Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 705
Much of the action in The Southpaw concerns the experiences of Henry Wiggen, a young left-handed pitcher, after he joins the New York Mammoths and becomes part of their fight to win the pennant in the year 1952. Henry Wiggen relates his experiences in his own language, and his viewpoint...
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Much of the action in The Southpaw concerns the experiences of Henry Wiggen, a young left-handed pitcher, after he joins the New York Mammoths and becomes part of their fight to win the pennant in the year 1952. Henry Wiggen relates his experiences in his own language, and his viewpoint is emphasized in the novel’s full title: The Southpaw, by Henry W. Wiggen: Punctuation Freely Inserted and Greatly Improved by Mark Harris. Born in Perkinsville, a small town in upstate New York, Henry Wiggen, like the entire town, is devoted to baseball. When he discovers that the local library has books on baseball, he works his way through a series of “How to Play Baseball” books as well as a series of adventure books about Sid Yule, a thinly disguised version of Henry’s idol, the great left-handed pitcher Sam Yale. After joining the Mammoths and becoming acquainted with Sam, Henry frequently alludes to passages in Sam Yale—Mammoth, a book that lauds clean living and obedience to authority, supposedly written by Sam. Sam finally suggests that Henry have his father send him the book.
When Sam reads the book which he is supposed to have written, he comments to Henry that it is “horseshit,” qualifying that judgment with the observation that the book is all right for most kids because they do not “aim very high.” Sam’s words are filtered through Henry’s grammatical constructions: “Those that aim high when they get there finds out that they should of went somewhere else.” Henry pretends to agree, but Sam discounts Henry’s assumed sophistication:It will take you 15 years to find out. You get so you do not care. It is all like a ball game with nobody watching and nobody keeping score and nobody behind you. You pitch hard and nobody really cares.
In addition to revealing that he did not write the book that Henry has been reading and rereading once a week for years, Sad Sam tells Henry that the actual author of the book is Krazy Kress, a corrupt sportswriter with a series of angles for making money out of everything from benefit dinners to tours to Korea for entertaining the troops. These revelations inspire Henry to write The Southpaw, in which he sets out to tell the true story of baseball.
The action of The Southpaw centers on Henry’s gradual recognition of the emptiness of Sam Yale, the corruption of Krazy Kress, and the lack of humanity of Dutch Schnell, manager of the Mammoths. Henry’s coming of age occurs when he refuses either to apologize for or to retract the statement “Leave us forget Korea,” which Krazy Kress uses as the focal point for a column attacking Henry. Henry rejects the false position of entertaining the troops, who are fighting a war in which he does not believe. Patricia Moors, the wealthy owner’s daughter, tries to intimidate Henry by telling him that he owes it to the “organization” to respond to the column. Henry refuses to bow to the pressure and in so doing accepts the responsibility for his individuality and asserts a personal morality.
The story of the maturation of Henry Wiggen could have become sentimental, but this ostensibly simple story of a boy’s development is interlaced with arresting descriptions of baseball games. Harris succeeds in making the reader care about the fortunes of the team, the outcome of games, the success or failure of the players. During his youthful binge of reading baseball stories, Henry happens upon those of Ring Lardner and comments that the stories do not “amount to much, half his stories containing women in them and the other half less about baseball then what was going on in the hotels and trains. He never seemed to care how the games came out.” In contrast, the games themselves are brilliantly described in The Southpaw, engaging the reader in the play-by-play. The juxtaposition of the excitement of the game with Henry’s growing awareness of what goes on in “hotels and trains” turns The Southpaw into a triumph of comic realism. Because this baseball novel takes a profound look at social mores, it is as memorable and thought-provoking as it is amusing.