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

by Robert Coover
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 539

The Universal Baseball Association functions on several different, but interlaced, levels. In one sense, it is a story of a fantasy world, in which an aging and lonely man creates a world in which he is nearly total master of all that happens. In another sense, it is a symbolic...

(The entire section contains 539 words.)

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The Universal Baseball Association functions on several different, but interlaced, levels. In one sense, it is a story of a fantasy world, in which an aging and lonely man creates a world in which he is nearly total master of all that happens. In another sense, it is a symbolic representation of the actual world, in which events and actions have causes and meanings that are largely beyond human understanding or appreciation. Most important, perhaps, it is a meditation on what it means to be human, especially in relationships with others and within oneself.

The essence of the game Waugh invents is not what happens on the score sheets but instead the intricate and interrelated personalities that he summons up from the wonderful names he gives his ballplayers, names such as Sycamore Flynn, Melbourne Trench, Swanee Law, Old Fennimore McCaffree, Woody Winthrop, Damon Rutherford, and Jock Casey. As Robert Coover notes, “Henry was always careful about names, for they were what gave the league its sense of fulfillment and failure, its emotions.”

The novel’s linguistic play is constant. “Zifferblatt was a militant clock-watcher,” Coover notes at one point, and the attentive reader will chuckle, knowing that “Zifferblatt” in German means “clockface.” In the descriptions of Henry’s escapades with Hettie, the slang of baseball is pressed into use to describe sexual activities. Throughout the novel, the language and metaphors of baseball become symbolic representations of life.

Through this play of words, Coover touches on his main themes. The imaginary world created by Waugh achieves a sense of reality and permanence through Henry’s translation of the bare statistics into the meaningful accomplishments of imaginary, yet somehow real, personalities. Key to the game are the official logbooks that narrate and comment on the statistics. It is in these logbooks, the product of Henry’s active imagination, that the Universal Baseball Association takes shape and form.

Henry’s game, played out on a kitchen table with dice and charts, is mapped out carefully to correspond to the reality of the baseball diamond. Its ramifications, however, extend beyond that to make it a symbolic representation of human life in general.

During Henry’s extended daydreams and meditations following Rutherford’s death, the players of the UBA achieve such a level of reality that they intrude on Henry’s daily life. A simple trip to the local bar becomes, for Henry, time spent at Rutherford’s wake, a sorrowful yet rowdy affair that shows how human beings, in times of sorrow, seek to connect and communicate with one another. Ironically, Henry remains unable to make these connections or effect these communications.

In a related fashion, considered as a meditation on what it means to be human, especially in relationships with others and within oneself, The Universal Baseball Association lives up to its name, for such associations are universal. J. Henry Waugh, the creator of an entire world (his name may remind readers of the JHVH of the Old Testament) is unable to establish and continue an association with another human being. Real people such as Lou Angel and Hettie Irden pass through his world and are gone. In the end, he is left alone with his inner thoughts and his imaginary creation.

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