The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglass Wallop (1954)
Douglass Wallop (1920-1985) received some critical attention with his first novel Night Light, a nuanced story of man trying to understand his daughter's murderer. It was his second novel, however, that made his reputation. The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant transferred the Faust theme to the world of professional baseball and became a best-seller. The following year, Wallop and George Abbott adapted the book into the Tony Award-winning (seven of them for the original run, plus two other nominations) musical Damn Yankees. In 1958, it was a major film release from Warner Brothers, garnering a number of award nominations.
The time is the 1960s and in the world of baseball no one can touch the Yankees, who have won the pennant for so many consecutive years that it was understood that they will keep doing so into the far future. This does not sit well with Joe Boyd, a die-hard Washington Senators fan. Joe is in his fifties. He's out of shape, his children have left the nest, and his relationship with his wife is strained. Joe and his wife have more or less gone their separate ways -- she can't understand his fixation with baseball and he can't understand her interests -- yet, in his unhappy way, he still loves her. One day after another humiliating loss by the Senators, Joe off-handedly remarks that we would sell his soul for a winning season for his team. He should known better.
Joe soon meets the mysterious Mr. Applegate, a smooth talker who lights his cigarettes without any matches. Applegate offers Joe the opportunity to take the Senators all the way to the pennant. Joe, who is in the real estate business, begins negotiations -- the result being that Joe can get his wish on a trial basis but that he can opt out on a certain date; if he doesn't, then the deal is permanent and his soul belongs to the devil.
Applegate transforms Joe into Joe Hardy, a twenty-one-year-old baseball phenom. Joe tries out for the Senators and wins a spot on the last-place team. He hits one, two, sometimes three home runs a game and his fielding is incredible. The Senators begin a steady move up the League, even beating the Yankees every time the two play.
Pre-Joe Hardy, the Senators' biggest draw was Roscoe Ent, a former vaudeville comic and terrible pitcher whose antics liven up the fan's spirits. The Senators were all that Roscoe had going for him and he realized that, with the popularity of Joe Hardy, his days om the team were numbered. Roscoe quits the team and begins a downward spiral. Joe feels guilty about Roscoe, he also feels guilty about his new-found talents. Joe knows that it is not fair to use supernatural means to upset the natural order of things. And Joe misses his wife and looks forward to the day he can void his contract and return to her.
On the other hand, the Senators are winning. And that's a good thing for all those Yankee-hating baseball fans out there.
Applegate introduce Joe to Lola, the most beautiful woman in the world in an effort to distract Joe from missing his wife. Lola, it turns out was another of Applegate's "clients." She, too, had argued for an opt-out portion on her contract but, despite her best efforts, Applegate sure that she did not opt out when the time came. One way or another, Applegate always wins. And, much to her surprise, Lola falls for Joe and she's perfectly willing to wait until Applegate claims his soul to have him.
Anthony Boucher ho-hummed this book, saying it was "just another Pact-with-the-Devil story, somewhat brightened by its Major League baseball setting." My reaction is more kind. The story itself is ordinary but the characters are well-nuanced and the author's love of baseball shines through.
I was a little bit irritated to find myself humming "Whatever Lola Wants" while reading the book, however.