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Mark Harris's novels sparkle with hard-edged realism

During those years, when most men of promise achieve an adult education, if only in the school of war, Ring moved in the company of a few dozen illiterates playing a boy's game. A boy's game, with no more possibilities in it than a boy could master, a game bounded by walls which kept out novelty or danger, change or adventure.... However deeply Ring might cut into it, his cake had the diameter of Frank Chance's diamond.
Speaking at the funeral of Ring Lardner,
September 1933

"...but you are facing terrible odds, for George will never read your book, being trained to read a scorecard only and live like a seal. And even the people that read it will think it is about baseball or some such stupidity as that, for baseball is stupid, Author, and I hope you put it in your book, a game rigged by rich idiots to keep poor idiots from wising up to how poor they are."
Bang the Drum Slowly

"Why does not somebody write I decent book about baseball, Krazy? There never been a good book yet."

"There been dozens of good books," said he.

"There has only been fairy tales," I said.
The Southpaw

Henry W. Wiggen, Mark Harris's brash, young fictional southpaw, scored a pretty good literary point in that exchange with the pigheaded sportswriter Krazy Kress. Until the publication of The Southpaw in 1953, the literature of baseball had consisted mostly of "fairy tales," boy's books written by such fabulists as Ralph Henry Barbour, Lester Chadwick, William Heyliger, Burt L. Standish and John R. Tunis. The heroes of those potboilers were so clean-cut as to make even Horatio Alger characters seem dissolute in comparison. Those make-believe ballplayers were all homely virtue. Teamwork was a religion. The game was all that mattered. Neither doubt nor despair ever creased those alabaster brows. These players spoke, of course, the King's English.

The towering exception to the goody-two-shoes genre was Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al stories of 1914, in which the barely literate protagonist, Jack Keefe, talks tough—"I wish I had knew then that he was stealing my girl and I would of made Callahan pitch me against him. And when he come up to bat I would of beaned him"—knocks back the booze, chases women and is a big league penny-pincher. Despite his friend Fitzgerald's graveside disclaimer, Lardner was a much-respected literary man. Virginia Woolf was a fan of his. The American critic Maxwell Geismar called Jack Keefe "a remarkable figure of folk poetry." The British novelist and critic V.S. Pritchett credited Lardner and James Joyce with founding a "literature of talk."

But Lardner had little patience with such prattle from the literary salons. He was a saloon man. "The writer has been asked frequently, or perhaps not very often after all...who is the original of Jack Keefe?" Lardner wrote in one of his typically self-deprecating prefaces. "The original of Jack Keefe is not a ball player at all, but Jane Addams of Hull House, a former Follies girl."

Lardner was the first major writer to use baseball as a subject for serious fiction, and for nearly 40 years, he was just about the only. Then, in 1952, The Natural by Bernard Malamud was published, followed by Harris's The Southpaw a year later. Both were indisputably serious books about baseball, the former mythic, the latter realistic. "One thing Malamud and I deeply shared was our self-consciousness about what we were doing," Harris wrote in The New York Times Book Review two years ago. "We insisted that we were creating literature just as earnestly as Ring Lardner had insisted that he was not."

Harris never met Malamud, who died in 1986, but they had much in common besides a love of baseball. Both were Jewish intellectuals who grew up in the New York City area, Malamud in Brooklyn, Harris in suburban Mount Vernon. Malamud, however, abandoned baseball after the great success of The Natural, his first novel, while Harris wrote three more Henry Wiggen books, which carried Wiggen through a 19-year career with the New York Mammoths. In the process Harris launched a literary movement that has fairly boomed.

Peter C. Bjarkman, a former English professor at Purdue and a student of serious baseball fiction, estimates that since the early 1970s more than 125 "adult" baseball novels have been published, many by such established authors as Robert Coover (The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.), W.P. Kinsella (Shoeless Joe and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy) and Philip Roth (The Great American Novel). Some, like Eric Rolfe Greenberg's The Celebrant, exude the romantic flavor of the game's formative years. Others, like the recently published and critically acclaimed If I Never Get Back by Darryl Brock, go so far as to transport a contemporary character, in this instance, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, back in time to baseball's very beginnings.

