May 30, 2018

“A Game So Grand and Beautiful” — Philip Roth On Writing and Baseball

By Stuart Mitchner

One of the photos of Philip Roth (1933-2018) published with last week’s New York Times obituary was taken at Princeton in 1964. He’s leaning on a table, his head propped on one hand. Dressed in a suit and tie, he’s looking less like a writer-in-residence than a weary ballplayer, Hank Greenberg all dressed up in civvies after a grueling game. The check-out desk and display case in the background suggest that the photo was taken at Firestone Library. Roth is 31, in the last year of his two-year teaching stint at the University.

According to Sylvia Tumin, this was around the time Roth was “breaking up with Maggie,” his first wife, with whom he had been living in a small ranch house that used to occupy the corner of Mountain Avenue and Bayard Lane. Writing in response to my August 20, 2008 column “The Diamond as Big as America: A Whirlwind Tour of Philip Roth,” Sylvia informed me that during his time at Princeton Roth had been a close friend of her husband, sociologist Melvin Tumin, the inspiration for the protagonist of The Human Stain (2000).

An American Passion

It was a toss of the proverbial coin that brought the great slugger Hank Greenberg to mind. Having returned from the library with an armload of Roth, I was at a loss as to where and how to begin, so I closed my eyes, flipped open a book at random and landed smack in the middle of Portnoy’s Complaint in Novels, 1967-1972, but instead of sexual frenzy and “dirty Jewish laundry,” I found Portnoy expanding to his shrink on baseball, an American passion that he and I and countless others share: while he grew up rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, I was a fan of their arch rivals the St. Louis Cardinals.

Here’s Portnoy in the outfield chasing down a fly ball in deep center (“I got it! I got it!”), “going back easily and gracefully toward that wire fence, moving practically in slow motion, and then that delicious DiMaggio sensation of grabbing it like something heaven-sent over one shoulder.”

Is there a more evocative image of the writer’s moment? — your back to the sound of the ball on the bat, the right word or the right phrase on its way, soaring overhead while you time your muse-blessed instincts so that you’ll reach up just in time, there it is, heaven-sent! In that one passionate paragraph Roth gets it all, “the unruffled nonchalance of that game! the beauty of standing in center field without a care in the world in the sunshine … oh to be a center fielder, a center fielder — and nothing more!”

Roth is also talking about the great game of writing — oh to be a writer, a writer — and nothing more! That’s the subtext of Portnoy’s Complaint. It’s not just about sex and Jewishness, it’s about the agony and ecstasy of writing.

Baseball and America

In his April 2, 1973 New York Times op-ed, “My Baseball Years,” Roth claims he “came to have a stronger sense of the American landscape from following the major league clubs on their road trips, and reading about the dozens of minor league teams in the back pages of The Sporting News …. The size of the continent got through to you finally when you had to stay up to 10:30 p.m. in New Jersey (where it was raining) to hear via radio ‘tickertape,’ Cardinal pitcher Mort Cooper throw the first strike of the night to Brooklyn shortstop Pee Wee Reese out in steamy Sportsmen’s Park in St. Louis, Missouri.” A decade later I’m in Indiana listening to Cardinal games on KMOX, “the clear channel Voice of St. Louis” while dreaming on the poetry of American names.

Baseball and a Father

One way Roth helped his father deal with an as yet undiagnosed fatal illness in the spring of 1986 was to get him interested in the New York Mets; it was a great time to be a Mets fan with the team on its way to a pennant and a world championship. Writing in Patrimony (1991), Roth gives baseball credit for bringing his father out of a pre-cancerous malaise: “he was nearly fit again, and also very much a fan — and a fan for the first time, really, since I was a small boy and he used to take my brother and me out to Ruppert Stadium in Newark to see the old Triple-A Newark Bears play a Sunday doubleheader against our rivals from across the marshes, the Jersey City Giants.”

The Sandlot Diamond

Baseball makes an unlikely appearance in an empty Jerusalem schoolroom in Operation Shylock (1993) as the narrator, one “Philip Roth,” recalls afternoon classes at the Hebrew school in Newark where “we learned to write backwards, to write as though the sun rose in the west and the leaves fell in the spring, as though Canada lay to the south, Mexico to the north,” after which “we escaped back into our cozy American world, aligned just the other way around, where all that was plausible, recognizable, predictable, reasonable, intelligible, and useful unfolded its meaning to us from left to right.” And the great exception, the only place where “we proceeded in reverse, where it was natural, logical, in the very nature of things, the singular and unchallengeable exception, was on the sandlot diamond. In the early 1940s, reading and writing from right to left made about as much sense to me as belting the ball over the outfielder’s head and expecting to be credited with a triple for running from third to second to first.”

Baseball and Patriotism

In the same 1973 Times op-ed Roth describes baseball as “a kind of secular church that reached into every class and region of the nation and bound us together in common concerns, loyalties, rituals, enthusiasms, and antagonisms.” Baseball made him understand “what patriotism was about, at its best.” After recalling how it was to grow up in wartime when “patriotism is grounded in moral virtuousness and bloody‐minded hate,” Roth says that through baseball he “came to understand and experience patriotism in its tender and humane aspects, lyrical rather than martial or righteous in spirit, and without the reek of saintly zeal, a patriotism that could not quite so easily be sloganized, or contained in a high‐sounding formula to which one had to pledge something vague but all‐encompassing called one’s ‘allegiance.’“

Another detail from Roth’s “My Baseball Years” describes standing to sing the National Anthem in the school auditorium every week, while the teacher “waved her arms in the air and we obliged with the words: ‘See! Light! Proof! Night! There!’ Nothing stirred within, strident as we might be — in the end just another school exercise. But on Sundays out at Ruppert Stadium (a green wedge of pasture miraculously walled in among the factories, warehouses, and truck depots of Newark’s industrial ‘Ironbound’ section), … it would have seemed to me an emotional thrill forsaken if we had not to rise first to our feet … to celebrate the America” that had given us “a game so grand and beautiful.”

Now we’re living under a president who chastises football players for daring to kneel rather than pledge allegiance. In a January conversation in the New York Times, presumably his last interview, Roth tells Charles McGrath, “No one I know of has foreseen an America like the one we live in today. No one (except perhaps the acidic H. L. Mencken, who famously described American democracy as ‘the worship of jackals by jackasses’) could have imagined that the 21st-century catastrophe to befall the U.S.A., the most debasing of disasters, would appear not, say, in the terrifying guise of an Orwellian Big Brother but in the ominously ridiculous commedia dell’arte figure of the boastful buffoon.”

Updating the Obit

Claudia Roth Pierpont’s sympathetic, enlightened, and unsparing biographical study, Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books (2013), closes with “Afterthoughts, Memories, and Discoveries,” where there’s a reference to how Roth was quick to catch on that the reason for a “discreet” interview at the time was to update his New York Times obituary. Roth was “not in the least put out by the idea; it’s hardly as though he hadn’t thought about what’s coming next.” But the one thing that disturbed him was knowing that the paper would use Times reviews in summing up his career. “Even in death,” he says, “you get a bad review.”

Also included with Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) in Novels 1967-1972 are When She was Good (1967); Our Gang (Starring Tricky and His Friends), Roth’s 1971 takedown of Nixon with its Trump-timely epigraph from Orwell (“one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language”); and the Kafkaesque fantasy The Breast (1972). The 2005 Library of America volume also reprints Roth’s prefaces to the Bantam paperbacks of Our Gang: The Watergate Edition (1973), and The Pre-Impeachment Edition (1974).