The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.

1968 also saw the publication of Robert Coover’s second novel, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Waugh, Prop. Coover, at least, is a writer I have previously enjoyed in the form of Pricksongs & Descants and Noir; on the other hand, my knowledge of baseball is entirely limited to the Dan Bern album Doubleheader, and I’ve yet to even discover what a doubleheader is. Luckily Coover’s astonishing imagination and dynamic language were enough to carry me through, though I suspect a love of the game makes the novel an even more attractive prospect.

J. Henry Waugh is an accountant who, disenchanted with his job and perhaps his lonely life in general, has created a fantasy baseball league which he regards as his true work:

“It was true: the work, or what he called his work, though it was more than that, much more, was good for him. Thing was, nobody realised he was just four years shy of sixty. They were always shocked when he told them. It was his Association that kept him young.”

The game is played with dice, but it is more than a dice game, having a cast of characters which Waugh has created and lived with over many seasons. They don’t simply play ball – they walk, talk and feel like living individuals (Waugh has even developed two rival political parties). Indeed you might say the game is rather like a novel, as Coover proceeds to demonstrate by moving seamlessly between the two narratives: a conversation in which Waugh orders a sandwich takes place among the conversations in the stands as the game proceeds.

Presently he is relishing the excitement of a rookie player, Damon Rutherford, who is having an outstanding game:

“Henry was convinced it was Damon’s day… He laughed, almost carelessly… pitched the dice, watched Damon Rutherford mow them down. One! Two! Three! And then nonchalantly, but not arrogantly, just casually, part of any working day, walk back to the dugout. As though nothing were happening.”

Rutherford has a perfect game (though I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly what that meant) and Waugh celebrates by heading to his local bar (Waugh jokingly calls the barman ‘Jake’ as he once did accidentally, mistaking him for one of his baseball players). Waugh celebrates with wine (well, beer), women (well, bar regular Hettie) and song – because his ‘game’ also contains a number of amusing songs, demonstrating that Coover’s facility with language extends to rhyme. During his amorous encounter with Hettie he insists that she call him Damon, and Coover takes great delight in describing their passion using the language of baseball:

“And…Damon Rutherford whipped off the uniform of the first lady ballplayer in Association history, and then, helping and hindering all at once, pushing and pulling, they ran the bases, pounded into first, slid into second heels high, somersaulted over third, shot home standing up, then into the box once more, swing away, and run them all again, and ‘Damon!’ she cried and ‘Damon!’”

Waugh can’t resist playing Rutherford in the next game, where he quickly nears the world record for perfect innings. Two throws of 1-1-1, however, lead him to the Extraordinary Occurrences Chart where, among the possibilities, he reads:

“Batter struck fatally by bean ball”

(A bean ball is a ball deliberately pitched to hit a batter). This eventuality would require an unlikely third throw of 1-1-1, but Rutherford is the next batter. Unfortunately he cannot find a plausible excuse to replace him, and so real is the game to him, he cannot simply do it on a whim. Of course, he throws 1-1-1:

“No one moved. All stared at the home plate. Damon lay there, on his back, gazing up at a sun he could no longer see.”

Waugh responds to Rutherford’s death as you might to the death of a loved one – in fact, his one friend at work, Lou, assumes it is someone close to him. Soon both his real life, and the Association itself, is threatened by his grief.

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. is a novel ahead of its time in its examination of the lure of virtual reality. Waugh’s ‘in-head’ life (or online life as it would be now) comes to dominate his every waking hour making holding down either a job or a relationship problematic. Recreating that imaginary existence very much as the novel we are reading is created makes the reader complicit in Waugh’s escapism, and ultimately the novel showcases the power of the imagination to triumph over reality, for good or bad. All of this is relayed with the usual verve and humour we expect from Coover, demonstrating that a novel can also triumph over its reader’s sporting ignorance.

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2 Responses to “The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    An author I’ve never read, Grant, but I’m very intrigued especially as you say he was so ahead of his time. That’s one of the joys of these clubs – the authors and books that come up can send you off on loads of different bookish explorations!

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