Champ Summers

June 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.


  1. 1.  It’s amazing what a real writer can do when writing a tribute to Mark Harris, unlike me. I adore “The Southpaw” and consider it one of the best books I’ve ever read.

    I have read “Ticket for a Seamstitch,” but it made almost no impression on me.

    I thought Sam Yale said something a bit earthier to Henry Wiggen the first time they met. Something that started with the letter f.

    Oh well, “Leave us not speak of Korea now.”

  2. 2.  2 Thanks for chiming in, fellow Southpaw lover. I’ll say one thing about this post of mine–it sure run long.

    As for Sam’s first words: Henry first comes face to face with Sam when Pop takes young Henry to a Mammoths opener, but Henry is too over-awed to speak, and Sam says nothing either. Their first words are not exchanged until Henry’s first spring training with the Mammoths (page 86 of my University of Nebraska Press edition):

    “I could not think of what to say, and I said, ‘Sam, you are fatter than your pictures.’

    “‘God damn you,’ he said. ‘That ain’t hardly exactly news.'”

  3. 3.  I wish MLB scouts would come to my softball games…

  4. 4.  Well, I do not care what Krazy Kress or all them other clucks say about me.

  5. 5.  Should have known that a cat named “Champ Summers” would marry a girl named “Joy”.

    I’m heading down to Orlando in a week . . . maybe I ought to give Champ a call, and interview him for your blog. Someone help me get his phone number. In that interview online, I was waiting for him to answer questions about his name. He was never asked about it.

  6. 6.  You always did have a way with elegy — enjoyed this one a lot.

    About The Southpaw and Bang the Drum Slowly: I remember you raptly reading those books; of course I read a ton too in those days and must have picked up those books and tried to read them half a dozen times. I’d get 15 pages, realize I wasn’t going to get the The Natural, and feh, I’d drop it and go back to Basketball’s Big Men or The Hobbit or some such. (Same goes for Catcher in the Rye, until I was older.) I was doing a different kind of reading than you were; I know now that I needed that phony world to get through the days. That’s why I could read a Tolkien book at least 15-20 times — that ever-more-familiar world became easier and easier to slip into. I wanted to stay there.

    Now, as then, I’m usually up to my ears in Shneck. Most days I’m okay with that; most days I’d rather accept what Is than pretend reality is something it’s not. I aspire to reduce the Shneck level in my life, but at this moment I think I’m actually believin’ that a Shneck-less life would be horrifyingly sterile. I think I’ll give Mark Harris another shot, and raise a glass tonighth for him, Wiggins, and Dave Shneck.

  7. 7.  6: Yes, folks, nobody was ever a bigger reader than my brother Ian (thought I’m getting scouting reports that say his young daughter is looking primed to shatter all his records).

    “I’d get 15 pages, realize I wasn’t going to get the The Natural…”

    The happy-ending Robert Redford version, that is. I haven’t read the actual novel, but apparently it’s quite a bit darker than the movie (and along with The Southpaw is considered one of the first two “serious” baseball novels).

    “That’s why I could read a Tolkien book at least 15-20 times — that ever-more-familiar world became easier and easier to slip into. I wanted to stay there.”

    That’s a big part of why I reread The Southpaw and Bang the Drum Slowly, actually. I love that world and am always sad to leave it.

    “I think I’ll give Mark Harris another shot, and raise a glass tonighth for him, Wiggins, and Dave Shneck.”

    And don’t forget Champ Summers!

  8. 8.  Interesting article. Bill Campbell was another Vietnam vet. The Twins found him in a factory league according to Jim Willoughby.

  9. 9.  7 The book version of The Natural is pretty dark, with a less than pleasing ending. And the part where Hobbs gets shot is much more depressing. Also there’s skinny dipping involved.

  10. 10.  Lovely tribute to both Harris and Summers.

    Still my second favorite “Champ” – after Bailey.

  11. 11.  7 It’s obviously received wisdom that we both wrote virtually the same thing about the authors of “The Natural” and “Bang the Drum.”

    When I took notice (http://tinyurl.com/2vkjcu) of Harris’s death I wrote:

    “Harris and Malamud made it acceptable to use baseball as a setting for serious adult fiction.”

  12. 12.  This Champ Summers card was always one of my favorites. I don’t now if it’s the shiny red batting helmet or Champ’s clean cut looks, but I know I like it.

  13. 13.  When I was a kid still chasing the dream of playing pro ball, Dave Schneck owned an indoor batting cage in my hometown. Although he never mentioned Champ Summers, maybe that trade is what convinced the man who hit a game-winning HR in his ML debut and often was a defensive replacement for Willie Mays to hang ’em up at 28. Anyway, thanks for sharing Josh. I’ll have to check out Mark Harris.

  14. 14.  First heard of Champ Summers when I was going to school in Mexico in the 1970s. Led the Mexican Winter League in dingers, as I recall, for the Puebla Pericos.

  15. i just found out champ started out mlb at 28 and played until he was 38!
    i kinda like the late bloomer thing
    he also had to very good season with detroit one hitting 20 homers with a ba of 313 in only 90 games….project that out and you have a HOF : )

    he didnt even start the minors until he was 25….sigh now i have to dig up more on this guy who to me never received any playing time for my reds strat teams….

    “This is a rookie?” – Gene Tenace and Reggie Jackson, on seeing the 28-year-old Champ Summers come up

    and his real name is john junior….no word on how he got champ….

    Summers was discovered playing men’s softball after having served in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. Perhaps blue moon odom did some softball scouting duty when not busy relieving for the a’s

    Josh I think you should now have a soft spot for this guy

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: