Trapped in the house. Six inches of snow have fallen. Freezing rain is expected over night. So naturally, I am thinking about baseball. And thinking about continuing on my 2016 project to read through Philip Roth’s works.
There has been a lot of fiction written about baseball, and it is not uncommon to find lists of the “best baseball books”. One book that seems never to be on the list is Philip Roth’s “Great American Novel”, his sixth novel, published in 1973. Why is this?
To quote Roth himself, one reason might be as set forth in the book’s epilogue, as a letter provided to the author by a prospective publisher after reading the yet unpublished book:
“I find what I have read of your novel thoroughly objectionable. It is a vicious and sadistic book of the most detestable sort, and your treatment of blacks, Jews, and women, not to mention the physically and mentally handicapped, is offensive in the extreme; in a word, sick.”
That may all be true, but it is also a very clever and enjoyable book, and an extremely unique one. And it’s a baseball book. And “The Great American Novel”.
It’s the story of the demise of the Port Ruppert Mundys, and the entire Patriot League, the third professional baseball league (not including the Negro League, which also plays a role in the book), which dissolved in the mid-1940s and has been wiped out of the history books, the public records of all sorts, and even the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Dissolved as a result of Communist infiltration designed to destroy baseball, and therefore capitalism, in America. (OK, I gave no spoiler alert.) That’s why you have never heard of the PL.
While there were eight teams in the league, the book, after giving the history of the league when it was at least the equal of the others and perhaps the first among equals, when the likes of Luke Gofannon and Gil Gamesh (before his lifetime suspension) were still playing, “The Great American Novel” focuses on one team – the Ruppert Mundys, the team that arranged to lease its stadium to the United States government for military training purposes, thus being transposed into a road-only team, playing all its games in the stadiums of others. And, until being shown the secrets of winning, lost virtually every game.
Why did they lose? Well, not having a home was obviously not good for morale, but it was also true that, with the majority of the team’s players now fighting for their country in World War II, the roster left a lot to be desired. Roth carefully describes the regular starting line up. One of my favorites was Mike Rama, the left fielder (reminding me, unfortunately of a young Bryce Harper, perhaps):
“Batting fifth and playing left field, No. 13, MIKE RAMA. RAMA.
“Even before the Mundys had to play day in and day out on the other fellow’s terrain, Mike “the Ghost” Rama (TL, BL, 6’1″, 183 lbs.) had his troubees with the outside wall. Just so long as there was one of them behind him, whether it was in Mundy Park on the the road, sooner or later, the Ghost went crashing up against it in do-or-die pursuit of a well-tagged ball. In ’41, his rookie year, he had on five different occasions to be removed on a stretcher from the field in Port Ruppert. The fans, of course, were deeply moved by the brilliant youngster so dedicate to victory as to be utterly heedless of his own welfare. It rent their hearts to hear the konk resound throughout the ball park when Mike’s head made contact with the stadium wall — was he dead this time? and, damn it, had he dropped the ball? But miraculously neither was the case. The umpire who rushed to the outfield to call the play (before calling the hospital) invariably found the baseball lodged snugly in the pocket of the unconscious left fielder’s glove. “Out”, he would shout, and without irony, for he was describing only the status of the batter….”
What turns the Mundys from losers to winners. For one thing, it’s sprinkling some Jewish Wheaties on their breakfast cereal (don’t ask). For another, it seems to be wresting control of the team from the black janitor, who makes all decisions in the absence of the owners, who seem to spend all their time in Mexico. Then, it is instruction on hatred – how to hate your opponents so deeply that winning is the only choice. This is the heart of Communist tactics. But reading it, and thinking about today’s real politics, it sometimes strikes much too close to home.
This book is a farce, written by an old sportswriter (now living in a nursing home), the only man to remember the Patriots League and the Mundys (if in fact he does). Nothing in it is real; nothing in it is conceivable. But, putting aside the lack of political correctness (speaking of things that strike home about today’s political scene), the book is very clever and very funny. It was, of course, written by a young(ish) Philip Roth.
And it is a baseball book. And deserves to be on the list of best baseball books. And – unless you are turned off by being continually offended by one thing or another – it is highly recommended.