Saturday, October 26, 2013

Five enduring works of baseball fiction

Leigh Montville's books include biographies of baseball greats Ted Williams and Babe Ruth, NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, 7-foot-7 basketball player Manute Bol, motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel, and the Mysterious Mantague, a forgotten golfer from the 1930s. He was a sports columnist at the Boston Globe for 21 years and a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for nine years.

One of five enduring works of baseball fiction he tagged for the Wall Street Journal:
Bang the Drum Slowly
by Mark Harris (1956)

Not only is the autobiography a staple of the sports book market; it now dominates the field. Take a famous name, hire a touch-typist ghost and away you go. The famous name tells a few stories into a tape recorder, the ghost shapes the stories into grammatical form, the famous name heads for the talk-show circuit, the book heads to the best-seller list. The beauty of Henry Wiggen, the famous-name narrator created by Mark Harris and spread over a four-book series, is that he cut the ghost out of the equation, along with an editor or two. The best pitcher in baseball, star of the New York Mammoths, tells his story in a wonderful vernacular filled with misspellings, misstatements and misunderstandings but also with warmth and emotion. Made into a terrific 1973 movie with Michael Moriarty as Henry and a young Robert De Niro as dying catcher Bruce Pearson, "Bang the Drum Slowly" the book is even better. Harris, more than 50 years ago, perfectly captured the voice of the self-centered, self-conscious star. Henry would talk the same way today but maybe in tweets and posts and with an accompanying picture of his beautiful house, beautiful wife and beautiful car.
Read about the other entries on Montville's list.

Bang the Drum Slowly is among Elmore Leonard's ten favorite books and Tom Werner's best baseball books.

--Marshal Zeringue