Champ SummersJune 14, 2007
Cheers for Mark Harris, Part 1
I’ve been reading as much Mark Harris as I can get my hands on lately. A couple days ago I found myself rapidly nearing the end of my well-worn copy of The Southpaw, so I raced off to the library and grabbed everything else they had by Mark Harris on the subject of baseball. I thought about also lugging home all his non-baseball books too but decided that would have to wait for another time, since I’m due to go to Holland on a belated honeymoon in a couple weeks and won’t have time to plow through everything the man ever wrote before then.
Throughout my life I’ve read The Southpaw several times, Bang the Drum Slowly several times (though not quite as often as The Southpaw), and also Harris’s non-baseball novel Speed, which I liked a lot. Additionally, I sort of read It Looked Like For Ever, the fourth and final Harris novel featuring immortal New York Mammoth hurler Henry Wiggen as narrator, but I’m pretty sure I ended up skimming the last part of it. It was a gift for a friend, but before I gave it to him I had to check it out for myself, and was mostly disappointed by it, probably in part because I was sure a book about Henry Wiggen struggling through his final season could not possibly fail to be immensely enjoyable. Unfortunately, there was hardly any baseball in it at all (or “a-tall,” as Wiggen would say), maybe none, and maybe because of that it amounted to a long and demoralizingly sour death rattle of Wiggen’s formerly ebullient, blistering, hilarious voice.
But I may be remembering it unfairly and am planning to give it another try after I first read some of Diamond, a collection of Harris’s baseball writings (which includes among nonfiction pieces an excerpt from Bang the Drum Slowly—all the library copies of the novel were checked out, which was my biggest library-based disappointment since discovering, years ago, in a severe late-20s puberty relapse, that all the pictures in a nearby college library’s back copies of 1970s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues had been ripped out by some other nostalgic pervert—and the entire screenplay based on that novel, written by Harris) and also after I read Ticket for a Seamstitch, the one Henry Wiggen novel I’ve yet to crack, perhaps because I’m under the impression that most of its fairly slim contents are taken up by a story in which the young eccentric catcher Piney Woods (clubhouse singer of the sad song that gave the previous novel its title), and not Wiggen himself, takes center stage. But I’m ready to devour it all, good and bad, and in a way maybe it’s fitting that my full read of Bang the Drum Slowly will have to come last, instead of second, as I first planned it (wanting initially to read the entire Wiggen chronicles chronologically). Now I’m assured that I’ll end my latest (but with luck not last) foray into the world of Henry Wiggen on a note of brilliance.
And it’s fitting that I’ll be able to end my project on an elegiac note, too, Bang the Drum Slowly one of the saddest and most moving novels I have ever read, baseball or otherwise (and I have been reading novels pretty much constantly for two and a half decades, a habit that began in large part with my first reading of The Southpaw). I’ve cried whenever I’ve read Bang the Drum Slowly, and I’ll probably cry again, except this time I won’t be crying solely for Bruce Pearson but for the man who created not only Bruce Pearson but also Henry Wiggen and Red Traphagen, knarf retrop and Tegwar, and Sam Yale and Sid Yule, to name just a few of the sacred and profane odds and ends and endless beginnings in the pungent and thriving universe of the New York Mammoths.
In other words, as some of you probably already know, the greatest of all baseball novelists has died.
I finished my latest hungry reading of The Southpaw on the train to work yesterday morning, then read a couple pieces from Diamond, including one in which Harris reflected on his first Henry Wiggen yarn as being an unconscious product of two deep strains in American literature: the Horatio Alger success story and the Huckleberry Finn-style American vernacular.
Harris was aware of his debt to Twain, and later became aware of the similar influence of the Twain literary descendent, Ring Lardner, who first brought the American vernacular yarn onto the baseball diamond in 1916 with You Know Me Al. On the other hand, the Alger influence, which had thoroughly permeated baseball fiction by the time Harris began to pen The Southpaw in the early 1950s, was not so clear to Harris at first. He later came to see that his hero, Henry Wiggen, similar to the heroes of the standard stories of baseball triumph, “does succeed, does grow rich, does preserve his moral virtue.” But at the time he was writing the book, he saw The Southpaw as diametrically opposed to the hackneyed conventions of the Algeresque baseball tale. His critique of the conventional “rags to riches” story of uncomplicated good-over-evil victory becomes abundantly clear near the end of The Southpaw, when Henry Wiggen goes to see a baseball film with his slow-witted roommate Bruce Pearson:
…even Bruce could see [the movie, entitled “The Puddinhead Albright Story”] for the usual slop that it was where nobody sweats and nobody swears and every game is crucial and stands are always packed and the clubhouse always neat as a pin and the women always beautiful and the manager always tough on the outside with a tender heart of gold beneath and everybody either hits the first pitch or fans on 3. Nobody ever hits a foul ball in these movies. I see practically every 1 that comes along and keep watching for that 1 foul ball but have yet to see it.
