Introduction by Kevin Baker
The Natural, Bernard Malamud's first novel, published in 1952, is also the firstand some would say still the bestnovel ever written about baseball. In it Malamud, usually appreciated for his unerring portrayals of postwar Jewish life, took on very different materialthe story of a superbly gifted "natural" at play in the fields of the old daylight baseball eraand invested it with the hardscrabble poetry, at once grand and altogether believable, that runs through all his best work. Four decades later, Alfred Kazin's comment still holds true: "Malamud has done something whichnow that he has done it!looks as if we have been waiting for it all our lives. He has really raised the whole passion and craziness and fanaticism of baseball as a popular spectacle to its ordained place in mythology."
About the Author
Date of Birth:April 28, 1914
Date of Death:March 18, 1986
Place of Birth:Brooklyn, New York
Place of Death:New York, New York
Education:B.A., City College of New York, 1936; M.A., Columbia University, 1942
Read an Excerpt
Roy Hobbs pawed at the glass before thinking to prick a match with his thumbnail and hold the spurting flame in his cupped palm close to the lower berth window, but by then he had figured it was a tunnel they were passing through and was no longer surprised at the bright sight of himself holding a yellow light over his head, peering back in. As the train yanked its long tail out of the thundering tunnel, the kneeling reflection dissolved and he felt a splurge of freedom at the view of the moon-hazed Western hills bulked against night broken by sprays of summer lightning, although the season was early spring. Lying back, elbowed up on his long side, sleepless still despite the lulling train, he watched the land flowing and waited with suppressed expectancy for a sight of the Mississippi, a thousand miles away.
Having no timepiece he appraised the night and decided it was moving toward dawn. As he was looking, there flowed along this bone-white farmhouse with sagging skeletal porch, alone in untold miles of moonlight, and before it this white-faced, long-boned boy whipped with train-whistle yowl a glowing ball to someone hidden under a dark oak, who shot it back without thought, and the kid once more wound and returned. Roy shut his eyes to the sight because if it wasn't real it was a way he sometimes had of observing himself, just as in this dream he could never shake off--that had hours ago waked him out of sound sleep--of him standing at night in a strange field with a golden baseball in his palm that all the time grew heavier as he sweated to settle whether to hold onor fling it away. But when he had made his decision it was too heavy to lift or let fall (who wanted a hole that deep?) so he changed his mind to keep it and the thing grew fluffy light, a white rose breaking out of its hide, and all but soared off by itself, but he had already sworn to hang on forever.
As dawn tilted the night, a gust of windblown rain blinded him--no, there was a window--but the sliding drops made him thirsty and from thirst sprang hunger. He reached into the hammock for his underwear to be first at breakfast in the dining car and make his blunders of ordering and eating more or less in private, since it was doubtful Sam would be up to tell him what to do. Roy peeled his gray sweatshirt and bunched down the white ducks he was wearing for pajamas in case there was a wreck and he didn't have time to dress. He acrobated into a shirt, pulled up the pants of his good suit, arching to draw them high, but he had crammed both feet into one leg and was trapped so tight wriggling got him nowhere. He worried because here he was straitjacketed in the berth without much room to twist around in and might bust his pants or have to buzz the porter, which he dreaded. Grunting, he contorted himself this way and that till he was at last able to grab and pull down the cuff and with a gasp loosened his feet and got the caught one where it belonged. Sitting up, he gartered his socks, tied laces, got on a necktie and even squirmed into a suit coat so that when he parted the curtains to step out he was fully dressed.
Dropping to all fours, he peered under the berth for his bassoon case. Though it was there he thought he had better open it and did but quickly snapped it shut as Eddie, the porter, came walking by.
"Morning, maestro, what's the tune today?"
"It ain't a musical instrument." Roy explained it was something he had made himself.
"Animal, vegetable, or mineral?"
"Just a practical thing."
"A pogo stick?"
"Lemme guess," Eddie said, covering his eyes with his long-fingered hand and pawing the air with the other. "I have it-combination fishing rod, gun, and shovel."
Roy laughed. "How far to Chicago, Eddie?"
"Chi? Oh, a long, long ways. I wouldn't walk."
"I don't intend to."
"Why Chi?" Eddie asked. "Why not New Orleans? That's a lush and Frenchy city."
"Never been there."
"Or that hot and hilly town, San Francisco?"
Roy shook his head.
"Why not New York, colossus of colossuses?"
"Some day I'll visit there."
"Where have you visited?"
Roy was embarrassed. "Boise."
"That dusty sandstone quarry."
"Portland too when I was small."
"No, Oregon--where they hold the Festival of Roses."
"Oregon--where the refugees from Minnesota and the Dakotas go?"
"I wouldn't know," Roy said. "I'm going to Chicago, where the Cubs are."
"Lions and tigers in the zoo?"
"No, the ballplayers."
"Oh, the ball--" Eddie clapped a hand to his mouth. "Are you one of them?"
"I hope to be."
The porter bowed low. "My hero. Let me kiss your hand."
Roy couldn't help but smile yet the porter annoyed and worried him a little. He had forgotten to ask Sam when totip him, morning or night, and how much? Roy had made it a point, since their funds were so low, not to ask for anything at all but last night Eddie had insisted on fixing a pillow behind his back, and once when he was trying to locate the men's room Eddie practically took him by the hand and led him to it. Did you hand him a dime after that or grunt a foolish thanks as he had done? He'd personally be glad when the trip was over, though he certainly hated to be left alone in a place like Chicago. Without Sam he'd feel shaky-kneed and unable to say or do simple things like ask for directions or know where to go once you had dropped a nickel into the subway.
After a troublesome shave in which he twice drew blood he used one thin towel to dry his hands, face, and neck, clean his razor and wipe up the wet of his toothbrush so as not to have to ask for another and this way keep the bill down. From the flaring sky out the window it looked around half-past five, but he couldn't be sure because somewhere near they left Mountain Time and lost--no, picked up--yes, it was lost an hour, what Sam called the twenty-three hour day. He packed his razor, toothbrush, and pocket comb into a chamois drawstring bag, rolled it up small and kept it handy in his coat pocket. Passing through the long sleeper, he entered the diner and would gladly have sat down to breakfast, for his stomach had contracted into a bean at the smell of food, but the shirt-sleeved waiters in stocking caps were joshing around as they gobbled fried kippers and potatoes. Roy hurried through the large-windowed club car, empty for once, through several sleepers, coaches, a lounge and another long line of coaches, till he came to the last one, where amid the gloom of drawn shades and sleeping people tossed every which way, Sam Simpson also slept although Roy had last night begged him to take the berth but the soft-voiced Sam had insisted, "You take the bed, kiddo, you're the one that has to showwhat you have got on the ball when we pull into the city. It don't matter where I sleep."
Sam lay very still on his back, looking as if the breath of life had departed from him except that it was audible in the ripe snore that could be chased without waking him, Roy had discovered, if you hissed scat. His lean head was held up by a folded pillow and his scrawny legs, shoeless, hung limp over the arm of the double seat he had managed to acquire, for he had started out with a seat partner. He was an expert conniver where his comfort was concerned, and since that revolved mostly around the filled flat bottle his ability to raise them up was this side of amazing. He often said he would not die of thirst though he never failed to add, in Roy's presence, that he wished for nobody the drunkard's death. He seemed now to be dreaming, and his sharp nose was pointed in the direction of a scent that led perhaps to the perfumed presence of Dame Fortune, long past due in his bed. With dry lips puckered, he smiled in expectation of a spectacular kiss though he looked less like a lover than an old scarecrow with his comical, seamed face sprouting prickly stubble in the dark glow of the expiring bulb overhead. A trainman passed who, seeing Sam sniff in his sleep, pretended it was at his own reek and humorously held his nose. Roy frowned, but Sam, who had a moment before been getting in good licks against fate, saw in his sleep, and his expression changed. A tear broke from his eye and slowly slid down his cheek. Roy concluded not to wake Sam and left.
