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

by Robert Coover
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 962

The unsuspecting first-time reader of The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. will find its first few pages confusing: A character named J. Henry Waugh, greatly excited, seems to be watching not simply an ordinary baseball game but a no-hit game in progress. Henry looks first at the sun, high over the ballpark, then at his watch, but the watch reads almost eleven o’clock, and any American reader knows that major-league baseball is not played in the morning. The confusion intensifies when Henry thinks that it may be a long night—night?—with the sun high over the park? During the seventh-inning stretch, Henry leaves his apartment and goes to the delicatessen downstairs to buy a sandwich. Henry must be watching the game on television, then.

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The mystery is resolved soon, though, when it becomes clear that the game is being played only in Henry’s mind. The contest is indeed a game, one directed with dice according to a set of rules of Henry’s devising, and played by characters existing only in his imagination.

The richly colorful world of the Universal Baseball Association, known only to Henry, contrasts strongly with his humdrum existence as an accountant. Henry is a bachelor with numerous acquaintances but apparently only one friend—another accountant named Lou Engel. Yet there seems a fitness in Henry’s attraction to, even fanaticism about, baseball. It is overwhelmingly a game of record keeping: wins and losses, batting averages, earned-run averages, and all the other statistical paraphernalia by which the baseball fan measures out his life and admiration.

Henry prefers the world located in his apartment’s kitchen. He has invented not simply a game—he has created an entire eight-team league and played out fifty-five full seasons by the opening of the novel. The number of UBA seasons (always given in Roman numerals in the novel, for example, LVI) has caught up to the fifty-six-year-old Henry’s age, a fact which seems significant to him. For only part of his passion is the rolling out of the games themselves. He has recorded each game on a scorecard, maintained all the records and statistics, and even created biographies and personalities for each of the players on each club’s twenty-one-man roster. Just as players do in real life, Henry’s players grow old and retire, new ones arrive from the “minors” and succeed or fail. Players marry, have children, and go into business or politics after retirement.

After he completes each “season,” he records all the information (including prose resumes in a parody of sports-page style) in large record books, labeled the Official Archives; forty volumes line the walls of his kitchen.

As a result of this detailed subcreation, by far the most interesting action of the novel takes place in Henry’s mind. As the book opens, Damon Rutherford, son of a Hall-of-Famer and rookie pitcher for one of the clubs, has gone seven innings without giving up a hit. As Henry rolls the dice, his excitement and concentration grow—and Damon does indeed pitch a no-hit game, to Henry’s deep delight. His next day at Horace Zifferblatt’s accounting firm (although “real” in the world of the story) seems hazy and pale by comparison with the vivid and concrete game. Both Henry and the reader wait impatiently for the evening—and the next game—to come.

When Damon next pitches, he begins again to set his opponents down in order, and Henry is nearly frantic at the thought of two no-hit games back to back. He envisions a new era for the Universal Baseball Association—the “Damon Rutherford Era”— chronicled in the future archives of his league. The turning point arrives, however, when the three dice come up all ones. This roll takes the game out of the ordinary by sending Henry to a special “Stress Chart,” according to which unusual events may occur depending on the next roll. On that next roll, each die again comes up showing a single pip, referring Henry to the “Extraordinary Events Chart,” consulted perhaps only once a season. A third consecutive roll of 1-1-1 sends Henry to the fateful line: The batter has been killed by a pitched ball, and the batter is Damon Rutherford.

The event has as heavy an impact on Henry as would the death of a son. He becomes depressed, unable to function either in the real or in his imaginary world. He provokes his employer and endangers his job despite the efforts of his friend Lou Engel to help him, and he is frightened by the depth of his involvement in his fantasy world. As the novel moves toward its conclusion, he invites Lou to play the game with him. Perhaps he hopes by sharing the fantasy to reduce it to manageable proportions, to make it simply another game, like chess or Monopoly.

The plan fails. To Lou the UBA is only a game: In a sense, Lou “demythologizes” it. Henry is angered rather than supported by Lou’s inability to enter the imaginary world. After a short and sharp argument, Lou departs, and with him departs Henry’s last chance for sanity. He is last seen planning for a future that will allow him to do nothing but play his game.

In a moving final chapter, the reader is again in the fiction within a fiction—the Universal Baseball Association—but a league darkly changed. It is season CLVII: one hundred seasons and thousands of games later. The players are fearfully beginning an annual ritual that re-creates the death of Damon Rutherford, perhaps actually sacrificing a promising young player to the god of the game—a god who sits in a kitchen he no longer notices, compulsively rolling dice.

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