Bang the Drum for Mark Harris

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Mark Harris died last week of complications from Alzheimer's. Don't be too sad: he was 84 and apparently lived a good life. I don't know much more about him, except that he was the second-best writer of baseball fiction ever, so consider him Ted Williams to Ring Lardner's Babe Ruth, a not-too-shabby comparison.

Harris wrote four novels from the persona of Henry Wiggen, a pitcher with the New York Mammoths, a team modeled -- explicitly in the movies -- on the Yankees. To the end, Harris was best known for the 1973 film, Bang the Drum Slowly, for which he also wrote the script, but the reason it made a good and lasting movie (aside from the cast, which included Michael Moriarty, Robert De Niro, and Vincent Gardenia) is also the reason it's not his best book. Bang the Drum Slowly is slightly sentimental as it concerns the dying catcher Bruce Pearson, a simpleton who calls Wiggen "Arthur" when everyone else calls him "Author" in recognition of his having written a book.

His best, in my view, is his first, The Southpaw. Like Lardner's You Know Me Al, it's rooted to an era -- Harris's 1950s to Lardner's teens -- but timeless in the way it captures ballplayers and their unique place in the world. Both understand the cruel humor of baseball, the way players tease and rag one another because baseball is an unforgiving game and a player had best get used to that before setting foot on the field. One of my favorite passages from The Southpaw finds Wiggen as a rookie in spring training, watching players arriving at the train station from his room in a nearby hotel and sneering a bit at the "punks." When a real ballplayer shows he knows right away by his presence, his sense of style. So Wiggen goes down to meet him in the hotel lobby. He greets him, and the player says, "Hello, punk," then walks on by.

Lardner knew players from writing the "In the Wake of the News" sports column in the Tribune. Harris, by contrast, was an academic, with a doctorate in American studies. Still, Harris, like Lardner, got the feel of the clubhouse right. Baseball is an odd game because it's such an individual sport -- it always comes down to pitcher versus hitter -- and yet the players spend day after day in intimate circumstances. In both The Southpaw and Bang the Drum Slowly, Harris nails the intangible sense of chemistry that results as few writers have, perhaps best in the Bang the Drum Slowly line, "Winning makes winning like money makes money." Even today, a reader will see much of Lou Piniella in Harris's Dutch Schnell (perfectly played by Gardenia in the film). When a player insists he is very careful, Schnell replies, "That is what everybody says, yet the hospitals are full of babies."

Harris's books have also turned out to be timeless because they capture the players' attitudes toward their game, independent of money. The Henry Wiggen of The Southpaw is privileged, and he knows it. He's a bit of an ass, and he knows that too. Yet he also knows he does something better than all but a few human beings, and others will pay to see him do it. The salary structure of baseball might have changed, but that essential sense of privilege has not. When I reread it, just last year, The Southpaw seemed more contemporary than any baseball book I could think of, certainly more than Bernard Malamud's myth-mixing The Natural or W.P. Kinsella's bathetic Shoeless Joe.

At one point in the debut novel, Wiggen gets off a good line on the bench and Schultz responds, "Somebody ought to write a book."

"Somebody ought to write a good book about baseball," says pitcher Sam Yale.

"Somebody ought to write a good book," says the well-read catcher Red Traphagen.

That would be The Southpaw, on all three counts. 

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