He returned to the vacant club car and sat there with a magazine on his knee, worrying whether the trip wasn't a mistake, when a puzzled Eddie came into the car and handed him a pair of red dice.
"Mate them," he said. "I can't believe my eyes."
Roy paired the dice. "They mate."
"Now roll them."
He rolled past his shoe. "Snake eyes."
"Try again," said Eddie, interested.
Roy rattled the red cubes. "Snake eyes once more."
"Amazing. Again, please."
Again he rolled on the rug. Roy whistled. "Holy cow, three in a row."
"Did they do the same for you?"
"No, for me they did sevens."
"Are they loaded?"
"Bewitched," Eddie muttered. "I found them in the washroom and I'm gonna get rid of them pronto."
"Why?--if you could win all the time?"
"I don't crave any outside assistance in games of chance."
The train had begun to slow down.
"Oh oh, duty." Eddie hurried out.
Watching through the double-paned glass, Roy saw the porter swing himself off the train and jog along with it a few paces as it pulled to a stop. The morning was high and bright but the desolate station--wherever they were--gave up a single passenger, a girl in a dressy black dress, who despite the morning chill waited with a coat over her arm, and two suitcases and a zippered golf bag at her feet. Hatless, too, her hair a froth of dark curls, she held by a loose cord a shiny black hat box which she wouldn't let Eddie touch when he gathered up her things. Her face was striking, a little drawn and pale, and when she stepped up into the train her nyloned legs made Roy's pulses dance. When he could no longer see her, he watched Eddie set down her bags, take the red dice out of his pocket, spit on them and fling them over the depot roof. He hurriedly grabbed the bags and hopped on the moving train.
The girl entered the club car and directed Eddie to carry her suitcases to her compartment and she would stay and have a cigarette. He mentioned the hat box again but she giggled nervously and said no.
"Never lost a female hat yet," Eddie muttered.
"Thank you but I'll carry it myself."
He shrugged and left.
She had dropped a flower. Roy thought it was a gardenia but it turned out to be a white rose she had worn pinned to her dress.
When he handed it to her, her eyes widened with fascination, as if she had recognized him from somewhere, but when she found she hadn't, to his horror her expression changed instantly to one of boredom. Sitting across the aisle from him she fished out of her purse a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. She lit up, and crossing her heartbreaking legs, began to flip through a copy of Life.
He figured she was his own age, maybe a year or so older. She looked to him like one of those high-class college girls, only with more zip than most of them, and dressed for 6 A.M. as the girls back home never would. He was marvelously interested in her, so much had her first glance into his eyes meant to him, and already felt a great longing in his life. Anxious to get acquainted, he was flabbergasted how to begin. If she hadn't yet eaten breakfast and he could work up the nerve, he could talk to her in the diner--only he didn't dare.
People were sitting around now and the steward came out and said first call for breakfast.
She snubbed out her cigarette with a wriggling motion of the wrist--her bracelets tinkled--picked up the hat box and went into the diner. Her crumpled white rose lay in the ashtray. He took it out and quickly stuck it in his pants pocket. Though his hunger bit sharp he waited till everyone was maybe served, and then he entered.
Although he had tried to avoid it, for fear she would see how unsure he was of these things, he was put at the same table with her and her black hat box, which now occupied a seat of its own. She glanced up furtively when he sat downbut went wordlessly back to her coffee. When the waiter handed Roy the pad, he absently printed his name and date of birth but the waiter imperceptibly nudged him (hey, hayseed) and indicated it was for ordering. He pointed on the menu with his yellow pencil (this is the buck breakfast) but the blushing ballplayer, squinting through the blur, could only think he was sitting on the lone four-bit piece he had in his back pocket. He tried to squelch the impulse but something forced him to look up at her as he attempted to pour water into his ice-filled (this'll kill the fever) glass, spilling some on the tablecloth (whose diapers you wetting, boy?), then all thumbs and butter fingers, the pitcher thumped the pitcher down, fished the fifty cents out of his pants, and after scratching out the vital statistics on the pad, plunked the coin down on the table.
"That's for you," he told the (what did I do to deserve this?) waiter, and though the silver-eyed mermaid was about to speak, he did not stay to listen but beat it fast out of the accursed car.
Tramping highways and byways, wandering everywhere bird dogging the sandlots for months without spotting so much as a fifth-rater he could telegraph about to the head scout of the Cubs, and maybe pick up a hundred bucks in the mail as a token of their appreciation, with also a word of thanks for his good bird dogging and maybe they would sometime again employ him as a scout on the regular payroll--well, after a disheartening long time in which he was not able to roust up a single specimen worthy to be called by the name of ballplayer, Sam had one day lost his way along a dusty country road and when he finally found out where he was, too weary to turn back, he crossed over to an old, dry barn and sat against the haypile in front, to drown his sorrows with a swig. On the verge of dozing he heard these shouts and opened his eyes, shielding them from the hot sun, and as helived, a game of ball was being played in a pasture by twelve blond-bearded players, six on each side, and even from where Sam sat he could tell they were terrific the way they smacked the pill--one blow banging it so far out the fielder had to run a mile before he could jump high and snag it smack in his bare hand. Sam's mouth popped open, he got up whoozy and watched, finding it hard to believe his eyes, as the teams changed sides and the first hitter that batted the ball did so for a far-reaching distance before it was caught, and the same with the second, a wicked clout, but then the third came up, the one who had made the bare-handed catch, and he really laid on and powdered the pellet a thundering crack so that even the one who ran for it, his beard parted in the wind, before long looked like a pygmy chasing it and quit running, seeing the thing was a speck on the horizon.
Sweating and shivering by turns, Sam muttered if I could ketch the whole twelve of them--and staggered out on the field to cry out the good news but when they saw him they gathered bats and balls and ran in a dozen directions, and though Sam was smart enough to hang on to the fellow who had banged the sphere out to the horizon, frantically shouting to him, "Whoa--whoa," his lungs bursting with the effort to call a giant--he wouldn't stop so Sam never caught him.
He woke with a sob in his throat but swallowed before he could sound it, for by then Roy had come to mind and he mumbled, "Got someone just as good," so that for once waking was better than dreaming.
He yawned. His mouth felt unholy dry and his underclothes were crawling. Reaching down his battered valise from the rack, he pulled out a used bath towel and cake of white soap, and to the surprise of those who saw him go out that way, went through the baggage cars to the car between them and the tender. Once inside there, he peeled to the skin and stepped into the shower stall, where he enjoyed himself forten minutes, soaping and resoaping his bony body under warm water. But then a trainman happened to come through and after sniffing around Sam's clothes yelled in to him, "Hey, bud, come outa there."
Sam stopped off the shower and poked out his head.
"I said come outa there, that's only for the train crew."
"Excuse me," Sam said, and he began quickly to rub himself dry.
"You don't have to hurry. Just wanted you to know you made a mistake."
"Thought it went with the ticket."
"Not in the coaches it don't."
Sam sat on a metal stool and laced up his high brown shoes. Pointing to the cracked mirror on the wall, he said, "Mind if I use your glass?"
