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Bang the Drum Slowly

directed by John Hancock

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Apr 05, 2011
Category: Drama

I’m a sucker for author questionnaires, and Shelf Awareness — a daily newsletter for the bookstore crowd — has a great one. Your five favorite books. The book that changed your life. A book you’ve faked reading. Favorite line from a book. Your favorite childhood book.

(I did one of these Q&As a few years ago. If you’re curious, click here.) 
Last week, I read an interview with Josh Wilker, a writer who knows his way around baseball. His favorite book as a kid: “Hang Tough, Paul Mather” by Alfred Slote. “This novel about a little leaguer with cancer was the first book to make me cry,” he wrote.
My favorite baseball books as a kid were by John Tunis. Slote couldn’t possibly be better. But a book that makes a kid cry — that intrigued me.
So I plunked down $3.98 for a used copy of this 1985 novel, and, yesterday, settled in to read 156 bigprint pages. (To buy “Hang Tough, Paul Mather” from Amazon, click here.) 
Forty minutes later, I turned the last page. And, yeah, there were tears.
Paul Mather — the main character and the narrator — is a 12-year-old California kid who has moved with his family to Michigan because that’s where the good doctors are. Last year in California — the last year before he got sick — he was a Little League phenom, pitching three no-hitters, one in the state tournament. Now he’s on the sidelines. It’s not as awful as he imagined: “One thing I learned from being sick was that if you stayed away long enough from something you love — like baseball — you don’t miss it so much. You forgot how good it was.”
But you know how little brothers are — they blab. The neighborhood kids learn of the new boy’s exploits and dare him to pitch a few balls. Paul shouldn’t, but he does. He’s still awesome. And something else: “The ball belonged in my hand. I’d forgotten what it felt like. Baseball was my game, pitching was my life. I was born to pitch.”
Paul defies his parents and his doctor — he forges his father’s signature on the permission card and plays in a Little League game. But only one. His body fails him. His ruse is discovered. And back he goes to the hospital.
Paul will go to one more game — in uniform, but in a wheel chair. He will do something wonderful. And then it’s back to his treatment and a round of new drugs. Much pain ahead. But he’s keeping his uniform handy. Paul Mather, he’s hanging tough.
You may not be in the mood to read a novel for 9-to-12 year-olds.
Perhaps you’d consider a movie with some of the same themes. It’s “Bang the Drum Slowly,” adapted from what is generally agreed is the best baseball novel ever penned. (To buy the paperback of the 1955 Mark Harris novel, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.)
“Bang the Drum Slowly” was released in 1978, during a newspaper strike , so you may never have heard of it. A pity. It’s one of the first films to star Robert De Niro, and there are astonishing performances by Michael Moriarty, Vincent Gardenia and Danny Aiello.  (To buy the DVD — for $8.49 — from Amazon, click here.
Once again, the main character is an athlete condemned to an early death — for De Niro, a major league catcher, has Hodgkin’s disease and will, within a year, be dead. Only one teammate knows this, the veteran pitcher played by Moriarty. They’re not really friends, but something about De Niro gets to Moriarty, and he decides that his catcher’s final season will be his best.
Film, someone said, is a way of recording death at work. You feel that very strongly in “Bang the Drum Slowly” — you can’t watch it without comparing the De Niro of today with the De Niro of 33 years ago. He’s so skinny. He has so much hair. And his Georgia accent! (De Niro won a New York Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actor. Vincent Gardenia, the tough-talking manager, got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.)

De Niro isn’t close to smart, but he’s smart enough to know what friendship is, and it’s that — not baseball — that’s the real subject of this movie.  The characters are real guys, by turns foolish and arrogant and self-involved, but they’re also capable of being drawn into the plot to carry De Niro to the end of the season.  It’s great ensemble acting, directed by John Hancock, a once-promising director who, like his film, has been overlooked.

“Bang the Drum Slowly” isn’t mushy. You just might not cry. And although you may not agree with Roger Ebert — “the best baseball film ever” — or even care about the sporting drama, you may be touched by the emotional truth of the movie and the dignity of its characters.  I know I was, all those years ago.