One of America’s Greatest Sports Novels Tells a Deeply Jewish Story

July 28, 2022 | Rich Cohen
About the author:

Considering Bernard Malamud’s best-known book, The Natural, on the 70th anniversary of its publication, Rich Cohen calls it “the most American of Jewish novels and the most Jewish story in American folklore.” Made into a 1984 film starring Robert Redford and Glenn Close, it is the story of Roy Hobbs, a wildly talented baseball player who becomes the star hitter for the fictional New York Knights before coming to a tragic end. The child of Russian-Jewish immigrants, the Brooklyn-born Malamud turned increasing to Jewish themes in his fiction after writing The Natural. Cohen observes:

According to academics, especially those who have taught the novel at the college level, the plot of The Natural is based on the legend of the Fisher King, the wounded monarch in search of the Holy Grail. . . . The legend was in the air in Malamud’s formative years. Richard Wagner based Parsifal on the legend, which also supplied the structure for T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”

And yet, although I agree that the structure of Malamud’s novel is the Grail Legend and that its settings, characters, and anecdotes are baseball lore, its sensibility is Jewish. The Knights’ desiccated kingdom is not Britain or New York. It’s Jerusalem. Roy Hobbs is not Perceval. He’s David, whose thrown stone was a split-finger fastball. As in the temple era, the path to redemption must be cleared by sacrifice. In this case, it’s Bump Bailey, who chases a fly ball from this world to the next. The final battle does not take place on the field but in the heart of one man, Hobbs, who, same as Jacob, wrestles the angel till his hip aches. As in the War Scroll currently on display in the Israel Museum, it’s the sons of light (win the game and walk away poor but righteous) against the sons of darkness (throw the game and walk away damned but rich).

And the bat?

It’s not Excalibur. It’s the Staff of Moses. Some even say that Hobbs himself was Jewish, like Hank Greenberg, Sid Gordon, or Al Rosen. It’s a suggestion based on one sentence that appears late in the book, a sentence that sounds like a signal sent on a frequency only Jews will receive: “[Hobbs] considered fasting but he hadn’t fasted since he was a kid.”

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