How I Got My Nickname by W. P. Kinsella, 1984
HOW I GOT MY NICKNAME
by W. P. Kinsella, 1984
As a university-trained fiction writer adept at producing eminently marketable material, W. P. Kinsella has cleverly appropriated two highly salable topics: Iowa-grown baseball, and American Indian life in the Pacific Northwest. Though neither an Iowan nor an Indian, Kinsella nevertheless presents a reliable account of each activity, sometimes ridiculously comic but always with the assurance of an ultimate insider, He is not, of course, which makes the occasion of "How I Got My Nickname" (collected in The Thrill of the Grass) an especially effective tall tale.
Like many of Kinsella's baseball storytellers (notably Ray Kinsella in the novel Shoeless Joe, which was filmed as Field of Dreams), narrator William Patrick "Tripper" Kinsella is an Iowan. He is a rather bookish high school student whose reward for showing a prize calf at the All-Iowa Cattle Show and Summer Exposition is a trip to New York to see the 1951 Giants in that year's pennant race. Because his father is a professor and eminent classicist, Tripper is a guest in the country home of translator Robert Fitzgerald in the company of another holiday visitor, the emerging writer Flannery O'Connor.
From these two elements, classic baseball and serious literature, Kinsella performs the writers' workshop tricks of generating as much action as he can without having to introduce other concerns. He makes his combination of sports and literature as daring as possible without losing the narrative's smoothly progressive force.
The story's brilliance can be traced to great potency within Kinsella's two initial choices. The year 1951 was a vintage one for major league baseball. Even those only tangentially familiar with the game will have heard about the colorfulness of manager Leo Durocher, the hard and sometimes mean play of Eddie Stanky, the roster of future hall of famers who played for the Giants that year, and the thrill of the amazing come-from-behind success that necessitated an unprecedented play-off game with their blood rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Dodgers were an equally famous and colorful team that was defeated with a heroic game-ending home run by Bobby Thompson, a rising line drive to the left-field stands celebrated ever after as "the shot heard round the world." These events are among the most famous lore of baseball, many of them enshrined as hallowed memories and thus subjects in themselves.
In similar manner the field of writing was being treated to an equally brilliant crop of rookies: not only Flannery O'Connor but also Bernard Malamud (whose first novel, The Natural, would mythologize baseball), J. D. Salinger, and others working in or visiting New York at about this time. Just as Salinger himself became such a talked-about subject that he can function as a useable fictive character in Shoeless Joe, so did the ballplayers in that fabled summer of 1951. Thus, Kinsella's combination of the two areas of legend is an appropriate move.
What is accomplished with the combination, however, stretches the reader's imagination to a point just artfully short of breaking completely. Not only does Tripper become the nonchalant confidant of O'Connor, but at the Polo Grounds his naive request to take a few swings in batting practice (a sign of pure Iowa hickishness—a common feature in Kinsella's work that is similar to his comic demeaning of American Indians) leads to an invitation to join the team. This action invokes another tradition, that of the old-fashioned sports story of fantasy film in which a little kid joins a major league team and propels them to their greatest success. Assuming correctly that his readers are familiar with this by now campy narrative twist, Kinsella makes a metafictional move. He has his storyteller not simply rewrite history but actually skewer events in increasingly improbable ways so that the history we all know as recorded fact can be allowed to happen as remembered.
For this to happen, Kinsella must establish a premise that by itself would be unacceptable but that in combination with another otherwise unacceptable premise forms a proposition that can be worked out with simple, almost ironclad logic. The key to this combination is a seemingly endless line of dualisms: Iowa hickishness and New York sophistication, being a spectator and becoming a participant, reading narratives as opposed to serving as a shaping factor in them, and, as the basis for all of these contrasts, the sometimes unmanageable distance between youth and maturity, innocence and experience, and fantasy and reality.
Tripper is the narrator who can bridge these gaps. Fresh from an unexceptional few words with Flannery O'Connor, he blunders into the New York Giants dugout, where the otherwise vulgar, tobacco-spitting players are reading the great works of world literature and discussing their authors' experiments with theme and technique. If this is a modification of expectable behavior, it is no more exceptional than Tripper's chiding Eddie Stanky for tagging him too hard—for which he receives a polite, heartfelt apology—and certainly no more exceptional than the narrator's hitting exploits. All of these actions proceed in a manner of utter nonchalance, the baseball action and literary discussion each proceeding according to stereotype, with the only real surprise being that they happen side by side.
The major challenge to the reader's expectations is not that the Giants come from behind with the kid's help, for their pennant drive is commonly accepted as a miracle finish, but that in the decisive play-off game Leo Durocher is seen planning to lift Bobby Thompson for a pinch hitter. If such an action were to happen, reality would indeed be changed, and so at the last minute Tripper reaches out and trips the unsuspecting substitute as he heads for the field. Because he is injured, he cannot play, and Thompson keeps his rightful place in the order, stepping up to hit against Ralph Branca. The rest, as they say, is history, which answers the question in the title as to how the narrator got his nickname.