The literary boom has also influenced Hollywood. Since the 1973 release of the film version of Harris's Bang the Drum Slowly, for which he wrote the screenplay, there has followed an encouraging succession of adult baseball movies based on fiction—The Natural, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams—that are to The Babe Ruth Story what Citizen Kane is to Beach Blanket Bingo. But why baseball? As Bjarkman contends, no other sport is even in the same literary ballpark. Bjarkman cites several reasons for this, many of them painfully familiar from past odes to the sport.

"Baseball has enjoyed a tremendous revival in the last decade," says Bjarkman. "Yet it retains nostalgic appeal. More than most things, it is a symbolic representation of America. And it is structured like life, with no set time for it to end. It is rambling and slow-moving, but interspersed with moments of furious action and suspense. It has its mythic heroes, and it is cyclical."

For years these elements were largely ignored by the literary crowd. What got all these authors on the ball? Try Harris. "He's the pioneer," says Bjarkman. "He gave legitimacy to the field with his stature as a novelist. He's the link with Lardner, although Harris approaches the subject somewhat differently. Henry Wiggen differs from Jack Keefe in that Harris writes from the point of view of a novelist, while Lardner saw himself as a journalist. Both of those players speak in the vernacular, but Keefe is incapable of thinking beyond himself and baseball. Wiggen, on the other hand, is a thoughtful human being who is even into social protest. I think Henry Wiggen is Mark's alter ego."

It is a warm spring day on the Arizona State campus in Tempe, and the eight students, three women and five men, in Harris's creative-writing course are dressed for comfort. Harris is wearing a gray sport shirt with brown slacks. He is a small man, not quite 5'8", and slightly built. He has curly gray hair and a pixieish face, and he wears a pair of eyeglasses with two sets of lenses, one of which he flips down for long distances, suggesting the look of a race car driver. At 67, he is clearly from another time and place, but Arizona State, where he has taught for 11 years, suits him just fine. He begins to read to the class in a soft, halting voice from his newest novel, Speed:

One day in our tiny rented winter cottage in Florida my brother Speed and I were in the kitchen and my mother and Babe Ruth were in the other room when from that other room came a terrible, frightening, awful commotion, as of persons fighting, and Babe Ruth shouted above it all, "I'll bust his chops." Were those father's chops the Babe was threatening to bust? Perhaps so. Father was back home in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Mother and her two charming boy babies were wintering in Florida....

Mother, Speed and I had sojourned for the month of March at St. Petersburg, Florida, where at a certain baseball field Babe Ruth picked me up and asked my name, and when I replied said to my mother, "What a smart little boy you've got there." An achievement to know one's own name!

When he asked me my religion I replied, "Mother is Lutheran, but father's too busy," and he swung around to the laughing crowd in the grandstand and held me high, exhibiting me, and told them one and all, "You never heard a little kid as smart as this," and he threw me again into the air and caught me coming down.

Harris pauses, flips down his distance lenses and looks up. "What we're discussing today is how a writer can use his personal experiences in his work," he says, smiling. "In fact, I really don't see how anyone can write fiction without drawing from his life. Speed really comes from memoirs I started to write years ago. In rereading them I found that many of the entries were about my brother and my relations with him, how different our lives have become, how so much luckier in many ways I have been. Mount Vernon is my hometown, and my mother did take my brother and me to Florida for the winter and spring training."

He laughs and continues, "Now, I don't think my mother was capable of having an affair with Babe Ruth, so that's fantasying—pure fiction. But I do know from reading Robert Creamer's biography of Ruth that the Babe had many amorous adventures. I was also told that on that vacation in St. Petersburg, Ruth picked me up in front of the grandstand. Of course, he picked up a lot of small children in those days."

