Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #2, Spring & Summer 1998]


The Man Who Once Played Catch with Nellie Fox
By John Manderino
Academy Chicago Publishers, 1998

Reviewed by Gay Davidson-Zielske


If you set yourself the task of writing about baseball, you buy yourself a few extra problems -- one being that you are obliged to create a LOT of characters. So when John Manderino picked this game instead of, say, bowling, he went at characterization with a vengeance. He was especially going to get a piece of Hank Lingerman, the main character, whose heart's avocation is to be the kind of heroic figure represented by his idol Nellie Fox, the famous White Sox second baseman. Early in the novel, Lingerman tells what he has begun to call The Story: "One day when I was a little kid I played catch in Comiskey Park with...Nellie Fox and afterwards we talked together. And sometimes when I get drunk I find somebody to tell it to...The thing is, I've told it so many times, I don't remember what the real story is anymore. I know it happened, though. I've got the photograph..." Readers will do well to remember "The Story," too, since this ruling motif figures heavily in one of the surprises of the novel.

A mechanic by vocation, Hank's real life is played out on the diamond. Like Fox, he is a second baseman and he is proud of the fact that he once made it up to the minors, although that fact makes his current lot, playing for a suburban Chicago league team sponsored by Shopalot, seem woefully inadequate.

The novel opens in one of its main settings -- Jerry and Larry's Sports Palace, where Lingerman is taking a ribbing from his lifelong-friend-and-nemesis-in-one, Tommy, about getting beaned by a pop-up and then simply walking away from the game in progress. While this humiliation might normally come under the heading "shit happens," for Hank it symbolizes his truly obsessive fear -- he's washed up in all aspects of his life -- "forty years old and no good anymore."

And while there is never a question that this is the love song, maybe even the swan song for Lingerman as baseball player, the book itself is not through taking some risks, such as being narrated from a revolving point of view. We hear about Lingerman's life from points of view ranging from that of the comic character Redman, a successful accountant with a proud "one-sixteenth" Lakota Sioux blood, whose own midlife identity crisis prompts him to quit his life and the team to try to return to his warrior forefathers -- to that of Brian, the ten-year-old son of Lingerman's occasional girlfriend Karen. Because dialogue is Manderino's real strength, this unusual technique works very well to enlarge our view of Hank's reality. (As the mother of a nine-year-old, I can vouch for the realism of Brian's speech and world view. The author's first novel, Sam and His Brother Len (1994), shows the same keen knowledge of how kids really talk and think, as opposed to how adults think they talk and think.)

Another potential pitfall for writers about sports is that the great masses who might comprise readers and buyers of the book may not share the author's enthusiasm for and knowledge of the sport. While baseball is a fairly safe bet-most of us casual fans know a little about it -- I was relieved to find that while baseball is Hank's passion, the book is really about passion, not necessarily for this sport, but for finding meaning in one's life.

In Lingerman's case, his spectacular failures on the field (his "legs turn into Silly Putty" at a critical moment in another game) merely mirror his problems in finding real love, a sense of community, and in finally winning the approval of his retired father, Whitey. Whitey has never forgiven Hank for not taking over the family service station where Hank now works for a black man who used to be an employee, another fact that outrages his dad. Every time he phones his father and the conversation turns to Hank's lack of success, he uses the same transparent excuse to get off the phone-he tells his dad he thinks he's left his car windows down. The father pretends to fall for this ruse each time, but finally, after Hank has poured his heart out about his fears and doubts, his father offers his best shot at advice: "When you get out of the car, I don't care whether there's a cloud in the sky...roll your window up. Just roll the sonofabitch up...all right?" It is a painfully hilarious moment as Whitey shows his love in the only inarticulate way he can.

After the ball falls on his head and after Lingerman's heart is busted in a hasty affair with the bizarre and trampy Mary, he feels shame so keenly that he takes to his bed for three or four chapters, thus reminding us that while his first name, Hank, is reminiscent of another Fox-era great player, Hank Aaron, it is difficult to avoid hearing "lingerer" or even "malingerer" in the last name. Sticking Hank in bed initially seemed to me a risky technique, bringing the action of the novel to a standstill just as it should build. But Lingerman is far from inactive in his malingering. He is visited by a string of buddies and teammates, some moved, it is true, by less than sterling motives (his fellow pub-goers and the smarmy restaurateur Tony place a bet on who can spring him out of his self-imposed exile. Redman performs a splendidly silly, but heartfelt drumming ceremony.)

When Lingerman at last rises from his exile in bed and resumes his life one hopes that he has learned a little about adjusting to middle age. And he has, but really just a very little. Most humans, after all, don't have epiphanic lives wherein the error of their ways is spelled out in Disney-esque Technicolor letters. Hank Lingerman has details to work out, too. The important thing to Hank and to the readers is that he doesn't allow himself to quit the real game behind the baseball game. All the corny sports metaphors that come to mind (and Hank's coach Gordie trots them all out at some point in the novel) are cleverly skewed in the end of this very satisfying novel about everything except sports with a capital "S."

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From The Man Who Once Played Catch with Nellie Fox
"I had this roomie for a while when I was playing down in Tempe, guy named Sid Vansickle, a very tall, bony, hard-throwing right-hander, serious heat but only so-so control. Anyway, Sid was very tight with Jesus. Whenever he won a game he'd say the Lord was with him out there. And if he lost? Well, that was the Lord's will too. Either way, he was happy, about the happiest guy I ever knew. He was absolutely sure he was on his way to Heaven, so why get upset over things down here? It turned out the Lord wanted him to lose five games in a row while piling up an earned-run average of something like 6.5, and he got his pink slip. But he didn't mind. The Lord had other plans for him, that's all. God wanted him to go into real estate management." [p.49]


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Gay Davidson-Zielske teaches creative writing at UW-Whitewater. She has published dramatic monologues for Heinemann Press on the subjects of Baseball and Elvis, and is a frequent caller to public radio shows (but is trying to quit).

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