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Ron Fimrite
October 15, 1990
Mark Harris's novels sparkle with hard-edged realism
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October 15, 1990

Fiction In A Diamond Setting

Mark Harris's novels sparkle with hard-edged realism

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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.

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