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Bang the Drum Slowly

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Bang The Drum Slowly was written in 1956 and is the second in a series of 4 works by Mark Harris which feature Henry Wiggen, a star left-handed pitcher for the New York Mammoths baseball team. I first read it in 1959 when I was 13 years old and I've read it again several times since.

It may not really be "a baseball book". The foreword

is a quote from "The Huge Season" by Wright Morris:

"..... 'a book can have Chicago in it and not be about Chicago,'....[He held up another book with Hemmingway's name on the spine], 'There's a prizefighter in it but it's not about a prizefighter';

'Is it about the sun rising?' I asked,

'Goddam if I know what it's about,' he said."

But it's a book about people who are baseball players. The story evolves through their lives and the events of a baseball season. So it's an atmosphere that baseball lovers can relate to.

Bruce Pearson is a young third string catcher with the Mammoths. He's an unsophisticated country boy from a small town in Georgia who is completely out of place in a big city like New York. He has no friends on the team and his team mates only pay attention to him when they make fun of him. He has an abundance of raw talent, but he doesn't make a contribution.

Bruce is the focus of the book because he is dying; well, we're all dying, but he's dying soon.

It's the middle of winter and Henry Wiggen gets an early morning phone call from Pearson. Of course he's surprised because he and Pearson aren't close. No one on the team is close to Bruce. Pearson wants Henry to come to the Mayo clinic in Minnesota to pick him up and drive him home to Georgia.

Bruce has just been diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease (which in 1956 was not curable). Henry's wife, Holly, is pregnant with their first child and he has no interest in Rochester, Minnesota in wintertime, but he goes. That's the kind of person Henry is. He's not a sweet-faced do-gooder. He's a tough, no-nonsense, individualistic competitor, but he's a loyal person who knows right from wrong and understands that people sometimes have to step out of their own box and do something for others. His wife understands that too. So he flies to Minnesota, picks up Pearson and drives him home to his family.

Bruce doesn't want anyone to know about his illness. He wants it kept secret from his parents so they won't worry and from the Mammoths so that he can continue playing baseball. If his illness becomes public, he'll be cut immediately. Ironically, that's what happened to a real major leaguer, Walter Bond, in 1967. Henry agrees to keep the confidence, except of course from Holly.

The first part of the book describes Bruce's efforts to make the team again and the combined efforts of Bruce, Henry and Holly to make sure no one learns of Bruce's illness. Third string catchers are not highly valued. Bruce doesn't want to be cut. He wants to go through the season with the only person he can share his problems with. Henry feels the same and, luckily, star left handed pitchers are highly valued. Henry insists on a clause in his contract that he and Bruce must be tied together for the season. They must be kept together on the Mammoths or dealt to another team as a package. Henry's negotiation of this clause with the Mammoth's management is both funny and moving. He is the classic hero, standing up in a difficult moment.

The season progresses. The Mammoths are a talented team that should win the pennant easily. Yet they struggle; sometimes in first by a game and sometimes third by 2 games. They bicker with each other and there is no team chemistry. Pearson, of course, is still the subject of derision and even Henry is scoffed at for his protection of Bruce.

Over a period of time, secrets have a way of not being secrets any more and this secret is no different. Eventually, Henry gets fed up with the "ragging" of Bruce and tells one of his teammates about Bruce's fate, just to get him to leave Bruce alone. That player tells another and gradually the team learns the truth. The consequences of this knowledge are what the book is about.

The players learn that Bruce is dying and suddenly they are nice to him. Not just nice, but supremely nice. They also become nice to each other. The internal criticisms stop. They start playing together and start winning. Bruce, too starts playing up to his real level of ability.

What caused this dramatic change? Bruce was the same person before and after the knowledge of his illness became public, but people's attitude towards him changed. Everyone was nicer, everyone was happier and success followed.

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