In this ribald, richly imagined, and wickedly satiric novel, Roth turns baseball's status as national pastime and myth into an occasion for unfettered picaresque farce, replete with heroism and perfidy, ebullient wordplay and a cast of characters that includes the House Un-American Activities Committee.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:March 19, 1933
Place of Birth:Newark, New Jersey
Education:B.A. in English, Bucknell University, 1954; M.A. in English, University of Chicago, 1955
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HOME SWEET HOME
Containing as much of the history of the Patriot League as is necessary to acquaint the reader with its precarious condition at the beginning of the Second World War. The character of General Oakhart — soldier, patriot, and President of the League. His great love for the rides of the game. His ambitions. By way of a contrast, the character of Gil Gamesh, the most sensational rookie pitcher of all time. His attitude toward authority and mankind in general. The wisdom and suffering of Mike "the Mouth" Masterson, the umpire who is caught in between. The expulsion from baseball of the lawbreaker Gamesh. In which Mike the Mouth becomes baseball's Lear and the nation's Fool. A brief history of the Ruppert Mundys, in which the decline from greatness is traced, including short sketches of their heroic center-fielder Luke Gofannon, and the esteemed manager and Christian gentleman Ulysses S. Fairsmith. The chapter is concluded with a dialogue between General Oakhart and Mister Fairsmith, containing a few surprises and disappointments for the General.
Why the Ruppert Mundys had been chosen to become the homeless team of baseball was explained to the Port Ruppert fans with that inspirational phrase of yesteryear, "to help save the world for democracy." Because of the proximity of beautiful Mundy Park to the Port Ruppert harbor and dock facilities, the War Department had labeled it an ideal embarkation camp and the government had arranged to lease the site from the owners for the duration of the struggle. A city of two-story barracks was to be constructed on the playing field to house the soldiers in transit, and the ivy-covered brick structure that in the Mundy heyday used to hold a happy Sunday crowd of thirty-five thousand was to furnish headquarters facilities for those who would be shipping a million American boys and their weapons across the Atlantic to liberate Europe from the tyrant Hitler. In the years to come (the local fans were told), schoolchildren in France, in Belgium, in Holland, in far-off Denmark and Norway would be asked in their history classes to find the city of Port Ruppert, New Jersey, on the map of the world and to mark it with a star; and among English-speaking peoples, Port Ruppert would be honored forever after — along with Runnymede in England, where the Magna Charta had been signed by King John, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where John Hancock had affixed his signature to the Declaration of Independence — as a Birth-Place of Freedom ... Then there was the psychological lift that Mundy Park would afford the young draftees departing the ballfield for the battlefront. To spend their last weeks on American soil as "the home team" in the stadium made famous by the incomparable Mundys of '28, '29, and '30, could not but provide "a shot in the arm" to the morale of these American soldiers, most of whom had been hero-worshipping schoolkids back when the Mundys, powered by the immortal Luke Gofannon, had won three hundred and thirty-five games in three seasons, and three consecutive World Series without losing a single game. Yes, what the hallowed playing fields of Eton had been to the British officers of long, long ago, Mundy Park would be to G.I. Joe of World War Two.
As it turned out, bracing sentiments such as these, passionately pronounced from a flag-draped platform in downtown Port Ruppert by notables ranging from Secretary of War Stimson and Governor Edison to the Mayor of Port Ruppert, Boss Stuvwxyz, did work to quash the outcry that the Mundy management and the U.S. government had feared from a citizenry renowned for its devotion to "the Rupe-its" (as the team was called in the local patois). Why, feeling for the Mundys ran so high in that town, that according to Bob Hope, one young fellow called up by the Port Ruppert draft board had written "the Mundys" where the questionnaire had asked his religion; as the comedian told the servicemen at the hundreds of Army bases he toured that year, there was another fellow back there, who when asked his occupation by the recruiting sergeant, replied with a straight face, "A Rupe-it roota and a plumma." The soldiers roared — as audiences would if a comic said no more than, "There was this baseball fan in Port Ruppert —" but Hope had only to add, "Seriously now, the whole nation is really indebted to those people out there —" for the soldiers and sailors to be up on their feet, whistling through their teeth in tribute to the East Coast metropolis whose fans and public officials had bid farewell to their beloved ball club in order to make the world safe for democracy.
As if the Mundys' fans had anything to say about it, one way or another! As if Boss Stuvwxyz would object to consigning the ball club to Hell, so long as his pockets had been lined with gold!
