Mark Harris, who died Wednesday from complications of Alzheimer's Disease, made his mark on American literature with four baseball novels. The most famous of them, the second in the series, Bang the Drum Slowly, was filmed twice. First came a television performance in 1956 (the year the novel was published) on The U.S. Steel Hour, with Paul Newman playing the role of Henry "Author" Wiggen, star pitcher of the NY Mammoths and narrator of the series. (Wiggen anticipates the real-life ballplayer/authors Jim Brosnan and Jim Bouton.) Then in 1973 came the movie (screenplay by Harris), with Robert DeNiro -- in just his tenth role -- as terminally ill catcher Bruce Pearson, a part that, along with DeNiro's appearance in Mean Streets the same year, established him as an acting force. (Danny Aiello makes his first film appearance in a minor role.)
Harris had three great strengths as a writer. He was a master of realism, he wrote convincingly in the vernacular, and he had a well-proportioned sense of humor. All are on display in Bang the Drum Slowly and the other Wiggen books: The Southpaw (1953), A Ticket for a Seamstitch (1957), and It Looked Like Forever (1979). The relationships of men cooperating yet sometimes competing with each other, the friction of different personalities, is reflected not only in plot but in perfectly pitched dialogue. The foibles and faults of the characters are balanced by an overall humanity. The effect is of Ring Lardner rewriting a John R. Tunis novel.
Harris was known for more than his baseball novels. He penned an additional eight novels, edited a selection of James Boswell's journals and a compilation of Vachel Lindsay's poetry, and wrote several non-fiction books including a biography of Lindsay. As a screenwriter, he was responsible for a TV miniseries based on a case from Boswell's journals (Boswell for the Defendant, 1981) and adapted a Mark Twain story for the big screen (The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, 1980). He worked much of his life as a teacher, concluding with over two decades at Arizona State. - Steve Holtje Mr. Holtje considers Bang the Drum Slowly the greatest baseball movie ever, not least because it is about much more than baseball.