“But baseball was different. Schwartz thought of it as Homeric – not a scrum but a series of isolated contests. Batter versus pitcher, fielder versus ball. You couldn’t storm around, snorting and slapping people, the way Schwartz did while playing football.You stood and waited and tried to still your mind. When your moment came, you had to be ready, because if you fucked up, everyone would know whose fault it was. What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see?”
– Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding
In my first ever column for this site I stated my belief that the wealth of books written about baseball exceeds that of any other sport, and I stand by that statement. What I didn’t state was that this cornucopia of books includes fiction as well as non-fiction, or how important fiction is in the canon of baseball books – again, more so than any other sport’s books in the highly subjective opinion of this non-football fan (who, incidentally, has finally taken the plunge and paid for a full MLB.tv subscription as an alternative to having to try to engage with the World Cup). As well as countless depictions in film, on TV and in popular music, depictions of fictional baseball teams abound, and one depiction in particular was a very important step along the way to my becoming a passionate baseball fan.
I was already nursing an interest in baseball when the release of Chad Harbach’s debut novel The Art of Fielding’s coincided with my first year working in publishing and having to professionally follow literary trends. It was a critically acclaimed book, a lot more so in American literary circles than in British, but it still made a splash over here and was still picked up by a UK publisher, which is rare for any book featuring baseball at all. As a fan of American Literature in general and an admirer of Great American Novels, but having never read a novel that featured baseball heavily, I was excited to read it, and went in to it expecting a treat. And a treat was exactly what I got.
Whilst there are issues with The Art of Fielding – its slightly bloated length, its female characters arguably lacking the depth of the male ones, the increasingly incongruous acts of its protagonists and its goddamn ending* – it’s a wonderful book overall, and is a joy to read and to re-read. On the surface, it’s a slightly formulaic campus novel about self-discovery, but it shines in the weaving of baseball throughout the narrative, with baseball being the common thread between a number of disparate characters, whose perspectives all take over the narration at some point. Mainly, however, it’s the story of humble superstar Henry Skrimshander, who comes from a small town in South Dakota to the fictional Westish College to play college ball and dreams of one day being drafted to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Skrimshander is a shortstop with flawless defensive power rather than the obvious power of hitting home runs, though he can hit. Almost no time is dedicated to describing his hitting, though. Instead, Harbach expends his literary and poetic energy on describing fielding – the grace of Henry fielding grounders and firing them to first, his coolness and ease on the field. I must admit that until I read this book, I was only really interested in hitting, thinking of fielding as a necessary evil rather than an enjoyable chase and a poetic pursuit of glory through shutouts and putouts. Harbach’s prose changed my mind, and when I later came to play baseball and softball myself, I carried Harbach’s overly romantic notions of the shortstop onto the field with me, ensuring that I would never play there unless I was worthy of it. I still have never played shortstop to this day.
As well as Skrimshander, who takes an emotional journey through the highs and lows of being a college athlete, there are many other compelling characters whose lives intersect with deft plot strokes. Chief among them is Skrimshander’s fellow student Mike Schwartz, who convinces the college to offer Henry a scholarship after seeing him at a high school game. A catcher, ‘Schwartzy’ is depicted as gruff, obsessive and macho, but also highly vulnerable, and just as lost as everyone else on the infield of life. It’s his story as much as Henry’s, and I became unreasonably attached to him and his highs and lows.
If you’ve read a lot of baseball fiction, hopefully the intimate details and the elegance of Harbach’s prose and plot will give you something new. If you’ve not read any baseball fiction, it would be a pretty good start. And on the off chance you’re quite new to baseball, it’s a great read that will open the game up to you. It did for me, anyway.
The film adaptation has supposedly been in development for a couple of years, but recent updates are had to find. My hope for the film is that it makes a splash in UK film just as it did in UK book publishing, and converts unwitting Brits to the magic of baseball and the poetry of the shortstop, possible on a much grander and more popular scale with film. If it goes wrong, I’ll always be able to say that I preferred the book, as will the readers of this column, I’m sure. After all, we’re fans of a game that takes over three hours on average, and which is punctuated by individual struggles and pockets of unique turmoil buried in a slow and gentle pace, a game in which you have to read between the lines and onto which the imagination projects all manner of epic literary struggle. That’s more literary than it is cinematic.
That’s not to say I’m not a huge lover of baseball movies, though. I’m reasonably sure that, when the film of The Art of Fielding does hit the box office, it’ll be a new touchstone for baseball fans around the world and will turn people on to the book as well as on to the greatest game on this strange and terrible planet. And that will be a beautiful thing.
In the UK The Art of Fielding is published by 4th Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins. It’s probably easiest to buy it from Amazon, but why not be a hero and buy it from your local independent bookshop instead? It’s what Schwartzy would do.
*No spoilers here, but DM me on Twitter if you want to discuss the ending. I have thoughts.