I picked up this book some years back on a whim. Once I read it, it became one of my all time favorites. It is a heartwarming story about friendship and the extent to which one man will go to help another. Mind you, this isn't a story about one man laying down his life for another. That sort of heroism belongs in a different class altogether. Fortunately, most of us don't find ourselves in those situations. However, all of us, in one way or another, will likely find ourselves in a situation similar to the one that Henry Wiggen finds himself in. Henry's teammate, Bruce Pearson, is a borderline major league catcher who discovers, over the winter, that he has a terminal disease. Henry, an all-star major league pitcher, is the only non-family member who knows this secret. The relationship between Henry and Bruce is not one of best friends. The relationship is based more on the fact that Henry has sold Bruce a life insurance policy (which is what the pitcher does in the off-season). As such, Bruce, somewhat limited in intelligence, puts a special sort of trust in Henry. Although it would be easy to dismiss this trust as misguided, Henry takes the full responsibility for it and puts his own career on the line in doing so. In fact, he puts both careers on the line for his teammate and does it all so that Bruce's last year on Earth is a meaningful one. See how the little secret becomes a rallying cry for an under-achieving team. The ending is poignant in many ways but our hero is there to the end.
Unless you've got ice water in your veins, this book will touch you deeply. As you read it, ask yourself, "Would I have done the same thing?" The honest answer for most of us, unfortunately, is no.
on August 11, 2007
I first read Bang the Drum Slowly as a high school student and it stayed on my mind for several days after I finished it. In fact, it had such an impact on the way that I saw life that I was more than a little reluctant to read it again, fearing that my fond memories of the book would be spoiled. That kind of thing has happened to me several times in the past, but not this time. Bang the Drum Slowly is still the great book that I experienced the first time around.
In the era before free agency rules made millionaires out of very mediocre baseball players, even all-star left-handed pitchers had to find work in the off season. Henry Wiggin, star lefthander for what was probably the best team in baseball during the early 1950s, the New York Mammoths, was no exception. Henry took to selling life insurance and annuities to his fellow ball players and he became quite good at his sales job. One of Henry's customers was Bruce Pearson, a third-string Mammoth catcher who bought an insurance policy covering his life only to later discover that he was dying of Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a disease that was incurable in the 1950s.
Bang the Drum Slowly at its base is a realistic baseball novel told in the words (and with the spelling skills) of a small town boy born during the Depression who had the physical skills to become a major league baseball pitcher. It is an honest look at what goes on off the field and in the clubhouse when athletes spend more time on the road, and with each other, than they spend with their wives and children. There are racial tensions, drinking problems, womanizing and personality clashes that have to be dealt with by management, a baseball management generally interested only in the club's bottom line.
The heart of this story, however, is the bad break that fate has handed Bruce Pearson. He faces imminent death even in what turns out to be the best season of his career. Henry Wiggin, feeling protective of the naïve Pearson, does his best to keep Pearson's secret from team management and their teammates. But when word of Pearson's situation slowly begins to leak, amazing things begin to happen to the New York Mammoths and to Bruce Pearson.
Mark Harris, who passed away just a few weeks ago, will long be remembered for Bang the Drum Slowly, a book that was chosen by Sports Illustrated as one of the Top 100 sports books of all time. This book has something for baseball fans and non-sports fans alike and, even after such a long absence, I enjoyed spending time again with Henry Wiggin.
This book was reccomended to me by someone I work with, and I was hesitant to give it a try because I am not much of a sports fan, so a book largely about baseball seemed like it would be very painful. But I am very glad that I gave it a shot because this book is actually very good. It's subject manner is on the serious side (the longtime friend and teammate of a ball player discovers he is dying) but the narration is light and easy, keeping it from getting too dense and dramatic. The style is unique and makes for a pleasant, laid back read. The characters are well drawn and effecting, you get a very good sense of them all and it is impossible not to care about them. As someone who as I said is not a sports fan I can assure you that it is very readable even if you are not also. I will definitely be giving the author's other books in the series a try (I only wish that I had started with 'The Southpaw', which is the first in the series).
on June 18, 2013
This book is one of a handful of great American sports novels. And like most great sports novels its not really about sports at all. On the surface the book tells the story of pitcher Henry Wiggin of the New York Mammoths baseball team and a single season in the mid-1950s. But below the surface its the story of Wiggins' friendship with a third string catcher named Bruce Pearson, who is dying of Hodgkin's disease. The story is refreshingly not overly sentimental which it could easily be given the subject matter. Rest assured, the book is full of home runs, stolen bases, solid pitching and locker room antics, but as the Mammoths move late into the summer and the pennant race heats up, the reader knows that the book is really about friendship and the unfairness of life.
