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"Why baseball for your new book The Great American Novel?" Philip Roth was asked last week.

"Because whaling has already been used," he answered.

That seemed a straightforward enough response from a man who has conjured up a sportswriter named Word Smith who has in turn made up a whole baseball league and is insisting he did not make it up, that Bowie Kuhn and others have conspired to blot it out of history. That imaginative situation is the basis for Roth's latest novel, an excerpt from which, "The Great American Rookie," begins on page 36.

But getting down to real life, had Roth himself, growing up in Newark, N.J., ever been any good as a ballplayer? "On the sandlots, sporadically," he said. "Never could make the high school team, however. Under pressure I took more than one person's share of called strikes."

Roth was a boyhood Brooklyn Dodger and Newark Bears fan ("The wartime Bears required much enthusiasm") who lost considerable heart for the game when his Dodgers betrayed him and moved to California. But his enthusiasm was rekindled during a visit to the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum in Coopers-town, N.Y.

"One winter," he said, "I was staying up at Yaddo, the writers' retreat in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and I took a couple of days off to go over to Cooperstown, with no idea of 'researching' a baseball book.

"I was walking around the top floor of the museum—the Babe Ruth room—when a fellow appeared carrying a ratty old-fashioned baseball glove. He was one of the curators; I asked him whose glove it was and he said, 'Babe Ruth's.' I asked if I could put it on. We were alone on the floor, so he said O.K. I put it on.

"When I got back to the Yaddo dinner table I couldn't stop talking about wearing Babe Ruth's mitt. I went back to Cooperstown again in the spring and just hung around for a few days, looking at the relics and reading in the Hall of Fame library. I listened to the tapes Larry Ritter made, interviewing old ballplayers for his book The Glory of Their Times. I read more baseball books than I had since the days when I used to devour by the dozen novels that began, 'Clackety-clack-clack—the kid heard the sound of his spikes ring out on the concrete passageway leading to the dugout. Spring training, with a big-league club!'

"Later I went out several nights to see the Indianapolis Clowns play. I was already well into my book by then, the story of a homeless baseball club, and I was intrigued by the Clowns, who barnstorm, homeless as my own team, and who then were managed by a black midget who wore a gold earring and was a CPA in the off-season."

With that, the interview itself was clearly veering perilously close to fiction, and it seemed wise to cut to current events: "Do you approve of the designated hitter?"

"Do you approve of what they did to my team?" Roth replied. "The designated hitter is a red herring, designed to divert attention from the only issue that matters—the destruction of the Patriot League of Professional Baseball Clubs by the powers-that-be."

And who knows? Maybe he's right.