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

by Robert Coover
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The Plot

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., creates an alternate reality that echoes and comments on the human condition. Using the game of baseball as symbolic of human life in general, especially life’s spiritual and sexual urgings, The Universal Baseball Association , as the novel is most...

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The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., creates an alternate reality that echoes and comments on the human condition. Using the game of baseball as symbolic of human life in general, especially life’s spiritual and sexual urgings, The Universal Baseball Association, as the novel is most often known, is a humorous, profound, and often moving work.

The plot is simple. J. Henry Waugh, an accountant with the firm of Dunklemann, Zuber and Zifferblatt, has created a baseball game in which events are determined by the rolls of three dice and a series of tables indicating specific events, as well as by Waugh’s own considerable imagination. Having established a league with eight teams, Waugh plays season after season on his kitchen table. As the novel opens, he is deep into the fifty-sixth season. Not entirely coincidentally, fifty-six is his age.

Damon Rutherford, pitcher son of a famous pitcher of the UBA, accomplishes that rarest of baseball feats, a perfect game, in which the opposing team has no runners reach first base. It is a mystical event in Henry’s life, and he celebrates by making actual contact with another human being by picking up Hettie Irden, the “B-girl” from the local bar, and making wild, passionate love with her.

Henry is late for work the next day, but he does not care. He even leaves early after being lectured by his boss, Horace Zifferblatt. His only interest is in returning home to play the next game of the Universal Baseball Association. Against his better judgment, he has Rutherford pitch with only one day of rest. A sense of foreboding fills the imaginary stadium of Henry’s imagination, and it is fulfilled when Rutherford is killed by a beanball thrown by fellow rookie Jock Casey.

Distraught, Henry loses all interest in his “real” life. He can hardly function at work; his second, and final, sexual encounter with Hettie Irden ends badly; and he plays endless games of the Universal Baseball Association obsessively but without enjoyment. His only passion is to beat Jock Casey and his team. Finally, Lou Angel, Henry’s friend from the office, visits, bringing pizza with him. Henry drives Lou away but eats the pizza and drinks some beer. He then spews out the beer, symbolically purging the troubles within himself. For the first and only time in his league, he cheats, playing a game in which he manipulates the dice so that Jock Casey is killed.

The novel concludes with a jump ahead in time to the Universal Baseball Association’s centenary year. Players reenact the duel between Casey and Rutherford in a ritual replaying of the mythic event. The book ends as the game begins, leaving the reader ignorant of how the final game ends, or if it is indeed final.

Literary Techniques

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 516

This is technically Coover's most brilliant achievement in the novel form, rivaling his stories "The Babysitter" and "A Pedestrian Accident" in originality and effectiveness. Coover's technique is to blur deliberately the distinctions readers can make between the world Henry inhabits and the one he creates. As critics often note, when the novel opens, readers seem to learn of the description of a literal baseball game — as if they were at a ballpark. When the hero steps out to get food and beer, readers must change their perspective; now perhaps they are watching someone watch a game on television, even if the team or player names are unfamiliar (most mimetic baseball novels, like Bernard Malamud's The Natural (1952), use recognizable teams); eventually, while Henry eats his sandwich and handles the dice, readers realize what kind of game is being played.

Similar confusion about which is more real, the world Henry inhabits or that he creates, is deliberately created by the author throughout the novel, so that readers experience the same epistemological confusion Henry does. As the book proceeds, the created world impinges more and more heavily on the experienced one. After Damon's death, Henry goes to Lou's to visit and, announcing a "death" listens to classical music; quickly Lou's apartment becomes a "cathedral," and the strains of Purcell and Mozart become funeral music. Leaving the apartment/cathedral in despair, Henry goes to Pete's (Jake's) bar for a wake, where Association ballplayers congregate. He apparently creates quite a scene, for Pete later comments on how boisterous Henry was, presumably acting out some of the antics of his ballplayers as he got drunk. Perhaps Henry sang Shaw's bawdy "Ballad of Long Lew Lydell" for the real customers.

Coover's brilliant final chapter completes the design and fulfills the theme of the novel. Henry, the god/man creator of his universe, is absent. The players assemble to fulfill some kind of ritual, the exact nature of which is a mystery to some of them and to the reader. It seems to be an All-Star game, but the implications are tribal and mythic. The best rookies are gathered on "Damonsday" to enact again "the Parable of the Duel," a synthesis of the killing of Damon and that of Jock. The rookies, representing a wide range of theological and philosophical options from faith to doubt to nihilism, debate what the ritual is, whether it has meaning, whether Henry exists, whether Jock was evil and Damon good or vice versa. As they debate the initiation ceremony, hints are dropped suggesting that it may involve some kind of sacrifice. Hardy Ingram, a descendant of the catcher whose batted ball killed Casey and who enacts Damon's role today, feels himself actually becoming Damon; but who takes Jock's role remains a secret, and the book ends when Hardy/Damon, poised and cool on the mound, recognizes that participation in the process is more important than whatever meaning people may choose to attach to it: "It's not a trial . . . not even a lesson. It's just what it is." Coover's second novel, however, is "what it is" and much more.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 200

Basbanes, Nicholas, A. “The Traditionalist and the Revolutionary.” Biblio (September, 1998): 10. An interesting profile of Penelope Fitzgerald and Robert Coover that offers insight into the different ways each approaches writing. Although Basbanes does not directly discuss Coover’s novel, the essay does reveal Coover’s thoughts on fiction writing, a subject that has a bearing on The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.

Maltby, Paul. Dissident Postmodernists: Barthelme, Coover, and Pynchon. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991. An astute comparative analysis of the differences and similarities between the works of these three authors. The discussion of Coover is particularly perceptive. A bibliography is included for further reading.

Miguel-Alfonso, Ricardo. “Mimesis and Self-Consciousness in Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association.” CRITIQUE: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 37 (Winter, 1996): 92-107. Miguel-Alfonso argues, using a baseball motif, that Coover’s novel deals with interactions between the various components of fictional writing. He analyzes Coover’s control of the story, referentiality, the interplay between writer and reader, and other story elements.

Ott, Bill. Review of The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., by Robert Coover. Booklist 95 (September 1, 1998): 168. A brief but favorable review which addresses the issue of free will in Coover’s novel.

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