Home Book Reviews Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris

Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris

by Matt Smith

(Bison Books, 1984) 243 pages

First published in 1956, Bang the Drum Slowly is often referred to in lists of the great baseball novels.  This emotional story has been adapted into both a successful TV series and a film, the latter starring Michael Moriarty and Robert De Niro, and it is a wonderful introduction to the medium of baseball fiction. 

Bang the Drum Slowly tells the tale of the New York Mammoths’ 1955 season.  A year with a baseball club provides plenty of scope for a writer to create emotional highs and lows with many laughs in between, but the story gains strength through the presence of one of the players being diagnosed with Hodgkins disease.  Bruce Pearson was a third-string catcher largely made fun of by his teammates, yet as they learn of his fate one-by-one they are forced to confront their own mortality, to question how they treat each other and the way they live their lives.

The story is written from the perspective of the team’s main pitcher Henry Wiggen who is consciously writing the book (he is nicknamed “Author” by his teammates as a result).  This is a brilliant narrative device that Harris utilizes extremely well.  At one stage, Wiggen comments on the crowd who have run out of steam near the end of the game, stating “they were bushed.  A ballplayer must never be bushed playing ball all year but a fan is in title to be bushed sitting on their ass keeping score.  It is a cockeyed world”.  The “in titles” and other slight mistakes bring a great deal of character to the text.  The earthy, vernacular language is always convincing and it helps to draw you into the world of the baseball club. 

Wiggen occasionally addresses the reader directly, sharing his thoughts about various predicaments and even the writing of the book you are reading, but there are also moments when he unwittingly reveals his emotions.  Pearson is struck ill at one stage and Wiggen explains the scene in a matter-of-fact tone that allows the reader to see past the detached masculine voice:

“I took his shoulder and held it, and he reached up and took my hand, and I left him have it, though it felt crazy holding another man’s hand. Yet after a while it did not feel too crazy any more”.

However the device is best employed near the end of the novel when a discussion about the developing book itself allows Harris to reinforce the central theme of the story.  The veteran coach known as Red had read through the first few chapters and implored Wiggen to focus on Pearsons’ plight:

“Stick to Pearson” he [Red] said.  “Stick to Pearson, Pearson.  You must write about dying, saying ‘Keep death in your mind'” .

“Who would wish to read such a gloomy book?” I said.  “Everybody knows they are dying”.

“They do not act like they know it,” he said.  “Stick to death and Pearson”.

This is a book about a baseball team and the many different details and accounts of games being played help to add to the enjoyment for a baseball fan.  Yet the central theme is universal and helps to make it a great story regardless of the baseball connection.

Bang the Drum Slowly is the second of four novels ‘written’ by Wiggen.  I bought a copy of this one on a recommendation and found that it took a little while to understand Wiggen’s character, something that probably would not have been a factor had I read the first book, The Southpaw, first.  Not knowing any of the previous storylines wasn’t a hindrance in any other way though as Wiggen thoughtfully refers back to points mentioned in his previous book where necessary.

I will soon be able to fill in the blanks, in any case.  No sooner had I turned the last page then I was ordering a second-hand copy of The Southpaw and no doubt I will buy the other two books, A Ticket for a Seamstitch and It Looked Like For Ever, as well. 

Judging on Bang the Drum Slowly, if you enjoy reading fiction and have an interest in baseball, this series cannot be recommended highly enough.

Have you read “Bang the Drum Slowly”? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.

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Joe Cooter January 14, 2009 - 2:11 pm

I’ve never had the opertunity to read the book but I’ve seen the movie more than once. Wonderful film that allows you to laugh and cry at the same time. Not only are Di Niro and Moriarty in that film, but this is the first appearence on screen by Danny Aiello, who would later appear in both MOONSTRUCK and DO THE RIGHT THING as well as in Madonna’s music video PAPA DON’T PREACH.

Interesting, the uniforms the Mamoths worn were almost exact replica’s of the Yankees and the actors ended up wearing numbers which corresponded with the numbers of real player who played for the Yankees at the time. That’s why Di Niro end up wearing number 15 which was Thurman Munson’s number. Additionaly, a lot of the action sequences were shot at Shea Stadium where the Yankees were playing at the time.

Joe Cooter January 14, 2009 - 2:50 pm

I just looked up the novel on Wikipedia, and was reminded that the Title came from a line from a traditional song THE STREETS OF LARADO. It can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streets_of_Laredo_(song)

Matt Smith January 14, 2009 - 7:20 pm

Thanks for the info Joe. I haven’t seen the film, but certainly enjoyed reading the book.

Joe Gray October 19, 2009 - 10:42 pm

Like you, I found it took a while to get used to Wiggen’s character. The thing that threw me was how I instantly thought he must not be that sharp because of the things like “in title” you mention above, but as the book goes on you actually realize he is pretty clever after all, particularly with the subtle aspects of the care he provides for Pearson (although probably not as smart as he suggests himself from time to time).

The way he refers to the writing of the book is hilarious (particularly when he says how his character drops into the background after the first couple of chapters), although it made me look back at my own reading and think how odd it was that I’d never encountered such a device before. It’s so obvious when you think about it!

Perhaps the thing that left me thinking about this book the longest after reading the final words was the question of what it is that makes it so good. I’m not disagreeing with reviews it gets – I’d put it right up there too, in fact – but I can’t quite work out in my mind what are the specific ingredients that make it so good.

Matt Smith October 19, 2009 - 11:05 pm

Thanks for your comments Joe. On reflection, I think the big thing about the story is the way in which Pearson’s character draws out a different side to Wiggen that you wouldn’t think existed based on a) his behaviour most of the rest of the time, and b) the persona he tries to put across in ‘his’ narrative. It allows Harris to tap into common feelings and emotions without getting too melodramatic and cloying.


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