Baseball: Reality and Myth


By Sam Garfield

August 23, 1952

(Chicago) –There she stands, arm-in-arm with her parents and her attorney on the steps of the Criminal Court Building, head held high, a tall, attractive brunette, just twenty-two years old, about to resume her life. She wears a sophisticated long beige dress with large black buttons and a black paten leather belt, a tweed coat to protect her from the chilly spring air, and a guarded  smile. Ruth Ann Steinhagen is no longer considered of unsound mind, having been adjudged sane and freed of a charge of assault with intent to kill baseball star Eddie Waitkus back in June of 1949. Her two-and-one-half years at the Kankakee State Hospital behind her, she gets into the back seat of her parents’ black sedan. She looks straight ahead as the car pulls away from the courthouse and slowly merges with traffic.

At the Polo Grounds in New York, Waitkus takes batting practice before his game with the Giants. The Phillies first baseman, considered one of the steadiest hitters in the game, will go hitless in five trips to the plate that afternoon.

In a small office on the campus of Oregon State University, in Corvallis, an English professor, Bernard Malamud, studies the page proofs of his first novel, The Natural.

That was April 17 of this year, when Malamud rewrote baseball history, creating a truly magical novel about our national pastime, a game that endures because of its mythical past. The Natural is a baseball fable, where the theme of re-birth resonates in a lyrical and mystical voice. Malamud turns reality into mythology with the spirit of an alchemist in creating Roy Hobbs, a nineteen-year-old country bumpkin who takes the ultimate hero’s journey, one steeped in Arthurian Mythology, a quest to become “the best there ever was.”

We first meet young Hobbs as he begins his journey on a train headed east for Chicago, “where the Cubs are.” Also on the train: the siren, Harriet Bird, whose “nyloned legs made Roy’s pulses dance;” the Whammer, the great home run hitter of the American League, “a holdout for $75,000… coming out East to squeeze it out of his boss;” and Max Mercy, a sportswriter,  “a nervous man with voracious eyes” whose job it will be to eventually expose Hobbs and his fractured past. Max and the Whammer are “as thick as thieves.”

Like the hero’s quest, Malamud’s novel takes the game into a strange new realm, spinning history into fantasy, legend into mythology. Consider:

It’s a warm June night in ’49, and Ruth Ann Steinhagen leaves a note for Eddie Waitkus with a bellhop at the fashionable Edgewater Beach Hotel, where the Phillies are staying while in Chicago. “It’s extremely important that I see you as soon as possible,” the note reads.

When Waitkus knocks on her door after midnight, Steinhagen –young, tall, and attractive, her long curling black hair held in perfect place by a flashy pair of studded combs– invites the ballplayer in, and says, “I have a surprise for you.” She then points a .22 rifle at his face.

A machine gunner in four Pacific landings during World War II, Waitkus has faced death many times. And now, a teenage girl in a white lace blouse owns his fate in a Chicago hotel room. “What goes on here?” a shocked Waitkus says. “Is this some kind of a joke?”

“You have been bothering me for two years, and now you’re going to die,” Steinhagen says as she pulls the trigger.

In The Natural, Harriet Bird lures Roy Hobbs into her hotel room. The sight of the endless lake sends “a shiver down his spine. Harriet, naked under the gossamer thing she wore”…holds “a squat, shinning pistol.”

“What’s wrong here,” Hobbs cries out.

“Roy, will you be the best there ever was?”

“That’s right,” he says, and Harriet Bird pulls the trigger, and the bullet cuts “a silver line across the water.” Hobbs tries with his bare hands to catch it, but… “to his horror,” the bullet bounces “into his gut.”

That’s what Malamud gives us in “PRE-GAME,” the opening of his book. It’s an eerie, ethereal recreation of one of baseball’s most infamous episodes. So much for our heroes entering strange new realms. Fifteen years later, the story continues in “BATTER-UP!” when a much older Hobbs seeks to resume his baseball life with the pitiful New York Knights, in a classic theme of re-birth, where Malamud’s allegory is sweeping and magical. Consider:

  • Roy Hobbs, now a thirty-four rookie, arrives at the Knights’ field where the “grass is worn scabby in the outfield and the infield is cracking because of a lack of rain.” Warm, rusty water trickles from the dugout fountain. The Knight’s worn-down manager, Pop Fisher bemoans his baseball luck, telling his bench coach, “I shoulda been a farmer.” Pop is skeptical of Hobbs because of his age and lack of baseball credentials. But Hobbs soon brings new life to Pop, the Knights and the arid baseball field with his magical power. Swinging “Wonderboy” (Hobbs’ Excalibur),  a striking white bat made from a lightning-stricken tree, Hobbs becomes the talk of baseball because of his prodigious homes runs. Pop orders him to “hit the cover off the ball,” and he does. The rains follow and the Knights’ field turns a sparkling green. The mysterious Roy Hobbs will eventually win a pennant for Pop and the Knights.
  • While most sportswriters accolade him “Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player,” Max Mercy chronicles Hobbs’ heroics but is relentless in pursuing his mysterious past “rather than his accomplishments. What’s he hiding from me?”
  • A modern-day Merlin, Gus Sands, the manipulative bookie who always wins, fascinates Hobbs with his magic. And it’s Hobbs’ quest for fame and wealth and greatness that is his tragic flaw. Hobbs becomes a broken man, never attaining his Holy Grail: At the end, a woman says, “He coulda been a king”…and, straight from the Black Sox saga, a young boy pleads to Hobbs, “Say it ain’t true, Roy?”

Early in the career of Eddie Waitkus, when he was nineteen, Fred Barry, a sports writer in Boston –Waitkus’ hometown–  unwittingly penned his destiny, calling the slick fielding first baseman, a “natural.” Like Hobbs, Waitkus –and Steinhagen– experienced re-birth. Her hospitalization successfully completed, Steinhagen has quietly re-entered society. And in 1950, Waitkus’ hero’s role was venerated when the Phillies won the National League pennant.

Like Hobbs, they survived the 1949 shooting incident. Let’s hope they will also be able to outlive it.

Copyright © 2011. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.

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