- The Black Man as Fictional Athlete:Runner Mack, the Sporting Myth, and the Failure of the American Dream
"All I want to do is play baseball. That's all I want to do in my life—play ball."—Henry Adams, central character in Runner Mack
Barry Beckham's Runner Mack, which was first published by Morrow in 1972, is the first American novel by a black writer to draw on organized sports experience as a means of ordering fictional meaning and purpose. As such, this work presents us with the first full-length portrait of the black athlete in American fiction. In another place, I have discussed in some detail the literary characteristics and cultural significance of the athletic figure in American fiction; and, as we shall see, the baseball protagonist of Runner Mack, like all major fictional characters molded after the athletic archetype, also conforms to the mythical pattern of the sporting hero.1 Accordingly, this character's literary function is controlled by an intimate relationship with sporting experience in order to suggest the ramifications of a larger, more complex issue or problem—in this case, [End Page 73] the plight of the black man in search of a positive identity in modern America.
Because of the dominant role blacks have played in American sports since the 1960s, one might wonder why sports as a fictional setting for a black protagonist have been almost totally ignored by our black writers. When Runner Mack was published in 1972, it had been some 25 years since Jackie Robinson broke the color line in major-league baseball, and by this time black athletes had made their mark in all our major sports, both amateur and professional. By this time, too, reputable novelists such as Mark Harris, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and Robert Coover, writing in the increasingly popular mode of baseball fiction, had produced works of favorable critical reception. Why then had black writers failed to recognize a rich literary source in not just baseball but all American sports experience?
Part of the answer may lie in the nature of the modern sports fiction tradition itself that, according to Michael Oriard, was established in the late nineteenth century by writers of popular and juvenile sports fiction. These were the writers, Oriard contends, who originated the sports fiction conventions "within which and against which serious authors write" (9).2 Since the inception of these conventions, though, it would appear that a significant reason why black authors have been disinclined to write "within" them is simply that such writing did not allow for black athletic models drawn after the multitude of fantasized heroes in the lineage of "Frank Merriwell's Sons," to use Oriard's apt phrase.
Popular sports fiction dating from the 1890s was produced primarily for an aspiring middle-class, all-white male audience conditioned to the philosophy of success that American capitalism preached. Thus, the Waspish sports hero of that day's popular fiction grew out of a general understanding that school/college-life experiences, particularly athletics, were designed mainly to prepare a young man "for the trials of a driving, materialistic American business society and world leadership" (Messenger 9). Unfortunately, for most black youths growing up during the heyday of the school sport hero's fictional popularity (ca. 1900-1940), [End Page 74] the concept of making the team in organized athletics was about as remote an experience as were their chances of becoming an integral part of "American business society and world leadership." As a result, the conventional themes of our modern sports fiction tradition appear to have had little or no influence on black writers, whose overall literary intent has expressed itself in a naturalistic way in order to dramatize the frustation and anger of embittered blacks struggling to "make the team" in a racist milieu. In such a light, then, it is little wonder that the Afro-American athlete as a significant character portrayed "within" the conventions of American sports fiction is practically nonexistent. Nevertheless, one can't help wondering why black writers, in also electing not to write "against" the conventions of the sports fiction tradition, have seemingly ignored a ripe opportunity...