America’s Enduring Pastime: Baseball, Misogyny, and Reading The Natural
Sara Novic Examines Her Love for a Game with an Ever-Present Dark Side
As a child, I was an insomniac. Sometimes my asthma kept me from sleep, and I’d wait upright in bed for my medicine to kick in and fall asleep sitting up. More often I was gripped by a fear of robbers lurking outside, waiting for my parents to fall asleep so they could break in and wreak havoc upon the family—I’d stay up keeping watch until the first hints of sunrise crept over the horizon, light which, I reasoned, would scare the criminals back into their lairs. Sometimes there was no reason at all, just a vague discomfort and the weight of each passing moment as I stared at the ceiling through the dark.
I found my cure in books and baseball. Some nights I’d read everything on my shelf, dipping into worlds far away from the one that so terrified me. Other times I’d tiptoe to the living room find my father watching the Mets (or having fallen asleep in front of the TV) and curl up on the far end of the couch until the rhythm of the game had loosened panic’s hold on my chest.
These days fiction and baseball are both my dessert and my meat and potatoes. With an appetite for books almost as insatiable as Roy Hobbs’s capacity for eating steak, I read and write—sometimes about the Mets, even—for a living. Once a month, I take the 7 train out to Citi Field with a notebook to write and watch the sun set, and the planes land, and the Mets lose. The game still calms me like it did when I was small, steadies my pen.
So if such a thing as a “target audience” for fiction can exist, on paper I’m a one-woman bullseye for Bernard Malamud’s The Natural. I’d long ago devoured Malamud’s The Fixer and Rembrandt’s Hat, and though my own Mets weren’t yet a twinkle in Major League Baseball’s eye upon the novel’s publication in 1952, the fictional New York Knights sure do slide right into my soft spot reserved for the bumbling underdog.
The Natural follows the rise and fall of baseball star and titular character Roy Hobbs. The novel opens on a young Hobbs traveling try out for the Cubs, but his life is derailed when he is shot in the stomach by the temptress Harriet Bird, who has a taste for killing star athletes. The bulk of the novel, though, takes place 15 years later, when Roy has finally clawed his way back into baseball, an unlikely 35-year-old rookie assigned to the fledgling Knights for a rock-bottom salary. But Hobbs’s talent is not to be contained, and he leads the Knights on a run for the pennant. Meanwhile, his romantic interest vacillates between two women—Memo, the former girlfriend of deceased Knights’ outfielder Bump, and Iris, a woman from the stands whose presence helps break Roy’s mid-season slump. At season’s end, the only thing that can topple Roy’s star is himself, with the help of one of the Knights’ owners who bribes him to throw the game.
Yet, on the brink of 30 and two literature degrees later, I have not read the novel. When I mention it at a family barbeque, my mom, whose favorite part of baseball is her bedazzled cap, says, “Oh, the Robert Redford movie? That was sad.” But I have not seen the movie, either.
My partner buys me the book for my birthday. It is a used copy in which the previous owner—Abby M.—has written her name in bubblegum pink pen. Abby M. is the pièce de résistance of the gift; the notion that even she has read the book before I have sends my partner into hysterics.
I begin reading, feeling a little worried when it takes me a couple tries to get into it. I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary fiction, and Malamud’s prose is more decorative than I’ve seen in a while: here is unabashed alliteration; here is a narrator unselfconscious about free indirect discourse and the dipping into thoughts of the passersby on a whim.
Ahead of me, Abby M. underlines things in her pink pen. More precisely, she underlines adjectives: futilely, indulgently, gratuitously, furtively. Soon I’m preoccupied. Am I perseverating on these adverbs because they’re dressed in fuchsia, or are there really an overabundance? I chalk it up to the style of the times.
The novel does feel dated, an inevitability, though not necessarily a detriment. When coach Pop spouts strings of C-list invectives—the Knights are “goddamn saps” and “blasted fools” who “cooked [their] own gooses”—it’s charming. Harriet Bird’s black veil and the foggy streetlamps under which femme fatale Memo and newspaperman Max Mercy each lurk are noir callbacks that couple well with our own hero’s moral ambiguity.
The actual evidence of Roy’s moral ambiguity, though, is harder for me to swallow. His objectification of women ranges from cringeworthy to bordering on assault. Roy is preoccupied with both Memo and Iris, and Malamud provides neither woman with any depth, allowing his protagonist to perseverate solely on their physiques, including, often, their weight. At one point, Memo has a strange look about her, but he considers it may just be the five pounds she’s gained; Iris at turns has “heft” and is outright fat, a quality that, along with the fact that she is a young grandmother, makes her undateable.