He parted his sandy hair, combed behind the ears, and managed to work in a shave and brushing of his yellow teeth before he apologized again to the trainman and left.
Going up a few cars to the lounge, he ordered a cup of hot coffee and a sandwich, ate quickly, and made for the club car. It was semi-officially out of bounds for coach travelers but Sam had told the passenger agent last night that he had a nephew riding on a sleeper, and the passenger agent had mentioned to the conductor not to bother him.
When he entered the club car, after making sure Roy was elsewhere Sam headed for the bar, already in a fluid state for the train was moving through wet territory, but then he changed his mind and sat down to size up the congregation over a newspaper and spot who looked particularly amiable. The headlines caught his eye at the same time as they did this short, somewhat popeyed gent's sitting next to him, who had just been greedily questioning the husky, massive-shoulderedman on his right, who was wearing sun glasses. Popeyes nudged the big one and they all three stared at Sam's paper.
WEST COAST OLYMPIC ATHLETE SHOT FOLLOWS 24 HOURS AFTER SLAYING OF ALL-AMERICAN FOOTBALL ACE
The article went on to relate that both of these men had been shot under mysterious circumstances with silver bullets from a .22 caliber pistol by an unknown woman that police were on the hunt for.
"That makes the second sucker," the short man said.
"But why with silver bullets, Max?"
"Beats me. Maybe she set out after a ghost but couldn't find him."
The other fingered his tie knot. "Why do you suppose she goes around pickin' on atheletes for?"
"Not only athletes but also the cream of the crop. She's knocked off a crack football boy, and now an Olympic runner. Better watch out, Whammer, she may be heading for a baseball player for the third victim." Max chuckled.
Sam looked up and almost hopped out of his seat as he recognized them both.
Hiding his hesitation, he touched the short one on the arm. "Excuse me, mister, but ain't you Max Mercy, the sportswriter? I know your face from your photo in the articles you write."
But the sportswriter, who wore a comical mustache and dressed in stripes that crisscrossed three ways--suit, shirt, and tie--a nervous man with voracious eyes, also had a sharp sense of smell and despite Sam's shower and toothbrushing nosed out an alcoholic fragrance that slowed his usual speedy response in acknowledging the spread of his fame.
"That's right," he finally said.
"Well, I'm happy to have the chance to say a few words to you. You're maybe a little after my time, but I am SamSimpson--Bub Simpson, that is--who played for the St. Louis Browns in the seasons of 1919 to 1921."
Sam spoke with a grin though his insides were afry at the mention of his professional baseball career.
"Believe I've heard the name," Mercy said nervously. After a minute he nodded toward the man Sam knew all along as the leading hitter of the American League, three times winner of the Most Valuable Player award, and announced, "This is Walter (the Whammer) Wambold." It had been in the papers that he was a holdout for $75,000 and was coming East to squeeze it out of his boss.
"Howdy," Sam said. "You sure look different in street clothes."
The Whammer, whose yellow hair was slicked flat, with tie and socks to match, grunted.
Sam's ears reddened. He laughed embarrassedly and then remarked sideways to Mercy that he was traveling with a slam-bang young pitcher who'd soon be laying them low in the big leagues. "Spoke to you because I thought you might want to know about him."
"What's his name?"
"Where'd he play?"
"Well, he's not exactly been in organized baseball."
"Where'd he learn to pitch?"
"His daddy taught him years ago--he was once a semipro--and I have been polishin' him up."
"Where's he been pitching?"
"Well, like I said, he's young, but he certainly mowed them down in the Northwest High School League last year. Thought you might of heard of his eight no-hitters."
"Class D is as far down as I go," Mercy laughed. He lit one of the cigars Sam had been looking at in his breast pocket.
"I'm personally taking him to Clarence Mulligan of the Cubs for a tryout. They will probably pay me a few grand foruncovering the coming pitcher of the century but the condition is--and Roy is backing me on this because he is more devoted to me than a son--that I am to go back as a regular scout, like I was in 1925."
Roy popped his head into the car and searched around for the girl with the black hat box (Miss Harriet Bird, Eddie had gratuitously told him, making a black fluttering of wings), and seeing her seated near the card tables restlessly thumbing through a magazine, popped out.
"That's him," said Sam. "Wait'll I bring him back." He got up and chased after Roy.
"Who's the gabber?" said the Whammer.
"Guy named Simpson who once caught for the Brownies. Funny thing, last night I was doing a Sunday piece on drunks in baseball and I had occasion to look up his record. He was in the game three years, batted .340, .260, and .198, but his catching was terrific--not one error listed."
"Get rid of him, he jaws too much."
"Sh, here he comes."
Sam returned with Roy in tow, gazing uncomfortably ahead.
"Max," said Sam, "this is Roy Hobbs that I mentioned to you. Say hello to Max Mercy, the syndicated sportswriter, kiddo."
"Hello," Roy nodded.
"This is the Whammer," Max said.
Roy extended his hand but the Whammer looked through him with no expression whatsoever. Seeing he had his eye hooked on Harriet, Roy conceived a strong dislike for the guy.
The Whammer got up. "Come on, Max, I wanna play cards."
Max rose. "Well, hang onto the water wagon, Bub," he said to Sam.
Sam turned red.
Roy shot the sportswriter a dirty look.
"Keep up with the no-hitters, kid," Max laughed.
Roy didn't answer. He took the Whammer's chair and Sam sat where he was, brooding.
"What'll it be?" they heard Mercy ask as he shuffled the cards. They had joined two men at one of the card tables.
The Whammer, who looked to Sam like an overgrown side of beef wrapped in gabardine, said, "Hearts." He stared at Harriet until she looked up from her magazine, and after a moment of doubt, smiled.
The Whammer fingered his necktie knot. As he scooped up the cards his diamond ring glinted in the sunlight.
"Goddamned millionaire," Sam thought.
"The hell with her," thought Roy.
"I dealt rummy," Max said, and though no one had called him, Sam promptly looked around.
Toward late afternoon the Whammer, droning on about his deeds on the playing field, got very chummy with Harriet Bird and before long had slipped his fat fingers around the back of her chair so Roy left the club car and sat in the sleeper, looking out of the window, across the aisle from where Eddie slept sitting up. Gosh, the size of the forest. He thought they had left it for good yesterday and here it still was. As he watched, the trees flowed together and so did the hills and clouds. He felt a kind of sadness, because he had lost the feeling of a particular place. Yesterday he had come from somewhere, a place he knew was there, but today it had thinned away in space--how vast he could not have guessed --and he felt like he would never see it again.
The forest stayed with them, climbing hills like an army, shooting down like waterfalls. As the train skirted close in, the trees leveled out and he could see within the woodland the only place he had been truly intimate with in his wanderings, a green world shot through with weird light and strange bird cries, muffled in silence that made the privacy so completehis inmost self had no shame of anything he thought there, and it eased the body-shaking beat of his ambitions. Then he thought of here and now and for the thousandth time wondered why they had come so far and for what. Did Sam really know what he was doing? Sometimes Roy had his doubts. Sometimes he wanted to turn around and go back home, where he could at least predict what tomorrow would be like. Remembering the white rose in his pants pocket, he decided to get rid of it. But then the pine trees flowed away from the train and slowly swerved behind blue hills; all at once there was this beaten gold, snow-capped mountain in the distance, and on the plain several miles from its base lay a small city gleaming in the rays of the declining sun. Approaching it, the long train slowly pulled to a stop.
Eddie woke with a jump and stared out the window.
"Oh oh, trouble, we never stop here."
He looked again and called Roy.
"What do you make out of that?"
