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Let’s Go Read: Recapping The Universal Baseball Association

A back-and-forth on our latest selection

Image from Baseball-Reference

For the latest installment of our pseudo-book club, you, the esteemed readers of Let’s Go Tribe, selected Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc. J. Henry Waugh. Prop. (henceforth shortened to UBA because, come on). The goal for this selection was to go outside our usual realm of nonfiction and pick something a little more challenging but no less enjoyable.

I came to this book enthusiastically, hoping for a good read that transported me into a new and mysterious baseball world. I hoped to be knocked out by the book, as the New York Times’ reviewer was, to come back with a glowing report about UBA. I regret to inform you, dear reader, that this was not my experience.

Rather than a riveting, breakneck speed baseball adventure, I found myself bogged down in a wordy jumble of someone’s stream of consciousness. Much like Sycamore Flynn (one of the thousands of characters in the league) at the end of chapter three, I was lost walking into what I thought was a baseball stadium and instead finding myself among something unrecognizable. Thankfully, I was not alone; fellow Let’s Go Tribe scribe Matt Schlichting joined me in reading UBA, and together we set out to chart our thoughts on the book.

Chris Davies: I feel a little like I’m betraying our readers, because the vote wasn’t super close and the book was originally submitted via comment because someone loved it so much, but I found this book difficult bordering on impossible to fully comprehend. I usually have a personal rule that if I don’t like a book after 100 pages I’ll shelve it, but I powered through this one for the sake of the book club, hoping for a payoff at the end. That payoff didn’t come for me and, overall, I was just disappointed by the whole thing.

My biggest problem, perhaps, is that I expected this book to be a satire, but instead it read to me like a book about a man’s deteriorating mental condition bordering on complete dissociation from reality. I get that the author thinks games like the Universal Baseball Association are a vice and worthy of criticism (imagine what he would say about video games and fantasy leagues), but what he created for Henry Waugh was not just a game, it was the man’s life — and I don’t see his mania as being worthy of scorn. Perhaps the book just aged poorly in that regard, but I can only read it in 2019, so I was not a fan.

What was your general takeaway?

Matt Schlichting: As a concept, I think it’s a fascinating story. I guess there are two main threads: one, the total collapse of a man’s sense of reality as the result of obsession/mental illness; two, a sort of allegory in which J. Henry Waugh is a “god who plays with dice” and eventually loses control over his creation.

I came away from the book wondering if it would have been better served as a short story that spun one of these yarns (preferably the first) rather than a novel that doesn’t quite manage to weave them together for me. Most of the book is spent in Waugh’s head and bounces around in stream of consciousness, his reality, and his imaginations blending together. This is exceptionally difficult to pull off in a way that works for a reader; it needs to have an impact that is worth the trouble of figuring out just what is happening. In, say, The Sound and the Fury, it’s done with precision and care, and it works. In UBA, I found myself glazing over the second and third multi-page scenes with imaginary baseball players having fake conversations in a bar that doesn’t exist.

I will say that there are moments in the book that do work, and fantastically well. It’s also worth noting that it came out in 1968 and if the main character could only see Out of the Park Baseball or a rotisserie fantasy league his brain would explode.

CD: Yes, I am in complete agreement. As I was reading this I was thinking that the league itself, without any intrusion from Henry or his thoughts or debauches with “B girls,” would have made a good story on it’s own. The author developed this crazy complex world with so many characters that I literally could not keep up with whether Corncob Hamish was pitching or batting, whether Two Bags McDougall played in year XX or XV (these are not real names, but does it matter?). Maybe the story could have benefited from being simpler, with a narrower scope. For instance, the politics of the Association were brought up many times, but never really made sense at all. Perhaps it would have been more understandable if the league itself was the story, rather than Waugh as the deus ex machina making the whole league work.

However, even if the league itself were the story, I’m not sure things like, oh, the rape of the commissioner’s daughter less problematic. The fact that this was a league fable and favorite story (and song! [side note: this book had more songs than the Lord of the Rings trilogy and I was not really a fan]) of the players and that a night in Jake’s bar devolved into another rape scene (I’m pretty sure, the narration was unstable in this part) could probably never really be made less problematic.

MS: It’s like... what if Arthur Fleck just really liked baseball and got consumed with that instead of becoming the Joker?

CD: I like that analogy.

