A Deal With The Devil That Still Pays Dividends

Thursday, August 11, 2005

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

The irrational exuberance of June is far in the past, the suffocating reality of August is upon us. The Washington Nationals, who only two months ago sat atop the National League East, had a dreadful July and have fallen back into the pack. In this they resemble nobody so much as their linear predecessors, the Washington Senators, of whom it was said famously (and endlessly): "First in war, first in peace, last in the American League." With one notable exception. The records of major league baseball tell us that the New York Yankees won the American League pennant in 1958, but those of us who defer to the Higher Truth know that it actually was won that year by the Senators. We know because we have read "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant," by Douglass Wallop, and/or seen the play and/or movie, "Damn Yankees," adapted from it. We know because Wallop's story is by now as deeply embedded in American legend as is Goethe's "Faust" in German legend.

Both "Faust" and "Yankees" are stories of men who sell their souls to the Devil in return for earthly delights. In Goethe's drama, Faust willingly becomes the tool of Mephistopheles; in Wallop's comic novel, Joe Boyd somewhat less willingly turns himself over to the hands of the satanic Mr. Applegate. Faust wants perfect beauty and other impossible dreams; Boyd wants something scarcely less improbable, an American League championship for the Senators, whom he -- like Wallop himself -- loves beyond all reason.

Like many Washingtonians of his day, Wallop suffered long and hard at the hands of the Senators. He was a homeboy and a fan. Born in 1920, he grew up in the District, graduated from the University of Maryland, worked in various journalistic jobs, took dictation from Dwight D. Eisenhower for the general's account of World War II, "Crusade in Europe," and longed all the while to write fiction. His first novel, "Night Light," was published in 1953 to general indifference, but soon thereafter he turned his love for the Senators and his anguish over their eternal haplessness into "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant," which was published the next year.

It is one of the great success stories in American publishing. Chosen by two of the major mail-order book clubs, Book-of-the-Month and Reader's Digest, it did well enough but really took off after the Broadway (1955) and Hollywood (1958) versions were released. By the time of Wallop's death in 1985, it had sold more than 2.5 million copies, according to Wallop's obituary in The Washington Post, and had enabled him to live on the Eastern Shore, in Oxford. None of the more than a dozen books Wallop wrote thereafter approached its success, but the last three decades of his life seem to have been happy and productive.

Probably I read "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant" soon after it came out, though I don't know for certain. In 1954 I was 14 and had become a devout Yankee hater, which I remain to this day. I don't remember when I first saw the movie, either, but rereading the novel and watching the movie on DVD half a century later -- half a century! -- were eye-opening experiences. The novel is good fun, but the movie is what old-time ballplayers used to call a humdinger. With Ray Walston (Mr. Applegate) and Gwen Verdon (Lola) repeating their Broadway roles, with Tab Hunter surprisingly good as the mighty slugger Joe Hardy, with crackling choreography by Bob Fosse and with a ballpark that looks for all the world like good old Griffith Stadium, the movie is solid gold. If it is true, as rumor has it, that corporate woes have sidetracked plans for a remake at Miramax, what I say is, "Three cheers." Who needs it?

Still, one good thing did come out of Miramax's aborted plans: the present paperback edition of the novel, released last year by its original publisher, presumably in anticipation that the remake would revive interest in the book. So it's back in circulation, just in time for the revival of baseball enthusiasm here in Washington and for the pleasure of anyone who understands how central baseball is to American mythology.

It's hard not to wonder whether Wallop was familiar with Bernard Malamud's notable first novel, "The Natural" (1952), which sees baseball through Arthurian rather than Faustian legend but features, as "Yankees" does, a protagonist with one notable talent: the ability to, well, wallop the ball right out of the park. The big difference is that while Malamud's Roy Hobbs fritters away his God-given gift, Wallop's Joe Hardy makes the absolute most of his own satanic blessing. The 22-year-old Hardy actually is the reborn Joe Boyd, a middle-aged real-estate agent who lives quietly in a neighborhood that might be Chevy Chase and who suffers nightly as his radio brings the play-by-play details of yet another Senators loss. Then the mysterious Mr. Applegate materializes in the darkness, and everything changes.