About a hundred yards ahead, where two dirt roads crossed, a moth-eaten model-T Ford was parked on the farther side of the road from town, and a fat old man wearing a broadbrimmed black hat and cowboy boots, who they could see was carrying a squat doctor's satchel, climbed down from it. To the conductor, who had impatiently swung off the train with a lit red lamp, he flourished a yellow telegram. They argued a minute, then the conductor, snapping open his watch, beckoned him along and they boarded the train. When they passed through Eddie's car the conductor's face was sizzling with irritation but the doctor was unruffled. Before disappearing through the door, the conductor called to Eddie, "Half hour."
"Half hour," Eddie yodeled and he got out the stool and set it outside the car so that anyone who wanted to stretch, could.
Only about a dozen passengers got off the train, includingHarriet Bird, still hanging on to her precious hat box, the Whammer, and Max Mercy, all as thick as thieves. Roy hunted up the bassoon case just if the train should decide to take off without him, and when he had located Sam they both got off.
"Well, I'll be jiggered." Sam pointed down about a block beyond where the locomotive had halted. There, sprawled out at the outskirts of the city, a carnival was on. It was made up of try-your-skill booths, kiddie rides, a freak show and a gigantic Ferris wheel that looked like a stopped clock. Though there was still plenty of daylight, the carnival was lit up by twisted ropes of blinking bulbs, and many banners streamed in the breeze as the calliope played.
"Come on," said Roy, and they went along with the people from the train who were going toward the tents.
Once they had got there and fooled around a while, Sam stopped to have a crushed cocoanut drink which he privately spiked with a shot from a new bottle, while Roy wandered over to a place where you could throw three baseballs for a dime at three wooden pins, shaped like pint-size milk bottles and set in pyramids of one on top of two, on small raised platforms about twenty feet back from the counter. He changed the fifty-cent piece Sam had slipped him on leaving the train, and this pretty girl in yellow, a little hefty but with a sweet face and nice ways, who with her peanut of a father was waiting on trade, handed him three balls. Lobbing one of them, Roy easily knocked off the pyramid and won himself a naked kewpie doll. Enjoying the game, he laid down another dime, again clattering the pins to the floor in a single shot and now collecting an alarm clock. With the other three dimes he won a brand-new boxed baseball, a washboard, and baby potty, which he traded in for a six-inch harmonica. A few kids came over to watch and Sam, wandering by, indulgently changed another half into dimes for Roy. And Roy won a fine leather cigar case for Sam, a "God Bless America" banner, a flashlight, can of coffee, and a two-pound box ofsweets. To the kids' delight, Sam, after a slight hesitation, flipped Roy another half dollar, but this time the little man behind the counter nudged his daughter and she asked Roy if he would now take a kiss for every three pins he tumbled.
Roy glanced at her breasts and she blushed. He got embarrassed too. "What do you say, Sam, it's your four bits?"
Sam bowed low to the girl. "Ma'am," he said, "now you see how dang foolish it is to be a young feller."
The girl laughed and Roy began to throw for kisses, flushing each pyramid in a shot or two while the girl counted aloud the kisses she owed him.
Some of the people from the train passed by and stayed to watch when they learned from the mocking kids what Roy was throwing for.
The girl, pretending to be unconcerned, tolled off the third and fourth kisses.
As Roy fingered the ball for the last throw the Whammer came by holding over his shoulder a Louisville Slugger that he had won for himself in the batting cage down a way. Harriet, her pretty face flushed, had a kewpie doll, and Max Mercy carried a box of cigars. The Whammer had discarded his sun glasses and all but strutted over his performance and the prizes he had won.
Roy raised his arm to throw for the fifth kiss and a clean sweep when the Whammer called out to him in a loud voice, "Pitch it here, busher, and I will knock it into the moon."
Roy shot for the last kiss and missed. He missed with the second and third balls. The crowd oohed its disappointment.
"Only four," said the girl in yellow as if she mourned the fifth.
Angered at what had happened, Sam hoarsely piped, "I got ten dollars that says he can strike you out with three pitched balls, Wambold."
The Whammer looked at Sam with contempt.
"What d'ye say, Max?" he said.
"Oh, I love contests of skill," Harriet said excitedly. Roy's face went pale.
"What's the matter, hayfoot, you scared?" the Whammer taunted.
"Not of you," Roy said.
"Let's go across the tracks where nobody'll get hurt," Mercy suggested.
"Nobody but the busher and his bazooka. What's in it, busher?"
"None of your business." Roy picked up the bassoon case.
The crowd moved in a body across the tracks, the kids circling around to get a good view, and the engineer and fireman watching from their cab window.
Sam cornered one of the kids who lived nearby and sent him home for a fielder's glove and his friend's catcher's mitt. While they were waiting, for protection he buttoned underneath his coat the washboard Roy had won. Max drew a batter's box alongside a piece of slate. He said he would call the throws and they would count as one of the three pitches only if they were over or if the Whammer swung and missed.
When the boy returned with the gloves, the sun was going down, and though the sky was aflame with light all the way to the snowy mountain peak, it was chilly on the ground.
Breaking the seal, Sam squeezed the baseball box and the pill shot up like a greased egg. He tossed it to Mercy, who inspected the hide and stitches, then rubbed the shine off and flipped it to Roy.
"Better throw a couple of warm-ups."
"My arm is loose," said Roy.
"It's your funeral."
Placing his bassoon case out of the way in the grass, Roy shed his coat. One of the boys came forth to hold it.
"Be careful you don't spill the pockets," Roy told him.
Sam came forward with the catcher's glove on. It was too small for his big hand but he said it would do all right.
"Sam, I wish you hadn't bet that money on me," Roy said.
"I won't take it if we win, kiddo, but just let it stand if we lose," Sam said, embarrassed.
"We came by it too hard."
"Just let it stand so."
He cautioned Roy to keep his pitches inside, for the Whammer was known to gobble them on the outside corner.
Sam returned to the plate and crouched behind the batter, his knees spread wide because of the washboard. Roy drew on his glove and palmed the ball behind it. Mercy, rubbing his hands to warm them, edged back about six feet behind Sam.
The onlookers retreated to the other side of the tracks, except Harriet, who stood without fear of fouls up close. Her eyes shone at the sight of the two men facing one another.
Mercy called, "Batter up."
The Whammer crowded the left side of the plate, gripping the heavy bat low on the neck, his hands jammed together and legs plunked evenly apart. He hadn't bothered to take off his coat. His eye on Roy said it spied a left-handed monkey.
"Throw it, Rube, it won't get no lighter."
Though he stood about sixty feet away, he loomed up gigantic to Roy, with the wood held like a caveman's ax on his shoulder. His rocklike frame was motionless, his face impassive, unsmiling, dark.
Roy's heart skipped a beat. He turned to gaze at the mountain.
Sam whacked the leather with his fist. "Come on, kiddo, wham it down his whammy."
The Whammer out of the corner of his mouth told the drunk to keep his mouth shut.
"Burn it across his button."
"Close your trap," Mercy said.
"Cut his throat with it."
"If he tries to dust me, so help me I will smash his skull," the Whammer threatened.
Roy stretched loosely, rocked back on his left leg, twirling the right a little like a dancer, then strode forward and threw with such force his knuckles all but scraped the ground on the follow-through.
At thirty-three the Whammer still enjoyed exceptional eyesight. He saw the ball spin off Roy's fingertips and it reminded him of a white pigeon he had kept as a boy, that he would send into flight by flipping it into the air. The ball flew at him and he was conscious of its bird-form and white flapping wings, until it suddenly disappeared from view. He heard a noise like the bang of a firecracker at his feet and Sam had the ball in his mitt. Unable to believe his ears he heard Mercy intone a reluctant strike.
