First edition cover
|Cover artist||Simon Goltche|
|Publisher||Harcourt Brace and Company|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
The Natural is a 1952 novel about baseball written by Bernard Malamud. The book follows Roy Hobbs, a baseball prodigy whose career is sidetracked when he is shot by a woman whose motivation remains mysterious. Whether she is acting alone or is part of a plot can be debated. Most of the story concerns itself with his attempts to return to baseball later in life, when he plays for the fictional New York Knights with his legendary bat "Wonderboy".
Based upon the bizarre shooting incident and subsequent comeback of Philadelphia Phillies player Eddie Waitkus, the story of Roy Hobbs takes some poetic license and embellishes what was truly a strange, but memorable, account of a career lost too soon. Apart from the fact that both Waitkus and fictional Hobbs were shot by women, there are few if any other similarities. It has been alternately suggested that the shooting incident might have been inspired by Chicago Cubs shortstop Billy Jurges, who was shot by a showgirl with whom he was romantically linked, but there has been no evidence to support this claim.
The novel opens with 19-year-old Roy Hobbs on a train to Chicago with his manager Sam. He is traveling to Chicago for a tryout for the Chicago Cubs. Other passengers on the train include sportswriter Max Mercy, Walter "The Whammer" Whambold, the leading hitter in the American League and three-time American League Most Valuable Player (based on Babe Ruth), and Harriet Bird, a beautiful but mysterious woman.
The train makes a quick stop at a carnival along the rail where The Whammer challenges Hobbs to strike him out. Hobbs does just that, much to everyone's surprise and The Whammer's humiliation. Back on the train Harriet Bird strikes up a conversation with Hobbs, who does not suspect that Bird has any sort of ulterior motive. In fact, she is a lunatic obsessed with shooting the best baseball player. Her intent was to target Whammer but after Hobbs struck him out, her attention turns to him.
Once off the train, Hobbs checks into his hotel room in Chicago and promptly receives a call from Bird, who is staying in the same hotel. When he goes down to her room, she shoots him in the stomach.
The novel picks up 15 years later in the dugout of the New York Knights, a fictional National League baseball team. The team has been on an extended losing streak and the careers of manager Pop Fisher and assistant manager Red Blow seem to be winding to an ignominious end. During one of these sad games Roy Hobbs emerges from the clubhouse tunnel to meet Pop and to announce that he is the team's new right fielder, having just been signed by Knights co-owner Judge Banner. Both Pop and Red take Hobbs under their wing and he learns from Red about Fisher's plight as manager of the Knights. The judge wishes to push Pop out of the team's payroll completely but cannot do so until the end of the current season, provided the Knights do not win the National League pennant.
Being the newest player, Roy has a number of practical jokes played upon him, including the theft of his "Wonderboy" bat. Once Roy gets his first chance at bat, however, he proves he is truly a "natural" at the game. During one game, Pop substitutes Hobbs as a pinch hitter for team star Bump Baily. Pop is disappointed with Baily, who has not been hustling and decides to teach him a lesson by pinch-hitting for him. Pop tells Roy to "knock the cover off of the ball" and Roy does exactly that—literally—hitting a triple to right field. A few days later, a newly-hustling Bump attempts to play a hard hit fly ball. He runs into the outfield wall and later dies from the impact. Roy then takes over for Bump on a permanent basis.
Max Mercy reappears, searching for details of Hobbs' past. Hobbs remains quiet even after Mercy offers five thousand dollars, saying that "all the public is entitled to is my best game of baseball". At the same time, Hobbs has been attempting unsuccessfully to negotiate a higher salary with the judge, arguing that his success should be rewarded. Mercy introduces Hobbs to bookie Gus Sands, who is keeping company with Memo Paris, Pop's niece. Hobbs has been infatuated with Memo since he came to the Knights. Hobbs' magic tricks appear to impress her.
Max Mercy writes a column in the paper about the judge's refusal to grant Hobbs a raise, and a fan uprising ensues. Hobbs, however, is more occupied with Memo and attempts to further their relationship. Pop warns Hobbs about Memo's tendency to impart bad luck to the people with whom she associates. Hobbs dismisses the warning, but soon after, he falls into a hitting slump. He tries to solve it in a number of ways, but all of them fail. He finally breaks out of it when he hits a home run in a game in which a mysterious woman rises from her seat a number of times. Before Hobbs can see who the woman is, she has left the game. Roy eventually meets the woman, Iris Lemon, and proceeds to court her. Upon finding out she is a mother, however, his desire for her drops and he turns his attention back to Memo Paris.
