“Damn Yankees” by Douglass Wallop reviewed by Mike Foster
Douglass Wallop’s baseball fantasy was originally titled “The Year The Yankees Lost the Pennant”, and in 1954, the year of its publication, the notion of the Yankees losing the American League race to anyone—much less the lowly Washington Senators—was fantasy indeed.
The fear and loathing the Yankees inspired a half-century ago can scarcely be underestimated. The pinstriped powerhouse swaggered through season after season crushing their rivals on the way to yet another World Series champion’s crown.
They were hated even in their hometown, where New York Giants’ and Brooklyn Dodgers’ fans outnumbered the Yankees’ sneering partisans. Unsurprisingly, “Damn Yankees”, the musical inspired by this novel, was an instant and long-running Broadway hit.
Set four years in the future, in 1958, the tale begins in Washington, D.C., on a muggy July night. Joe Boyd, a middle-aged real estate salesman, sits alone on his screened front porch, listening to his beloved Senators lose yet another game to the Tigers by eight runs. Meanwhile, the Yankees are sweeping the White Sox to move into first place. Another New York pennant seems assured, barring an act of God…or the Devil.
For at this moment, Applegate, a dapper, suave incarnation of G.K. Chesterton’s notion that “the Devil is a gentleman,” walks into Joe Boyd’s life with a Faustian offer. For the small price of his soul, flabby, pot-bellied Joe Boyd can be transformed into lean, muscular Joe Hardy, a baseball phenomenon who can lead the hapless Senators out of the cellar and cast the Yankees into second place.
Applegate even offers his wary victim a way out: he can be Joe Hardy till Sept. 21, then return, fifty-year-old body and immortal soul intact, to his mundane life as Joe Boyd, complete with a dowdy wife who just doesn’t understand why her husband wastes so much time listening to Senators’ games on the radio.
So Joe Boyd swallows his misgivings, agrees to the demonic deal, leaves his wife Bess an enigmatic farewell note, and is transformed into Joe Hardy, a homer-slugging Golden-Glove fielder who, like a baseball Moses can lead his people out of the wilderness of the cellar into the Promised Land of the Series.
Any Cubs fan, as this reader has been ever since he first read this book in 1957 at age ten, will sympathize.
Wallop’s devilish Applegate is well-drawn, an all-American Screwtape who dresses nattily, eats ravenously, beguiles cunningly, and lights his cigarettes with a snap of his fingers. From his box seat, he cheers loudly as Joe Hardy leads the Senators through a late-summer winning streak that moves them up the standings like a baseball bat out of Hell.
He sweetens the fiery brimstoned pot by dangling the lovely Lola, another sold soul, as the beautiful, beguiling bait that strains Joe’s bond to his vows to Bess.
Lola, for her part, truly loves Joe. He resists her temptations chivalrously but realizes that if he stays on as Joe Hardy after the Sept. 21 deadline, she will be his, Marilyn Monroe to his Joe Dimaggio, the most beautiful girl in the world and the greatest baseball player ever, together in love, forever: a sweet damnation.
“Poor Joe,” Lola tells him during a moonlit canoe ride. “You’re so naïve in some ways. It doesn’t have anything to do with burning.”
As the Senators’ winning streak continues, so does Joe’s dismay. As Chesterton wrote, “the splendour of the daylight grows drearier than the dark/ And life droops like a vulture that once was such a lark.”
Joe rents a room from Bess (who has become a Senators fan) in his old home and feigns sickness, but a visit from the team’s gentle, benevolent owner Adam Welch, who reveals that he has only months to live, brings him back to the team.
A New York sportswriter’s column questioning his mysterious past leads to a suspension for a commissioner’s hearing on Sept. 21, which clears him but carries him past the Devil’s deadline.
Doomed and damned, he faces New York for the last time in a game that will decide the pennant.
To his horror, he realizes too late that the Devil is (but of course!) a Yankees fan.
What happens? Pull “Damn Yankees” off the shelf and read it for yourself.
What happened for real in 1958? Well, the Senators sure didn’t win the pennant. The Yankees did, ten games ahead of the White Sox, and went on to win yet another World Series, defeating the Milwaukee Braves in seven games, winning the last three.
They finished dead last, 31 games out of first place and 12 games out of seventh.
But they played the Yankees tough, going into their last meeting down 11-10 in their head-to-head series, battling for a tie on the season.
The Yankees shut them out, 7-0.
Chesterton was right: “For the Devil is a gentleman, and doesn’t keep his word.”