* * *
The rationale offered "Rupe-it rootas" by the press and the powers-that-be did not begin to answer General Oakhart's objections to the fate that had befallen the Mundys. What infuriated the General wasn't simply that a decision of such magnitude had been reached behind his back — as though he whose division had broken through the Hindenburg Line in the fall of 1918 was in actuality an agent of the Huns! — but that by this extraordinary maneuver, severe damage had been inflicted upon the reputation of the league of which he was president. As it was, having been sullied by scandal in the early thirties and plagued ever since by falling attendance, the Patriot League could no longer safely rely upon its prestigious past in the competition for the better ball players, managers, and umpires. This new inroad into league morale and cohesiveness would only serve to encourage the schemers in the two rival leagues whose fondest wish was to drive the eight Patriot League teams into bankruptcy (or the minors — either would do), and thus leave the American and National the only authorized "big" leagues in the country. The troops laughed uproariously when Bob Hope referred to the P. League — now with seven home teams, instead of eight — as "the short circuit," but General Oakhart found the epithet more ominous than amusing.
Even more ominous was this: by sanctioning an arrangement wherein twenty-three major league teams played at least half of their games at home, while the Mundys alone played all one hundred and fifty-four games on the road, Organized Baseball had compromised the very principles of Fair Play in which the sport was grounded; they had consented to tamper with what was dearer even to General Oakhart than the survival of his league: the Rules and the Regulations.
Now every Massachusetts schoolchild who had ever gone off with his class to visit the General's office at P. League headquarters in Tri-City knew about General Oakhart and his Rules and Regulations. During the school year, busloads of little children were regularly ushered through the hallways painted with murals twelve and fifteen feet high of the great Patriot League heroes of the past — Base Baal, Luke Gofannon, Mike Mazda, Smoky Woden — and into General Oakhart's paneled office to hear him deliver his lecture on the national pastime. In order to bring home to the youngsters the central importance of the Rules and Regulations, he would draw their attention to the model of a baseball diamond on his desk, explaining to them that if the distance between the bases were to be shortened by as little as one inch, you might just as well change the name of the game, for by so doing you would have altered fundamentally the existing relationship between the diamond "as we have always known it" and the physical effort and skill required to play the game upon a field of those dimensions. Into their solemn and awed little faces he would thrust his heavily decorated chest (for he dressed in a soldier's uniform till the day he died) and he would say: "Now I am not telling you that somebody won't come along tomorrow and try to change that distance on us. The streets are full of people with harebrained schemes, out to make a dollar, out to make confusion, out to make the world over because it doesn't happen to suit their taste. I am only telling you that ninety feet is how far from one another the bases have been for a hundred years now, and as far as I am concerned, how far from one another they shall remain until the end of time. I happen to think that the great man whose picture you see hanging above my desk knew what he was doing when he invented the game of baseball. I happen to think that when it came to the geometry of the diamond, he was a genius on a par with Copernicus and Sir Isaac Newton, who I am sure you have read about in your schoolbooks. I happen to think that ninety feet was precisely the length necessary to make this game the hard, exciting, and suspenseful struggle that it is. And that is why I would impress upon your young minds a belief in following to the letter, the Rules and the Regulations, as they have been laid down by thoughtful and serious men before you or I were ever born, and as they have survived in baseball for a hundred years now, and in human life since the dawn of civilization. Boys and girls, take away the Rules and the Regulations, and you don't have civilized life as we know and revere it. If I have any advice for you today, it's this — don't try to shorten the base paths in order to reach home plate faster and score. All you will have accomplished by that technique is to cheapen the value of a run. I hope you will ponder that on the bus ride back to school. Now, go on out and stroll around the corridors all you want. Those great paintings are there for your enjoyment. Good day, and good luck to you."
* * *
General Oakhart became President of the Patriot League in 1933, though as early as the winter of 1919–1920, he was being plugged for the commissionership of baseball, along with his friend and colleague General John "Blackjack" Pershing and the former President of the United States William Howard Taft. At that time it had seemed to him an excellent stepping-stone to high political office, and he had been surprised and saddened when the owners had selected a popinjay like Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis over a man of principle like himself. In his estimation Landis was nothing more than a showboat judge — as could be proved by the fact that every time he made one of his "historic decisions," it was subsequently reversed by a higher court. In 1907 as a federal judge he fined the Standard Oil Company twenty-nine million dollars in a rebate case — headlines all over the place — then, overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court. During the war, the same hollow theatrics: seven socialists up before him for impeding the war effort; scathing denunciations from Judge Landis, hefty jail sentences all around, including one to a Red congressman from Milwaukee, big headlines — and then the verdict thrown out the window by a higher court. That was the man they had chosen over him — the same man who now told General Oakhart that it was "an honor" for the Mundys to have been chosen to make this sacrifice for their country, that actually it would be good for the game for a major league team to be seen giving their all to the war effort day in and day out. Oh, and did he get on his high horse when the General suggested that the Commissioner might go to Washington to ask President Roosevelt to intervene in the Mundys' behalf. "In this office, General, the Patriot League is just another league, and the Ruppert Mundys are just another ball club, and if either one of them expects preferential treatment from Kenesaw Mountain Landis they have another guess coming. Baseball does not intend to ask for special favors in a time of national crisis. And that's that!"