But these judgements pale in comparison to the novel’s more sinister moments, the first being when Roy and Bump, Memo’s boyfriend, switch hotel rooms, and Memo accidentally has sex with Roy. Whether this is really a long-game set up by a wily con-artist is never clarified, but Memo goes on to fend off Roy’s advances consistently for the bulk of the novel. In response, Roy just “figure[s] she had to be made to forget.”
On a lakeside date with Iris, Roy disappears underwater for an extended period, until she is scared to tears, then resurfaces and advances on her. Though she tries “in a fright, to raise herself” Roy “shove[s] her back down and [goes] on from where he had left off,” coercing the sex that will eventually produce their child.
During a later encounter with Memo in which Roy is frustrated by her refusals, he exclaims, “For Christ sakes, Memo… when are you going to be nice to me?” When she replies that she is being nice, Roy says, “not the way I want it.” For me, this is where our hero loses the last of his sheen, complex character or not. I have known this man, the one who feels owed, the pressure he exerts, and there is nothing gallant about his manipulations. Maybe Abby M., too, is put off by the misogyny—she disappears from adverb-seeking duty on page 87.
It’s true that Roy’s appetite, sexual and otherwise, aid in his undoing. But comeuppance doesn’t shore up Memo’s or Iris’s retrospective consent, or make Roy’s emotional and physical abuses any less uncomfortable to read.
Maybe, I think, I’ve missed my window to enjoy the book. Perhaps if I’d read it at a different time, when I was in college starry-eyed with cultural relativism theory, or an alternate universe in which our president was not quite so hellbent on demeaning and endangering women at every turn, personally and politically.
Slowly a bleaker realization crystalizes—the novel is not as dated as I’d like it to be. What more critical historical moment is there to interrogate the dark spots of America’s favorite pastime than from beneath the shadow of the MAGA banner?
Even a cursory look at my own home team reveals the MLB’s current trouble with women—star closer Jeurys Familia sat out 15 games at the start of the season for domestic violence complaints, the league’s most lovable old (and I do mean old) pitcher Bartolo Colón was in court for back child support payments for a secret second family, and, perhaps most egregiously, the Mets rolled out a hero’s welcome for returning infielder José Reyes upon his 2016 return. Reyes, who’d been charged with and confessed to injuring his wife in a domestic violence incident, was treated like a true King of Queens immediately upon his return: catcher Travis d’Arnaud surrendered his jersey so Reyes could have his number 7 back; the lineup was rearranged to accommodate Reyes’s batting order preferences, displacing veritable baseball saint Curtis Granderson from the leadoff spot. This season, the Mets kept up the promotion, offering a “free shirt Friday” giveaway with Reyes t-shirts to every Citi Field attendee.
The Mets are hardly alone here. See Aroldis Chapman, Derek Norris, Addison Russell. Major League Baseball, and American professional sports overall, continue to broadcast that domestic violence and misogyny are permissible as long as the perpetrator also has amazing motor skills.
Of course, the story of Roy Hobbs doesn’t end well (unless you’re watching the movie, which I’ve since seen—but that’s a rant for another day). Roy’s final failings aren’t justice, though. Both his punishment and personal regrets are tethered to his attempted game-fixing, not his treatment of women. This, too is a stark reflection of the game’s reality. Players are stripped of their records or banned from Cooperstown for gambling and performance-enhancing drug use. But where abuse is concerned, there is mostly silence, and sometimes even cheering.
In the end, The Natural is layered, well-paced, and often beautiful. So is the game of baseball. But the novel’s uglier moments cannot be ignored, and remain far more resonant today than I’d like to admit.
What is my place as a woman amongst baseball, amongst classic literature, and all their problematic representations? It’s hard to imagine leaving either behind—these things that to me, have meant salvation for so long. But there are other children in the stands now, and they are soaking in more than sun. They are learning about our country, what we value, through these men. Roy knew this, too, deep down—after his last game, it is a young boy’s searching gaze that finally breaks him.
In the antepenultimate chapter, page 208, Abby M. resurfaces. Still in possession of her pink pen, she has moved on from adverbs, underlining her final word: “compunctions.”
If only compunction had the last word in baseball more often.