The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. Book Review

This 1968 novel by Robert Coover tells the story of Henry Waugh, accountant by day and game enthusiast by night. His special obsession is a self-made baseball dice game, complete with eight teams and carefully calibrated charts listing every possible outcome for each dice roll. For those familiar with Strat-O-Matic baseball, the setup is easy to imagine, but Henry has gone beyond what Hal Richman did with his own tabletop game. Henry has created not just a game, but an entire world to serve as a backdrop for the game. He has populated the player pool, creating the names himself. He has decided on positions, ages, and even the physical appearance of each player. He has created contracts, team budgets, and rival political factions that vie for control of the league chancellorship. When we pick up the story at the beginning of the book, Henry is in the league’s fifty-sixth season, which means his game already has a rich history. Henry chronicles each season, taking note of not only what happens in the games, but what players go on to do after they retire. Within his Universal Baseball Association world, Henry is sovereign: he decides who retires each year, which rookies make their debut, who becomes a star, and, quite literally, who lives and dies.

Living in a Fantasy Baseball World

As a fan of Strat-O-Matic baseball, I loved reading the description of Henry’s baseball world. I fanaticized about how much fun it would be to immerse oneself in such a world by playing games, keeping track of statistics, and watching history slowly write itself as each season progressed. I began thinking up my league structure: how many teams? What about roster size? How many games could I play each night? Then I remembered I was married with a child, a job, and other hobbies I enjoy—the kinds of things that tend to hinder full immersion into a fantasy world.

In the book, Henry has no such hindrances. With only an occasional dalliance with Hettie, “a neighborhood B-girl,” and intermittent social interactions with work colleague Lou to distract him, Henry is free to enjoy his game to the fullest. The nature of his freedom, however, is interesting to ponder. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates muses about the all-powerful tyrant who is seemingly free to do whatever he likes, but who is actually enslaved by his own desires. Likewise, we wonder as we read the novel whether Henry is truly free to play his game or rather enslaved by the very game he created.

As much as I enjoyed reading the description of Henry’s game world, I could not shake the sense of sadness I also experienced. Henry is largely alone, with only the created personalities of his game coming alive to keep him company. He is trapped by his game, unable to cast it aside even when he tries. He experiences happiness, but it is fleeting: here with one roll of the dice, but gone with the next.

Straddling Two Worlds

Coover’s writing style accentuates the thin, almost non-existent line between the real world and the fantasy world of the Universal Baseball Association. Coover shifts from one world to the other with no warning, sometimes in the same sentence. His style can be disconcerting and occasionally difficult to follow. There were times I wanted Coover to spend longer describing Henry in the real world, to hear more about Henry’s life, to observe him interacting with others. But I realized the deepest insights into Henry’s character actually come from the fantasy world. What the Universal Baseball Association players and coaches are thinking, doing, and saying are a projection of Henry’s own mind. How could they not be, for Henry is, after all, their creator.

Philosophical Questions

There is a key moment about one third of the way into the book where a dramatic and unlikely event takes place within Henry’s game as a result of a series of dice rolls. The event deeply affects Henry and the remainder of the book explores how he deals with the event and where it eventually leads him. Along the way, many philosophical questions arise. Is the baseball world Henry created “real” in any sense of the word? Does a creator have certain responsibilities toward that which is created? What are the temptations and effects of unlimited power within a given world? Put differently, what would it be like to act as a god?

The Allure of Baseball

While I enjoyed pondering these philosophical questions, I stayed engaged with the book largely because of the baseball content. Yes, I was occasionally impatient with some of the longer sections of imagined (or real?) dialogue between the personalities in Henry’s baseball world. Still, there was something enticing about Henry’s creation that sucked me in, just as it did Henry. Perhaps this is unsurprising; we are talking about baseball, after all. As Coover writes, as he describes Henry’s relationship to his game world:

Nothing like it really. Not the actual game so much—to tell the truth, real baseball bored him—but rather the records, the statistics, the peculiar balances between individual and team, offense and defense, strategy and luck, accident and pattern, power and intelligence. And no other activity in the world had so precise and comprehensive a history, so specific an ethic, and at the same time, strange as it seemed, so much ultimate mystery.”

As this book illustrates in more ways than one, there is nothing quite like the world of baseball.

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