Bang the Drum Slowly is the second in a series of four novels written by Mark Harris that chronicles the career of baseball player Henry W. Wiggen. This series is among the finest novels ever written to use baseball as a theme. Published in 1956, the book is a simple, moving testament to the immutable power of friendship. The title page in the novel reads; “by Henry W. Wiggen / Certain of His Enthusiasms Restrained by Mark Harris”, the author’s personal touch that tells us (the reader) that we are about to enter a genial, conversational first-person story.
Wiggen is a gifted pitcher in the major leagues, playing for a team that includes a mediocre catcher named Bruce Pearson--a slow-talking Georgia boy who tries the patience of the team. Pearson has a secret; he has been diagnosed with Hodgkins’ disease which threatens not only his life but also the baseball career that he so desperately wants. When Wiggen learns of Pearson’s illness, their casual acquaintanceship deepens into a profound friendship. Wiggen fights heroically to keep Pearson on the team, saving his friend from being sent down to the minors, and he also rallies other teammates to help his friend. The miracle is that Pearson is transformed into a better ballplayer… but the miracle is brief for the man’s time has already run out.
In lesser hands, this story could be cloying or overly sentimental, but Harris writes with a gentle, unassuming dignity. His freewheeling colloquial style verges on an easy stream of consciousness. Wiggen is an engaging character and his observations are lucid and refreshing. The characters are wonderfully realized, from the drawling Pearson to team manager Dutch Schnell. It may be that what makes Bang the Drum Slowlya great novel is that it is not entirely a sports novel but also a warm human comedy complete with believable real-life tragic events, set in the familiar, magical world of American baseball.
Bang the Drum Slowly is #14 on the Sports Illustrated Greatest 100 Sports books.