Magic, Baseball, and the Strange Thing that is Sometimes Sports Fiction
I'm not really "into" sports, but you could say I like baseball. Few things evoke the feeling of the dog days of endless Alabama summer quite like a good baseball game. Between the old songs that you can't forget the words to, the emphasis on crowd participation, the saucy heckling, ballpark burgers, and, of course, the chance at catching a fly ball, it's little wonder why baseball is America's favorite pastime and why so much nostalgia surrounds the game.
Unsurprisingly, this nostalgia has threaded itself into books about baseball. Unlike almost every other type of sports fiction, baseball fiction has a tendency toward magical realism, which I believe is caused by people's sentimentality about the game.
(Magical realism refers to a fictitious world in which nearly everything operates on a rational basis, but elements of magic are seen as the status quo. The style is a hallmark of Latin American literature and was brought to popularity in the English-speaking world by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the late '60s with the publication of his first major novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. For example, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the Buendía family whom the story follows might be gathered together for dinner and a character who died several chapters ago might casually walk through the dining room and no one appear to be disturbed by this. It wouldn't be magical realism if a phantasm were to appear briefly and the family be frightened by it--that would be more horror or paranormal fiction.)
But I hadn't really been aware of the level of "good old days" reminiscence about baseball until my boyfriend Jon (which whom I have attended many a baseball game with) brought it to my attention with this article in Belt Magazine.
In short, the piece discusses how baseball fiction tends to evoke religious themes. It certainly does--though I didn't see where the article explored the why of this. My theory is simple: Because of the nostalgia surrounding the game, the writers of baseball fiction want the story to feel larger than life, so they inject elements of magic realism into the stories and this magical realism is the conduit by which the religious elements can be amplified, thus making the story have that "good old days" feeling.
Sure, my theory about why magical realism is prevalent in baseball fiction could be crap. But the whole "if you build it, he will come" thing would have turned out a lot different if the ghosts of players past hadn't shown up...
And "Field of Dreams" (the movie version of W.P. Kinsella's novel Shoeless Joe) isn't the only example. There are nearly all of Kinsella's other novels (the dude really likes writing baseball books), The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover, The Great American Novel (note the title; doesn't that reek of nostalgia?) by Philip Roth, and the recently brought back into print Things Invisible to See by Nancy Willard, just to name a few. All of these novels are rampant with elements of magical realism.
This realization got me thinking... If magical realism is a hallmark of Latin American fiction, and soccer is the world's most popular sport, particularly in Latin American and Hispanic countries, then there must be fiction books about soccer where magical realism is used to evoke nostalgia.
With my research question in mind, I took to the library: two of them, my university library and my public library. And you know what I found, nothing about soccer! It's possible that there does exist a fiction book about soccer that contains elements of magical realism, but between me and the search party (two long-suffering reference librarians) we weren't able to turn up anything.
However, my research was not a failure because I did end up finding this phenomenon repeated elsewhere, and in a sport with a hearty history and attachment to tradition just like baseball, which corroborates my theory. And that sport is golf.
Apparently, Follow the Wind by Bo Links is more or less the "Field of Dreams" of golf: players of the past walk the earth--er, course--again and tell their tales. Similarly, Golf in the Kingdom by Michael Murphy includes ghosts of golfers past and the book jacket even refers to golf as a "gospel." Sounds like magical realism if I've ever heard it.
Knowing nothing about the history of golf, I did a little digging and found that it is even more storied than baseball. If this Wikipedia article has any clout, golf had many centuries to become storied with the first recorded game having been played in the Middle Ages. However, it didn't become popular in the U.S. until the late 19th century, which, I couldn't help but notice, was also around the heyday of baseball.
Coincidence? I think not.
What does all this mean? Sports fiction just might be more interesting than one might imagine.