Sam flung off the glove and was wringing his hand.
"Hurt you, Sam?" Roy called.
"No, it's this dang glove."
Though he did not show it, the pitch had bothered the Whammer no end. Not just the speed of it but the sensation of surprise and strangeness that went with it--him batting here on the railroad tracks, the crazy carnival, the drunk catching and a clown pitching, and that queer dame Harriet, who had five minutes ago been patting him on the back for his skill in the batting cage, now eyeing him coldly for letting one pitch go by.
He noticed Max had moved farther back.
"How the hell you expect to call them out there?"
"He looks wild to me." Max moved in.
"Your knees are knockin'," Sam tittered.
"Mind your business, rednose," Max said.
"You better watch your talk, mister," Roy called to Mercy.
"Pitch it, greenhorn," warned the Whammer.
Sam crouched with his glove on. "Do it again, Roy. Give him something simular."
"Do it again," mimicked the Whammer. To the crowd, maybe to Harriet, he held up a vaunting finger showing there were other pitches to come.
Roy pumped, reared and flung.
The ball appeared to the batter to be a slow spinning planet looming toward the earth. For a long light-year he waited for this globe to whirl into the orbit of his swing so he could bust it to smithereens that would settle with dust and dead leaves into some distant cosmos. At last the unseeing eye, maybe a fortuneteller's lit crystal ball--anyway, a curious combination of circles--drifted within range of his weapon, or so he thought, because he lunged at it ferociously, twisting round like a top. He landed on both knees as the world floated by over his head and hit with a whup into the cave of Sam's glove.
"Hey, Max," Sam said, as he chased the ball after it had bounced out of the glove, "how do they pernounce Whammer if you leave out the W?"
"Strike," Mercy called long after a cheer (was it a jeer?) had burst from the crowd.
"What's he throwing," the Whammer howled, "spitters?"
"In the pig's poop." Sam thrust the ball at him. "It's drier than your granddaddy's scalp."
"I'm warning him not to try any dirty business."
Yet the Whammer felt oddly relieved. He liked to have his back crowding the wall, when there was a single pitch to worry about and a single pitch to hit. Then the sweat began to leak out of his pores as he stared at the hard, lanky figure of the pitiless pitcher, moving, despite his years and a few waste motions, like a veteran undertaker of the diamond, and he experienced a moment of depression.
Sam must have sensed it, because he discovered an unexpected pity in his heart and even for a split second hoped theidol would not be tumbled. But only for a second, for the Whammer had regained confidence in his known talent and experience and was taunting the greenhorn to throw.
Someone in the crowd hooted and the Whammer raised aloft two fat fingers and pointed where he would murder the ball, where the gleaming rails converged on the horizon and beyond was invisible.
Roy raised his leg. He smelled the Whammer's blood and wanted it, and through him the worm's he had with him, for the way he had insulted Sam.
The third ball slithered at the batter like a meteor, the flame swallowing itself. He lifted his club to crush it into a universe of sparks but the heavy wood dragged, and though he willed to destroy the sound he heard a gong bong and realized with sadness that the ball he had expected to hit had long since been part of the past; and though Max could not cough the fatal word out of his throat, the Whammer understood he was, in the truest sense of it, out.
The crowd was silent as the violet evening fell on their shoulders.
For a night game, the Whammer harshly shouted, it was customary to turn on lights. Dropping the bat, he trotted off to the train, an old man.
The ball had caught Sam smack in the washboard and lifted him off his feet. He lay on the ground, extended on his back. Roy pushed everybody aside to get him air. Unbuttoning Sam's coat, he removed the dented washboard.
"Never meant to hurt you, Sam."
"Just knocked the wind outa me," Sam gasped. "Feel better now." He was pulled to his feet and stood steady.
The train whistle wailed, the echo banging far out against the black mountain.
Then the doctor in the broadbrimmed black hat appeared, flustered and morose, the conductor trying to pacify him, and Eddie hopping along behind.
The doctor waved the crumpled yellow paper around. "Got a telegram says somebody on this train took sick. Anybody out here?"
Roy tugged at Sam's sleeve.
"Not me," said Roy.
The doctor stomped off. He climbed into his Ford, whipped it up and drove away.
The conductor popped open his watch. "Be a good hour late into the city."
"All aboard," he called.
"Aboard," Eddie echoed, carrying the bassoon case.
The buxom girl in yellow broke through the crowd and threw her arms around Roy's neck. He ducked but she hit him quick with her pucker four times upon the right eye, yet he could see with the other that Harriet Bird (certainly a snappy goddess) had her gaze fastened on him.
They sat, after dinner, in Eddie's dimmed and empty Pullman, Roy floating through drifts of clouds on his triumph as Harriet went on about the recent tourney, she put it, and the unreal forest outside swung forward like a gate shutting. The odd way she saw things interested him, yet he was aware of the tormented trees fronting the snaky lake they were passing, trees bent and clawing, plucked white by icy blasts from the black water, their bony branches twisting in many a broken direction.
Harriet's face was flushed, her eyes gleaming with new insights. Occasionally she stopped and giggled at herself for the breathless volume of words that flowed forth, to his growing astonishment, but after a pause was on her galloping way again--a girl on horseback--reviewing the inspiring sight (she said it was) of David jawboning the Goliath-Whammer, or wasit Sir Percy lancing Sir Maldemer, or the first son (with a rock in his paw) ranged against the primitive papa?
Roy gulped. "My father? Well, maybe I did want to skull him sometimes. After my grandma died, the old man dumped me in one orphan home after the other, wherever he happened to be working--when he did--though he did used to take me out of there summers and teach me how to toss a ball."
No, that wasn't what she meant, Harriet said. Had he ever read Homer?
Try as he would he could only think of four bases and not a book. His head spun at her allusions. He found her lingo strange with all the college stuff and hoped she would stop it because he wanted to talk about baseball.
Then she took a breather. "My friends say I have a fantastic imagination."
He quickly remarked he wouldn't say that. "But the only thing I had on my mind when I was throwing out there was that Sam had bet this ten spot we couldn't afford to lose out on, so I had to make him whiff."
"To whiff--oh, Roy, how droll," and she laughed again.
He grinned, carried away by the memory of how he had done it, the hero, who with three pitched balls had nailed the best the American League had to offer. What didn't that say about the future? He felt himself falling into sentiment in his thoughts and tried to steady himself but couldn't before he had come forth with a pronouncement: "You have to have the right stuff to play good ball and I have it. I bet some day I'll break every record in the book for throwing and hitting."
Harriet appeared startled then gasped, hiding it like a cough behind her tense fist, and vigorously applauded, her bracelets bouncing on her wrists. "Bravo, Roy, how wonderful."
"What I mean," he insisted, "is I feel that I have got it in me--that I am due for something very big. I have to do it. I mean," he said modestly, "that's of course when I get in the game."
Her mouth opened. "You mean you're not--" She seemed, to his surprise, disappointed, almost on the verge of crying.
"No," he said, ashamed. "Sam's taking me for a tryout."
Her eyes grew vacant as she stared out the window. Then she asked, "But Walter--he is a successful professional player, isn't he?"
"The Whammer?" Roy nodded.
"And he has won that award three times--what was it?"
"The Most Valuable Player." He had a panicky feeling he was losing her to the Whammer.
She bit her lip. "Yet you defeated him," she murmured.
