Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Fiction and the empirical turn

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,”

She pulled the trigger (thrum of bull fiddle). The bullet cut a silver line across the water. He sought with his bare hands to catch it, but it eluded him and, to his horror, bounced into his gut. A twisted dagger of smoke twisted up from the gun barrel. Fallen on one knee he groped for the bullet, sickened as it moved, and fell over as the forest flew upward, and she, making muted noises of triumph and despair, danced on her toes around the stricken hero.The original incident involved Eddie Waitkus, a 29-year-old slick-fielding first baseman and decent hitter, but no candidate for greatest player who ever lived. During the 1949 season, while hitting a soft .306 for the Philadelphia Phillies and leading the All-Star balloting, he was shot in the chest by Ruth Ann Steinhagen, who had been infatuated with the ten-years-older ballplayer ever since he broke in with the Chicago Cubs, crying when he was traded to Philadelphia and building a little shrine to him in her bedroom. On June 16, she left a note saying that it was “extremely important” to see him “as soon as possible.” Waitkus went to her room in the Edgewater Beach Hotel on Chicago’s North Side, where they were both staying. He told what happened next:When she opened the door, she took a look and said, “Come in for a minute.” She was very abrupt and businesslike. I asked what she wanted and walked through the little entrance hall over to the window. When I turned around there she was with this .22-caliber rifle. She said, “You’re not going to bother me any more.” Before I could say anything else, whammy!Waitkus, who had fought with the U.S. Army on New Guinea, winning four battle stars, joked to reporters: “I guess I zigged when I should have zagged.” He marveled, “She had the coldest looking face I ever saw. No expression at all. She wasn’t happy—she wasn’t anything.” Asked why he had gone to her room, Waitkus said, “I thought it might be someone I knew—someone from downstate or a friend of a friend.” He did not know the girl, although he may have met her without remembering. “We ballplayers get a lot of letters from girls and don’t pay any attention to them,” he explained. “We call them ‘baseball annies.’ ”

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:It was not really golden, it was white, but in the sun it sometimes flashed gold and some of the opposing pitchers complained it shone in their eyes. . . . There was a hot rhubarb about that until Roy promised to rub some of the shine off Wonderboy. This he did with a hambone, and though the pitchers shut up, the bat still shone a dull gold. It brought him some wonderous averages in hits, runs, RBI’s and total bases, and for the period of his few weeks in the game he led the league in homers and triples.What were the numbers? Who knows? Not knowing, how can it be believed that Roy’s averages are “wonderous”? While he may have “led the league in homers and triples,” that is not particularly informative. Leagues have been led (since 1930) by as few as 22 homers and eight triples. Maybe he played in a weak league.

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.


Anonymous said...

i'll have to check out Heinz book, thnx

Anonymous said...

A bit more realism would have done Malamud wonders - without having checked the records, I would guess that nobody has lead the league in both homers and triples since the dead ball era. Homers are for oxen and triples are for rabbits, and it's rare to find a basher who is fast enough to leg out three-baggers. (Pardon the metaphorical excess.)

Any interest I might have had in reading Malamud's book was forever dashed by the utterly ridiculous movie scene when Redford/Hobbs hits the towering homer that shatters the overhead arclights and sets of a storm of sparks that would rival a Fourth of July fireworks display. And rounds the bases triumphantly while mortally injured. Yeah, right.

D. G. Myers said...

Jim Rice led the AL in 1978 with 15 triples and 46 homeruns. Mays and Mantle led their respective leagues in 1955 (Mays, 13 and 51; Mantle, 11 and 37).

And what sports novelists need is more realism, yes; but less sentimentalism too; more demonstrable knowledge.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I should have done some research or at least given it deeper thought, which surely would have yielded Mays and Mantle. But I never realized about Rice, who I never thought of as being particularly swift on the basepaths. I wonder how many of those 15 triples were cannon-shot line drives which caromed off the Green Monster at unpredictable angles.

D. G. Myers said...

Well, I think it’s safe to say that Malamud expected his readers to imagine Roy Hobbs as belonging to the same class as Mays and Mantle. Jim Rice, not so much.

Anonymous said...

Rice definitely didn't have the aura of those two, which probably had more to do with his personality than his playing abilities.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more re The Natural - Malamud's attempt was to write a novel not about baseball but about baseball's mythology. Great when you are a kid but as an adult not so much.
Michael Lewis' "Moneyball" would be a great example in many ways about both how sport writing has changed and maybe the purest form of what Wolfe was talking about (although, admittedly, Moneyball is more journalism than novelistic - but you could say the same thing abd "The Right Stuff."

Unknown said...

Is Ruth Ann Steinhagen still alive

Unknown said...


It might not change your mind about reading the book, but the movie scene that you find so objectionable has nothing to do with Malamud. It is purely a product of the screen adaptation by Towne and Dusenberry and goes completely contrary to both the letter and the spirit of what Malamud wrote. In fact, the screenplay accomplishes something quite unusual...copying the external details of many scenes from the book quite faithfully and carefully, yet creating an overall story whose tone and sensibility is almost 180 degrees opposite of its original source material.