I saw a blog post or email from author Dan Pink with a list of the 20 most influential books on his life. The list was mostly what you expect, except for The Universal Baseball Association by Robert Coover. I had never heard of the book. Being a huge baseball fan, I put it on my reading list without giving it much more thought.
It’s a difficult book to describe. It’s almost entirely about baseball, without being about baseball at all. Our protagonist, Henry, is a mid-50s accountant in post WWII Chicago, who is totally obsessed with a statistical dice simulation game of his own invention. The author of this blog post invented his own baseball simulation in junior high school, and has spent way too many hours playing Statis Pro Baseball, APBA baseball, and in this century, Out of the Park Baseball. However Henry’s obsession with his game completely consumes his life, leading to all sorts of negative consequences that I won’t spoil here.
Henry’s descent into his game is chronicled by the POV from the writer bouncing between the real world and the world in Henry’s baseball league, which increasingly becomes intermingled as the book progresses. It seems to switch in mid sentence sometimes, which can make it a challenging book to read as it can be hard to keep track of where we are; the real world, or Henry’s baseball league world.
The book asks interesting questions about theology, loneliness, power, control, and obsession. Ultimately, the baseball isn’t even important. It’s a vehicle to think about what happens when fiction intrudes so completely on a life that the line between fiction and real ceases to exist? Does it matter if generations later the fiction has become fact, to the point it honored and mythologized by its own holiday?
So really, it’s a book about the power of story.
Also, this book was written in 1968. Strat-O-Matic baseball did exist, however the obsessive detail in Henry's league in this game foreshadows fantasy baseball and Moneyball by 20+ years. Also, the book contains the single greatest collection of baseball player names every recorded.