The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.: J. Henry Waugh, Prop.
written by Robert Coover
published by Random House, 1968
242 pages


By day, J. Henry Waugh leads a monotonous life as an accountant-for-hire at the firm of Dunkelmann, Zauber, & Zifferblatt, keeping the ledgers for a variety of small businesses and timidly trying to avoid his boss' wrath.

By night, J. Henry Waugh becomes...JHWH. The creator of worlds. The father of life. The maker of rules. The arbiter of results.

On paper, that is.

Waugh is an inventor of dice games, games whose probabilities are calculated to model real-life situations. Though he has created many different kinds of games (including a simulation of the US-USSR space race!), his greatest and most beloved invention is the Universal Baseball Association, Inc., which is in Season LVI as the book begins.

After two decades (in UBA time) of relative boredom with his game, Waugh has been re-energized by the (dice-controlled) action of Season LVI. The Pioneers' new star pitcher, whom Waugh has named Damon Rutherford, has become the best pitcher in the UBA during his rookie season, and is in the midst of throwing a perfect game against Rag Rooney's Haymakers. Rutherford, created as the son of former Pioneers great Brock Rutherford, is graced by Waugh with a stoic, humble, thoroughly sympathetic personality. Waugh seems to see him as his own son, and the fate of the young Rutherford is the hinge on which the book wildly swings.

To people with large imaginations and small hometowns, the figure of Waugh and the passion and creativity that he invests in his fictional game will be familiar. The people of the UBA -- or, if you prefer, its characters -- are endowed with all of the personality and drama that Waugh's real life lacks. And though the actions are randomly determined by throws of the dice, the most interesting part -- the way that the people react to the actions -- is created by Waugh.

Though detailed imaginary worlds are created in a number of ways (through the media of various sports, Sherlock Holmes stories, "Dungeons & Dragons", etc.), baseball has always been an especial favorite of gamers, for reasons that Waugh explains:

Nothing like it really. Not the actual game so much -- to tell the truth, real baseball bored him -- but rather the records, the statistics, the peculiar balances between individual and team, offense and defense, strategy and luck, accident and pattern, power and intelligence. And no other activity in the world had so precise and comprehensive a history, so specific an ethic, and at the same time, strange as it seemed, so much ultimate mystery. [45]

Of course, all of the romance of these simulations comes at a price: isolation from real life and real people. Coover doesn't spare readers the downside of the serious gaming life: the addictiveness, the drift into a kind of insanity, the shame, and, above all, that isolation.

Its brilliant evocation of the comedy and the tragedy of gamers and gaming alone would be enough to make Universal Baseball Association a powerfully moving and perceptive story, but Coover goes one step beyond that. In a turn worthy of the Twilight Zone, the final chapter of Universal Baseball Association is told from the perspective of the people of the UBA. Set in Season CLVII, 101 UBA years after the beginning of the book (and, presumably, after the death of Waugh), the characters, most of whom are lineal descendants of the players of 100 years before, try to determine the meaning of their lives and the point of this game that they play, season-in and season-out. They do not know of Waugh; they know only of the world that he has created, and they make sense of it as best they can.

In Universal Baseball Association, Robert Coover has written a weird and lasting memorial to statheads and gamers and their introverted, obsessive hobbies; a novel whose virtues this review only begins to reveal. If you ever spent many a rainy afternoon seeking simulation rather than stimulation -- even better, if you ever spent many a sunny afternoon seeking this -- then you must read this book.


And, finally, a moment of silence for Avalon Hill's Statis-Pro Baseball, the king of baseball simulation board games, which was discontinued in 1997.


Review posted: 28 November 2000



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