Harris's manner is lighthearted, playful. He welcomes interruptions. He teases the students. ("When Rick starts leaning toward the door like that," he says, "I can tell we must be near the end of our time.") Harris has little use for the ceremonial aspects of academe. On this day he was confused to see many of his colleagues hurrying to Gammage Auditorium on campus in full academic regalia. He had forgotten that this was the inauguration day of the new Arizona State president, Lattie Coor.

Harris abhors lecturing before large classes; he much prefers the give-and-take of the intimate creative-writing courses. "Teaching such courses really stimulates me," he says, tugging an unwieldy briefcase behind him on a baggage cart as he wanders across the sun-baked campus. "Oh, I enjoy teaching literature courses, but if I were to become a serious scholar it would detract from my writing."

Harris is prolific. He has published 12 novels, an autobiography, three heavily autobiographical nonfiction books, four screenplays and a stage play, in addition to scores of reviews, articles and essays for both scholarly journals and popular magazines, including LIFE and SI. Yet, somewhat to his consternation, he is best known as a baseball writer, the captive, he laments, "of a lefthanded pitcher." Harris is sent baseball books to review, and publishers, at a loss as to how to entertain him, take him to ball games, "viewing me," he writes in his autobiography, Best Father Ever Invented, "as that chronicler of baseball who might offer, as we sat, some clue to the secret fascination of the game; and who were, I am certain, disappointed that I had nothing more to offer than any ordinary spectator."

But Harris has been, since he was growing up in Mount Vernon, a devoted and knowledgeable fan, if not the expert he is so often-expected to be. He cannot drive by a playground where a ball game is in progress without stopping to watch a few plays. He teaches at a school that boasts one of the best college baseball programs in the country. He is a regular at spring training games in Arizona and a faithful follower of the Phoenix Firebirds, the San Francisco Giants' Triple A team. He was reared a fan of the New York Giants, and, though he has lived in the West for most of the past 35 years, the Giants of the '30s remain the wellspring of his fiction. The character Pop in The Southpaw could easily be Carl Hubbell:

I have seen many a pitcher, hut there's few that throw as beautiful as Pop. He would bring his arm around twice and then lean back on 1 leg with his right leg way up in the air, and he would let that left hand come back until it almost touched the ground behind, and he looked like he was standing on 1 leg and 1 arm and the other 2 was in the air, and then that arm would come around and that other leg would settle down toward the earth, and right in about there there was the least part of a second when his uniform was all tight on him, stretched out tight across his whole body, and then he would let fly, and that little white ball would start on its way down the line toward Tom Swallow, and Pop's uniform would get all a-rumple again, and just like it was some kind of a magic machine, the split-second when the uniform would rumple up there would be the smack of the ball in Tom's mitt, and you realized that ball had went 60 feet 6 inches in less than a second, and you knowed that you seen not only Pop but also a mighty and powerful machine and what he done looked so easy you thought you could do it yourself because he done it so effortless, and it was beautiful and amazing, and it made you proud.

Although Hubbell lived for many years only a few miles from Harris, in Mesa, Ariz., the two never met. Harris, in fact, had never met a big league player or been in a big league clubhouse before he wrote The Southpaw. When it was published, he was working toward a doctorate in American Studies at Minnesota. Lardner, by contrast, had been a baseball beat writer in Chicago before he became famous as a columnist and short story writer, and he never broke off his associations with the game, even after his friends became somewhat tonier.

Harris had written two nonbaseball novels—Trumpet to the World, which decries racism, and City of Discontent, whose protagonist is the poet Vachel Lindsay—before he embarked on The Southpaw. Baseball, he realized, "had been one of the major experiences of my life. So why not use it." Harris wrote from the vantage point of a fan and sandlot player. Lardner's You Know Me Al was not the prototype for the book he chose to write; Huckleberry Finn was.

Harris was at least subliminally aware of Lardner's influence on him, but he also knew that Huckleberry Finn was considered much more respectable in the academic circles he moved in than Lardner's works. "The scholars perceived Lardner then as merely a cynic," says Harris, "while Twain was considered a social critic. I decided I would use baseball the way Twain had used the river."

