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The Celebrant: A Novel
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on October 11, 2000
I thought "The Natural" and the Kinsella books, "Shoeless Joe" and "The Iowa Baseball Confederacy" were just too dark and odd. Coover's "Universal Baseball Association" was so obsessive-compusive...
Until now, my favorite baseball novel was "If I Never Get Back", by Darryl Brock. This is a wonderful novel with a strong historical link to the 1869 Red Stockings, as the main character joins the Cincy team and travels with them throughout the East Coast and even off to San Fransisco. Add time travel, Mark Twain, buried treasure and a love interest, and this novel is a blast.
But I now have a new favorite.
"The Celebrant" by Erick Greenberg
I read about this book on various lists of great baseball books, but the plot always seemed to sound a bit weak. Well, it is a masterpiece. The research done by Greenberg to get the Mathewson baseball correct is sooo cool. From the details of the Merkle Boner to the Snograss Muff and the subsequent call-off of Merkle in favor of Chief Meyers by Matty... From Matty quitting in shame as manager of Cincinnatti after the Hal Chase debacle and enlisting for WWI to the Black Sox World Series of 1919. Game after game sounds like a current event. Very cool, very accurate stuff. This is early 20th century baseball as if you were there. Combine that with the insight into the title character's immigrant family and their establishment of their jewelry business and its intertwining with baseball. Add some wonderful prose. A true masterpiece.
Here's a favorite passage, describing Honus Wagner:
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"Honus Wagner matched Mathewson for size, and in the infield he stood like a gnarled oak with bowed roots, his large arms branching nearly to the ground; with his oversized hands, he'd scoop up anything hit to his enormous range, gathering with the ball a large measure of infield dirt, and he would fling the whole package toward first base, debris trailing off like a comet's tail, the toss ever straight and true."
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Another longer passage, on the difficulty of being Mathewson the hero. This was on the eve of Matty pitching the delayed game 7 of the 1912 World Seies at Fenway. All of the pressure of the failure of 1908 and the expectations of being Mathewson weigh on the great pitcher. Hugh Fullerton, the baseball writer, is talking to Kapp, the book's main character, who has just learned that Matty refers to him as the 'celebrant of his works' through his jewelry designs and gifts to the pitcher:
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"Have you ever considered what he is to himself? What it's like to be Christy Mathewson? Imagine it. You know perhaps five hundred people by name, but fifty million know you. You make no more than ordinary demands upon people; you don't insist that the sandwich you order for lunch be the most marvelous sandwich ever made, or that the bootblack's shine dazzle the blind, yet the sandwich-maker and the bootblack and millions like them expect the superhuman from you, and finally they'll accept nothing less. Expectation becomes demand, and it extends to everyone and everything. You hear the crowd groan if you give up a single hit; they expect a no-hit game. Give up a run and people say you're off your game. Even your teammates turn to you to save them after they foul up the simplest plays. The writers make you a standard of excellence, and if a rival wins nineteen games in a row you're expected to win twenty. The world makes you a god and hates you for being human, and if you plead for understanding it hates you all the more. Heros are never forgiven their success, still less their failure." ... Fullerton put on his hat. "Matty told me you were once a pitcher. I suspect that your [jewelry design] work is infused with the wish that you were he. You're not alone. Inside every sportswriter there's a frustrated athlete, according to the old saw. Why not? The same thing is inside every fan, or anyone who ever picked up a bat and a ball. But Kapp, you ought to thank God that your arm went bum. It might be you in Gethsemane tonight."
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on April 25, 1998
One of the best baseball novels I have ever read! The author, Eric Rolfe Greenberg, wonderfully interweaves the era in American history before World War II, both baseball and non-baseball, as seen through the eyes of a fictitious immigrant Jewish family with the character development of that family. Every character, including the minor ones, is fully and realistically developed. My only minor criticism is that the denouement following the decision that climaxes the novel was handled somewhat clumsily, but that doesn't detract from this novel's 10 rating. The discerning reader will continue to ask himself two questions long after he has finished the novel: 1) Would I have made the same decision and 2) Who is the Celebrant? From a 1998 perspective, he will also have discovered some ticklish historical irony. My favorite dramatic moment is Giant manager John McGraw's dramatic confrontation with umpire Hunkerin' Hank O'Day after the famous Merkle incident.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on October 13, 1999
Why are so many great baseball stories essentially tragic ones? This novel is the best baseball novel I've yet read, and I can understand how fans of the novel can consider it a religious experience. It's a story of worship, that most essential of human activities, a baseball fan's worship of the first true immortal of the game. Its details are rich without being overwhelming, its characterization classic and familiar but not trite. The dynamic between the celebrant--the jewel designer Jackie Kapinski--and the celebrated, Christy Mathewson, plays out like Greek myth or biblical narrative, and exposes the need for, and dangers of, someone to believe in.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on May 4, 2004
This book not only takes you back in time to see the early baseball legends so clearly you think you actually watched them play, but it also creates a picture of the era they lived in: life-style, business experience, ethnic experience. It would make a great choice for a high school student doing a book report or history report on the early 20th century.