MS: The casual mention of rape in front of an entire crowd is... yeah. If his invention of a player raping the commish’s daughter and then marrying her to avoid scandal is supposed to serve as a clear signal that Waugh needs help, point taken I guess. The same with him “becoming” Damon Rutherford when he beds the prostitute (and him imagining her with a baseball bat at the plate when she grabs his cock on the street. Woo boy). It’s clear at those points that we’re in a head that isn’t quite working “correctly.” That’s why I wonder if the story would be better served by going more down an analysis of what is “wrong” with Waugh, and what really fuels the obsession and his drinking. It doesn’t feel like that really gets examined much and yeah, instead of that, we get bizarre trips through invented baseball songs and nonsensical league politics.

CD: As I read, I did find the best passages to be about Henry, rather than about the league or written from Henry’s point of view. When it was clear what he was doing, whether that was dealing with his boss at work or going to the bar, I found myself almost enjoying the story. At the very least it was comprehensible and read faster. When it lapsed, or when Henry’s mental state was off, it was a real slog to get through.

Sometimes I like a book that is challenging to get through. Faulkner, as you mentioned, can be a slog, but he usually pays off with story. Coover, on the other hand, seemed to like being difficult for difficulty’s sake. I copied down one sentence in particular for its ambiguity: “Henry sipped the sherry: the most remnant of passage, sponged from the walls of sepulchers.” I don’t think additional context for those reading this would really help parse that sentence. I had no idea what the author was saying. Perhaps that was his intention, and perhaps making the reading difficult when Henry was in a difficult state of mind was intentional as well, but that’s such a writerly thing to do and it annoys me as a reader.

I noted at the end of my copy, in the brief biography of Robert Coover, that the author was a product of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. There are many writers who have sprung from that program whose work I like, but even those individuals can fall into over-writing. Another sentence I wrote down because of its smugness was “The whiskey was having a wonderfully balsamic effect.” On Merriam-Webster, you’ve got to click through entries for “balsamic,” “balsam,” and then read the fifth entry for “balm” (“a soothing restorative agency”) in order to get to what I believe Coover was trying to convey. I don’t expect anyone to write with the clarity of Hemingway, but this was pretty excessive, and the story resolution — whatever that 50 (I think) year leap at the end was, if you could call it resolution — does not provide a payoff to make it worth while.

Let’s talk about the ending a little, did the neat little tie up for Waugh (existing savings and a possible temp job) and then the skip ahead for the league work for you?

MS: Only if the implication is that we’re supposed to think that the savings and temp job aren’t actually going to be enough and he is crashing into certain ruin. I think the time jump kind of alludes to this? I feel like he’s straight-up hallucinating the world he’s created at the very end, now, with little control over that world or the one he actually exists in because of how far he’s spiraled. Possibly under a bridge with Steel Reserve somewhere because he can’t afford VSOP anymore.

Another question: is Waugh what we recognize today (but wouldn’t in 1968) as somewhere on the autism spectrum? I’m not sure that it matters one way or the other but he definitely exhibited signs of Asperger’s.

CD: My wife is a special educator, and she’s taught me that everyone falls on the spectrum somewhere — that’s how a spectrum works. But I certainly see what you’re describing. Waugh doesn’t fit our idea of what is socially acceptable; this is most obvious when he’s with his friend Lou, who seems typical enough, and he’s struggling not to revert inward to his little UBA world. Waugh struggles with authority, such as his boss, he prefers to be alone, and so on. In short, he reads like a character that might be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Which brings me back to my initial problem: Amazon, GoodReads, pretty much anywhere that describes the book says that it is a satire. I’m fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea of someone that is not typical being the subject of a satire. I don’t know (and I’m not asking) where you would fall on the spectrum, but I’d wager that if Coover read your OOTP articles he would have some thoughts about your mental being.

If I can shift a bit away from the negative side of things, was there anything about the book you really enjoyed?

MS: There is a reverence for the uniqueness of baseball and the game’s ability to be compared across generations that I enjoyed. Even when they’re fake players and teams that came across. And who can’t identify with their favorite, young player not panning out one way or another? In this case it’s caused by tragedy, but whether due to injury or other causes I can think of relatable scenarios. Maurice Clarett, for example.

CD: Talking through this with you makes me enjoy that a little bit more than I did when I was reading it. It kind of reminds me of The Glory of Their Times, which has a lot of recollections from early 20th century ballplayers, and even when I didn’t know the events they were discussing I found that to be so engrossing and rewarding.

Thanks to Matt and anyone else who read along with us. If you have any comments about the book, please share them in the comments. It would be great to get a dialog going about things that I missed or things that others enjoyed.