He admitted it. "He won't last much longer I don't think--the most a year or two. By then he'll be too old for the game. Myself, I've got my whole life ahead of me."
Harriet brightened, saying sympathetically, "What will you hope to accomplish, Roy?"
He had already told her but after a minute remarked, "Sometimes when I walk down the street I bet people will say there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in the game."
She gazed at him with touched and troubled eyes. "Is that all?"
He tried to penetrate her question. Twice he had answered it and still she was unsatisfied. He couldn't be sure what she expected him to say. "Is that all?" he repeated. "What more is there?"
"Don't you know?" she said kindly.
Then he had an idea. "You mean the bucks? I'll get them too."
She slowly shook her head. "Isn't there something over and above earthly things--some more glorious meaning to one's life and activities?"
He racked his brain--
"Maybe I've not made myself clear, but surely you can see(I was saying this to Walter just before the train stopped) that yourself alone--alone in the sense that we are all terribly alone no matter what people say--I mean by that perhaps if you understood that our values must derive from--oh, I really suppose--" She dropped her hand futilely. "Please forgive me. I sometimes confuse myself with the little I know."
Her eyes were sad. He felt a curious tenderness for her, a little as if she might be his mother (That bird.) and tried very hard to come up with the answer she wanted--something you said about LIFE.
"I think I know what you mean," he said. "You mean the fun and satisfaction you get out of playing the best way that you know how?"
She did not respond to that.
Roy worried out some other things he might have said but had no confidence to put them into words. He felt curiously deflated and a little lost, as if he had just flunked a test. The worst of it was he still didn't know what she'd been driving at.
Harriet yawned. Never before had he felt so tongue-tied in front of a girl, a looker too. Now if he had her in bed--Almost as if she had guessed what he was thinking and her mood had changed to something more practical than asking nutty questions that didn't count, she sighed and edged closer to him, concealing the move behind a query about his bassoon case. "Do you play?"
"Not any music," he answered, glad they were talking about something different. "There's a thing in it that I made for myself."
"What, for instance?"
He hesitated. "A baseball bat."
She was herself again, laughed merrily. "Roy, you are priceless."
"I got the case because I don't want to get the stick all banged up before I got the chance to use it."
"Oh, Roy." Her laughter grew. He smiled broadly.
She was now so close he felt bold. Reaching down he lifted the hat box by the string and lightly hefted it.
"What's in it?"
She seemed breathless. "In it?" Then she mimicked, "--Something I made for myself."
"Feels like a hat."
"Maybe a head?" Harriet shook a finger at him.
"Feels more like a hat." A little embarrassed, he set the box down. "Will you come and see me play sometime?" he asked.
She nodded and then he was aware of her leg against his and that she was all but on his lap. His heart slapped against his ribs and he took it all to mean that she had dropped the last of her interest in the Whammer and was putting it on the guy who had buried him.
As they went through a tunnel, Roy placed his arm around her shoulders, and when the train lurched on a curve, casually let his hand fall upon her full breast. The nipple rose between his fingers and before he could resist the impulse he had tweaked it.
Her high-pitched scream lifted her up and twirling like a dancer down the aisle.
Stricken, he rose--had gone too far.
Crooking her arms like broken branches she whirled back to him, her head turned so far around her face hung between her shoulders.
"Look, I'm a twisted tree."
Sam had sneaked out on the squirming, apologetic Mercy, who, with his back to the Whammer--he with a newspaper raised in front of his sullen eyes--had kept up a leechlike prodding about Roy, asking where he had come from (oh, he's just a home town boy), how it was no major league scout had got at him (they did but he turned them down for me) even with the bonus cash that they are tossing around these days (yep), who's his father (like I said, just an old semipro who wantedawful bad to be in the big leagues) and what, for God's sake, does he carry around in that case (that's his bat, Wonderboy). The sportswriter was greedy to know more, hinting he could do great things for the kid, but Sam, rubbing his side where it pained, at last put him off and escaped into the coach to get some shuteye before they hit Chicago, sometime past 1 A.M.
After a long time trying to settle himself comfortably, he fell snoring asleep flat on his back and was at once sucked into a long dream that he had gone thirsty mad for a drink and was threatening the slickers in the car get him a bottle or else. Then this weasel of a Mercy, pretending he was writing on a pad, pointed him out with his pencil and the conductor snapped him up by the seat of his pants and ran his freewheeling feet lickity-split through the sawdust, giving him the merry heave-ho off the train through the air on a floating trapeze, ploop into a bog where it rained buckets. He thought he better get across the foaming river before it flooded the bridge away so he set out, all bespattered, to cross it, only this queer duck of a doctor in oilskins, an old man with a washable white mustache and a yellow lamp he thrust straight into your eyeballs, swore to him the bridge was gone. You're plumb tootin' crazy, Sam shouted in the storm, I saw it standin' with me own eyes, and he scuffled to get past the geezer, who dropped the light setting the rails afire. They wrestled in the rain until Sam slyly tripped and threw him, and helter-skeltered for the bridge, to find to his crawling horror it was truly down and here he was scratching space till he landed with a splishity-splash in the whirling waters, sobbing (whoa whoa) and the white watchman on the embankment flung him a flare but it was all too late because he heard the roar of the falls below (and restless shifting of the sea) and felt with his red hand where the knife had stabbed him ...
Roy was dreaming of an enormous mountain--Christ, the size of it--when he felt himself roughly shaken--Sam, hethought, because they were there--only it was Eddie holding a lit candle.
"The fuse blew and I've had no chance to fix it."
"What's the matter?"
"Trou-ble. Your friend has collapsed."
Roy hopped out of the berth, stepped into moccasins and ran, with Eddie flying after him with the snuffed wax, into a darkened car where a pool of people under a blue light hovered over Sam, unconscious.
"What happened?" Roy cried.
"Sh," said the conductor, "he's got a raging fever."
"Can't say. We're picking up a doctor."
Sam was lying on a bench, wrapped in blankets with a pillow tucked under his head, his gaunt face broken out in sweat. When Roy bent over him, his eyes opened.
"Hello, kiddo," he said in a cracked voice.
"What hurts you, Sam?"
"Where the washboard banged me--but it don't hurt so much now."
"Don't take it so, Roy. I'll be better."
"Save his strength, son," the conductor said. "Don't talk now."
Roy got up. Sam shut his eyes.
The train whistled and ran slow at the next town then came to a draggy halt. The trainman brought a half-dressed doctor in. He examined Sam and straightened up. "We got to get him off and to the hospital."
Roy was wild with anxiety but Sam opened his eyes and told him to bend down.
Everyone moved away and Roy bent low.
"Take my wallet outa my rear pocket."
Roy pulled out the stuffed cowhide wallet.
"Now you go to the Stevens Hotel--"
"No, oh no, Sam, not without you."
"Go on, kiddo, you got to. See Clarence Mulligan tomorrow and say I sent you--they are expecting you. Give them everything you have got on the ball--that'll make me happy."
"You got to. Bend lower."
Roy bent lower and Sam stretched his withered neck and kissed him on the chin.
"Do like I say."
A tear splashed on Sam's nose.
Sam had something more in his eyes to say but though he tried, agitated, couldn't say it. Then the trainmen came in with a stretcher and they lifted the catcher and handed him down the steps, and overhead the stars were bright but he knew he was dead.
Roy trailed the anonymous crowd out of Northwest Station and clung to the shadowy part of the wall till he had the courage to call a cab.