The youngsters he had played ball with in Mount Vernon would be his New York Mammoths. Harris learned creative profanity both in the Army and at the Tjernlund Stove Manufacturing Company in Minneapolis, where he had labored dispiritedly while attending graduate school. A fellow graduate student at Minnesota, Regan Brackets, had died young of Hodgkin's disease, just as catcher Bruce Pearson would in Bang the Drum Slowly, and Brackett's friend Norman Sherman had kept the terrible secret from his colleagues, just as Wiggen kept Pearson's from his teammates.

A hitchhiker Harris once picked up in Kansas became the "seamstitch" of the third baseball book, A Ticket for a Seamstitch. Harris's wife, Josephine, has a cousin who, like Wiggen, is a genius at malapropisms: "I wouldn't trust him with a 10-foot pole"; "come hell or hot water"; "that rubs my goat the wrong way." Harris's own worries about aging were gracefully transmitted through Wiggen in It Looked Like For Ever.

And what of Wiggen? Is the cocky southpaw an alter ego of the professor, as Bjarkman suggests? Well, for starters both of them are authors. In You Know Me Al the reader merely gets hold of Jack Keefe's correspondence. In Harris's books, Wiggen is quite self-consciously the author, the fictional forerunner, one fears, of a distressingly long roster of real-life tell-all ballplayer-authors. Harris gives himself byline credit on the title page of The Southpaw only for "punctuation freely inserted and spelling greatly improved"; in Bang the Drum Slowly, for restraining "certain of his [Wiggen's] enthusiasms"; and in A Ticket for a Seamstitch, for polishing "for the printer."

As unlettered as he is, Wiggen seeks to write as he thinks an author should, eschewing contractions and ludicrously bisecting words—"no body," "broad casting"—in the interest of proper syntax. In The Southpaw he even bemoans the travails of authorship: "I begun this book last October, and it is now January, and I doubt that I am halfway through. I will give 1 word of advice to any sap with the itch to write a book—do not begin it in the first place."

For all of his macho posturing, Wiggen is, as is his creator, a pacifist and civil-rights activist, qualities that pretty much set him apart from the ballplayers of his time—the early 1950s to the early '70s. Wiggen shares another characteristic with his creator: He is a rebel, at odds much of the time with authority figures. Still, for all of his troubles—the fickleness of fame, the death of a teammate, the disintegration of a career—Wiggen has led a comparatively placid existence compared with that of Harris.

Mount Vernon, in Westchester County, is only a half hour by train from Manhattan. Harris's happiest moments there were spent on the diamond at Memorial Field, catching his more athletically gifted friend Norman Apell, whose death in World War II, wrote Harris in his autobiography, "would forever entwine itself with my life, haunting my dreams, shaping my writing."

Harris, who was born Mark Harris Finkelstein on Nov. 19, 1922, dropped his surname after graduation from Mount Vernon High in 1940. "I was 18 years old," he says. "It was a difficult time for kids with Jewish names to get good jobs. I changed the name strictly to make myself more employable."

His father, Carlyle, did not protest. "My father was a pragmatist," says Harris, "who was in favor of anything that would help me get a job." The son of Russian-Polish immigrants, Carlyle was a product of New York City's tough Lower East Side at the turn of the century. He freed himself from the neighborhood through education. He became a modestly successful real estate lawyer in New York City with a suburban apartment, a wife and three children. Yet he was opposed to his older son Mark's going to college. "It was the end of the Depression," says Harris, "and my father would just tell me, 'You don't need a college education.' His main interest was money."

So after high school, Harris, the budding intellectual, spent two years working for the Press Alliance in New York, a newspaper-syndication company. "My job was mostly being a messenger and operating a mimeograph machine," he says. In January 1943 he was drafted into the Army. The death overseas of Apell had convinced him of the futility of war, and he was further outraged by racial segregation within the armed forces.

