Book Review: The Universal Baseball Association by Robert Coover

The Universal Baseball Association by Robert Coover, (Minerva, 1992), 242 pages

If you love baseball and novels, a baseball novel should be the perfect way to combine the two passions; however, there’s always a fear with any sport-based work of fiction that the qualities that make up a great read can be lost beneath the desire to fill it with details designed to appeal to sports fans. 

Perhaps the best way around this problem is for the sport to be a backdrop to the ‘real’ story, rather than its sole focus?  The Universal Baseball Association certainly suggests this is true.  It isn’t simply a piece of baseball fiction, but rather a very good novel that happens to refer to the sport, or more specifically to a baseball game devised by the intriguing protagonist: Henry Waugh. 

The Universal Baseball Association is Robert Coover’s second novel, first published in 1968.  It explores the idea of creationism and the corrupting effects of power through Waugh’s obsession with his baseball game.  The middle-aged, bored accountant had devised other games in the past, but none took over his life quite like this.  The game described by Coover is similar in design to real-life classics such as Strat-O-Matic Baseball and APBA: combining player cards, dice and a collection of sheets that help to determine what each seemingly innocent throw will lead to. 

Waugh has no real interest in baseball; the sports itself holds only a marginal appeal to him. The captivating feature of his game is that it makes him the sole architect of a separate world.  As he remarks to his friend Lou:

“I never even wanted to be a [baseball] manager.  Of course, being manager of every team in the league at once, that might not be so bad”.

“Oh, I don’t think they’d let you, Henry”.

“No, you’re right”, Henry smiled, “they probably wouldn’t let me”.

Not only would Waugh not be allowed to manage every team in the real world, the real world seemingly didn’t even allow him to manage his own life.  Stuck in an uninspiring job and living on his own while occasionally picking up ‘B-girls’, a frustrated Waugh found solace in the baseball world he created.  The game itself had developed into a staggeringly complex affair, but even so, each set of nine innings amounts to just one minute event in the grand scheme of Waugh’s world. 

Every individual game is part of a season and every season is another chapter in a long history that is painstakingly documented in ‘The Book’.  A player isn’t simply a name on a scoresheet to Waugh.  He is a fully formed person: from his playing ability to his physical appearance; someone with a life outside the diamond (such as what he does during the offseason) and a family stretching back for generations. 

The world we are welcomed into leaves the reader in no doubt as to how deeply immersed Waugh is in the game and the point is expertly driven home when he finally decides to let two other people see it.   Hettie, a gap-toothed companion, howls with laughter when she finds that the baseball league Waugh obsesses over is a ‘mere’ game, much to his humiliation.  Then his friend Lou is left completely baffled by the game’s rules and puts Waugh into a frustrated rage as he dares to play it as if it is a board game rather than the latest instalment in an epic drama of utmost importance.  Hattie and Lou are not exactly super-achievers in life, but they neatly represent the imperfect face of sanity against Waugh’s ordered chaos. 

While the wooden leader board on the wall and the specially printed lineup cards are a visual sign of his obsession, the hold that the game has on Waugh’s life begins to be made public by his erratic behaviour.  Coover’s narrative switches between the real world and the fantasy world of Waugh’s Association.  It can be slightly confusing at times, but that reinforces the way in which Waugh increasingly becomes unable to distinguish between the two.  For example, there is one extended scene involving a cast of characters from the Association that the reader initially follows as a plain narrative section.  Later on in the book, a small aside by Pete, the local bartender, suggests that the scene didn’t just unravel in Waugh’s head, but was played out by the drunken protagonist acting like a man possessed. 

Waugh gets caught in a depressing spiral: the game takes over his life, his real life begins to unravel even more as a result and this makes him sink even deeper into his imaginary world. It’s a descent that reveals the destructive effect of someone who seeks absolute dictatorial power. However hard you try to be in control of every detail, some forces will remain beyond your reach and the quest to master them can lead to madness.  In Waugh’s case, that force is the set of dice:

“Oh sure, he was free to throw away the dice, run the game by whim, but then what would be the point of it? … Even though he’d set his own rules, his own limits, and though he could change them whenever he wished, nevertheless he and his players were committed to the turns of the mindless and unpredictable – one might even say, irresponsible – dice.  That was how it was. He had to accept it, or quit the game altogether”.

Quitting the game wasn’t an option for Waugh, but being at the mercy of the dice produced a suffocating pressure that ultimately made him crack.  When he fixes a roll of the dice, the final plank of reality comes crashing down and sets off a surreal ending to the book.  That ending, along with the occasionally disorientating shifts between reality and fantasy, can make the Universal Baseball Association a little difficult to fully come to terms with on first reading.  It’s an engrossing read when you first come to it, but a second reading really allows you to immerse yourself in the story and the full effect of Coover’s writing.

The Universal Baseball Association would greatly appeal to any baseball fan that likes a good novel.

Have you read “The Universal Baseball Association”? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.

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3 Responses to Book Review: The Universal Baseball Association by Robert Coover

  1. Joe Gray December 11, 2009 at 10:20 pm #

    This review has made me seriously rethink my interpretation of the book, and for the better.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but missed a lot of stuff that now seems so obvious once I’ve read your review!

    Great work.

    Joe

  2. Andy December 12, 2009 at 9:50 pm #

    This is an excellent review. A couple of points you made are worth emphasizing even more.

    First, the book isn’t “about baseball.” Knowing and loving baseball (especially if you played baseball board games as a kid – or as an adult) will certainly magnify the meaning and enjoyment of the way in which Coover portrays Waugh, the protagonist. But the point isn’t that there’s a baseball simulation. As you point out, it’s that Waugh can’t extricate himself from his fantasy, and in fact the more elaborate it becomes the more trapped he finds himself. The feeling of desperation and impending doom that permeates the last third of the book is hard to deal with, but also masterly from a literary point of view.

    Second, as you mention at the end, this book bears re-reading, perhaps after a couple of years. New layers and meanings will reveal themselves.

    I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with Mr. Coover, the author, about 15 years ago. He left me with the impression of a gruff, intense person who doubts that others can appreciate the layers of meaning and insight that he weaves into his books. He’s probably right.

    If you want more, I recommend his work, “The Origin of the Brunists.”

    • Matt Smith December 13, 2009 at 9:26 pm #

      Thanks both for your comments. Thanks also Andy for your book recommendation. I’ll look into it.

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