The Natural: World Ceres

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Author: R. Wasserman
Date: 1998
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,281 words

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The Doges of Venice dropped a ring into the Adriatic to renew annually its marriage to their city and to assure that the sea be propitious. The British monarch ceremonially opens the annual session of Parliament that it may undertake its care of the kingdom. In the United States the President annually sanctifies baseball by throwing the first ball of the season into the field; and, having received its presidential commission, baseball proceeds to its yearly task of working the welfare of the national spirit. The wonder is that we do not have a whole library of significant baseball fiction since so much of the American spirit has been seriously poured into the game and its codes until it has a life of its own that affects the national temperament. Just as a personal indiscretion can topple an English government, the White Sox scandal strained the collective American conscience, and Babe Ruth's bellyache was a crisis that depressed the national spirit nearly as much as the bombing of Pearl Harbor infuriated it. Like any national engagement, baseball, especially in that form that Ring Lardner called the "World Serious," has had not only its heroic victories and tragedies but also its eccentricities that express aspects of the American character and have become part of our folklore: Vance, Fewster, and Herman, all piled up on third base; Hilda (the Bell) Chester, the Dodger fan; Rabbit Maranville's penchant for crawling on window ledges, especially in the rain; Wilbert Robinson's attempt to catch a grapefruit dropped from a plane; Chuck Hostetler's historic fall between third and home when he could have won the sixth game of the '45 Series.

These are not merely like the materials of Malamud's The Natural; the items mentioned are among its actual stuff. For what Malamud has written is a novel that coherently organizes the rites of baseball and many of its memorable historic episodes into the epic inherent in baseball as a measure of man, as it once was inherent in Homeric battles or chivalric tournaments or the Arthurian quest for the Grail. Coming, like Babe Ruth, from an orphanage, Roy Hobbs, unknown pitcher of nineteen on his way to a try-out with the Cubs, strikes out the aging winner of the Most Valuable Player award and then, like Eddie Waitkus in 1949, is shot without apparent motive by a mad girl in her Chicago hotel room. The try-out never takes place, and the years that follow are degrading failures at everything. But at thirty-four, having switched—as Ruth did—from pitcher to fielder and prodigious batter, Roy joins a New York team and, with his miraculous bat, lifts it from the cellar into contention for the league championship. Like Ruth, too, his homerun cheers a sick boy into recovery, and a monumental bellyache sends him to a hospital, as it did Ruth in 1925, and endangers the battle for the pennant. Like the White Sox of 1919, Roy and another player sell out to Gus, an Arnold Rothstein gambler,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2168200024