Approaching what may have been a nervous breakdown, he deserted his company at Camp Wheeler in Georgia, leaving behind a note to his company commander complaining of "every day expressions of racism in an army presumably dedicated to a war against Nazism." He was arrested a few days later, hospitalized for supposed "psychoneurosis" and given an honorable discharge. He had served 15 months.

After his release from the Army, Harris went to work as a reporter for The Daily Item, a newspaper in Port Chester, N.Y., the town that would serve as the model for Wiggen's hometown of Perkinsville. A year later, he got a job at the liberal-intellectual paper P.M., in New York City, but he lasted only four months, recognizing that his days there as a glorified copy boy were numbered when he forgot to transmit a review written by the esteemed drama critic Louis Kronenberger. So when the chance came to join the International News Service in St. Louis as a reporter, Harris took the job.

In his autobiography Harris describes—or, rather, disparages—himself at the time: "I was overwhelmed by the quantity of my deficiencies. I was neither handsome nor clean-minded, and my prospects were poor. I was argumentative, socially graceless, I couldn't dance, I couldn't sing, I didn't bathe, I drank sloppily, I had a smoker's cough, and my posture was poor."

In September 1945, Harris mistakenly identified Springfield, Mo., as Springfield, Ill., in one of his dispatches and promptly received by telephone a dressing down from the Illinois Springfield's INS bureau chief, Josephine Horen. Harris was too captivated by the sound of the reproachful voice to feel contrite. Instead, he launched a campaign to win the angry woman over, commuting regularly between St. Louis and Springfield.

Mark and Josephine were married on March 17, 1946 (and last spring celebrated their 44th anniversary). It was Josephine, a West Virginia native and a graduate of Marshall College (now Marshall University) there, who persuaded him to try college. At 26, he finally did, choosing the University of Denver because of an advanced creative-writing course taught by professor Alan Swallow. By the time he earned his doctorate from Minnesota in 1956, Harris had published four novels, including The Southpaw and Bang the Drum Slowly. But academic life gave him a sense of security, and though he battled with faculty and administrations almost everywhere he went—from San Francisco State to Purdue to the California Institute of the Arts to Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, to USC to Pitt and to Arizona State—he never left it.

In Best Father, Harris portrays himself as a moody, irascible, sometimes deeply tormented man forever at odds with the establishment. He became periodically depressed over his work, dismissing even his first success, The Southpaw, as "facile realism in a facile style."

His life seemed to be one big rebellion. He had become an academic in reaction to his father's disapproval of college, and a writer of baseball books in reaction to the professorial stuffed shirts who regarded such work with contempt. He fought an epic battle, ultimately successful, to quit smoking. He suffered from frequent, possibly stress-related illnesses. He struck his three children in anger. If Wiggen was a nice guy who finished first, Harris began to see himself more as his character's opposite. Wiggen became a surrogate of sorts for that other pitcher, Apell, who had become for Harris a "classical good boy to my classical bad...he who died in the war I had chosen not to enter."

Best Father, in which Harris flays himself so mercilessly, was written in the 1960s and published in 1976. That Harris scarcely exists in '90. Now he is a man who has come to terms with his work and with himself. Critics no longer wound him; other writers do not threaten him. If he criticizes himself now, it is mostly in fun.

"You know, I never wrote those baseball books with any sense that they would be popular," he says, relaxing in the dining room of his fine southwestern-style house in Tempe. "I wrote them because that was the next thing I wanted to do. I didn't even realize The Southpaw was being read until someone came up to me one day while I was playing Softball and said, 'Hey, I thought you'd be a lefthander.' Yes, I guess it's true that I'm mellower now. A lot of things I fretted about I don't fret about anymore. I don't accept everything as is, certainly, but I'm not as competitive as I used to be. When I wrote Best Father, it accurately expressed my feelings back then. That was a time when I suppose I considered myself a kind of hot free agent. Now I've come to realize that one person is really not all that much better than another. Maybe that is knowledge that comes with age."

