Since the dawn of the game itself, Baseball and Art have been inextricably linked. Nowhere is this more so than in literature, which often propagates the national pastime as folklore and myth. One of these great neo-“myths” is The Natural, a 1952 baseball novel written by Bernard Malamud. The Natural is the story of Roy Hobbs, a baseball prodigy whose career is sidetracked by a lover’s gun. The story then picks up with an older Hobbs attempting to return to the game. Like every mythic demigod, he of course plays for New York. He is a “Knight” who is ultimately too flawed to be given a happy ending. Take away the gunshot and you have the cautionary tale of Roger Clemens. Kind of appropriate this week, huh?
With the fall of a real-life “natural” back in the news, I was inspired to revisit this well-known baseball epic. I’m not sure if you were aware, but there are a couple of actual true-life origin stories to The Natural. The most common is the bizarre shooting and subsequent comeback of the Philadelphia Phillies’ Eddie Waitkus. It has also been suggested that the shooting aspect of the piece might have been inspired by Chicago Cubs shortstop, Billy Jurges. A showgirl to whom he was romantically linked shot him.
The epic feel of the novel is enhanced by Malamud’s references to several mythological sources, the most obviously being the story of “The Fisher King.” Pop Fisher is the manager of the fictional New York Knights. Roy Hobbs is the great Knight, meant to grant the pennant (i.e. the Holy Grail) to Pop Fisher. Ultimately Hobbs fails. His loved ones are disappointed. Hobbs is abandoned and Fisher essentially fades away.
Roy is supposedly Perceval of “The Fisher King.” Like Perceval, he is uncultured, unintelligent and ultimately fails. Confused?
If you’ve only seen the movie, you probably don’t realize that Hollywood rewrote the ending. Hobbs is not supposed to hit the home run to win the game. He doesn’t complete his heroic journey. There are no exploding stadium lights and there is definitely no Barbara Walters soft focus.
Roy Hobbs was written to have tragic flaws. He has a weakness for women and immense hubris. Wonderboy is destroyed and he fails at his final at bat. While the film shows Hobbs victorious, the novel shows a Hobbs who is crushed and forced to live as a forgotten man. You actually root to see Hobbs fail.
Although the ending is satisfying, the book ultimately falls short. “The Fisher King” references are blatant to be sure but they are not followed through. We are to assume that Pop Fisher disappears.
The women who theoretically play important roles in this piece are easily some of the worst written women in recent literary history. They are whores, children or the blameless Madonna. Boring! These are some of the most one-dimensional stereotypes in history. I understand that Malamud is not a feminist writer, but why write these characters if you aren’t going to use them to their fullest?
The Natural doesn’t even do a good job in mythologizing the sport. Baseball is not a character. It is a backdrop for a childish “Peter Pan” fantasy. I see no respect or love for game in this work. It’s kind of like Roger Clemens, if you think about it. If watching the Clemens jury selection has you down and you are looking for examples of why the game outlives jokers like Clemens or the fictional Roy Hobbs, skip The Natural. Check out Ernest Thayer’s poem “Casey at the Bat.”