Back in the summer of 1920, having already lost out to Landis for the commissioner's job, General Oakhart suffered a second stunning setback when the movement to make him Harding's running- mate died in the smoke-filled rooms. No one (went the argument against him) wanted to be reminded of all the boys buried under crosses in France to whom General Oakhart had been "Father, Brother, and Buddy too." Nor — he thought bitterly, when the Teapot Dome scandal broke in '23, when one after another of Harding's cronies was indicted, convicted, and jailed for the most vile sort of political corruption — nor did they want a man of integrity around, either. When Harding died (of shame and humiliation, one would hope) and Coolidge took the oath of office — Coolidge, that hack they had chosen instead of him! — the General came near to weeping for the nation's loss of himself. But, alas, the American people didn't seem to care any more than the politicians did for a man who lived by and for the Rules and Regulations.
Sure enough, when the call went out for General Oakhart, the country was suffering just such panic and despair as he had predicted years ago, if the ship of state were to be steered for long by unprincipled leaders. It was not, however, to the White House or even the State House that the General was summoned, but to Tri-City, Mass., to be President of a baseball league in trouble. With five of its eight teams in hock to the bank, and fear growing among the owners that the Depression had made their players susceptible to the gambling mob, the P. League proprietors had paid a visit to General Oakhart in his quarters at the War College, where he was director of Military Studies, and pleaded with him not to sit sulking in an ivory tower. It was Spenser Trust, the billionaire Tycoon owner, and nobody's fool, who spoke the words that appeared to win the General's heart: he reminded him that it was not just their floundering league that was casting about for a strong man to lead them back to greatness, but the nation as well. An outstanding Republican who rose to national prominence in '33 might well find himself elected the thirty-third President of the United States in '36.
Now as luck would have it — or so it seemed to the General at the outset — the very year he agreed to retire from the military to become President of the P. League, the nineteen-year-old Gil Gamesh came up to pitch for the Tycoons' crosstown rival, the Tri-City Greenbacks. Gamesh, throwing six consecutive shutouts in his first six starts, was an immediate sensation, and with his "I can beat anybody" motto, captured the country's heart as no player had since the Babe began swatting them out of the ballpark in 1920. Only the previous year, in the middle of the most dismal summer of his life, the great Luke Gofannon had called it quits and retired to his farm in the Jersey flats, so that it had looked at the opening of the '33 season as though the Patriot League would be without an Olympian of the Ruth-Cobb variety. Then, from nowhere — or, to be exact, from Babylonia, by way of his mother and father — came the youngster the General aptly labeled "the Talk of the World," and nothing Hubbell did over in the National League or Lefty Grove in the American was remotely comparable. The tall, slim, dark-haired left-hander was just what the doctor had ordered for a nation bewildered and frightened by a ruinous Depression — here was a kid who just would not lose, and he made no bones about it either. Nothing shy, nothing sweet, nothing humble about this young fellow. He could be ten runs on top in the bottom of the ninth, two men out, the bases empty, a count of 0 and 2 on the opposing team's weakest hitter, and if the umpire gave him a bad call he would be down off that mound breathing fire. "You blind robber — it's a strike!" However, if and when the batter should dare to put up a beef on a call, Gamesh would laugh like mad and call out to the ump, "Come on now, you can't tell anything by him — he never even seen it. He'd be the last guy in the world to know."
And the fans just ate it up: nineteen years old and he had the courage and confidence of a Walter Johnson, and the competitive spirit of the Georgia Peach himself. The stronger the batter the better Gil liked it. Rubbing the ball around in those enormous paws that hung down practically to his knees, he would glare defiantly at the man striding up to the plate (some of them stars when he was still in the cradle) and announce out loud his own personal opinion of the fellow's abilities. "You couldn't lick a stamp. You couldn't beat a drum. Get your belly button in there, bud, you're what I call duck soup." Then, sneering away, he would lean way back, kick that right leg up sky-high like a chorus girl, and that long left arm would start coming around by way of Biloxi — and next thing you knew it was strike one. He would burn them in just as beautiful and nonchalant as that, three in a row, and then exactly like a barber, call out, "Next!" He did not waste a pitch, unless it was to throw a ball at a batter's head, and he did not consider that a waste. He knew a hundred ways to humiliate the opposition, such as late in the game deliberately walking the other pitcher, then setting the ball down on the ground to wave him from first on to second. "Go on, go on, you ain't gonna get there no other way, that's for sure." With the surprised base runner safely ensconced at second, Gil would kick the ball up into his glove with the instep of his shoe — "Okay, just stand there on the bag, bud," he would tell the opposing pitcher, "and watch these fellas try and hit me. You might learn somethin', though I doubt it."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Great American Novel"
Copyright © 1973 Philip Roth.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
1. Home Sweet Home,
2. The Visitors' Line-Up,
3. In the Wilderness,
4. Every Inch a Man,
5. The Temptation of Roland Agni,
6. The Temptation of Roland Agni (continued),
7. The Return of Gil Gamesh; or, Mission from Moscow,
Books By Philip Roth,