"You are a lefthander, Henry. You always was. And the world needs all the lefthanders it can get, for it is a righthanded world. You are a southpaw in a starboarded atmosphere. Do you understand?"

"Sure I understand," said I. "I am not such a stupid goon as you might think."

"Exactly," she said. Then she begun to cry a little, and she fought against it, and when she had control over herself she spoke further. "I hold your hand, "she said, "and your hand is hard, solid like a board. That is all tight, for it must be hard against the need of your job. On a job such as yours your hand grows hard to protect itself. But you have not yet growed calluses on your heart, ft is not yet hard against the need of your job. It must never become hard like your hand. It must stay soft."
—The Southpaw

Harris is playing first base for a softball team of academics at Tempe Beach Park, just outside the Arizona State campus. He is wearing a white T-shirt, baggy gray gym pants and white tennis shoes with green laces. He is the oldest player by many years. The pitcher on his team is a man in his 20's who wears a Stanford sweatshirt, and the shortstop, in an Oxford T-shirt, is roughly the same age. The game, as one might expect from such a crowd, is civilized. No balls or strikes are called, and the last inning is played whenever the participants feel like quitting.

Harris is an eager, hustling ballplayer. He's too short to be a first baseman, but he makes most of the plays, spearing wide throws one-handed and at least getting a glove on the high ones. In the top of the seventh inning he starts a classy 3-6-1 double play. He leads off the eighth with a single to leftfield but is stranded on base when a rally is aborted. Between innings, he jogs over to the stands.

"When I started playing with these fellows a few weeks ago, I was worried," he says, backhanding perspiration from his brow. "I hadn't played in a couple of years, and my first response on the field was, 'Don't hit it to me.' Now I want the ball."

He glances over his shoulder at the field. "I'm beginning to think this might make an interesting novel," he says. "Not a Henry Wiggen book necessarily, but maybe one about a group of people who get out to play softball every Sunday. I think it has real possibilities."

Harris comes to bat again in the ninth with one out, runners on first and third and his team trailing 10-7. He waits patiently for his pitch, refusing to swing at several lobs that fall wide of the plate. That day the opposing centerfielder, Ron Carlson, who is chairman of the creative-writing program at Arizona State, inches in closer to cut off a possible drive up the middle by the aging batsman. Pitcher Paul Lux, a graduate student, glares at the batter. Lux throws a slow one down the heart of the plate, and Harris swings hard, driving a high hopper to second base, where—oh woe—it becomes a 4-6-3 game-ending double play. Harris drives a fist into the air as he ambles futilely to first. He kicks the bag and pats the enemy first sacker on the shoulder. He is smiling as he leaves the field. It has been a game well played. There will be another next week and—who knows?—maybe eventually a book.

In the morning I woke up, and it was like I dreamed a dream so fine that you want to go back and dream it again, and I looked out the window and seen things laying there just like always, and I pounded the window sill until the glass shook, and I said "Thunder, thunder, thunder," and I knowd that some day I would get up in the morning and it would not be this view a-tall. It would be the big towns, New York and Brooklyn, Cleveland and Chicago, Boston and Washington, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, big towns and big parks, and there would be 30,000 people and my name on 30,000 scorecards and the music and the singing and the cheering, and I would touch my hat when they cheered, and I would wind and rear and fire and they would see, and they would know an immortal when they seen 1, and I dived back on the bed and pounded the pillow, and I shouted again, "Thunder, thunder, thunder and THUNDER, "and I felt better and went downstairs to breakfast.
—The Southpaw



Harris is widely credited with the recent boom in "adult" baseball literature.



Lardner was the first writer to demythologize baseball in fiction.



Moriarty played Wiggen (left), and DeNiro, his dying teammate, in "Bang the Drum Slowly."


Starting early in his career, Harris drew much from personal experience.



After writing "The Natural," Malamud abandoned baseball as a motif.



At Arizona State, where he has taught for 11 years, Harris goes his own way.