The Natural is everything you could want from a sports story: greed, sex, betrayal, and a whole lotta baseball. Bernard Malamud's 1952 novel tells the story of Roy Hobbs, a player who comes back from a string of bad luck to have a chance at being the best baseball player the game had ever seen. But greed and temptation are there to stand between him and his dreams.
The story starts out with young pitching phenom Roy about to try out for the Chicago Cubs. A beautiful but psychotic woman shoots him, taking him out of the game for years. Sound too crazy to believe? Try this on for size: In 1949, Eddie Waitkus, a baseball player who was known as "the Natural," was shot by a stalker named Ruth Ann Steinhagen. Years later, Roy finally makes it to the major leagues and becomes an instant hero with his incredible slugging and fielding. But he ultimately fails in his quest to be the best there ever was.
The novel became an instant classic. Americans love baseball, and the novel draws on plenty of real baseball history, with events based on legends like Babe Ruth and Shoeless Joe Jackson (as well as that unlucky Eddie Waitkus). We love us our heroes, especially the flawed ones. In The Natural, our very flawed hero's romantic idea about fame and glory run head-on into the cynical realities of a materialistic world.
One of the other reasons The Natural was such a big deal is that, even though there were plenty of novels about baseball, none of them were considered to be "serious" books by serious writers—you know, with fancy words, philosophical themes, and a review in the New York Times. Malamud had already been a celebrated short-story writer when he published The Natural, his first novel. (He even has a short-story prize named after him.) This was a baseball story like no other, filled with the mythic themes, poetic language, and suffering characters that Malamud fans knew and loved.
As a boy, Malamud was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan (yes, those same Dodgers who headed for sunny California in 1957) and he remembered thinking of his baseball idols as almost mythic heroes. He said that in order to write a novel about baseball that seemed meaningful to him (and, he hoped, to readers), he needed to add that symbolic element, to make it about more than baseball, to make it about our struggles to live up to the expectations we set for ourselves.
As one critic put it, "The book is about baseball as The Old Man and the Sea is about a fishing jaunt." So even if we've never picked up a bat and don't know the difference between RBIs and ERAs, we can all read Roy's story and relate. Swing away!
High school is full of ways to let you know where you stand. You get graded on almost everything you do; you know whether you're first or second trumpet, whether you're a starter on the basketball team or the water boy/girl, and let's not even get started on the cliques and love triangles.
Sometimes where you stand isn't under your control. Is it your fault that the kid with his own personal pitching coach moved into town the summer before your senior year and knocked you off the starting roster? Or that you were up all night with a sick little brother the night before the SAT? You're off the hook for that stuff. But plenty of things are very much under your control. If you miss baseball practice to binge-watch "Walking Dead" reruns, don't complain about being sent to the bench. If you stay up partying the night before the SAT, don't blame the essay questions.
Same for our hero Roy Hobbs. Could he have foreseen that the pretty lady on the train was a sociopathic killer with a taste for bringing down great athletes? It's not Roy's fault that Harriet turns out to be a maniac, or that his family was a total disaster. But Roy just can't blame bad luck for his problems—when we look closer, we start to see a pattern of seriously bad choices and self-destructive behavior that leads to his eventual downfall. As the famous 20th-century philosopher Pogo said, "We have met the enemy and he is us."
The important thing to take away from reading The Natural is that life is about more than just natural talent. You've got to use it, take care of it, and invest in it if you want to go anywhere. For instance,
None of this is stuff anybody wants to hear. It's much easier to blame the gods, the weather, or the school librarian for our problems. But think about it while you read The Natural, and ask yourself whether or not Roy's fate could have been any different if he had taken a little control over his life. Like Terry Malloy, he coulda been a contender.
All About The Natural
A website about the newest edition of the novel.
Just Act Natural
Robert Redford stars in the whitewashed version of The Natural (1984), with some major changes to the ending (spoiler alert: Roy doesn't strike out).
When Bernard Malamud went to see the film version of The Natural he said to his daughter, "At last, I'm an American writer."
Addicted to Writing
Bernard Malamud felt the need to write every day, whether it was half a page or a whopping five pages.
Back to His Roots
Even though it's not that obvious in The Natural, Bernard Malamud's work is generally characterized by a strong connection with Jewishness.
Can't Get Enough Malamud?
Malamud's daughter wrote a memoir about the author. Here's a reviewer's take on it.
Watch Roy strike out the Whammer in the movie The Natural.
Information about the real-life story of a great ball player who was shot by a crazy lady.
Eyes Tired from Reading?
Download the audio version of one of Malamud's short stories.
First Base…er, Edition
The cover of the original printing of The Natural.
Kim Basinger as Memo Paris in The Natural. But where's the red hair? Would you throw a game for this woman?