"The whole history of baseball," Bernard Malamud has said, "has the quality of mythology." Indeed it does, with its legendary heroes, epic contests and ineradicable statistics, and few writers have used it more fruitfully than Malamud himself. His first novel, The Natural, published in 1952, is a classic of baseball fiction with heavy, but scarcely solemn, mythic overtones. Leaving aside its considerable intrinsic merit, the novel would be important if for no other reason than that it was the first to demonstrate that baseball can produce fiction that transcends mere entertainment.
Now a notable and surprising new novel comes along to emphasize the point: Jerome Charyn's The Seventh Babe (Arbor House, $9.95). It is notable because it is a serious piece of work that also manages to be thoroughly engaging; it is surprising because it comes from a rather unlikely source, a writer heretofore identified with the literary avant-garde whose readership has been limited.
In The Seventh Babe, Charyn manages to have his cake and eat it too. With its clear references to Greek myth and drama, it carries enough weighty baggage to fit in comfortably with the rest of Charyn's work. But it is also an entirely delightful story, even if you think Sophocles was some guy who played third base for the 1917 St. Louis Browns.
The "Seventh Babe" of the title is Babe Ragland, a skinny kid who shows up at the Boston Red Sox training camp in the spring of 1923 and identifies himself as an orphan from Baltimore. Six "Babes" have preceded him—Ruth, Adams, Winters, Pinelli, LeJeune, Chicote—and he is a most unlikely seventh: a lefthanded third baseman of no immediately discernible skills.
Yet he catches the eye of the manager, Briggs Josephson, and goes north with the club. Thereupon begins a wild and quite wonderful journey. The kid becomes a whirling dervish at third, and the collection of castoffs that are the Boston team make an improbable run for the top. Soon it is discovered that Ragland is no Ruthian Baltimore orphan but "Cedric Tannehill," the son of a copper millionaire, but the fans love him anyway: "The crowd paid its money to see Boston's lefthanded wonder at third, the kid who liked to invent fables about himself."
Eventually the team slides back to the bottom of the standings, and Babe himself begins to slide. He makes a bad marriage to the lusciously predatory Iva Cottonmouth and suddenly he becomes baseball's bad boy, angrily attacking teammates and opponents alike. Finally he is suckered by a gambler and ends up on the carpet before Judge Landis:
"Landis had teethmarks on his cuffs; they were bitten and frayed. His high collar had gone yellow against his scrawny neck. He was a small, frail man in a musty suit. The emperor of baseball clutched an old cane with rubber bands around the nob. If he flicked the rubber bands, it was a sign that he was getting impatient with you. He had a sharp beak, lots of silver hair, and a bulge in his jaw. The son of a bitch was chewing tobacco at Rags' inquisition."
Ragland is chucked out of organized baseball, but he goes on playing with a black barnstorming troupe. He is a child out of myth, the embodiment of eternal youth and innocence: "He was leather, air and horsehide on a ball. He was knickers and dirty brown grass. He couldn't live apart from a baseball diamond. He was married to a fifty-cent glove." The years pass by but his skills scarcely fade; he roams the American landscape with his ragged band, playing the game for the sheer and inexpressible joy of it.
Charyn has read his Doctorow as well as his Sophocles; like Ragtime, The Seventh Babe calls forth nostalgia and evokes real and imaginary figures from the not-so-distant past with a whimsically elegiac tone. This is not to suggest, however, that it is imitative or derivative. Though it does disclose debts to other baseball fiction, The Natural in particular, it stands quite securely on its own. The Seventh Babe contains many more characters and themes than can be mentioned in this space, and although it drifts and sags a bit once Babe is exiled to vagabond ball, on balance it hangs together nicely.
Had The Seventh Babe come along a year or two earlier, doubtless an excerpt from it would have found a place in Fielder's Choice: An Anthology of Baseball Fiction (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $12.95), edited by the experienced Chicago baseball writer Jerome Holtzman. This collection of 27 short stories and excerpts from novels cannot be ignored by any baseball fan who happens also to be a student of American literature—or vice versa.
The selection of pieces is authoritative and comprehensive. All one hopes to find in any collection on baseball fiction is here, from H. Allen Smith's "Rhubarb" to James Thurber's "You Could Look It Up" to Irwin Shaw's "Voices of a Summer Day." So, too, are selections that reveal Holtzman's critical discernment: excerpts, for example, from novels by Mordecai Richler, John Sayles and Robert Coover. I suspect that Fielder's Choice will find its way not merely into the libraries of baseball fans but also onto the reading lists of courses in American literature.