Seventeen months after being shot in the chest with a rifle by an obsessed fan, Eddie Waitkus was named the Comeback Player of the Year by the Associated Press on November 10, 1950. The Phillies’ infielder hit .284 that season and led the team with 102 runs scored, as he continued to be one of the best fielding first basemen in the league.
Waitkus’s story would provide part of the inspiration for Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, published in 1952.
I finished reading Bernard Malamud’s The Natural this past week, and I continue to marvel at how different the original story played out compared to the Robert Redford movie. As far as the plot line, the two are very similar — at least, until the very end. The character of Roy Hobbs, however, is a completely different person in the novel than from how Redford portrays him.
The story begins with Roy riding a train to Chicago to try out with the Cubs. Also on the train are a sports journalist, Max Mercy, a famous baseball hitter, the Whammer, and Harriet Bird, a mysterious woman with a strong interest in the Whammer. The train stops at a carnival, and Roy accepts a challenge to pitch against the Whammer. After he strikes the hitter out, Harriet Bird’s interest turns to Roy. He declares to her that he intends to be the greatest player in the game. Later that day, at the Chicago hotel, Roy receives an invitation to join Harriet Bird in her room. The woman shoots Roy in the stomach with a silver bullet.
Approximately fifteen years later, Roy, now in his mid-thirties, joins the New York Knights. The Knights’ performance is miserable, but at first, the manager, Pop Fisher, refuses to play Roy. Finally, Roy gets the opportunity to pinch hit, and he takes advantage of the opportunity to literally hit the cover off the ball. Roy finds himself now getting the opportunity to hit on a regular basis, and his popularity rises.
Meanwhile, Roy finds himself romantically interested in Memo Paris, Pop Fisher’s niece. Unfortunately for Roy, however, Memo is already involved with the Knights’ star player, Bump Baily. Bump, upset over the attention Roy is receiving and worried about his own status with the team, starts playing more aggressively. He plays so hard that he ends up cracking his head against the wall trying to make a catch and later dies from his injury. Roy takes Bump’s place on the field and attempts to take Bump’s place with Memo as well. Memo, however, couldn’t be more indifferent to Roy’s advances if she tried.
The Knights start playing better as a team, inspired by Roy’s performance, and they begin to advance in the standings. Believing he deserves more than the meager three thousand dollars that he was being paid, Roy goes to Judge Banner to request a raise, but the Judge refuses. When the journalist Max Mercy, who is trying to learn the details of Roy’s past, learns of Roy’s conversation with the Judge, he makes mention of it in his next article. Max Mercy also takes Roy to meet the bookie, Gus Sands.
A little later, inspired by Max Mercy’s mention of Roy’s inability to get a raise, Knights fans throw “Roy Hobbs Day.” Roy receives a ridiculous array of pitiful gifts, but also receives a Mercedes. As part of his speech, Roy promises to be the best in the game, in the same way he had fifteen years previously to Harriet Bird. Fans worry that Roy is jinxing himself and the team with such a declaration.
Roy, still persistent, invites Memo Paris to go for a ride with him in his new car. Finally, Memo agrees. The date goes poorly, however, and Roy crashes the car into a ditch. To make matters worse, Roy now falls into a bad hitting slump, and the Knights’ performance dips as well. After being benched for a period, Roy enters a game as a pinch hitter. With two strikes against him, he notices a woman standing up in the crowd. Inspired by her support for him, he slams the next pitch for a home run.
Roy later meets the woman and learns her name, Iris Lemon. He does not find her as attractive as Memo, but the two go on a date all the same. They go swimming and then make love, during which Roy is stunned to learn that Iris is a grandmother. After the date, Roy refocuses his attention on Memo.
He comes out of his slump, and Memo starts paying attention to Roy again. He is also overcome by an insatiable hunger, often eating large quantities of food, but never feeling full. Memo hosts a banquet for the players prior to an important series, during which Roy is overcome by an excruciating stomachache that sends him to the hospital. Without Roy, the Knights lose their next three games, resulting in a tie for first with the Pirates. Memo visits Roy in the hospital, where Roy asks her to marry him. Memo refuses, however, explaining that she refuses to live anything but a comfortable life, and that Roy cannot provide this for her.
Soon after this, Roy is visited by Judge Banner, who offers Roy $35,000 to throw the pennant-deciding game. Still trying to win Memo, Roy reluctantly agrees. He plays less than his best, but he feels guilty the entire time. In one at-bat, he hits a foul ball into the stands, which hits Iris Lemon, who had come to watch him play. Worried, Roy goes to see how Iris is, at which time Iris tells him that she is pregnant with his child and that he must win the game for their family. Roy agrees and returns to the plate, determined. On the next pitch, Roy hits a foul ball that splits his bat, Wonderboy, cleanly down the middle.
In his final at-bat, Roy is forced to use an unfamiliar bat, but he is determined to win the game. He strikes out, however, and after the game, he finds the Judge and beats him up, throwing his money back at him. Memo, who is also in the Judge’s office, declares her hatred for Roy, accusing him of murdering Bump.
Roy stalks out, only to find a newspaper containing the latest story by Max Mercy. Max has discovered details about Roy’s past and about his role in throwing the final game. A boy asks Roy, “Say it ain’t so, Roy,” but, of course, Roy cannot do so.
The character of Roy continues to intrigue me as I think about this book, but not in a positive way. His persistent advances on Memo, in spite of her obvious lack of interest, reveal much about his person. He refuses to accept that he cannot have what he wants and, at times, takes advantage of Memo’s vulnerability. He arrogantly claims that he is destined for greatness and does not seem to realize that it is this very declaration that gets him into trouble. Malamud’s depiction of Roy’s appetites is particularly fascinating. His insatiable appetite following his night with Iris serves as a metaphor for his appetites in general. It’s not enough that he has already broken some records in his time with the Knights — he wants to break them all. He wants more food, more sex, more money. In the end, it’s his voracious hunger for all these things that gets him into trouble. I found Malamud’s nod to the Black Sox scandal a wonderful touch on the end of the novel. “Say it ain’t so” is a line that will mar baseball forever, and it will undoubtedly ring in the head of Roy Hobbs the rest of his life.
It’s not difficult to see why the movie deviated so much from the original story. A film about a gluttonous man who fails even after his conscience finally gets to him is not the kind of entertainment craved by the American populace. We demand heroes, and Robert Redford provided the kind of apple-pie-and-ice-cream story that the people desire. It would be difficult to argue, however, that Malamud’s original story reflects reality much more accurately.