Out of Left Field

In 1953, a Washington Senators fan blended his obsession and 'Faust' into a devilishly funny tale. On Opening Day, we remember Doug Wallop and his legacy of 'Damn Yankees.'

April 03, 2000|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Once upon a time, when a journalist's dream was more apt to center on the Great American Novel than lucrative dot-com opportunities, a young writer named John Douglass Wallop III tried his hand at fiction. He was so serious about his craft that he gave up journalism to work in his father's Washington insurance agency, selling policies by day and writing at night.

His first book, "Night Light," received some nice critical notices, but it came and went without much fanfare. In 1953, he was at work on a second book, when he set it aside and dashed off, in just three months, a novel devoted to his lifelong obsession: the Washington Senators.

His editor, Eric Swenson of Norton, was dubious at best, as Wallop's agent confided in a letter, dated Nov. 13, 1953. "He and [another Norton editor] apparently feel that the baseball story is thin," wrote Naomi Burton of Curtis Brown Ltd. "I feel very badly that I should have raised your hopes but the trouble with anything humorous is that no two people ever seem to agree about it."

Wallop insisted on finishing the book, however, and Swenson reluctantly agreed to see it. "I most certainly hope that I not only have a chance to read it but will emerge shouting how wrong I was," Swenson wrote a week later. "You have no idea how badly I want to keep you on the list. I say this with complete conviction in spite of the fact that you know that at this stage I feel it is basically a magazine article."

The archives at Washington College in Chestertown, where this correspondence is housed, do not reflect if Swenson ever shouted as promised. He should have. The book that he tried to dissuade Wallop from writing was a little comic novel called "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant."

Or, as it is better known, "Damn Yankees."

Eventually, it sold 2.5 million copies, became a musical, a film and a television movie. It also transformed the life of Doug Wallop, who was able to move with his family to the Eastern Shore and become a full-time writer.

When he wrote the book, it was the era of the indomitable New York Yankees. (Sound familiar?) Wallop's novel, set in 1958, combined the legend of Faust with the day's sports pages. The result was a story in which a middle-aged real estate man sold his soul to the devil for a chance to help the Senators. Joe Boyd became Joe Hardy, a player of such singular talent that he could lift an entire team in the standings.

But, being a real estate man by trade, Joe Boyd was crafty enough to include an escape clause. Enter Lola, a woman procured by the devil to try and close that loophole.

"Damn Yankees" has in many ways swamped its inspiration, to the point where the publisher, Norton, reissued a trade paperback in 1994 that takes the musical's title. But original copies of the book, with its droll drawing of a Yankee held aloft on the devil's pitchfork, are easy to find through used book stores.

And, in whatever format one finds it, "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant" is worth tracking down as the national pastime resumes today. "The best use of the [Faust] legend since Thomas Mann and the best baseball story since Ring Lardner," said the New York Times.

Those who know the musical, however, may be surprised at the book's subtlety and style. Wallop, who died in 1985, was a "consummate stylist," says his stepdaughter, Dorothy Herrmann, who now lives in New York. (Her sister, Wendy Harlow, lives in Baltimore County.)

"He was a seemingly very shy and dignified individual, but he had a very wicked wit and a very wry sense of humor, and really had a sense of the ridiculous," she recalls.

Robert Lescher, who became his agent in the 1960s, says: "He was wonderful. He was quiet-spoken, he had what people call a wry wit, and he was also easily amusable. He was a clean writer -- I'm not talking about profanity. He was fluid and the sentences worked. He knew how to wring humor from language."

He also considered himself a serious novelist and would continue to work almost until his death. But his other books, whether comic or serious, are now out of print. "Damn Yankees" is remembered, yes, but few people remember Wallop or "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant."

Wallop was a native Washingtonian, born in 1920. His family arrived in Virginia in the mid-17th century, and he had deep roots on the Eastern Shore.

He graduated from the University of Maryland, where he was editor of the campus magazine, and went to work at various wire services.

In 1948, he met his wife, Lucille Fletcher, in Ocean City. Like her husband, she was a successful, prolific writer, who would become best-known for one work, the play "Sorry, Wrong Number." They married within six months and eventually settled in Arlington, Va., with Mrs. Wallop's two daughters.

Each writer served as the other's sounding board, trying out ideas and reading pages. It was Mrs. Wallop who gave her husband a copy of "Faust," stepdaughter Harlow recalls, and started him thinking about how to update the classic work.

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