Harris uses a somewhat strange first person vernacular to tell the story, but after the first couple of pages it seems as if Henry Wiggin is talking directly to you over a beer or a cup of coffee, telling you about that summer of baseball and what happened to his friend, Bruce. I found the technique enormously effective. I also really enjoyed some of Wiggin's observations about life and the unanswered questions he raises about the human condition. (If we all know we're going to die, why don't we go out and live it up more?)
Harris wrote this novel back in the 1950s and it clearly demonstrates how the status of professional athletes and sports in general have changed in the last half century. As someone who has written about sports in the fifties (HOOP CRAZY: COLLEGE BASKETBALL IN THE 1950S), I found this book to be something of a historical document as well as a terrific novel. All in all, I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys sports fiction or anyone who liks well written novels in general.
on April 1, 1999
"Bang The Drum Slowly", by Mark Harris, is a classic, in my opinion. It is right up there with "The Catcher in The Rye" by J.D. Salinger and "You know Me Al" by Ring Lardner. This book is moving, funny, and it makes the reader really want to know Henry "Author" Wiggen, who is the narrator and also a pitcher for the New York Mammouths. Wiggen (with Mark Harris really behind the character, of course), writes in a semi-illiterate style that simply adds to the novel's charm. It must be emphasized that this is not a baseball book, even though it takes place in a baseball atmosphere. Therefore, non-baseball fans shouldn't shy away from this brilliantly written book.
on June 2, 1997
Why this isn't included in every list of the greatest American novels, I do not know. Using baseball, the perfect milieu for an American novel, as its starting point, and written in vernacular, it covers half a dozen subjects (friendshipo, dying young, loyalty, prejudice, etc.) effortlessly, while detailing the ups and downs of one season with the New York Mammoths.
Henry "Author" Wiggen, the protagonist of Harris' equally good novel "The Southpaw", tells the story of his friend and catcher, dying of Hodgkins disease. It is smart, funny, sad and ultimately moving. You'll be surprised by the depths of this simple tale
As I was a-walking the streets of Laredo, As I walked out in Laredo one day, I spied a young cowboy all wrapped in white linen, All wrapped in white linen and cold as the clay.
I seen by his outfit that he was a cowboy, And as I walked near him these words he did sigh, Come sit down beside me and hear my sad story, I am shot in the breast and I know I must die.
It was once in the saddle I used to go dashing, Once in the saddle I used to go gay, First down to Rosie's and then to the card house, Shot in the breast and am dying today. Get 16 gamblers to carry my coffin, 6 purty maidens to sing me a song, Take me to the valley and lay the sod o'er me, I am a young cowboy and know I done wrong.
O bang the drum slowly and play the fife lowly, Play the dead march as they carry me on, Put bunches of roses all over my coffin, Roses to deaden the clods as they fall
The quartet of Henry "Author" Wiggen novels by Mark Harris are one of the high water marks in sports literature and Bang the Drum Slowly in particular is, by any measure, one of the great American novels. Writing before free agency made players millionaires and anticipating such groundbreaking tell-alls as False Spring and Ball Four, Harris treated sports realistically--players are work a day drudges who have off season jobs and swear and drink and womanize, management cares about little other than the bottom line, matters off the field effect performances on the field, etc. This honest approach, distinctive narrative voice and poignant subject matter combine to make this an unforgettable novel.
