Obituary: Mark Harris / Baseball novelist, author of 'Bang the Drum Slowly,' taught at Pitt in '70s

Nov. 19, 1922 -- May 30, 2007

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Mark Harris, author of the acclaimed baseball novel "Bang the Drum Slowly," which he adapted for the 1973 movie starring Michael Moriarty and Robert DeNiro, has died. He was 84.

Mr. Harris, a retired Arizona State University professor of English who lived in Goleta, Calif., died of complications related to Alzheimer's disease Wednesday , said his son, Henry Harris.

The author of 13 novels and five nonfiction books, Mr. Harris was best known for four baseball novels narrated by Henry Wiggen, the ace left-handed pitcher for the fictional New York Mammoths: "The Southpaw" (1953), "Bang the Drum Slowly" (1956), "A Ticket for a Seamstitch" (1957) and "It Looked Like For Ever" (1979).

He taught at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1970s.

"Bang the Drum Slowly," named one of the top 100 sports books of all time by Sports Illustrated, was the most popular of the four.

The tragicomic tale of Wiggen and catcher Bruce Pearson, who is dying of Hodgkin's disease, "Bang the Drum Slowly" was adapted for a live 1956 segment of "The U.S. Steel Hour," starring Paul Newman as Wiggen and Albert Salmi as Pearson. In the movie version, Mr. Moriarty played Wiggin and Mr. DeNiro played Pearson.

The novel also was adapted as a stage play.

"Bang the Drum Slowly" has been praised for succeeding on two levels.

"Henry's dead-pan vernacular account of life in the dugout is refreshing, lively, and often uproariously funny," wrote a critic for the New York Herald Tribune Book Review. At the same time, "his reactions to his doomed friend are poignant and profoundly touching."

Cordelia Candelaria, the author of "Seeking the Perfect Game: Baseball in American Literature," has rated Mr. Harris' "The Southpaw" and "Bang the Drum Slowly" among the top five baseball novels ever written.

Ms. Candelaria, who taught creative writing at Arizona State, said that Mr. Harris' contribution to American literature was not limited to his baseball writing. His greatest influence, she said, was through the character of Wiggen.

"He's every bit as permanent and important as Huckleberry Finn, as Ishmael and Ahab in 'Moby Dick,' and as Nick Adams in Hemingway's short stories," Ms. Candelaria said. "Henry Wiggen struggles with his individuality, his place in society and the moral dilemmas he faces. All of those struggles are as much about him as an American character as they are about baseball."

Mr. Harris, who played baseball as a boy and often wrote nonfiction pieces about baseball, was known for writing realistically about the sport in his novels.

"I can't stand fantasy, especially in baseball," he said in 1994. "It has to be real for me. I think people make fantasy of it who don't know how it works realistically. That is a demand I made when I was a kid -- that baseball has to be done right."

"Diamond," a collection of Mr. Harris' baseball essays written between 1946 and 1993, was published in 1994.

Mr. Harris' first novel, "Trumpet to the World," about a young black man who marries a well-to-do white girl, was published in 1946.

"I think he expressed his pacifism in a uniquely dark way through a novel called 'Killing Everybody' in 1973, which was about the suffering of parents who had lost a child in a war," added Henry Harris.

Born Mark Harris Finkelstein in Mount Vernon, N.Y., on Nov. 19, 1922, Mr. Harris legally changed his name in the 1940s when, his son said, "he was advised that his career as a writer would take better root if he did not go by a Jewish name."

After serving in the Army during World War II, Harris worked as a newspaper and wire service reporter and as a writer for Negro Digest and Ebony.

He earned a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Denver in 1950, followed by a master's in English a year later. He received his doctoral degree in American studies from the University of Minnesota in 1956.

Mr. Harris was a member of the English departments at the University of Minnesota, San Francisco State University, Purdue University, California Institute of the Arts, the University of Southern California and the University of Pittsburgh, among others.

He was a professor of English at Arizona State, where he also taught creative writing, from 1980 to 2001.


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