The reason there are not more good novels about sports, Mark Athitakis speculates in a reply to my post on football novels, is that “most sports are too defined by their mythologies—it takes a diligent and attentive novelist to collapse their clichés and find something new to say about the subject.”
This hits the mark, or at least where mediocre sports novels are concerned. Malamud’s Natural, a novel that Athitakis singles out as a better novel about baseball, is instead a perfect example of what he is talking about. Here, for example, is the notorious scene in which Harriet Bird shoots Roy Hobbs, after asking if he will be the greatest player ever. When he answers, “That’s right,”
Away from reporters, Waitkus confided to friends that the bullet’s impact felt like six men slamming him against the wall. Four operations were required to drain his lung, but remarkably he recovered and returned to baseball the next season, batting leadoff and playing all 154 games for the pennant-winning Phillies, winning the Associated Press “comeback of the year” award. But the story did not end happily. His son was convinced that the shooting changed Waitkus forever, turning him into a reclusive alcoholic and perhaps even contributing to his death from lung cancer at fifty-three. “Different doctors through the years have expressed the theory that the stress of the shooting, combined with the four operations, allowed the cancer to take hold,” the younger Waitkus told Ira Berkow of the New York Times nearly four decades later. “So I think Ruth Steinhagen was more successful than she thought.”
Steinhagen herself was released from the Kankakee State Mental Hospital two and a half years after the shooting, pronounced sane, all criminal charges against her dismissed. She disappeared from public view. The next month Waitkus’s claim for $3,500 was dismissed by the Pennsylvania Workmen’s Compensation Board, which ruled that the ballplayer was “not in the course of his employment” when shot in a hotel room.
I have repeated the Waitkus story at some length to contrast its irreducible factuality, its hard-surfaced concreteness, to Malamud’s lyricism. The story of Eddie Waitkus is richer and more chilling than the myth of Roy Hobbs. For that matter, Waitkus is a more interesting ballplayer—or at least a more interesting case—than Malamud’s hero. Throughout the summer Roy Hobbs blazes away with his golden bat:
By contrast, it can be said with exactitude and certainty that Waitkus hit .285 in his eleven-season career, getting on base at a .344 clip—just about the rate of an average hitter, or thirty-seven fewer times every 500 at-bats than Stan Musial, who debuted the same season—with a slugging percentage (.374) that ranks second-worst all time among first basemen with at least 4,000 at bats. And though one baseball historian grades him A- in the field, he played at a position where good or bad fielding has a relatively small effect upon the game and where much more robust offensive production is usually expected. The real question about Waitkus is this. How did he manage to play eleven seasons as a regular in the big leagues?
The answer: a high batting average, especially before the shooting, when Waitkus hit .296 in 448 games, combined with his graceful fielding, appealed to the unexamined assumptions and folk psychology of baseball men, who were still living by metrics and dogmas established three quarters of a century or more earlier for a game still in its infancy.
Since then a revolution has occurred. Bill James, who began self-publishing his Baseball Abstract in 1977 while working night shifts as a security guard at a Stokely Van Camp factory, almost singlehandedly changed the way ballplayers are evaluated. By introducing new statistical measures (secondary average, runs created, range factor), he was able to challenge baseball’s prevailing wisdom (that a .300 average is the mark of a good hitter, for example, or that a good fielder commits few errors). James has gained the reputation of being a statistical guru—the “Sultan of Stats,” as the Wall Street Journal hailed him a while back. This is to misunderstand his achievement. While he helped to invent sabermetrics, the in-depth statistical research into baseball performance, James does not consider it a branch of statistics. His characteristic procedure is to open an inquiry into an aspect of baseball by citing an assertion widely accepted as true, and then submitting it to withering examination, using statistics as his tool. “Sabermetrics,” he says, “is a field of knowledge which is drawn from attempts to figure out whether or not those things people say are true.”
James belongs to the empirical turn that has been negotiated in several disciplines of human thought over the past three decades. The law-and-economics movement, founded by Henry Manne in the early seventies, is another example. Experimental philosophy, with its slogan “No armchair speculation,” is one more. Two critics, E. D. Hirsch Jr. and Frederick Crews, have sought to guide literary study into empirical responsibility, although neither has met with much public success. Instead of new historical research into popular literary delusions, there is new historicism. As Crews says in an interview, “What’s happened in the humanities is a general assault on the idea of the empirical, the very idea of the rational, which is now associated with such social evils as racism, patriarchy, and so forth. And in the vacuum that is created by this denigration of the empirical, nothing is left but cliquishness, nothing is left but power.”
Kal v’homer, as the Jews say—how much more so in the field of human endeavor that prizes the armchair more than any other. I am speaking, naturally, of fiction. As Tom Wolfe detailed at length in “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” his infamous Harper’s essay of 1989, realism had fallen out of favor in the sixties to be replaced by “fictions” in which the action had no specific location, the characters had no background, came from nowhere, and said nothing that indicated any class or ethnic origin, “with the emotions anesthetized, given a shot of novocaine.” The solution was basic research, or what Wolfe called reporting. It is “the most valuable and least understood resource available to any writer with exalted ambitions”; what is more, it is “essential for the very greatest effects literature can achieve.”
American novelists have sniffed at Wolfe, of course. And if I were to rephrase his argument, holding that American fiction badly needs an empirical turn, a rethinking of it as a means (in Crews’s words) “to study indefensible pretensions and to note how they cause intelligent people to shut off their critical faculties and resort to cultlike behavior,” I would be hooted out of the literary blogosphere. Their ignorance of sport except for its “mythologies” is not sufficient to explain the lack of good American sports novels; American novelists also have small belief and less interest in knowledge of any kind. That’s why the only American sports novels worth reading are those, like W. C. Heinz’s Professional, a 1958 book about a middleweight contender, by writers who have made a close study of their subject, as if it were something worth actually knowing.
Update: Here is a nice obituary for W. C. Heinz, who died a year ago later this month, saying just enough about The Professional to make you want to read more. Sports Illustrated puts the novel at #54 of its Top 100 Sports Books of All Time, but the list is remarkably uncritical.