A Descent Into Baseball Hell

The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop. is not your average baseball novel. Written by Robert Coover, this book is an existential horror story, a metaphysical nightmare.

As the story begins, Henry Waugh, 56, is already showing signs of impending insanity. He has created a world that he and his imaginary people inhabit, a world that will eventually consume him. His creation is the Universal Baseball Association. The UBA is a kitchen-table baseball game governed by the throw of dice. But it’s more than a game: it’s a whole world populated by flesh and blood ballplayers, managers, executives, wives and many others. At his kitchen table, Henry plays entire seasons in two months.

The UBA is almost 60 years old—three generations of players. On the wall over his kitchen table are a standings board and a line of plaques representing players who’ve made his Hall of Fame. Below these is a shelf holding 40 volumes of the Association’s history—stats, records, standings, financial ledgers for every team, and essays. Henry consults elaborate charts to determine what happens on the field. He’s made other charts for off-field occurrences, including when retired players or managers must die.

As all-consuming as the UBA is, Henry also has a real life. He’s an accountant in a big firm. He also frequents a local bar where he picks up women. His boss at the firm is growing impatient with Henry over his increasing tardiness and his falling asleep on the job. He fires him, and Henry retreats deeper and deeper into his Association.

Henry is God of his universe, but he’s a Deist’s God. He is a Creator who, once he’s finished with his Creation, should leave its fate to the throw of the dice. But he can’t help himself and gets emotionally involved with one team and its young star pitcher, who happens to be the son of the greatest pitcher in UBA history. When tragedy strikes the kid, Henry intervenes in his Creation, and by doing so violates its pristine neutrality and speeds his descent–or should I say disappearance into madness.

Coover performs a literary sleight-of-hand. In the final chapter—100 UBA years later—the only characters left in the novel are Henry’s baseball people, who exist in what remains of Henry’s mind, because Henry is gone. Now on their own, the baseball executives and players create a primitive religion that includes an annual human sacrifice performed on the diamond in front of thousands of screaming fans. One hell of a novel—-but not for the faint of heart.

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