REVIEW: “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant” (or “Damn Yankees”) by Douglass Wallop

damn yankeesI adore the musical Damn Yankees. I love it so much that it’s hilariously surprising that I had no idea it was based on a novel. The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, written by Douglass Wallop (who’d go onto co-write the musical’s script), is the novel Damn Yankees is based on. And it’s a novel that nobody seems to know much about these days. There’s no ebook of it available, so I had to actually obtain a hard copy of it to read. Why go to all of this trouble? Well, I really wanted to see how similar to the musical this novel was. And so, I gave it a read. And it’s definitely the same story as Damn Yankees. But how does it hold up against its more famous stage adaptation? Well, both versions of the story have their pros and their cons – it ultimately depends on what you’re looking for from the story. If you want to really explore Joe’s mindset during all of this, then The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant is the book for you. It’s well-written, engaging, and a quick read. (Spoilers for both Damn Yankees and The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant follow.)

The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant (aka: Damn Yankees) by Douglass Wallop
Decades before Field of Dreams there was The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, the classic baseball fable that became the hit movie and musical Damn Yankees. Baseball lovers everywhere can identify with Joe Boyd, a die-hard Washington Senators fan who puts his soul in hock to help them wrest the pennant away from the hated, all-conquering Yankees. Transformed by the sulfurous Mr. Applegate’s satanic magic into twenty-two-year-old phenom Joe Hardy, he leads the hapless Senators in a torrid late-season pursuit of the men in pinstripes. Joe has until September 21st before the deal becomes final—and eternal. With the luscious temptress Lola to distract him, he’ll have a hell of a time wriggling out of the bargain…

On the surface, there’s not a huge amount that’s different between The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant and Damn Yankees. It’s identifiably the same plot, just with some changes here in there in the journey from A-to-B. If you’ve seen the musical, you absolutely know what happens in the novel. Joe Boyd makes a deal with the devil, Mr. Applegate – Applegate will turn Joe into a young, successful baseball player for his favorite team in exchange for Joe’s soul. Joe insists on an escape clause being crafted into the deal, and the rest is history. Joe leads the Washington Senators to victory after victory, gets tempted by Lola, and goes toe-to-toe against Mr. Applegate in the fight for his soul. It’s definitely the same story. And, to be fair, it’s a great story. It’s a riff on the Faust story, probably best known from Marlowe’s telling of the tale. But there’s a reason certain stories are considered classic stories. Mr. Applegate is every bit as interesting in the novel as he is on stage and the book is filled with a lot of really fun ideas and some really solid prose from Wallop – nowhere near as obtuse as you might think the prose in a 1950s novel might be. It’s a pretty quick, very enjoyable read.

However, there are a lot of differences – some of which I found more surprising than others. One of the biggest problems with Damn Yankees is the way it underutilizes and underdevelops its female characters. Lola is probably the most iconic character from the stage show, but she’s pretty underdeveloped there. She has a lot of scenes, but we don’t really get to know much about her. So, going into The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, I hoped that we might get to learn more about her from the novel, since the novel had more space with which to develop her. Surprisingly, though, she’s developed even less in the novel than she is onstage. Her plot arc is basically the same – Applegate brings her in to tempt Joe but she ends up falling in love with Joe – but the novel doesn’t develop that at all. Joe’s pretty awful to her in the book, yet she’s still in love with him. The novel doesn’t show us what she sees in him or why, nor does it spend any time with her to really make us care about her at all, and so it’s difficult to track why she does the things she does in the novel’s climax. The novel certainly wouldn’t make anyone a fan of Lola, and that’s a real big shame. Sure, we get to learn a bit about her past, but that doesn’t make up for dropping the ball in every other regard.

The same is true for Joe’s wife, (Meg in the show, Bess in the novel). She appears in about as many scenes as Lola does in the novel and is given even less development. She’s just the stereotypical housewife. I suppose that’s understandable, given the novel was written in the 1950s and is told primarily from Joe’s point of view. But it’s definitely a negative aspect of the book. Basically, if you’re going into this novel hoping for more information about some of the other (not Joe) characters, you’ll be disappointed.

But the differences aren’t all bad, though. As I mentioned, the novel is written from Joe’s point of view, so he gets a lot more development than he did in the stage version. Wallop really takes us into Joe’s head and lets us see his thought process. We get to see him struggle with Applegate’s machinations. If you’re gonna underdevelop everyone else, it’s probably a really good idea to make sure your main character is developed – which, thankfully, is exactly what Wallop does. Also better developed is the story’s major source of climactic conflict – the hearing to decide whether or not Joe will be allowed to play in the final game of the pennant. The musical definitely glosses over the details of the accusations thrown against Joe, basically handwaving in a general “he’s not who he says he is” direction, while the novel goes into a lot of detail about it. And it’s devilishly fascinating. I don’t want to give too much of it away here, but it’s a change I definitely liked. If you’re going into The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant hoping for more information and development for Joe, you’ll be extremely happy.

All in all, The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant is pretty much what I expected it to be. It’s the same basic story as the stage version, just expanded in certain ways. Wallop’s prose is easy to read and immediately engaging, something that I wasn’t quite expecting given I often find books written in the first half of the 1900s to have prose that’s needlessly obtuse. The best aspect of the novel is the way it greatly explores Joe’s character; his struggle with the deal he’s made and his thought process as he tries to get out of it. It’s clearly his story and Wallop does a superb job tracking it. On the flip side, the novel suffers a lot from its underutilization of Lola and Bess. Too much of the plot hinges on things they do, but their reasons for doing it don’t really make sense/are implausible given what the novel has established. But still, The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant is an interesting read for anyone who’s a fan of the musical. It’s cool to see where the story began and compare it to where it ultimately ended up. How much you’ll enjoy it will probably depend on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for more on Joe, you’ll be very happy. Otherwise, well, it’s still a solid read, if somewhat unmemorable read. Either way, it’s an easy one and it’s not a bad way to spend a few afternons.

3.5 out of 5 wands.

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