"Do you go to the Stevens Hotel?" he asked, and the driver without a word shot off before he could rightly be seated, passed a red light and scuttled a cripple across the deserted street. They drove for miles in a shadow-infested, street-lamped jungle.
He had once seen some stereopticon pictures of Chicago and it was a boxed-up ant heap of stone and crumbling wood buildings in a many-miled spreading checkerboard of streets without much open space to speak of except the railroads, stockyards, and the shore of a windy lake. In the Loop, the offices went up high and the streets were jampacked with people, and he wondered how so many of them could live together in any one place. Suppose there was a fire or something and they all ran out of their houses to see--how couldthey help but trample all over themselves? And Sam had warned him against strangers, because there were so many bums, sharpers, and gangsters around, people you were dirt to, who didn't know you and didn't want to, and for a dime they would slit your throat and leave you dying in the streets.
"Why did I come here?" he muttered and felt sick for home.
The cab swung into Michigan Avenue, which gave a view of the lake and a white-lit building spiring into the sky, then before he knew it he was standing flatfooted (Christ, the size of it) in front of the hotel, an enormous four-sectioned fortress. He hadn't the nerve to go through the whirling doors but had to because this bellhop grabbed his things--he wrested the bassoon case loose--and led him across the thick-carpeted lobby to a desk where he signed a card and had to count out five of the wallet's pulpy dollars for a room he would give up as soon as he found a house to board in.
But his cubbyhole on the seventeenth floor was neat and private, so after he had stored everything in the closet he lost his nervousness. Unlatching the window brought in the lake breeze. He stared down at the lit sprawl of Chicago, standing higher than he ever had in his life except for a night or two on a mountain. Gazing down upon the city, he felt as if bolts in his knees, wrists, and neck had loosened and he had spread up in height. Here, so high in the world, with the earth laid out in small squares so far below, he knew he would go in tomorrow and wow them with his fast one, and they would know him for the splendid pitcher he was.
The telephone rang. He was at first scared to answer it. In a strange place, so far from everybody he knew, it couldn't possibly be for him.
It rang again. He picked up the phone and listened.
"Hello, Roy? This is Harriet."
He wasn't sure he had got it right. "Excuse me?"
"Harriet Bird, silly."
"Oh, Harriet." He had completely forgotten her.
"Come down to my room," she giggled, "and let me say welcome to the city."
"You mean now?"
"Right away." She gave him the room number.
"Sure." He meant to ask her how she knew he was here but she had hung up.
Then he was elated. So that's how they did it in the city. He combed his hair and got out his bassoon case. In the elevator a drunk tried to take it away from him but Roy was too strong for him.
He walked--it seemed ages because he was impatient--through a long corridor till he found her number and knocked.
"Come on in."
Opening the door, he was astonished at the enormous room. Through the white-curtained window the sight of the endless dark lake sent a shiver down his spine.
Then he saw her standing shyly in the far corner of the room, naked under the gossamer thing she wore, held up on her risen nipples and the puffed wedge of hair beneath her white belly. A great weight went off his mind.
As he shut the door she reached into the hat box which lay open next to a vase of white roses on the table and fitted the black feathered hat on her head. A thick veil fell to her breasts. In her hand she held a squat, shining pistol.
He was greatly confused and thought she was kidding but a grating lump formed in his throat and his blood shed ice. He cried out in a gruff voice, "What's wrong here?"
She said sweetly, "Roy, will you be the best there ever was in the game?"
She pulled the trigger (thrum of bull fiddle). The bullet cut a silver line across the water. He sought with his barehands to catch it, but it eluded him and, to his horror, bounced into his gut. A twisted dagger of smoke drifted up from the gun barrel. Fallen on one knee he groped for the bullet, sickened as it moved, and fell over as the forest flew upward, and she, making muted noises of triumph and despair, danced on her toes around the stricken hero.
Copyright © 1952, renewed 1980 by Bernard Malamud Introduction copyright © 2003 by Kevin Baker
Table of Contents
By Bernard Malamud,
Reading Group Guide
This Teacher's Guide is divided primarily into two sections, which appear below.
The first, "Reading and Understanding the Novel," will help students with reading comprehension, conceptual appreciation, interpreting the narrative, grasping the book's contexts, and related matters. "Questions and Exercises for the Class,"
the second section, will enable students to think more broadly, creatively, or comparatively about The Naturalboth as a group and individually. A brief supplementary section, "Suggestions for Further Reading," is offered in conclusion.
1. Explain why The Natural is divided into two sections ("Pre-Game" and "Batter
Up!"). What sets the two sections apart, and what has occurred between them?
2. What do we learn about Roy Hobbs in the book's opening pages? What is he carrying in his bassoon case? What do learn about Hobbs' pasthis boyhood and backgroundover the course of the narrative? And what aspects of Hobbs remain mysterious throughout the book?
3. Why does Hobbs reject the locker-room lecture and accompanying hypnotism of Doc Knobb, the pop-psych guru who "pacifies" the New York Knights? How do the other Knights regard Doc Knobb? (p. 66)
4. When Hobbs replaces Bump Baily as the premier hitter for the Knightsif not in the entire leaguesome of his teammates start wondering (and, behind his back, talking) about "whether [Hobbs is] for the team or for himself." (p. 85)
Which is it, in your view? Is Hobbs ultimately playing for the Knights or himself?
Or does his allegiance change over the course of the book? Defend your answers by citing key passages from throughout the text.
5. Some time after Bump's accidental death while chasing a fly ball in the outfield,
Memo tells Hobbs that Bump "made you think you had been waiting for a thing to happen for a long time and then he made it happen." (p. 112) Could the same be said of Hobbs himself? If so, who might say it? And where else in the book do we see ballplayers rendered in a majestic, larger-than-life, or deity-like manner?
P R E P A R I N G
T O R E A D
R E A D I N G A N D
U N D E R S T A N D I N G
T H E N O V E L
6. When Memo and Hobbs take a long night's drive out to Long Island in his new
Mercedes-Benz, Hobbs is at one point certain that they have hit a boy or his dog.
He wants to turn back and investigate. Memo, who is driving, refuses. But later
Hobbs thinks differently, as we read: "It did not appear that there ever was any kid in those woods, except in his mind." (p. 123) Is this boy-and-his-dog image merely a figment of Hobbs' imagination? Or is it real? Explain.
7. What link(s) do you recognize in Hobbs' disastrous hitting slump and his decision to visit Lola, the fortune teller in Jersey City? What does Lola predict for
Hobbs? Is she accurate? Also, what other baseball-oriented superstitions are depicted in The Natural? How do such rites and practices get started? Why do they remain popular?
8. On his first and only date with Iris, Hobbs tells her a secret. What is it? What does Iris mean when she says, shortly thereafter, that people have "two lives" to live?
(p. 152) Identify the "two lives" at the core of this narrative. Finally, why does
Hobbs eventually dismiss his affection for Iris? Do you think his dismissal is fair,
given Hobbs' own age and background? Explain.
9. When Hobbs eventually regains his hitting ability, winning games for the
Knights anew and reviving their chances in the pennant race, we gain various insights into what Hobbs the slugger thinks and feels. We read, for example:
"Sometimes as he watched the ball soar, it seemed to him all circles, and he was mystified at his devotion to hacking at it, for he had never really liked the sight of a circle. They got you nowhere but back to the place where you were to begin with."
(p. 163) Looking at our protagonist in a more personal or philosophical way,
explain why Hobbs dislikes circles. Also, who or what causes him to start hitting again in the first place? (And if possible, explain how and why this happens.)
