisit them in light of Schraufnagel's recommendation. I think he overrates Shadow Ball (2001), an original but somewhat expository historical novel by Peter Rutkoff.

The other six are fine books . . . but where is Mark Harris? Schraufnagel acknowledges that The Southpaw is "one of the biggies" in the genre (54), but passes Bang the Drum Slowly by with only brief comment, and says of the sharp, rueful Ticket for a Seamstitch that "Only devout Henry Wiggen fans will appreciate this one" (57). In his annotation of It Looked Like For Ever, Schraufnagel explains:

[Henry Wiggen] has accomplished nearly all the positive things that Lardner's Jack Keefe could not do – but that is part of the problem. His life is too succcessful, including the authorial efforts – even though his language skills never improve. A forty-year-old Huck Finn who becomes a success in his society does not seem credible, and Harris's novels fall short of the best baseball fiction. (80)

That's a hanging curveball, and I apologize for taking a cut. However, it seems to me somewhat beside the point that Henry Wiggen is incredible. An elderly rookie derailed in his youth by a lady assassin does not seem credible either. A solipsistic accountant whose dice-baseball game becomes the Universe is not highly credible, and a sentimentalist who turns his cornfield into a baseball diamond to placate some voices in his head is not something you see every day.

I don't know that baseball fiction is, or must be, inherently magical. But I do know that the genre has never freed itself of magical elements. The most highly realistic of the best baseball fictions (The Veracruz Blues and the Black Sox novels Hoopla and Blue Ruin) are certainly verisimilar, but their settings are romantic and look into the heart of American taboos (racial mixing, leftish rebellion, Faustian gambling bargains). And the greatest of all realistic fictions of baseball, Eric Greenberg's hyper-realistic Celebrant and Don DeLillo's photo-realistic "Pafko at the Wall," entail Grail-like pursuits of sacred baseballs (the Merkle ball, the Branca/Thomson ball) – and, in the case of The Celebrant, the positive transfiguration of pitcher Christy Mathewson into the traduced Saviour. When such art is the standard of realism, we can certainly suspend belief enough to accept that a garrulous pitcher could make some money in baseball and publish a memoir or two – especially with "Punctuation Freely Inserted and Spelling Greatly Improved by Mark Harris."

Schraufnagel, Noel. The Baseball Novel: A history and annotated bibliography of adult fiction. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008.