Baseball started to become a popular pastime during the American Civil War when it was played in Confederate prisons and in the Union Army. The grassroots beginnings of the sport in the United States today can be traced back to New York City in the 19th Century, when Alexander Cartwright started the Knickerbocker Baseball Club in 1845, which would later go on to be known as the New York Yankees. The first official baseball game was played on October 6th 1845, by 14 members of the club, where Cartwright set down twenty rules of baseball on a piece of paper, and the Knickerbockers became the first organised team in American history. New York baseball players such as Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio have been mythologised and subsumed into the cultural landscape of the American psyche. The game has become an essential part of America’s cultural myth-making and has proved a subject of fascination for many New York novelists.
The Natural (1952), by Jewish-American writer Bernard Malamud, is considered one of the finest novels written about the sport. A magical realist tale which weaves the mundane and the fantastical, Malamud depicts the rise and fall of supremely gifted baseball player Roy Hibbs, the titular ‘natural’ of the novel, in post World War II America. Hibbs is drawn as an almost mythical character of herculean strength and athletic prowess, and Malamud posits baseball as an epic, ritualistic pastime that forms part of America’s mythological landscape, where the failures and successes of the sport became a metaphor of modern American experience.
Mark Harris is the author of a series of celebrated baseball books, including The Southpaw (1953), and its sequel Bang the Drum Slowly (1956) about the bittersweet exploits of Henry Wiggins, a member of the fictional New York Mammoths which was loosely based on the New York Yankees. Receiving wide acclaim on release, critics immediately compared the novel to Malamud’s baseball opus, and, like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Fin, Haggis has created one of the most well known figures in American literature. Henry’s struggles and search for identity in the book become emblematic of the everyday endeavors of ordinary Americans. Harris’ books remain an honest depiction of the sport, told with colloquial jargon, humour and warmth in Henry’s idiosyncratic narrative voice. The second novel was adapted into a 1973 film starring Robert De Niro.
Don DeLillo’s sprawling, hugely ambitious novel Underworld (1997) is one of the great American works of the 20th century and opens with the end of the pivotal baseball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants in 1951. The novel explores the disconnectedness and fractures of post-Cold War American identity by tracing the ownership of the ball pitched by Brooklyn Dodger Ralph Branca, which stands as a symbol of cultural national identity and memory, throughout the second half of the 20th century.