Memo rebuffs Roy's advances; Hobbs continues to play brilliantly and leads the Knights to a 17-game winning streak. With the Knights one game away from winning the National League pennant, Roy goes to a party hosted by Memo, where he collapses and wakes up in a hospital bed. The doctor tells him he can play in the final game of the season, but after that he must retire if he wants to live. Hobbs wants to start a family with Memo and realizes he will have to have some source of money.
The judge offers Hobbs increasing amounts of money to lose the final game for the Knights. Hobbs makes a counter-offer of $35,000, which is accepted. That night, unable to sleep, he reads a letter from Iris. After seeing the word 'grandmother' in the letter, he discards it. The next day, he does play. During an at-bat, he fouls a pitch into the stands that strikes Iris, injuring her. The Wonderboy bat also splits in two lengthwise. Iris tells Roy that she is pregnant with his child. Now he's determined to do his best for their future. At the end of the game, with a chance to win it, Hobbs comes to bat against Herman Youngberry, a brilliant young pitcher very similar to Hobbs' at the same age. Youngberry strikes out Hobbs, ending the game and the season for the Knights.
Major themes 
The novel draws upon several sources of mythology, most notably the story of The Fisher King. In other versions the knight Perceval fails to ask the king about the grail, so he fails to cure the Wasteland. Pop Fisher is the manager of the Knights and his team is trying to win the pennant, something he has never done in his career as both a player and a manager. His name is an obvious reference, along with his need to be "cured" by Roy. Roy Hobbs is the great knight Perceval who is meant to return the Holy Grail (pennant) to Pop Fisher. In Malamud’s version, Hobbs does not win the pennant and the reader is led to believe that Pop Fisher will fade away.
In the story of The Fisher King, the knight Perceval best portrays Roy. They are both uncultured and unintelligent. For example, Pop tells Roy to "knock the cover off the ball" as Roy goes out to bat. He does just that, and when he comes back to the dugout, Pop asks him why he did what he did. Roy tells him that it was what he told him to do. When Perceval became a knight, he asked many questions. Finally, his mentor advised him not to ask too many. Consequently he stops asking questions altogether, and thereby fails to cure The Wasteland.
The main difference between the film and the novel is the ending. In the film, Hobbs hits a home run to win the game and complete his heroic journey. In the novel, Hobbs has a tragic flaw; he has a weakness for his appetites, women, and caring too much about his own glory. These tragic flaws result in the destruction of his Excalibur (Wonderboy), and end with him failing at the final at bat. While the film shows Hobbs victorious and fulfilling his dreams of glory, the novel shows a Hobbs who is crushed by his own hubris and must now live as a forgotten man.
Roy Hobbs – “The Natural” - A once teenage pitching phenomenon whose career was sidelined and dreams were derailed when the train of his life was knocked off its tracks through no fault of his own. The story is about Hobbs's quest to come back years later from the heartbreaking tragedy that had sidetracked his life so that, hopefully, he can finally take his rightful place on the field and be remembered as one of the greatest ballplayers of all time.
Memo Paris – Roy’s main love interest throughout the story, Memo is Pop Fisher’s niece and is often in the company of Gus Sands. She is generally unhappy and leads Roy on for most of the novel.
Pop Fisher – The grizzled manager of the New York Knights, Pop was once a fine player who is remembered for making a crucial error in his playing career and for never winning the big game. His name and situation are suggestive of the Fisher King of legend.
Max Mercy – A seedy journalist who is more concerned with unearthing the player’s personal lives than covering the sport itself. Mercy meets Hobbs in the beginning of the novel and spends most of his time trying to uncover his dark secrets.
Gus Sands - A morally bankrupt bookie who enjoys placing bets against Hobbs until he convinces him to take a dive in the final game. Gus is also always around Memo, despite Roy’s protests.
Iris Lemon – A fan of Roy’s who helps him break his slump in the middle of the season. Iris makes a deep connection with Roy, although he favors Memo over her until the end of the novel.
Harriet Bird - The mysterious woman Roy meets on the train. She later shoots him in her hotel room. (Her character is loosely based on Ruth Ann Steinhagen, the 19-year-old baseball groupie who shot and almost killed Eddie Waitkus in 1949.)
- Lalli (14 June 2011). "This Day in Philly Sports History: A Demented Fan and the Natural". Retrieved 30 May 2012.
- Ted Cox (4 May 2012). "Chicago sports tragedies: off the field". Retrieved 30 May 2012.
- Al Yellon (8 Jan 2007). "The Top 100 Cubs Of All Time - #42 Billy Jurges". Retrieved 30 May 2012.
- Mattew Annis (2007). "The Fisher King". Undergraduate Research Internship. University of Rochester. Retrieved 21 February 2011.
- Sparknotes. "The Natural: Themes, Motifs, and Symbols". Retrieved 30 May 2012.
- Sparknotes. "Character List". Sparknotes. Sparknotes. Retrieved 21 February 2011.