Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'The Natural' Of 1952 Holds Lessons For Today's MLB


There's an old baseball legend about the kid out of nowhere who boards a train for a tryout in Chicago with nothing but his toothbrush and a bat he calls Wonderboy. The kid strikes out the Whammer, the best hitter in the game, but gets to his hotel and opens his door to a pretty girl. Wham, bam, she shoots him in the stomach and he doesn't make a comeback for 15 years.

Can you make up for what should have been the best years of your life, or at least your baseball life, or is the fate of Roy Hobbs in his character? Well, that's the plot of one of the best novels ever set inside baseball - "The Natural" by Bernard Malamud in 1952. Bernard Malamud would go on to write prizewinning short stories and novels, including "The Fixer." This spring is the 100th anniversary of his birth. And in honor of the author, the publishing house Library of America has brought out an anthology of his complete works, including "The Natural." So, we have asked our literary sportsman, Howard Bryant of ESPN the magazine and, to reconsider the book that a lot of us grew up loving. Howard, thanks so much for being with us.

HOWARD BRYANT: Oh, thanks for having me.

SIMON: And, of course, I immediately note Roy Hobbs was just after he tried out for the Cubs, so the club was cursed even then, wasn't it?

BRYANT: Always Chicago, isn't it?

SIMON: Does the book stand up after all these years?

BRYANT: You know, Scott, it's really funny - I am actually embarrassed to say that I was in the 10th grade, I think, when the movie came out. I saw the movie before I read the book. And the book is fantastic. It is so wonderful. It's so much better than the movie, which is not a surprise, naturally, even though I do love Barry Levinson. I feel like it holds up even better today because Roy Hobbs is a true anti-hero. He's not a nice man. He's not necessarily even a good man. He has a lot of stubbornness and a lot of ego and he has all of these different qualities that resonate with people today because we don't believe in heroes anymore. So, when you look at his character, it's so much more recognizable today, whereas I think reading that book in 1952, I think people might have been really shocked that the great game of baseball is not the clean, pastoral game of its memory or of its image. This is a hard book. It's not a clean book. And it's a very real book. I think it's fantastic.

SIMON: Could there be a Roy Hobbs today, someone who comes out of nowhere, or in these days of viral videos, when a kid hits a grand slam in the seventh grade, it's on somebody's homepage.

BRYANT: You could make an argument that it's more likely to have a Roy Hobbs today because of social media and because of reality TV and because structure isn't what it used to be where you have that proper channels or the traditional channels finding talent. There, people are far more willing - and when I say people I mean organizations - are far more willing to look at virtually anything that might produce talent, whether it be a YouTube video, whether it be "American Idol," whether it be watching someone's video on ESPN. I mean, it's a really interesting time where in a way talent evaluation is more democratic now than ever.

SIMON: You know, the Redford movie, Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs, directed by Barry Levinson, which you noted, has a, I think there's no spoiler alert necessary after all these years, it's a very different ending than the novel because in the movie, Roy hits a home run to win the season. In Malamud's novel, he takes a bribe to throw the game. Then he can't bring himself to do it, it's discovered anyway. Do we look at players today, like, if I may, A-Rod, Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa, who said, have said one way or another as bluntly as Roy Hobbs did, I'm going to be the best ever, and think that, like, Roy Hobbs, they were undone by their ego?

BRYANT: Sure, absolutely. And I think that's the reason why the book resonate more today than maybe it even did back then. Maybe people might be a bit more desensitized to it because of all of these examples that you cited. But at the same time, the wonder of the book - and the movie as well - and don't get me wrong, that movie is on my iPad right now. I watch it all the time in different snippets. It's a fantastic, fantastic movie, even though Roy Hobbs only strikes out or hit home runs throughout the entire movie. But I think that today what you find with the way we look at heroes is extremely complicated. I think people would really love to - I think they should. I think the fact that the book is available now again in reissue is something that people should read. 'Cause I think today you would read it and you would look at it and you would say, yeah, I can identify with this. And let's not forget, it's not just the identification with the ball player; it's the identification with ourselves, this notion of get as much as you can get whenever you can get it. And it does make you reflect is it worth, and the price of all of this.

SIMON: Howard Bryant of ESPN. The Library of America's new Bernard Malamud collection, including "The Natural," is out right now. Howard, thanks so much.

BRYANT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Become a sustaining member for as low as $5/month
Make an annual or one-time donation to support MTPR
Pay an existing pledge or update your payment information