'Bang the Drum' novelist Mark Harris dies at 84


SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Mark Harris, best known for baseball novels that included "Bang the Drum Slowly" narrated by the fictional Henry Wiggen, has died. He was 84.

Harris died Wednesday at Cottage Hospital here, a month after he broke his hip in a fall and contracted pneumonia, Josephine, his wife of 61 years, said Friday from their Goleta home.

Harris had suffered from Alzheimer's disease, she said.

Harris wrote five nonfiction books and 13 novels, including the baseball books "The Southpaw" (1953), "Bang the Drum Slowly" (1956), "A Ticket for a Seamstitch" (1957) and "It Looked Like Forever" (1979).

"Bang the Drum Slowly," which he also adapted for the 1973 movie starring Michael Moriarty and Robert De Niro, was the most popular of the four and it was named one of the top 100 sports books of all time by Sports Illustrated.

The story centers around a pair of ballplayers for the fictionally fabled New York Mammoths. Moriarty played pitcher Wiggen and De Niro played catcher Bruce Pearson, who is dying of Hodgkin's disease.

"He's every bit as permanent and important as Huckleberry Finn, as Ishmael and Ahab in 'Moby Dick,' and as Nick Adams in Hemingway's short stories," Cordelia Candelaria, author of "Seeking the Perfect Game: Baseball in American Literature," said of Harris.

"Henry Wiggen struggles with his individuality, his place in society and the moral dilemmas he faces. All of those struggles are as much about him as an American character as they are about baseball," Candelaria said.

"Diamond," a collection of Harris' baseball essays over nearly a half-century, was published in 1994.

Harris took baseball seriously.

"I can't stand fantasy, especially in baseball," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. "It has to be real for me. I think people make fantasy of it who don't know how it works realistically. That is a demand I made when I was a kid -- that baseball has to be done right."

Born Mark Harris Finkelstein in Mount Vernon, N.Y., Harris legally changed his name in the 1940s. He earned a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Denver, followed by a master's in English. He received a doctoral degree in American Studies from the University of Minnesota.

His nonfiction books included "City of Discontent: An Interpretive Biography of Vachel Lindsay," "Mark the Glove Boy, or The Last Days of Richard Nixon," and "Saul Bellow: Drumlin Woodchuck."

Harris taught in the English departments at the University of Minnesota, San Francisco State University, Purdue University, California Institute of the Arts, University of Southern California and the University of Pittsburgh.

He was also a professor of English at Arizona State University from 1980 to 2001.

Besides his wife, Harris leaves three children: daughter Hester of San Francisco and sons Henry of Los Angeles and Anthony of Santa Barbara.

Harris will be cremated and a portion of his ashes will be scattered over the Mount Vernon baseball field where he played sandlot baseball, his wife said. A memorial service will be held later.