Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Crazy Roommate

If I could time-travel, one of the first items on my "things-to-do" list would be to barnstorm through the late 19th and early 20th Century and attend a lot of baseball games.

I'd love to see a few 19th Century games, with Hoss Radbourn pitching for the Providence Grays. It would be wonderful to jump ahead a few decades later and watch teams led by Connie Mack or John McGraw or Miller Huggins in action; to see Rogers Hornsby slap a single or Babe Ruth hit one into the bleachers or Tinkers, Evers and Chance turn a double play. Watching Satchel Page and Josh Gibson face off in a Negro League game would be another highlight.

Of course, my view of early baseball is dangerously close to being romanticized. The racial segregation would be there and I'd probably get beaten up if I suggested it was a bad idea. The stands would be full of rowdy, drunken fans spitting out so much tobacco juice that my gag reflex would be activating several times an inning. The players wouldn't be much better.  But I think I'd be willing to put up with that for the sake of seeing a few games from the days before designated hitters, wild card teams and other Abominations Against Nature.

But at least we still have the excellent baseball fiction from that era. I wrote about Zane Grey's baseball fiction a few years ago. Probably the most respected writer of baseball fiction from the early 20th Century is Ring Lardner. Lardner had a conversational prose style that vividly brought his stories to life.

"My Roomy" is a combination of slapstick humor and an examination of an obsessive personality who can't handle being in the Majors. The unnamed narrator is explaining why he slumped at the end of one season--it was a lack of sleep caused by his roommate.

That roommate is a rookie named Elliot, who can hit just about any pitch thrown at him, but is an utterly hopeless fielder. So he ends up serving as a pinch hitter--smashing out homers and triples. Well, smashing out hits if he doesn't strike out because he was laughing at something he saw at the nickelodeon the night before. He's also stubborn--tell him not to steal home after a triple and he'll try it just out of spite, getting thrown out easily. The manager wants to release him, but he whacks game-winning RBIs just often enough to keep him around.

On road trips, no one can stand Elliot as a roommate for more than a couple of nights. He runs the water in the bathtub all night because he likes the sound; or he turns on all the lights at 2 am so that he can shave, waving the razor around just enough to keep his roommates from complaining. On several occasions, he breaks into song loudly enough to nearly get the entire club ejected from the hotel.

The narrator uses some reverse psychology to keep Elliot quiet at night, but that doesn't stop him from being nuts in other ways. This all comes to a head when the team plays in New York, Elliot gets a promise from Giants manager John McGraw that he can sign with the Giants (and be more likely to get World Series money) if he strikes out. Of course, John McGraw would lie to his own mother on her deathbed if it would get him an extra run, so that doesn't lead to anything other than Elliot finally getting released. Elliot heads back to his home town, where he'll discover that never bothering to read his girlfriend's letters can have rather tragic consequences.

The story starts out funny and it never loses its sense of humor, but things do turn just a little creepy by the end. It's a fascinating tale--taking a look at a man who was frankly nuts in circumstances where no one quite knew what to do about him.

Besides, how can you worry about a crazy man when you're in a pennant race?

Sidenote: Here's an article I wrote about baseball on old-time radio.

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