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The Natural

From BR Bullpen

The Novel[edit]

The Natural.jpg

The Natural is a 1952 novel by Bernard Malamud that was made into a film of the same name in 1984, starring Robert Redford as the book's protagonist, Roy Hobbs.

Though the film changed the novel's conclusion, in both the book and the film Hobbs is shot as a teen by a deranged woman while en route from his native northern-US Rocky Mountain region to a tryout with the Chicago Cubs. Due to his injury, Hobbs leaves baseball and does not make it to the majors until he's 34, at which point Hobbs is signed off the semi-pro Oomoo Oilers by a scout for the fictional New York Knights, but he languishes on the bench from his Memorial Day arrival until a summer solstice pinch-hitting appearance in which he literally knocks the cover off the ball and ties the game. In the Knights' next game (after a drought-ending three days of rainouts), their starting left fielder, Bump Baily, feeling the pressure to reform his defensive habits with Roy around, crashes into the outfield wall and eventually dies. Roy assumes Bump's position in the outfield and as the league's leading hitter, and the Knights rocket from last place to a one-game playoff for the pennant.

Allusions to Baseball History in the Book[edit]

The shooting of Hobbs' character echoes the shooting of 1950s baseball player Eddie Waitkus. But his characterization also recalls several others.

  • Ted Williams: When his soon to be shooter asks him "what will you hope to accomplish?", Hobbs responds, "Sometimes when I walk down the street I bet people will say, 'there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in the game,'" an assertion the shooter asks him to repeat just before shooting him. Williams famously said that his goal was to have people say, "there goes the greatest hitter who ever lived."
  • Joe Jackson (or maybe Hal Chase?): Roy accepts $35,000 to not "hit safely" in the playoff game. While in both the movie and the film, he has second thoughts during the game, in the book he strikes out in the game's final at bat with some ambiguity about what his final intentions are; in the film he hits the heroic home run. Jackson was also known for his special bat, "Black Betsy", just like Hobbs is known for his bat, "Wonderboy".
  • Walter Johnson: Hobbs is spotted as a semi-pro teenage pitcher somewhere in the upper-Rocky Mountains of the US. There are also elements of Bob Feller, who was a teenage pitching sensation and elements of whose autobiography serve as inspiration for Hobbs' days as a teenage pitching phenom.
  • Babe Ruth: Ruth was a pitcher who became the greatest slugger of all time, a transformation which Hobbs also makes.
  • Sal Maglie: Maglie was a pitching sensation as a young man in 1945, but was banned from baseball soon after for jumping to the Mexican League. He came back as a 30-year-old to lead the Brooklyn Dodgers to the pennant (although he was still a pitcher, and not a hitter like Hobbs).

Sam "Bub" Simpson, the scout who travels to Chicago with Roy for the teenage tryout, dreams that he gets lost on a scouting expedition, and stumbles upon a remote game played by men with long beards -- House of David ? Indeed, Hobbs is described as appearing in the Knights' dugout for the first time sporting a dark beard.

Sam, an alcoholic who drank himself out of a catching career, later dreams as he's dying that he's been thrown off a train and into a river. He tries to make his way to a bridge he sees, but eventually can't find the bridge and hears the roar of waterfalls approaching as he floats down the river. The allusion to Ed Delahanty's death is clear.

Knights' manager Pops Fisher is said to have fallen while scampering around the bases on a clear inside-the-park home run opportunity in a blunder that cost his team the pennant. The moment became known as "Fisher's Flop" and he became the laughing-stock of the nation for a while, much as Fred Merkle did.

There are clear spoofs of the more fanatical of Ebbets Field's denizens, including a female fan, much like Hilda Chester, who brings a "Chinese gong" to the park every day.

Differences between the Book and Movie[edit]

  • Hobbs strikes out and the Knights lose the pennant in the book. He homers and they win in the movie. The book concludes with Hobbs throwing the $35,000 he's been paid to lose back at the Judge who's arranged the fix, but with the reporter Max Mercy releasing the story that a fix may have been in -- clearly Hobbs' career is over.
  • In the book Hobbs wears #45, bats right and plays left field, in the movie he wears #9, bats left and plays right field.

The Movie[edit]

In addition to Redford, the cast of the movie also included Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Wilford Brimley, and Barbara Hershey. Joe Charboneau, the 1980 Rookie of the Year with the Cleveland Indians, also had a small role as a teammate of Hobbs.

Parts of the movie were filmed in War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo, NY.

Further Reading[edit]

  • Rob Edelman: "Eddie Waitkus and The Natural: What Is Assumption? What Is Fact?", in Morris Levin, ed.: From Swampoodle to South Philly: Baseball in Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley, The National Pastime, SABR, 2013, pp. 86-91.

External Link[edit]