Early one morning, nineteen-year-old Roy Hobbs is riding a train to Chicago, where he is to try out for the Chicago Cubs baseball team. Roy is young and naïve, having been plucked from the country by Sam Simpson, a baseball scout. Roy's incredible pitching arm amazed Sam.
Roy is nervous on the train. He is unsure how to behave, how much to tip the porter, and generally makes a fool of himself. He carries his special bat, Wonderboy, in a bassoon case wherever he goes. He locates Sam sleeping on a seat, but decides not to wake him. As Roy talks to the porter, the train comes to a stop. A beautiful girl, Harriet Bird, gets on the train, carrying a black hatbox. Roy is immediately taken with the girl, but he is too shy to make a real move yet.
Roy goes to breakfast, where he tries to strike up a conversation with the girl, to no avail. Meanwhile, Sam wakes up and heads for the bar. On a newspaper is a screaming headline about a dead Olympic athlete, killed just hours after a football star. Sam recognizes one of the men discussing the headline as Max Mercy, a famous sports journalist. The other man is known as the Whammer, the leading hitter in the American League. Sam boasts about Roy's skill to Mercy, who is relatively uninterested. Meanwhile, the Whammer is fairly successful in his attempts to hit on Harriet, which angers Roy.
The train makes a sudden stop, apparently for some sort of medical emergency. The men and Harriet get out and discover a carnival nearby. Roy shows off his prowess in a pitching game, while the Whammer impresses Harriet at the batting cage. Finally, Sam Simpson bets the Whammer that Roy can strike him out. Roy does so, in three pitches, rendering the Whammer into "an old man." The last strike hits Sam fairly hard in the stomach, causing internal bleeding that Sam does not yet feel or notice.
The train takes off again, with Harriet now hanging on Roy. She has a long conversation with him, asking about his plans. He tells her he wants to be the best in the game, to break all the records. She asks him, "is that all?" and he does not know how to respond. Roy makes a move on Harriet, and she does not resist. Roy, however, is quickly sidetracked, as Sam suddenly becomes very sick. Within a few hours, Sam is dead, and Roy is left on his own in Chicago. At the hotel, Harriet calls Roy to her room. As he enters, Wonderboy in hand, she draws a pistol on him. She asks him if he will be the best in the game, and when he says yes, she shoots him in the stomach.
The Natural is packed with mythological themes and imagery, which begin piling up almost immediately. Roy, riding on a train within a dark, womblike tunnel, is in the midst of his primordial birth as a hero—a person with amazing natural abilities and a chance to do great things for the world. Sam is Roy's guide, his father figure; perhaps more important, the Whammer is Roy's predecessor. In the novel, the star baseball players—the Whammer, Bump Baily, and Roy—are not simply good ballplayers; they are mythological heroes. More specifically, they are symbols of ancient vegetative myths involving fertility gods.