No reviewer ever described Hamlet as "more than a story about the Danish royal family." None ever called Huckleberry Finn "more than a trip down the Mississippi." No, such qualifications are usually reserved for fiction with a sports subject. Thus we read that The Natural is "more than a book about baseball." And that The Old Man and the Sea is "more than a short novel about fishing."
The thinking—if that's the right word—behind this foolishness is the critic's desire to assure you that neither he nor Ernest Hemingway would waste his time or yours on so frivolous a matter as people engaged in mere sport. And there is more behind it than snobbery. There's the idiotic notion that people engaged in sport do not experience fear or joy, are not driven by greed or sex or ambition, do not sacrifice themselves for a greater good, do not tilt with fate, are not devastated by tragedy or transmuted by noble achievement. So what's to write about? Baseball players chew tobacco and clutch their groins on the tube; fishermen smell of old sweat and drink warm beer. If someone writes a good book about them it must be more than just a book about baseball or fishing.... The next time you hear that line, your answer should be that you've never read The Odyssey because you're not interested in travel books.
That brings us to The Conduct of the Game by John Hough Jr. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $14.95), a novel about baseball. This is not the best sports novel since The Three Musketeers (which is, indeed, more than a book about fencing), but it deserves our time and attention. Hough, the author of two previous novels (A Two-Car Funeral and The Guardian), has composed a tale of contemporary themes and immediate concerns while tackling some perennial problems of human behavior. You may occasionally hear the clank of mechanical plotting or be jolted by some ungraceful writing, but you are still going to be pulled along by a good story honestly told.
Hough's protagonist, Lee Malcolm, is a better-than-average young athlete living on Cape Cod who would surely have been forced to abandon any notions of a career in professional sports except for a happy accident, hardly farfetched. When the officials assigned to a junior varsity high school game fail to show up, he is asked to go behind the plate and call balls and strikes.
In that very first game, Malcolm discovers in himself, and reveals to an influential observer, a remarkable aptitude for umpiring. In an early test of his authority, he settles a first-inning squabble skillfully and, as he gets ready for the next pitch, he thinks: "It was my game then. Mine to ruin or to make right—the difference between noise and music, between a free-for-all and the pretty game of baseball. I never understood, till that moment, what good umpiring means to the game. Baseball can be thrilling, and it can be beautiful—but only if the umpiring is good." He decides not to play ball in college, goes to umpiring school in Florida instead, spends the minimum time in the minors and makes the major leagues in his mid-20s.
Almost immediately, he is hit by a series of crises, professional and personal, that includes a rarely invoked but correct call that touches off a running feud with a black superstar; severe personality conflicts with two members of his four-man umpiring crew; helpless oscillation between the two women in his life; and, most important, his accidental discovery of another umpire's homosexuality, which sets up the book's overriding problem of Malcolm's own conduct and "the conduct of the game." Essentially, Malcolm believes he is called upon to protect another man's career by sacrificing his own.
To Hough's credit, none of these questions is handled easily or melodramatically by his young protagonist. Indeed, there are times when one wishes Malcolm were a bit brighter or more sophisticated than Hough's creation, but the author sticks to his guns right to the end. He never tampers with the character he has convincingly developed and the finish to which he leads us is eminently satisfactory, if not a bravura performance before wildly cheering fans in the seventh game of the World Series. The Conduct of the Game is a solid addition to sports literature despite the fact that the publishers are promoting the novel as "more than a book about baseball." Enough of that, please.