Reviewed by Paul Eberly
The Beckoning World
by Douglas Bauer
University Of Iowa Press
November 2022, Paperback, 276 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1609388478
As my daughter-in-law drove me last October through the hill country west of Austin, she shared her worry over a matter that, for parents in her part of the world, constitutes a real cause for concern. My granddaughter, she informed me, had yet to settle on a sport, and at seven years of age, she was becoming rather long in the tooth to make such a decision. In central Texas, it seems, competitive athletes largely focus on their preferred mode of play by age five. As a relative geriatric, my sweet Emery would need to play catch up.
Compare this to journeyman Pittsburgh running back, Rocky Bleier’s account of the Steelers’ dismal years before their renaissance in the 1970s. During training, Bleier tells us, players would run drills until they were out of view of the coaching staff, whereupon they would produce packs of cigarettes and fill their lungs with smoke until sufficient time elapsed to finish their expected drill.
While this, erh, casual approach to sports as a livelihood may have been an outlier (at least, one hopes), it was not unrepresentative of athletes’ embrace of their profession during the earlier parts of the Twentieth Century. Before the advent of the carefully groomed super athlete of the later 1900s and early Twenty-First Century (e.g., formal Major League baseball development camps in the Dominican Republic, high-school athletes of whatever sort in north Texas…) professional sports were more haphazard affairs.
With respect to baseball in particular, Jonathan Eig, biographer of the great Lou Gehrig, tells us, “Baseball at the turn of the century was a game for poor immigrants and high school drop outs. The same brawny men who forged steel, built outhouses, and swept the streets through the winter turned to baseball in spring, hoping for a shot at wealth and glory.” And, (as of 1927) “The Yankee roster included a former school teacher, several farmers, a seaman, a logger, a would-be priest, and a barkeep. They were diverse in their occupations yet fairly homogeneous in their working-class backgrounds.”
It is in this less regimented world of professional athletes’ formation that Douglas Bauer’s The Beckoning World is situated. Earl Dunham, a child laborer in the mines of southeastern Iowa, leaves home at seventeen to escape the barbs of his alcoholic father, hoboing eastward to work the coal seams of western Illinois. In coal-camp pick-up teams, he distinguishes himself as a proficient slugger, but it’s the pitcher’s mound that commands his passion. An autodidact, Earl soon masters the curveball, the fastball, the spitter, and, most consequentially, the (apocryphally) injury-inducing screwball.
The 1920s were a period of ascendancy in professional sports in American culture, driven by the rise of broadcast media. Nathan Miller, author of New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America, observes, “Spectator sports were part of the new mass society created by movies, advertising, the tabloids, and radio. All helped convince a nation divided by race, class, and ethnicity that it had a common identity. Huge football stadiums and baseball parks were built in many cities, and the number of Americans attending games doubled during the Twenties.”
A young man, a coal miner, graced with a talented arm might hope to trade the dust and danger of the mines for the clean geometrics of the infield, the grassy expanse beyond — fame and those boons that come with it might reasonably become his.
Earl’s fortunes take a fortuitous turn when a chance encounter garners him a contract with the Waterloo Loons, a farm team for the Chicago Cubs. They take another lucky turn when he meets Emily, farm girl on walkabout and the love of his life, over a bowl of diner stew. Earl’s a marvel on the mound, he’s got the girl, but curveballs are not solely the province of a game played by men with gloves and sticks — the curveball, in truth, is life’s special province, and life delivers them with a Major Leaguer’s touch.
The Beckoning World‘s emotional pith comes years later, when Earl and son Henry, no athlete, find themselves through odd circumstance in a Pullman with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig as the latter pair head west on a barnstorming tour following their unprecedented four-game sweep of the 1927 World Series. For Earl, the trip is a precarious revisitation of lost glories; for Henry, it represents a first glimpse of the world beyond the Iowan cornfields.
Moments of sufficient import to merit rendering on the printed page — at least, the literary printed page — ought, in principle, to contain layers of meaning that writers of lesser empathy or patience may struggle to uncover. And there’s always that easier-to-answer siren call of the next scrap of dialogue, the next paragraph, the next scene. Bauer, a spelunker of the human soul, knows to resist that call, to remain in the moment until its particular kernel of truth lies unearthed, often startlingly revealed. (Consider the seven pages devoted to a fleeting, if marriage-changing, husband-wife altercation in Bauer’s 1989 debut, Dexterity). Here, Emily, awash in fresh love, watches Earl from the Waterloo bleachers:
Earl was pitching well, he’d given up two runs, and when he struck out the last batter in the top of the eighth, her eyes followed him happily as he left the mound. And then she noticed something — the way his limbs were moving with a looseness, a kind of dextrous ambling she hadn’t seen before. She’d thought of him as perfectly well coordinated, his long legs striding deliberately. But here he was, walking to the dugout with peculiar grace, moving beautifully, balletically. She knew it had everything to do with how he was pitching, but for the first time she sensed she couldn’t find her way to where he was; that she was watching a stranger…She felt at the same time embraced and abandoned, and she knew how outlandish, how unfair to him this was.
Lou Gehrig, as wrought by Bauer’s pen, appears as he was in life — a pensive, quiet soul, dogged by insecurities and excessively devoted to his mother. Ruth, in the pages of The Beckoning World, is supremely confident, self-absorbed, voluptuary — a boy raised in an orphanage to be deified by a nation. As the Yankee sluggers barnstorm their way through the small-town west, Earl will experience an encounter that provides shape to his own life’s story. True to life as we’re constrained to live it, this dénouement may settle Earl Dunham’s spirit, but it comes at a cost.
It’s that curve ball, you see. Life lets fly, we swing, mostly we miss, but the ball will have its way. It changes us.
Douglas Bauer knows this.
Robert W. Creamer, Babe, The Legend Comes to Life (New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2011).
Jonathan Eig, Luckiest Man, The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2010).
Nathan Miller, New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America (New York, Scribner, 2003).
Terry O’Neil and Rocky Bleier, Fighting Back (New York, Warner Books, 1975).
Enrique Rojas, Baseball Academies Thrive in the Dominican Republic, Accessed November 30, 2022. https://www.espn.com/blog/onenacion/post/_/id/710/baseball-academies-thrive-in-the-dominican-republic.
Bruce Schoenfeld, “The Mystery of the Vanishing Screwball,” New York Times, July 10, 2014.
About the reviewer: Paul Eberly is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars and has published in Agni Online, Post Road, Standards (including the five-year anthology of that journal), and Conceptions Southwest. He blogs about books at pauleberly.com.