Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 881
In section one, “Pre-Game,” nineteen-year-old pitcher Roy Hobbs journeys by train to Chicago for a tryout with the Cubs. He is accompanied by Sam Simpson, an alcoholic former major-league catcher and scout who hopes to use his discovery of Roy to resurrect his scouting career. Roy is naïve, self-centered, and unsophisticated. With his homemade bat, Wonderboy, fashioned from a tree that had been split by lightning and seems to possess an energy all its own, Roy is, however, a superbly gifted ballplayer.
Also on the train is Walter “the Whammer” Wambold, aging American League batting champion and three-time winner of the Most Valuable Player Award. When the train is mysteriously delayed, Roy and the others wander over to a nearby carnival, where the Whammer displays his prowess in a batting cage and Roy attracts a crowd by throwing baseballs at milk bottles. As the rivalry builds to its confrontation, Sam bets that Roy can strike out the Whammer with three pitches. After the third pitch, the Whammer drops the bat and returns to the train, “an old man.”
Roy’s triumph brings him to the attention of Harriet Bird, who guards a shiny black box as jealously as Roy guards Wonderboy. Excited by Roy’s victory in “the tourney,” she tells him he is like “David jawboning the Goliath-Whammer, or was it Sir Percy lancing Sir Maldemer, or the first son (with a rock in his paw) ranged against the primitive papa?” Roy responds, “I’ll be the best there ever was in the game.” “Is that all?” Harriet asks. Harriet turns out to be the mysterious woman Roy had heard about who shot promising young athletes with silver bullets. Soon after, in a Chicago hotel room, Roy reaffirms his determination to become the best player who ever lived. Harriet reaches into her mysterious hatbox, draws out a gun, and shoots Roy in the stomach with a silver bullet.
Section two, “Batter Up,” takes place fifteen years later. Ashamed of his nearly fatal “accident” in Chicago, Roy is determined to begin a new life after years of wandering and working at odd jobs. As an outfielder, Roy tries out with the New York Knights, a team that had amassed a record number of losses. To win a starting spot in the lineup, Roy has to displace the Knight’s current left fielder, batting champ Bump Bailey, who looks out solely for himself and whose batting prowess does little to inspire his teammates. The rivalry ends when Bump, trying valiantly to match Roy’s flawless fielding, crashes into the left field wall and dies of his injuries. With the aid of Roy’s superhuman skills, the team begins a miraculous drive for the pennant.
Pop Fisher, the aging manager of the Knights and a former major-league player himself, hopes to lead the Knights to the world championship. He becomes Roy’s spiritual father. Pop’s ambition, however, is being thwarted by the forces of evil in the form of Judge Banner, a profit seeker who owns sixty percent of the Knights’ stock. Pop had sold stock to the judge with the stipulation that the manager would retain control over player deals “as long as he lives.” Yet he is slowly losing control. The judge harasses the manager in an effort to force Pop to resign so that the judge can seek profits rather than victory. The power behind the judge is Gus, the supreme bookie, who uses the magic of statistics and knows that playing the percentages pays off in the long run.
As the team makes its final drive for the pennant, Roy is distracted by his fatal attraction to Memo Paris, the niece of Pop Fisher and former girlfriend of Bump Bailey. Pop warns Roy that she will “weaken your strength,” but even after Roy discovers that she is in league with Gus and the judge, his passion for her continues unabated. Roy also has an affair with Iris Lemon, a woman in Chicago who brings Roy out of his batting slump by rising up in the stands as an expression of support.
One night Roy eats so much that he becomes sick and ends up in a maternity hospital. He is told by the doctor that he will recover in time to play in the final game of the season, on whose outcome the elusive pennant rests—but that the game will be his last. Memo tells him that she demands a husband who can provide her with expensive things. To have Memo, Roy accepts a payoff from the judge to throw the crucial playoff game. Near the end of the game, however, Iris’s presence in the stands causes Roy to decide he cannot go through with the fix. Wonderboy splits in half when Roy swings at the ball with fierce determination. Without Wonderboy, Roy strikes out “with a roar” on three pitches and walks away, like the Whammer before him, an old man.
In the final scene, Roy repudiates the betrayal by throwing the bribe money at the judge. On the street outside, Roy, like Shoeless Joe Jackson in 1919, painfully listens as a newsboy, carrying a stack of papers spreading word of the suspected fix to the world, implores mournfully, “Say it ain’t true, Roy.”
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