10. What is a "Rube Goldberg contraption"? (p. 170)
11. Just before the big game to decide the pennant, Hobbs, while still in the hospital, consents to the Judge's crooked propositionhe agrees to "sell out."
Explain how Hobbs arrives at this decision. Who is he thinking of when he does so?
What are his motives? Who, or what, is Hobbs ultimately selling out for? What are his reasons?
12. Early in the big game, while running out to his position in left field, Hobbs thinks of his relationship with Pop. We read: "It seemed to Roy he had known the old man all his life long." (p. 216) Reflect on the relationship that exists between
Roy Hobbs and his manager. What does each man need or want from the other?
And what does each giveor not giveto the other?
13. Later in the big game, the Pirates must send out a relief pitcher to finish off
Hobbs. We read of this reliever: "Few in the stands had heard of him, but before his long trek to the mound was finished his life was common knowledge." (p. 226)
What is implied by this exaggeration, especially the "common knowledge" claim?
Point out specific descriptions or remarks from other parts of The Natural in which
a man's talents for baseball and his very existence are blurred, deliberately confused,
intentionally switched, and so on. What commentary might author Bernard
Malamud be making here about the relationship existing between baseball and life itself?
14. Immediately after Hobbs' climactic strikeout, we read: "Bump's form glowed red on the wall." (p. 227) Why does Hobbs see this particular apparition at this particular moment?
15. What does Hobbs do with Wonderboy after the big game? And where does he do this? Explain his actions.
1. Consider these remarks from Kevin Baker's Introduction to The Natural: "Hobbs is one of the most thoroughly unsympathetic heroes in the history of American literature . . . One can feel little real pity for any character who has so assiduously shaped his own doom." (p. xii) Would you agree? Can, or should, we pity Roy
Hobbs? Also, earlier in his Introduction, Baker writes: "It is hard to find a truly likable character in the book." (p. ix) Do you agree with this assertion? Explain why or why not.
2. Elsewhere Baker notes that baseball "has always been an American simulacrum."
(p. ix) What is a "simulacrum"? Define and discuss this termboth generally and in terms of The Natural specifically.
3. Malamud's novel takes a sensitive and evocative approach to language in general and vernacular in particular. What did reading this book teach you about American jargon of the mid-20th centuryparticularly baseball slang? Define the following baseball terms and phrases: bingle, fungo, pepper (re: practice), southpaw, pill, stuff
(re: pitching), shagging flies, and, as used eponymously throughout, natural. What other ballpark-bred words can you name?
4. Hobbs is drawn to three women over the course of the novel: Harriet Bird,
Memo Paris, and Iris Lemon. Describe them. What does Hobbs find appealing about each of them? What, if anything, do these women have in common? Why is each attracted to him? What, in turn, does Hobbs see in themthat is,
individually and collectively?
5. How are the fans depicted in this novel? Look especially at those scenes where their dress, manner, habits, and general behavior are depicted. (pp. 70, 86-7, 206,
and elsewhere) And how does Hobbs regard the fans? Compare Hobbs' dealings with, say, Mike Barney to those he has with Otto Zipp. Finally, where does the word
fan come from? What exactly does it mean to be a fan of something?
Q U E S T I O N S A N D
E X E R C I S E S
F O R T H E C L A S S
6. Dreams play an important role in The Natural; we find many different dream descriptions throughout the book. Select a few of these passages, then discuss how each dream enhances, echoes, or otherwise enriches the book's larger narrative.
7. Compare and contrast how this novel depicts the urban and the rural, the experience of the city and that of the country. Which environment is seen more favorably, romantically, nostalgically? Which is seen more critically, harshly,
complexly? Refer to certain scenes or images to underscore your views.
8. As a class, explore the novel's portrayal of the elusive yet all-consuming power of ambition. We are often reminded that Hobbs is obsessed with rewriting professional baseball's record book, with "doing what I came here to do," with being "the best who ever played the game"but why is Hobbs so driven? Why does his quest for greatness come off as aloof, greedy, cruel, or worse?
9. Why does Hobbs eat so much? Discuss and try to explain his appetite.
10. Daydreams about trains appear at many points in the novel, usually as the recurring reveries Hobbs keeps having. Even on the last page, the following locomotive imagery strikes Hobbs at the low conclusion of the narrative: "He felt the insides of him beginning to take off (chug chug choo choo . . .). Pretty soon they were in fast flight." (p.231) Identify other train-based visions had by Hobbs.
What do they signify or suggest to him? Explain this train metaphorand what it means to Hobbs personally.
11. The Natural not only offers a detailed rendering of the world of baseball; it also illustrates the business aspect of professional sports. How is the relationship between pro sports and business characterized in these pages? What about the relationship between pro sports and gambling? Do you think that either of these relationships would be characterized differently if Malamud were composing his novel today? Explain your views.
12. Some critics have pointed out that The Natural reads like a modern-day morality play. (The morality play is a highly allegorical form of drama, created in medieval Europe, in which characters personifying good or evil struggle over possession of a person's soul.) Write a one-act morality play on a contemporary topic of your own devising, either by yourself or in collaboration with other students. Picking up on Malamud's example, try to frame issues of right and wrong, good and bad, and so forth within a current setting, popular arena, or familiar situation.
13. Discuss Malamud's novel as a work of magical realism. Are there any key scenes, events, or actions in The Natural that must be deemed magical or supernatural?
If so, identify them.
14. The character of Roy Hobbsas well as, more broadly, The Natural itself
can rightly be seen as a fictionalized composite of baseball history in the first half of the 20th centurythe lore, legends, and giants of the game, all refashioned or rolled into a single creation. Write a short story or long poem in which, like
Malamud, you create a composite work based upon a historically fertile or legendary subject of your choosing. Upon completion, read your work aloud to your classmates.
15. Returning to Baker's Introduction, we find Hobbs likened to Willy Loman, the protagonist of Arthur Miller's epochal Death of a Salesman. (p. xii) Write a brief essay comparing (or contrasting) Roy Hobbs to another literary hero (or villain) of your choosing.
The following fiction and non-fiction works are recommended as follow-up books for those students who have expressed interest in, curiosity about, or appreciation for baseball on the printed page. There are countless books reflecting baseball's sturdy links to history, biography, literature, society, and/or culture; this is a select list aimed at accessibility and readability. For reasons of inclusiveness, a few nonbaseball books are also listed here; these can be likewise recommended with confidence to students who enjoyed The Natural.
Game Time: A Baseball Reader by Roger Angell; Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series by Eliot Asinof; The Heart of the Order by Thomas Boswell;
A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo*; Babe: The Legend Comes To Life by
Robert W. Creamer; The Brothers K: A Novel by David James Duncan; Take Me
Out: A Play by Richard Greenberg; Diz: The Story of Dizzy Dean and Baseball
During the Great Depression by Robert Gregory; Summer of ‘49 and The Teammates
by David Halberstam; The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn; Shoeless Joe: A Novel by
W. P. Kinsella; You Know Me, Al: A Busher's Letters by Ring W. Lardner; Sandy
Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy by Jane Leavy; A Whole New Ball Game: The Story of the
All-American Girls Professional Baseball League by Sue Macy; The Assistant, The
Complete Stories, Dubin's Lives, The Fixer, God's Grace, The Magic Barrel, The People,
and The Tenants by Bernard Malamud; Autumn Glory: Baseball's First World Series
by Louis P. Masur; Stonewall's Gold: A Novel by Robert J. Mrazek*; Betsey Brown:
A Novel by Ntozake Shange*; Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball by
Scott Simon; and Hoopla: A Novel by Harry Stein.