I'm sure even most folks who haven't read the book have seen the movie. Henry Wiggen, star left handed pitcher for the NY Mammoths, is called to Rochester, MN to pick up his roommate Bruce Pearson, the team's third string catcher. Pearson has just found out that he is dying from Hodgkin's Lymphoma (which is now often survivable). Henry who has always had a difficult relationship with Pearson, mostly because the catcher is such a simpleton, takes on a sort of protectors role, even ending his contract holdout with the club in exchange for a contract clause saying that Bruce can not be cut. As the season unfolds, both Henry ends up having a career year and Bruce too begins to play well, Henry's sudden friendship (including even teaching him the game of TEGWAR--The Exciting Game Without Any Rules) giving him increased confidence in himself, and the team hangs around first place. Then as fellow players begin to find out about Bruce's condition, they too lay off of riding Bruce and they start to gel as a team. Finally though, Henry gets a call from Red Traphagen, the team's retired catcher, now teaching school in San Francisco. When Red tells him that the club has wired him several emergency contract offers, Henry knows that club management has found out about the illness. They call Author up to a suite of the team's hotel to try Mau-Mauing him into releasing them from the clause and while he's there Dutch telephones Red. Their conversation provides a nice illustration of the unique patois that Harris utilizes:
Dutch said: "How much can I offer?"
"The sky is the limit," said Patricia, "but use good taste."
"Hello there, old pal," said Dutch.
"Hello there yourself," said Red. I could hear his voice but I could not hear the words. "It would all sound fine to me," said Red, "except I can not leave here. They can not find another man on such short notice."
"To do what?" said Dutch. "They can find 40,000 men in a minute."
"I am making money hand over fist out here," said Red.
"Horsefeathers," said Dutch. "Nobody makes money in such a racket but the football coach. I will up it 33 1/3 % and not one penny more."
"I can not stand the noise and the excitement," said Red. "I quit it for good and never miss it and am glad to be done with it. Keep it and best of luck."
"Very well," said Dutch, "I am sorry to troubled you."
"Goodby", said Red.
"Goodby," said Dutch.
"Goodby", said Red.
"I will up it 16 2/3 % more," said Dutch. "That is twice the first wire plus 33 1/3 % plus 16 2/3 %. I am under orders to go no higher."
"Sold," said Red, and Dutch hung up. "Somebody remember and can Diego Roberto when Red hits town," he said. "Every cloud got its silver lining."
Henry, of course, refuses to let the team off of the hook. The team ends up winning the pennant and World Series, but Bruce sickens and has to leave the team before the end of the season.
On October 7, Henry gets the call from Bruce's father informing him that Bruce has died. Henry offers this affecting epitaph:
In my Arcturus Calendar for October 7 it says, "De Soto visited Georgia, 1540." This hands me a laugh. Bruce Pearson also visited Georgia. I was his pall-bear, me and 2 fellows from the crate and box plant and some town boys, and that was all. There were flowers from the club, but no person from the club. They could of sent somebody.
He was not a bad fellow, no worse than most and probably better than some, and not a bad ballplayer neither when they give him a chance, when they laid off him long enough. From here on in I rag nobody.
The film version was on AMC the other day and I've been walking around the house singing the song. Whenever she hears me, Brooke yells at me to knock it off because it's so melancholy and reminds her of the movie. The book will have the same type of lasting impact on you; it's just one of those stories that stays with you.
on October 12, 1999
To my money better than "Shoeloess Joe" or even "The Natural." The peculiar style of dialect narration and formal dialogue put me off at first, but it quickly charmed me, and helped define Wiggen both as person and as "author." The sentiment came quietly and truthfully, and unexpectedly, particularly when a "throwaway" character reveals the source of the title, and in the great line from legendary catcher Red Traphagen about what this book should be about. Hint: not baseball ... as a baseball fan and a literature fan, I must say this is a wonderful book.
on April 17, 2008
From the sound of the spikes on the cement, the movie is authentic. From the opening lines to the end, the book is bittersweet in it's finest form. Running around the field at Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines in 1976, our shortstop, Vinnie Mallozzi from South Babylon Long Island and I, the second baseman would run and without prompting would hum or whistle "The Streets of Larado." The locker room, like the barracks or in our case, our ship, is a place for men, of lessons learned and friendships formed. Before The Natural, Fields of Dreams or Bull Durham, there were Mark Harris' novels and this movie with Robert DeNiro of all people as Bruce Pearson that showed men as they are and maybe more importantly of what they want to be. Don't play baseball much these days, but I still have a bat, a glove and a baseball. What I also do is hum Streets of Larado while on my runs, in rememberance.
on August 18, 2013
Saw this movie a long time ago. Bought the book and loved it more. Isn't that the norm, though. It is a baseball book with character. You really get to love the players and their lives outside baseball. But more than baseball, it's a story of taking care of one another as you go through life. Standing up for what is right. Supporting your fellow man. Great read and funny, too.