After reading my last post, John Podhoretz wrote privately to insist that the two best baseball books are Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al and The Kid from Tomkinsville. He’s got an argument for John R. Tunis’s novel, even though it is a boy’s book. Joseph Epstein has made the best case possible for Tunis in a lovely essay for COMMENTARY nearly a quarter century ago. The book was also the subject of a superb passage of literary criticism, one of the best pieces of criticism ever written, in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. After summarizing the book’s plot (and demonstrating that plot summary can itself be high art), Nathan Zuckerman explains that he read Tunis’s book at ten and “had never read anything like it.” Many years older, he says it could as well have been called The Lamb from Tomkinsville, even The Lamb from Tomkinsville Led to the Slaughter. He settles upon calling it “the boys’ Book of Job.”
Tunis’s moral concerns may not appeal to sophisticated 21st-century readers, although I am reading aloud Highpockets, a later Tunis about a cocky outfielder who accidentally strikes a child with the car he was awarded for winning Rookie of the Year, and my eight-year-old twins are eating it up.
About Lardner’s novel I am less sure. His son John Lardner, a marvelous writer in his own right, claimed that he had never read another piece of baseball fiction, besides his father’s, “in which there was no technical mistake.” Maybe so, but there is not a lot of technical knowledge on display either. Jack Keefe is a rookie pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. He tells of one time that he faced the great Ty Cobb:
Cobb came pranceing up like he always does and yells Give me that slow one Boy. So I says All right. But I fooled him. Instead of giveing him a slow one like I said I was going I handed him a spitter. He hit it all right but it was a line drive right in [Hal] Chase’s hands. He says Pretty lucky Boy but I will get you next time. I says Yes you will.
Lardner was more interested in baseball language, I think, than in the technical aspects of the game. He knew the technical aspects, though, and their shadowy presence beneath the plot, like the proverbial three-fourths of an iceberg below the surface, give the novel its unquestionable substance. The lack of baseball knowledge is what makes The Natural such a terrible baseball book.
Despite John’s prodding, I’ll stick with Mark Harris’s Southpaw as the best baseball novel of all time, although maybe it would be better to call it one of the five best.