The novel opens with 19-year-old Roy Hobbs on a train to Chicago with his manager Sam. He is traveling to Chicago for a tryout for the Chicago Cubs. Other passengers on the train include sportswriter Max Mercy, Walter "The Whammer" Whambold, the leading hitter in the American League and three-time American League Most Valuable Player (based on Babe Ruth), and Harriet Bird, a beautiful but mysterious woman. The train makes a quick stop at a carnival along the rail where The Whammer challenges Hobbs to strike him out. Hobbs does just that, much to everyone's surprise and The Whammer's humiliation. Back on the train Harriet Bird strikes up a conversation with Hobbs, who does not suspect that Bird has any sort of ulterior motive. In fact, she is a lunatic obsessed with shooting the best baseball player. Her intent was to target Whammer but after Hobbs struck him out, her attention turns to him.