Wednesday, December 2, 2009

"A Young Man's Game"

In addition to the hundreds of short stories John D MacDonald wrote about crime and mystery, filling the pages of magazines like Dime Detective and Doc Savage, he was also a prolific producer of science fiction, writing about 55 works of short fiction and three novels in that field. What is less known and rarely mentioned is the fact that he was also an author of sports fiction. By my count he penned at least 29 short stories and novellas that filled the pages of now-forgotten pulps like 15 Sports Stories and Sports Novels. In fact, the record for the most JDM stories published in a single issue of a magazine goes to the July 1949 issue of 15 Sports Stories, where four of his works appeared, with only one under his real name. An avid fisherman, MacDonald also counted boxing and golf among the sports he himself played and participated in at one time in his life. He wrote expertly about those fields, and also wrote well about auto racing, baseball, tennis, football, hockey, bowling, and even bull-fighting.

In JDM Bibliophile # 23 (Jan 1979) Walter Shine wrote: "... his sports writings ranged through so many fields as to suggest a multiplicity of writers, rather than a single one. The technical knowledge in each seems to be that of a seasoned student of the sport -- rather than an occasional onlooker ... Whatever he, or we, may now feel about the quality of the fiction, any of us would be hard put to fault the sports expertise he showed."

MacDonald's sports stories remain the least anthologized of all his fiction, with the possible exception of the mainstream work he produced later in his career for slicks like Good Housekeeping, Redbook and the Saturday Evening Post. Unlike the mystery and science fiction fields, there doesn't seem to be a subculture of fanatics and collectors clamoring for the re-publication of stories with titles like "Buzz-Saw Belter" or "Fight, Scrub, Fight!"

One of MacDonald's sports stories that has been included in an anthology is his late-period baseball tale, "A Young Man's Game." Originally appearing in the May 1961 issue of Argosy, it was included in Martin H. Greenberg's mammoth On the Diamond: A Treasury of Baseball Stories, published in 1987. One of only three baseball stories JDM ever penned, it appears alongside the works of other notables such as Ring Lardner, Zane Grey and John O'Hara. A relatively short piece at 3,000 words, it nonetheless paints a detailed world and tells a compelling, recognizable story of an aging ballplayer who has possibly reached the end of his career.

After 18 years in baseball, outfielder Wally Prews his heading to yet another spring training camp in Florida. He is following up on a less-than-stellar season where he fell into a major slump, and he's looking to redeem himself this year. Like every previous spring, he has pounds to shed and skills to re-hone, but "every year it was just that much harder to get into shape." He's on edge as a result of last year's performance and is concerned about how he will be treated by his longtime General Manager. A harmless remark made by his wife Madge, who has accompanied him to camp, brings about a "dull anger" in Wally that doesn't go away. A low-ball contract offer exacerbates this feeling, and he holds out for a month before finally accepting a counteroffer. When a rookie pitcher addresses him as "Mr. Prews," Wally is shocked at the formality of it, and he lets it eat away at him. He finds something to bother him in even the slightest of gestures and remarks, and his resentment is becoming obvious to everyone, including Madge. Although his performance on the field is an improvement over last season's, his attitude is not, and after an exhibition game with the Giants, the GM asks to speak with Wally and his wife.

By 1961, MacDonald was a true master of his craft, and "A Young Man's Game" is a sterling example of that. It's a story where nothing really happens, but the reader's attention never waivers. Without a single wasted word, JDM brings us into a world and into the head of a character. A familiar, now-eroded beach beautifully symbolizes Wally's sense of aging, in a single sentence and without any attention drawn to it. The barely-noticeable streak of gray in Madge's hair is mentioned in passing, yet speaks volumes. Wally's own realization that time is running out is expressed in many ways, most overtly in his realization that he is "a bulky, overgrown child playing a solitary game with the grimness of all children who pretend." MacDonald's goal of doing "more with less" is beautifully on display in this gem of a story.

On the Diamond is out of print, but inexpensive used copies are easy to find on the Internet.

MacDonald submitted this story to Argosy under the title "It's Supposed to Be Fun," and, like a great many of his short story submissions, the magazine's editors changed it for publication. I have to admit that I'm with the editors on this one.

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