Unlike Faust, Boyd declines to buy the whole package. He agrees to be transformed into Hardy, sultan of swat, but demands that on Sept. 21 he have the right to escape the bargain, go back to being Joe Boyd and avoid perpetual perdition. Applegate agrees because he's confident that success on the playing field plus adulation off will turn Joe's head, and into the bargain he enlists Lola, "the most beautiful girl in the world," to seduce him. Applegate knows (Applegate knows everything) that Joe's marriage to the faithful, bridge-playing Bess has gone a trifle stale, and thinks that a fling with a siren will blind him to the prospect of an eternity in Hell.

So in the middle of the 1958 season, Joe Boyd transformed into Joe Hardy goes to Briggs Stadium (later renamed Tiger Stadium) in Detroit, where the Senators are playing, and asks for a tryout. All the Nats (yes, that's what people called the Senators back then) are puzzled by him, but when he hits ball after ball out of the park, their skepticism is washed away. He joins the team, and soon is driving in so many runs that the Senators' dive to the bottom of the standings is thrown into reverse. Up, up, up they climb, but then the Yankees come to town, the 1950s Yankees exactly described: "Unperturbed, and with cold, seemingly mechanical exactitude, they went about the business of winning another ball game." But not this ballgame: Joe makes a spectacular catch to preserve a Senators victory in the first game, and "in the two games that followed the Senators clobbered the champions with relative ease, winning 10 to 4 and 14 to 8. In the second game, Joe contributed two home runs, and in the third game another, this last a titanic clout over the wall in dead center, a feat accomplished previously only by the Messrs. Ruth, Gehrig, and Larry Doby."

Onward and upward the Senators roar, to the astonishment of the nation and the glee of Washington. Joe is lionized wherever he goes -- "hailed on street corners, recognized by cab drivers, besought by boys' clubs, by TV shows, even by lady discussion groups" -- and is thrilled with the team's success, but his happiness has its limits: ". . . he was the star performer, but he was performing in a void, with nobody from his past life to applaud, unless it was a man named Applegate." He's upset when someone with the unlikely name of Roscoe Ent, "a clown and an occasional pitcher," is cut because the team feels it no longer needs him, and he tries "to do the decent thing where Ent was concerned" because "never had there been a time in his life when Joe must be so particular to do the decent thing. Each time he failed, Applegate would gain."

In time the walls begin to close in on him. He misses Bess so much that he rents a room in his old house, thrilling all the ladies who gather for regular bridge games but leaving himself forlorn at being unable to identify his true self. A New York reporter gets on his trail and publishes stories questioning his identity; the commissioner stages a hearing to determine whether he belongs in baseball, "the cleanest game in the land." Lola comes on strong, but when he persists in remaining faithful to Bess, she acquiesces, though she sadly -- and truthfully -- admits, "I'm in love with you, Joe."

All of which is to say that "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant" begins as a comedy but shifts gears and becomes melodrama. Joe is too troubled by conscience and loyalty -- to Bess, and to himself -- to play along with Applegate's scheme, and extracting him from it requires twists and turns of plot that aren't always plausible. It's true, though, that even when he's Joe Hardy at his triumphant best, he's Joe Boyd inside, "a man who had always lived a decent life . . . who had never cheated a client." For Joe, "it boiled down to a matter of code, and Joe's code gave high importance to the matters of taking one's medicine, of lying in the bed one had made." Applegate makes it as hard as he can for Joe to be true to his code, but in the end Joe gets what he wants, and so do the Senators, and so does the reader.

Yes, if I were forced to choose between the book and the movie, I'd choose the movie, with its terrific songs -- "(You Gotta Have) Heart" and "Whatever Lola Wants" most notable among them -- and its brisk direction by George Abbott and Stanley Donen. I'd put it up there with "It's Always Fair Weather" and "Singin' in the Rain" among the best movie musicals ever made. But the good news is that the choice doesn't have to be made. We can have both: double the pleasure, double the fun.

"The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant" is available in a Norton paperback ($13.95).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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