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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."