Wiggen would have seen eye to eye with another fictional early 1950s New York-based malcontent, Holden Caulfield. The hero of The Catcher in the Rye (which as a child I figured was a baseball book because of the fielding position named in the title) like Wiggen hated the unrealistic fantasies of Hollywood. Wiggen and Caulfield, whose sardonic, plain-spoken voices sometimes sound similar even though the former is rising up in the world while the latter is plummeting downward, both loathed all manner of “phonies” in general, and each of their coming of ages can be seen as an increasingly desperate quest to escape the suffocating myth, cultivated by phonies everywhere, that we all get to live happily ever after. Henry Wiggen, like Holden Caulfield, wanted to break through the bullshit to something real.
By the time I first heard of Champ Summers I had started to become the sarcastic wiseass who would soon, with the help of puberty, bloom into the alienated loner so ready to embrace the caustic phony-hating words of Henry Wiggen and Holden Caulfield. In other words, I did not like Champ Summers, because I believed with a name like that he must have been the living embodiment of the baseball version of the happily-ever-after tale. What better name could there be than Champ Summers for the hero of a one-dimensional, rags-to-riches, no-foul-balls-allowed tale of glorious victory on the baseball diamond? No pen-wielding phony could have ever dreamed up any better.
Because of that some part of me relished the less than stellar statistics on the back of his baseball card. I assumed because of his name that he was a highly touted “Next Mickey Mantle” (a la Clint Hurdle) who had been rushed to the big leagues after spending his high school years in some golden uncomplicated town single-handedly winning state championships and fornicating with the cream of the cheerleading crop, so I enjoyed his apparent journeyman status as some kind of cosmic comeuppance.
In actuality, after high school Summers tried to play college basketball but wasn’t really cutting it and ended up getting shot at by the Viet Cong for a few years instead. After getting out of the Army, Summers got noticed by a scout while he was playing in a softball league. He was 25 years old when he was signed, 28 when he made the big leagues. By the time of this 1978 card he was a 32-year-old veteran who had played, sparingly, for three teams in four years, getting traded first for Jim Todd and then for Dave Schneck.
Needless to say, heroes in rags-to-riches fantasies don’t go around getting traded for Dave Schneck.
Henry Wiggen’s loss of innocence is underscored throughout The Southpaw by his changing relation to the iconic images of baseball players he idolized as a child. Chief among these images is a photo of New York Mammoth star Sad Sam Yale. As a child, Henry cuts the photo out of a library book that tells Yale’s story in a way that Horatio Alger would have approved: as a morally uncomplicated rise to the top. Henry keeps the photo over his bed for many years, then begins carrying the photo, folded up, in his wallet. He continues to do this even after becoming the teammate of Sam Yale, whose first words to Henry are “goddamn you” and whose dissolute, vice-filled life, if not his still masterful pitching, is clearly nothing like the life presented to Henry in his once-treasured library biography. But eventually the photo in his wallet, once a beacon showing him where he thought he wanted to go, who he wanted to become, loses all meaning to Henry. It’s nothing more than a piece of paper.
Henry’s changing relationship to iconic images such as the picture of Sam Yale shows up during the climax of the novel, when the southpaw is laboring through the ninth inning of his final regular season start of the year, a game that his team needs to win. Mark Harris could have brought anybody to the plate to face Henry Wiggen, so it’s telling that he introduces a previously unmentioned character to battle his protagonist:
Bob Boyne hit for Fred Nance, a man of near 40 that I bought bubble gum as a kid with a card in every chunk and once had a card for Boyne, his picture and his history.
Henry Wiggen notes this information calmly, dispassionately, just as he goes on to note Boyne’s strengths as a hitter. His opponent is no longer a hero on a bubble gum card, just a man, like him, nothing more, nothing less.
With that in mind, I doubt Henry Wiggen took much pleasure in seeing his own image on a bubble gum card, as he likely would have at some point during the following season. He’s done with reveling in his own rags to riches fantasy, seeing the emptiness of it, the essential phoniness. For others of us the fall from innocence is never so complete. Our childhood wishes cling to us even in the face of years of disillusionment. We still dream of being the child who dreams: One day I’ll become the object of wonder.
Apparently, even some of the men who live out the mundane, Schneck-laced reality beneath the fables of awe are loath to give up on their innocent dreams. Writer Joe Goddard, working on a piece entitled “What’s Up With Champ Summers?”, asked his subject to name his best moment as a major leaguer.
“The first time I saw my face on a bubble-gum card,” Champ Summers replied.