Baseball and the Prophet in Eric Rolfe
Greenberg’s The Celebrant
In the acclaimed novel The Celebrant, Eric Rolfe Greenberg chronicles the career of the first national baseball hero, Christy Mathewson, and the early decades of major league baseball, intertwining this history with the fictional story of a Jewish immigrant family of jewelers, the Kapp brothers: salesman Eli, designer Jackie, and manager Arthur. The final chapter of the novel closes with the fiery suicide of Eli, a chronic gambler about to lose everything in the Black Sox scandal, as he drives off Coogan’s Bluff crashing explosively against the Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants.
In the epilogue, Jackie, who is both Eli’s betrayer and the narrator and title character, discusses the 1925 death of Mathewson. Jackie then describes Major League baseball between the 1919 Black Sox scandal—which Mathewson helped bring to light—and the first All-Star game in 1933. Jackie ruminates on early legends of baseball and on the perfection they achieved on the field, particularly on Mathewson. He pauses over the first time he saw Mathewson pitch, the no-hitter of 1901, and his own joy in celebrating Mathewson’s artistry with his own, in the form of a ring inspired by the pitcher’s perfection, the first of several rings he crafted to honor the pitcher and his works. After this straightforward accounting of personal and baseball history, Jackie offers an ambiguous summary of his relationship with Mathewson for the novel’s final words: “[I]n his age and suffering he would accept that vision of my youth, entwine it with his own hard faith, and end in madness. Eli! Eli!” (269). Jackie’s closing lament for Eli calls into question his decision to follow Mathewson’s command that he not offset Eli’s wagers by betting on Cincinnati, a command that meant sacrificing his brother for the greater good of baseball. However, Eli’s name also begins both the twenty-second Psalm and Christ’s last words: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?) (Psalm 22.1, Matt. 27.46, Mark 15.33). “Eli, Eli!” might lament a brother, albeit one representative of the corruption that nearly