June 12, 2008
Mark Harris, author of Bang the Drum Slowly and other seminal works of adult baseball fiction, passed away a year ago due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 84.
His 1956 novel about the relationship between star pitcher Henry “Author” Wiggen (think Tom Seaver combined with Jim Bouton) and his doomed catcher, Bruce Pierson, was part of Harris’ “Southpaw Trilogy,” which includes The Southpaw (published in 1953) and Ticket for a Seamstich (1957); more than 20 years later, he added a coda with It Looked Like Forever. The books are perennially included on lists of best sports fiction.
But the writer born Mark Harris Finkelstein was not a one-trick pony. After getting his start as a newspaperman following World War II (dropping the family name to enhance employment prospects), he earned a PhD from the University of Minnesota and spent the rest of his career teaching and writing. His credits include critically acclaimed non-baseball novels, nonfiction, and a play (Friedman and Son). He was also a sought-after essayist and reviewer by popular magazines and academic journals.
Harris’ sons Anthony and Henry shared their thoughts with NJ Jewish News on the occasion of his first yahrzeit.
Henry Harris, 45, is an aspiring actor and screenwriter, but his “day job” is that of a contractor who restores older homes in the Los Angeles area. He said he was too young at the time to appreciate his father’s “impact on the landscape of baseball literature.”
“I did know my dad was special because I was meeting people growing up like Frank Capra and George C. Scott. We rubbed elbows because of [my dad’s] voice and screenwriting in Hollywood,” Henry said in a telephone interview.
Mark Harris was uncanny with his portrayal of the athlete’s life on and off the field, especially for someone who didn’t play the game much. “He was funny about baseball,” said his son. “Mark looked at the game like a scorned lover [since] he didn’t have the physical comportment to have a career of his own. Five-foot-eight, 160 pounds doesn’t get you much.” What his father did have was “a fantastic breadth of vocabulary about it. He rode the bus with the Giants and Dodgers, among others. He was tuned into that world.”
Mark and Anthony Harris
Photos courtesy Anthony Harris
Although Mark Harris was not an observant Jew, Jewish elements frequently appear in his work. The Goy considers the story of a gentile who is coming to terms with the influence of Jews on his life, including his wife and best friend.
“I didn’t know anything of my…heritage until I was a teenager,” said Henry. “[But] that was part of my father’s — and I don’t want to call it indifference — but that’s what was at the bottom of the suitcase. It wasn’t the first stuff that he pulled out.”
Converting book to film
Mark Harris adapted his novel for the cinematic version of Bang the Drum Slowly (it also appeared as a teleplay on the U.S. Steel Hour in 1956 with Paul Newman in the Wiggen role). Even so, he had a few issues with the production.
His father, said Henry, “was kicked off the set [because] he continually cautioned the filmmakers against sentimentalizing the story.” The author was particularly concerned about the use of elements — such as dramatic music or stilted line deliveries — that might detract from his original meaning.
Mark Harris, left, spends some family time with his son Henry, grandson Eli, daughter Hester, daughter-in-law Devra Weltman, grandson Isaac, and wife Josephine, in 2005.
mud, and the mysticism of the game. I think for my father, mysticism was not a part of baseball. Only lore was.”
(Henry offered up a piece of trivia: George Roy Hill was considered to direct Bang the Drum Slowly, with Paul Newman and Robert Redford playing the two lead roles. When discussions didn’t pan out, they all went on to work on The Sting. Instead, the 1973 movie featured Michael Moriarty — whose grandfather, George, had played in the majors in the early 1900s — as Wiggen and Robert De Niro as Pierson.)
Anthony Harris, 53, works for a software company, using “whatever the opposite brain side is” from his father’s brand of creativity.
He said the best way to describe his father’s sense of religion was “Jewish through and through, by heritage but not by practice.”
Anthony agreed with his brother’s assessment regarding the place of baseball in the context of their father’s overall work. “I think he accepted it and even enjoyed it,” he said. “Even decades later, that was what he was widely known and revered for.”
He also agreed their father “fundamentally enjoyed” the screen representation of the Bang the Drum Slowly, while expressing some conflicts “with certain things he didn’t think were right. He was somewhat of a perfectionist and didn’t like the changes the producers wanted to make.”
Henry said his father “was continually compelled to write. He couldn’t not. It kept coming, and he was terrific.”
But Anthony regretted how Alzheimer’s stilled his father’s genius. “We always thought he’d be great in retirement because he’s a writer, so it doesn’t matter that he won’t go to class and teach every day…. But with his cognitive decline in the last few years, he just struggled with his writing.”
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