The Celebrant shows us the origins of hero worship at the birth of the pop culture era - both good and bad. Jackie's love of Matty is embodied in the beauty of the rings he gave the pitcher and at the same time it is obsession that leads (at least in part) to the destruction of someone Jackie has a "real-life" relationship with (as opposed to one based on fantasy).
Some reviewers here are not satisfied with the ending, but I kind of enjoyed the ambiguity of it. This man will never be able to remember the joy of watching Matty pitch without also thinking of the personal tragedy it will forever be linked with. The great and the terrible are forever woven together in a past we see clearly through Jackie's memories.
This observation won't make sense unless you've seen the film, but there's an epilogue at the end of Barry Lyndon (and I'm butchering it) - "all these souls, whether good or evil, great or small, are all long dead and forgotten save to memory." Something like that. That's how this book plays out. It's very much in the past. Very much a part of distant memory and yet Grenberg gives us access to those memories as if they are our own. When I see picture of Matty now I smile as if I watched him play myself. And there's saddness in the memory. I remember Matty's life cut short and I remember Eli. And they both are equally real to me.
Anyway, it's a wonderful time machine and you need to have that baseball fan in your life read it - especially if it's a young person who never heard of the "immortals."
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on June 1, 2003
Essential to understanding and enjoying "The Celebrant" is knowing just who Christy Mathewson is. The book is half the action on the field, the dugouts and the offices, half the business of the Kapinskis, a Jewish immigrant family who carry a high fanatical esteem of Mathewson. But the book is very much baseball, so understanding the "hero" status of Mathewson would be helpful, and the author assists with tiny statistical boxes laced throughout the book.
The book is also a zealous, near-stalkerish account of Mathewson, famous for his 327 wins (with the highest winning percentage of all righties), career 2.13 earned run average, as well as his blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Bucknell-educated pedigree. The tall Mathewson dominated the early 1900s by developing a "fadeaway" pitch that tailed into righthanders, more familiar as today's screwball.
The book follows the Kapinskis gradual absorption into the baseball world after the younger brother, a talented artist, designs a beautiful commemorative World Series ring in an era when such rings weren't commonplace. His business savvy and gambling-addicted brother pushes all the deals and the pair soon gain prominence not only within the jeweler's circle, but in baseball, particularly with their worshipped idol Mathewson, the rest of his teammates and hard-as-nails manager McGraw.
The book includes many historical aspects of baseball: the gambling scene that once heavily threatened to ruin the game; the pre-free agency relationship that had owners literally owning their players (who had little control over their careers), and the gradual integration of all sorts of fans into the game.
It's a good read, leaving you with the sort of feeling you get after watching a long baseball movie based on fact.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on February 3, 2003
First of all, let me say that I very rarely read fiction-it's just not my thing. With that in mind, The Celebrant is one of the best books I've ever read. It gets its hooks in you early with a captivating yarn, and an interesting writing style.
What bothers me is the ending. Is it a lesson on the dangers of hero worship? Is it a coincidence that Jackie acts on the words of Mathewson after meeting him for only the second time? What if he hadn't gone to see him? I don't think he would have made the same decision. What did his action accomplish?
This is what really bothered me.
Eli had already been cut off from the family business-he wasn't going to take anyone else down with him. Tough love gone askew?
Was Jackie blindly following the words of Mathewson, or had Mathewson's mind created some twisted higher standard others should follow, unbeknownst to Jackie? This ending caught me offguard, especially after the lecture Arthur got about how valuable Eli was to the company in it's beginning, and he should be taken care of now. Am I not my brother's keeper? I guess not...
These questions aside, this is masterful writing. The World Series games come alive as never before. McGraw, Merkle, Snodgras, Hal Chase, and the fictional Kapinski family all intertwine in this splendid tale. What a movie this would make!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 1, 2011
This is a very enjoyable book, full of fictional and nonfictional characters and events. The plot works well, the characters are interesting, their struggles important. I read it once and want to read it again. It deserves to be in the top five of all baseball novels.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 10, 2012
Sports Illustrated picked this as one of the best baseball novels and I heartily agree. Greenberg brings a time and place to life - New York when the Giants were the lords of baseball and the Yankees were beginning to intrude on their dominant position. I think the portraits of the great Mathewson, his fabled manager and the men who played for the Giants are all outstanding. If you liked The Glory of Their Times you will enjoy this novel.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 2011
Really not much to say in addition to the wonderful reviews other than READ this book. It's beautiful in it's simplicity, story and language. The voice of the narrative is so authentic, the baseball is educational, but the book is a lot more than just a baseball book. It's a glimpse into America's past in so many ways with baseball being the central piece. Highly reccomend!!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 12, 2009
There's little to add to the many glowing comments recorded here, except to say that as historical fiction focused on baseball, this book contains all that is great about the American novel, it vividly recreates the time period, it has strong character development and it conjures vivid images about the sport its protagonist celebrates. Guess there was plenty to say...
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