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horace higby and the scientific pitch

18 october 2010

Every few months, a reader of the Guide to Baseball Fiction will write to me asking if I can identify a favorite book from their youth. (I bat about .300 on these requests, which would be fine in baseball but is pretty weak in bibliography.) Recently someone wondered if I knew a 1960s children's novel where the hero invents a liquid that attracts baseballs. When I didn't, the reader kindly wrote back awhile later to say they'd found the title elsewhere: Horace Higby and the Scientific Pitch (1968), one of a series of books by William Heuman about a brainy non-athlete who helps teams win championships using his grey matter.

Horace Higby and the Scientific Pitch, in retrospect, seems ever so slightly out of date, not to say out of touch. It's very much a Sputnik-era story. Team needs to call on its brain trust, the spectacles-and-slide-rule contingent can help us win, brawn alone won't win the Big Game. But 11 years had passed since Sputnik, and the novel's functional, technocratic ideas seem oddly both buttoned-down and chipper, its humor slightly forced.

Pulp is an absorbent medium for the ideas of the day, but it can be slowly reactive. Or perhaps another way of putting it is that several different worldviews exist in any given era. National moods don't change overnight and in concert. 1968 is now represented for us by the Chicago Seven, Fritz the Cat, various hallucinogens, and two deeply tragic assassinations. But it was also the year that extremely sober, positivist astronauts flew past the moon and read from Genesis. While the counterculture grew increasingly dubious of engineered solutions to irrelevant problems, many of us stayed tuned into the good news from NASA.

The moon race underscores much of the baseball action in Horace Higby and the Scientific Pitch. The braniac title character indeed produces a substance that seems to make ball seek bat. This exchange between two of his teammates ensues:

"Liquid magnetism," I said. "Who ever heard of such a thing?"

The Flash shook his head. "I've never heard about people going to the moon, either, Wilbur. This world is full of surprises." (93)

In the old-cold-war rhetoric of such fiction, mundane problems like throwing a curveball are couched in terms of apocalyptic technical secrets. "I was thinking that it was some state of affairs when we had to get in touch with atomic bomb and rocket people to get our pitcher straightened out" (148), the narrator laments.

Inventor Horace Higby is anti-social to the point of mild autism, but he's also red-bloodedly heterosexual. He's given a love interest, Hepzibah Creel, who's as smart as he is. (Their assortively-mated offspring are probably populating their fictional world's physics departments even as we speak.) In fact, Horace seems to have it both ways, to be very weird and very normal, as if to show the inescapable gravitational pull that normality exerts over the eccentric.

Meanwhile, the Caruthers nine are helped toward their championship not just by Horace's formulas but by the power hitting of Zilo Zinkovitch, "a White Russian or a Pole, or a Slav" (21) who speaks broken Gerglish and does various slapsticky things when not hitting baseballs a country mile. I'm really at a loss to account for him; he's sort of a UN peace delegate in the shape of a pulp-fiction baseball rube.

Horace invents the "double curve," a trick pitch based on severe mathematics. But his magnetic liquid turns out to be moonshine. It becomes that common motif in boys' sport fiction, the Unnecessary Talisman. The team thinks it can hit if they wash their bats in the useless stuff, and so they do. Horace himself makes no claims for the substance, of course; he just lets people believe what they want to believe.

In the end, then, sportsmanship rules. The team hammers the ball with bats washed in good old H2O. Horace throws the double curve fair, if not so square, and wins the Big Game by making an unassisted triple play on pure resourcefulness. The moral seems to be that all this technocracy is just a way of convincing American heroes to rely even more on their unaided selves.

Heuman, William. Horace Higby and the Scientific Pitch. Illustrated by William Moyers. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1968.