Steven Goldleaf on "Bread Alone"
Steven Goldleaf has contributed a fascinating essay on O'Hara's great story, "Bread Alone." "Bread Alone" can be found in Steven's new collection of O'Hara's New York Stories.
“Bread Alone” from a sabremetric perspective
The 1939 short story “Bread Alone” by John O’Hara, one of his most insightful and most moving, is a great favorite of mine, not least because it is largely set at a major league baseball game, specifically in Yankee Stadium. If I have spent months of my life reading O’Hara’s work, and writing about it (and I have), then I estimate my time mulling over baseball statistics to be measurable in years—how many, I do not care to estimate. But it’s a lot of years.
In reconsidering the story recently, I realized that I had the tools, thanks to baseballreference.com, a website responsible for enabling baseball freaks like me to fritter away their lives, to answer a question about this story, and indirectly about the writing habits of John O’Hara: I could tell whether the baseball game O’Hara describes actually took place or if it is a purely fictional creation of his.
O’Hara enjoyed baseball, though he only rarely wrote about it, and his writing career was built on the no-nonsense training he absorbed as a young reporter, so it seemed entirely possible that O’Hara based the story on an actual game, possibly one that he had seen himself at Yankee Stadium. All I had to do to verify this would be to review every single game the Yankees ever played, and see if one conformed to O’Hara’s description of the game in his story.
Or that’s what I would have had to do without the baseballreference.com website, anyway, which is why I never thought of researching this question. (I may be baseball-crazy, and O’Hara-crazy, but I’m not crazy-crazy.) In the game O’Hara describes, Joe Dimaggio hits a late-inning home run into the grandstand near his protagonist’s seat, and the story’s climax concerns the search for the souvenir baseball. Furthermore, O’Hara gives other specific details about the game: the Yankees won it easily, they scored five runs in the fifth inning, Dimaggio’s home run came in the eighth inning, and the unnamed opposing team went down quickly in the top of the ninth inning. Since the game took place at Yankee Stadium, I can naturally disregard all their away games, and O’Hara specifies that this game took place late in the season. Perhaps the biggest help is the publication date: it appeared in the September 23, 1939 issue of The New Yorker. For O’Hara to have described an actual historical game, it must have taken place no later than Labor Day of that year, give or take a week. Joe Dimaggio first played in Yankee Stadium in 1936, leaving me a little fewer than four seasons of home games to peruse in search of “Bread Alone”’s setting.
This is where the website came in very handy: it has catalogued every home run Dimaggio (and thousands of other players) ever hit, and it provides details about the opposing team and pitcher, the score at the time, the box score of the game, and about thirty other bits of data. So I searched for all the home runs Dimaggio hit at Yankee Stadium in the bottom of the eighth inning in games the Yankees won after scoring five runs in the bottom of the fifth from 1936 through 1939.
My conclusion? John O’Hara wrote fiction.
But there were a few games that came very close to satisfying O’Hara’s fictional conditions. The closest (I will spare you my spreadsheet ranking the ten closest games) took place on August 3rd, 1939 against the Detroit Tigers. Exactly as O’Hara described, the Yankees won the game comfortably by a score of 12 to 3, they scored the bulk of their runs in the bottom of the fifth inning, and most significantly Joe Dimaggio hit a home run in the bottom of the eighth inning. (It differed from O’Hara’s description in that the Yankees scored 6 runs, not 5, in the bottom of the fifth, and that the Tigers had their strongest inning, not their weakest, in the top of the ninth.) And, not that this is textual, but I always imagined that the game in the story took place on a Sunday, since the point of it is that the protagonist is a working man who cannot just choose to take a day off work to go to a ballgame. August 3rd, 1939, however, was a Thursday.
So O’Hara, not too surprisingly, created a plausible scenario that we have every reason to believe could be historical but which turns out to be lovingly embellished. This conforms closely to his stated method of spinning stories, in which he would actually witness some event, typically a conversation between two people unknown to him, and then imagine the backstory and the result of the snippet of overheard conversation. I’m sure O’Hara’s imagination made for a livelier narrative than the true backstory and the actual result, as it did here—it’s hard for me to read “Bread Alone” without misting up a bit.
The boxscore to the game I reference above can be found here: http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA193908030.shtml