I usually mark the beginning of the new baseball season with a rereading of "Casey At The Bat", but this year, while rereading "The Catbird Seat" in an attempt to sweeten a briefly poisonous mood, I stumbled onto another story by Thurber called "You Could Look It Up". Because the story's plot revolves around baseball I immediately made the connection between the title and the last line of one of my favorite movies, Bull Durham. I'm not often that quick, so it's always nice to have those flashes in which I feel so brainy that I scare myself.
"You Could Look It Up" is told in semi-literate style (think Ring Lardner, but much more active and interesting) by the trainer of an unnamed baseball team. In an incident that happened 30 years before the story opens, the team in a slump, much to the disgust of their manager, "Squawks" Magrew. He insults them bitterly every chance he gets. One night in a bar in Columbus, Ohio, Magrew meets a midget named Pearl du Monville. After assuring himself that Pearl is real and not a return of the d.t.s, Magrew bonds with him and they get drunk and laugh it up, exchanging increasingly deprecating remarks about the team.
Pearl travels on with the team to St. Louis, and in a strange turn of events, briefly becomes a player. Pearl is catapulted (in more ways than one) into the history books. The team's losing streak is snapped, and they go on to win the pennant. The trainer/narrator can't exactly remember which pennant or which year, but he assures readers that we "could look it up."
This story, published almost exactly 71 years ago in The New Yorker at the beginning of the baseball season (April 5, 1941) is Thurber at his zany "The Night The Bed Fell" best. One of the things I like best about Thurber is how he adds to the manic hilarity by having the narrator observe everyone's reaction in the midst of chaos.
"You Could Look It Up" might have fallen into obscurity, remembered by Thurber fans only, except that slightly over 10 years later, on August 19, 1951, Bill Veeck, (rhymes with "wreck") owner of the St. Louis Browns duplicated Magrew's stunt with professional performer Eddie Gaedel, (pictured above) who stood slightly more than three-and-a-half feet tall. Questioned by fans and sportswriters alike, Veeck said he remembered the Thurber story, but claimed that he got the idea decades before that.
Because of the dialect, "You Could Look It Up" is best read aloud, so gather some baseball fans and read to them or find someone to do the honors. Right up there with reading "Casey At The Bat" and listening to John Fogerty's "Centerfield", it's a great way to usher in a new season.