In the era before free agency rules made millionaires out of very mediocre baseball players, even all-star left-handed pitchers had to find work in the off season. Henry Wiggin, star lefthander for what was probably the best team in baseball during the early 1950s, the New York Mammoths, was no exception. Henry took to selling life insurance and annuities to his fellow ball players and he became quite good at his sales job. One of Henry’s customers was Bruce Pearson, a third-string Mammoth catcher who bought an insurance policy covering his life only to later discover that he was dying of Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a disease that was incurable in the 1950s.
Bang the Drum Slowly at its base is a realistic baseball novel told in the words (and with the spelling skills) of a small town boy born during the Depression who had the physical skills to become a major league baseball pitcher. It is an honest look at what goes on off the field and in the clubhouse when athletes spend more time on the road, and with each other, than they spend with their wives and children. There are racial tensions, drinking problems, womanizing and personality clashes that have to be dealt with by management, a baseball management generally interested only in the club’s bottom line.
The heart of this story, however, is the bad break that fate has handed Bruce Pearson. He faces imminent death even in what turns out to be the best season of his career. Henry Wiggin, feeling protective of the naïve Pearson, does his best to keep Pearson’s secret from team management and their teammates. But when word of Pearson’s situation slowly begins to leak, amazing things begin to happen to the New York Mammoths and to Bruce Pearson.
Mark Harris, who passed away just a few weeks ago, will long be remembered for Bang the Drum Slowly, a book that was chosen by Sports Illustrated as one of the Top 100 sports books of all time. This book has something for baseball fans and non-sports fans alike and, even after such a long absence, I enjoyed spending time again with Henry Wiggin.
Rated at 4.0