Robert Coover’s oft-forgotten 1968 baseball novel, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., opens in the middle of a game: “Bottom half of the seventh, Brock’s boy had made it through another inning unscratched, one! two! three! Twenty-one down and just six outs to go!” Brock is Brock Rutherford, retired star pitcher, and Brock’s “boy” is his son, the rookie pitcher Damon Rutherford.
But Brock doesn’t exist, Damon doesn’t exist, and the game isn’t real. It’s being played out with dice and a pencil by Coover’s protagonist, Henry Waugh, alone in his kitchen.
The Universal Baseball Association is a novel about fantasy baseball, though the word “fantasy” never once appears in the book.
When literary people talk about Coover, who is eighty-five, they talk about him as a postmodernist and a master of metafiction. He’s known chiefly for his short stories or for his 1977 novel about Richard Nixon, The Public Burning. But in 2011, Overlook Press reissued The Universal Baseball Association in paperback, and the book is more relevant now than ever before.
Fantasy sports have become a fifteen billion dollar business in America, led by fantasy football. For the uninitiated: fantasy players “draft” a roster of real-life athletes and earn points based on how they perform in their real games each week; usually there is money to be won if your team wins. The pastime has spawned websites and mobile apps so that players can compulsively check their rosters; television shows, radio shows, and podcasts on which fantasy experts give analysis and advice; and even live fantasy “lounges” inside NFL stadiums where players can congregate to play on their phones.
Does it all sound exhausting?
In Coover’s novel, it’s exhausting, too, but Henry welcomes it. His game is all-consuming, and he is happy to be consumed. His game is cleaner and purer than the real-life industry that now bombards us with internet ads and in-stadium signage at every sports arena. Henry’s game isn’t about money—in fact, it’s a financial drain on him rather than a source of income. His obsession with the game he creates costs him his job and, arguably, his sanity.
Although football is the prime moneymaker today, fantasy sports began with baseball. There is some dispute over who exactly can be credited with having “created” fantasy baseball. Baseball Prospectus gives the honor to William Gamson, who founded the Baseball Seminar in 1960, an auction format in which participants had imaginary budgets to spend on a roster of real-life players, and points accrued based on real-life game stats. Others trace the start of fantasy baseball to Strat-O-Matic, created by Hal Richman in 1961, a tabletop board game with a card representing every real-life pro. (I played it myself in 1997 at a summer camp in Maine, huddled around a twin bed with my bunkmates; it still exists today, for fifty dollars on the company’s website.) In Strat, as we called it, players draft their roster, collecting the cards for each player; during a game, you roll three dice for an at-bat and check the results (a single, a strike, a pop-up, et cetera.) based on stats on each card.
That’s essentially how Henry Waugh plays his game, too. But in Henry’s version, three consecutive rolls of triple snake eyes (that is: nine ones) carries a shocking outcome: a freak death of the batter from a ball to the head. Damon Rutherford, Henry’s most cherished player, is killed on page eighty-two. (Damon’s death is given away in the back cover synopsis, so this isn’t really a spoiler.) The fantasy tragedy was based on a rule Henry wrote on his “Extraordinary Occurrences Chart,” which, “was the only chart Henry still hadn’t memorized” after fifty-six seasons of the UBA because he consulted it so rarely.
The magic (and horror) of Coover’s novel is in how deeply Henry’s game envelops him. After the dreaded three ones come up for a third roll in a row, killing Damon, we first get a reaction from the fans in the stadium, not the puppet master: “No one moved. All stared at home plate. Damon lay there, on his back … Brock sat. Head reared in shock and his face was drawn. He looked suddenly gray and old. He rose.”
The very next line reads, “He stepped back until he came up against the stove.” Now the “he” is Henry again, but with no warning or transition. This is another characteristic of the novel, and one that becomes more frequent as Henry loses his grip—the narrative jitters between the game and Henry’s real life, often in one sentence, without any signposts. (That technique, of course, is very Robert Coover.)
Henry doesn’t just imagine the players in the game. He imagines the players’ wives, the fans of each team, the bartenders at the bars where the players drink.
The game extends well beyond its imagined world. Henry is living in the game at every moment—not just as its creator and as every team’s owner but as the players themselves. He is Damon, he is Brock, he is every player and every UBA spectator.
It’s the same for Bill Gray, the protagonist of Don DeLillo’s 1991 novel Mao II, who recalls, “When I was a kid, I used to announce ball games to myself. I sat in a room and made up the games and described the play-by-play out loud. I was the players, the announcer, the crowd, the listening audience and the radio. There hasn’t been a moment since those days when I’ve felt nearly so good.”
And isn’t that the true purpose of fantasy sports—to bring you closer to the game, as close as possible without playing it on the field? When a fantasy player checks his or her lineup and sees that they’ve earned ten points because David Ortiz hit a homer, isn’t it like they, standing there holding their phone, hit it too?
These days, people play fantasy sports mostly for the money there is to be won. But were it only about money, one could also simply gamble on the outcome of games. So there has to be another appeal of fantasy, a more intrinsic one. The likeliest motive is bragging rights with your friends. You, a regular person who isn’t a professional athlete, can’t actually go out there on the field and throw a sixty-yard touchdown pass or hit a triple off a major-league pitcher. But what you can do is predict which players will do that each week, and then, when they do, crow that you’ve proven your knowledge and expertise by picking the right roster. And in the process, you’ve also done something else: you’ve approximated, as best as possible, participating in the game. Maybe you’re on the couch, out of shape and swilling beer, but when your top draft pick mashes a home run, you feel like you have, too.
Henry’s fake baseball world and those early fantasy-sports board games elicited that pure exuberance far better than today’s money-focused smartphone contests.
Inevitably, Coover brings Henry too far in his pleasure, turning his fantasy into a cautionary tale. In one defining scene early on in the novel, after Damon Rutherford pitches a no-hitter (this is before his death), Henry sits at his local bar and imagines the UBA players going out to celebrate at Jake’s, their favorite bar. He imagines the players shouting in joy, “Let’s go to Jake’s!” But a prostitute named Hettie overhears Henry and asks, “Where?” (There is no Jake’s.) Now we shift out of Henry’s reverie and back to real life: “She was pretty far along. So was he. Didn’t realize he had been talking out loud.”
He invites her to leave with him; they’ve done this before. On the walk to his apartment, she sticks her hand through a slit in his raincoat pocket, and asks him what he does for a living. He answers, “Now, or when we get to my place?” It’s a spooky line. He’s an accountant, and tells her that, but then he says, “I’m an auditor for a baseball association.”
As they walk home, with her hand down his pants, we get a string of campy double entendres in baseball terms: “She was trying to get her other hand on the bat, girl can’t take a healthy swing without a decent grip, after all, but she couldn’t get both hands through the slit.” And suddenly we’re back in Henry’s fantasy realm: “Hettie Irden stood at the plate, first woman ballplayer in league history, tightening and relaxing her grip on the bat … and maybe she wasn’t the best hitter in the Association, but the Association was glad to have her.”
Now she’s become part of the game, too, unknowingly—until Henry eventually makes her a request that the reader, also fully submerged in the game, knew was coming, as she unbuckles his pants: “Call me Damon.”