Essay

Baseball and Verse, from Tinker to Evers to Big Papi

Grand slam poetry: our twin national pastimes.

by Levi Stahl

I, too, throw it: Marianne Moore tossing out the first ball, opening day at Yankee Stadium. Photo: Bob Olen, 1968. Marianne Moore Collection, Rosenbach Museum & Library, Philadelphia.


Walt Whitman fell for baseball in its first heyday, saying that it had “the snap, go, fling of the American atmosphere.” He wasn’t the only poet to be drawn to the game. Longfellow reportedly played an early version at college, and even Masaoka Shiki, the 19th-century Japanese haiku master, wrote about its seductive draw:
spring breeze
the green field
tempts me to play catch
(1890, translated by the Shiki-Kinen Museum English Volunteers)

Today, Little Leaguers still sing out requests for a pitcher rather than a belly itcher, and 100-year-old doggerel continue to dress up sports pages and bleacher chatter. In September the New York Times even profiled a versifying Shea Stadium regular known as the Mets Poet. The Amazins’ year ended disastrously, but with the Boston Red Sox and the Colorado Rockies opening the World Series this week, now’s a good time to hold a brief conference on the mound about baseball and poetry.

In baseball’s early decades, newspapers—the only connection most fans had to major league baseball—occasionally supplemented game stories and box scores with light verse. The bulk of it was ephemera, like this stanza from the November 14, 1887, San Francisco Examiner:
The baseball season now expires,
The captains cease to cuss,
And insurance men don’t rate umpires
As “extra hazardous.”

However meager their merits as poetry, a few pieces have entered baseball lore. One of those is “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon,” New York Giants fan Franklin P. Adams’s lament about the Chicago Cubs’ double-play combo, which appeared in the New York Evening Mail on July 10, 1910:
These are the saddest of possible words:
“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”
Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds,
Tinker and Evers and Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double—
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”

It’s hard to imagine a line farther from baseball than “Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble.” Yet the repeated closing line, with its rolling dactyls and clicking consonants leading to the harsh finality of “Chance,” is unforgettable. Many fans point to the poem as the primary reason the three men were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946. Though they played key roles on the Cubs juggernaut of the aughts, without the verse there’s little to make them stand out.

Baseball’s most celebrated poem also depends on a strong final line. Published in the San Francisco Examiner on June 3, 1888, Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat” marches in rigid iambic hexameter, and the tone is overwrought, even given the poet’s gently ironic stance toward the action. Yet glimmers of baseball’s essential drama peek through. Take the reaction of the Mudville fans to the unexpected return of hope—base runners!—in the ninth:
Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

Swap Manny Ramirez for Casey, and Thayer could be describing a game from this October. We all know what’s coming next, however:
But there is no joy in Mudville—Mighty Casey has struck out.

Nearly redeeming all the poem’s faults, those three thudding stresses embody the deflating dismay of failure—the cruel voice of fate calling out, “Strike one! Strike two! Strike three!”

Thayer and Adams and their forgotten colleagues wrote because there were column inches to fill and an audience hungry to read about the game. But why have serious poets chosen to write about baseball? Mighty Casey’s failure actually highlights one important reason. More than any other team sport, baseball hinges on individual confrontations, a batter testing his skill against a pitcher. (It is Casey, not the team, who takes the blame for the loss.) Yet when the batter steps into the box, no amount of preparation can guarantee success. Marianne Moore, whose lifelong fandom George Plimpton wrote about memorably for Harper’s, linked that quality of baseball with the solitary creative work of the poet in the opening stanza of her “Baseball and Writing” (1966):
Fanaticism? No. Writing is exciting
and baseball is like writing.
You can never tell with either
how it will go
or what you will do

Robert Frost drew a similar comparison: “Poets are like baseball pitchers. Both have their moments. The intervals are the tough things.” Baseball, like creative work, consists largely of failure; even the best hitters have to accept that nearly six times out of ten, they’ll trudge back to the bench in defeat. Gail Mazur, in “Baseball” (1978), captures that frustration:
and the terrible slumps,
when the greatest hitter mysteriously
goes hitless for weeks, or
the pitcher’s stuff is all junk
who threw like a magician last month

At the same time, she disclaims a direct correspondence between poetry and baseball, writing,
this isn’t
like the bad luck that hounds us,
and his frustration in the games
not like our deep rage
for disappointing ourselves

While the hitter is pitted against a pitcher, the poet faces only herself. But both also labor under the weight of history. Baseball treasures its past to the point of fetishization; it’s about records and curses, memories of mistakes and successes, the new center fielder who is heralded as the next Willie Mays. Poetry, too, is relentlessly measured against tradition. When Roger Maris was chasing Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record in 1961, the pressure was so intense that his hair fell out in clumps. Is Maris’s case of the nerves all that far from Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence?

In a 1985 essay, Donald Hall describes the sport’s most primal form: “Baseball is fathers and sons playing catch, the long arc of the years between.” Hall reminds us that as much as baseball and poetry are concerned with an unbroken tradition, they also share a devotion to commemorating specific, crystalline moments. Baseball is a game of punctuated stillness, of dramatic seconds surrounded by casual hours. The quiet intervals of nothingness between pitches make up most of the time spent watching a game . . . but then the pitcher glares in at home—and in “The Baseball Players” (1981), Hall explains what happens next:
Against the bright
grass the white-knickered
players tense, seize,
and attend. A moment
ago, outfielders
and infielders adjusted
their clothing, glanced
at the sun and settled
forward, hands on knees;
the pitcher walked back
of the hill, established
his cap and returned;
the catcher twitched
a forefinger; the batter
rotated his bat
in a slow circle. But now
they pause: wary,
exact, suspended—

That suspension of time is one of poetry’s greatest gifts. (As Donald Justice puts it, “Certain moments will never change nor stop being.”) Poetry and baseball encourage us to concentrate on singular moments, and that concentration creates preservation. A pitch, a pause, a pitch, followed by frenetic action—a glowing white baseball disappearing into the night over the Green Monster; Archibald MacLeish’s “sole, clean, clear / Leap of the salmon that has disappeared.” Baseball’s very rhythms are those of poetry, acknowledging that if everything can change in a moment, then attention to those moments is an essential duty.

Which brings me to former Yankees shortstop and broadcaster Phil Rizzuto, who died this summer after a lifetime in the game. In 1993, an enterprising publisher broke Rizzuto’s play-by-play into verse lines and brought out O Holy Cow! The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto. I’m not sure whether the result is actually poetry, but Rizzuto’s words belong here, a bridge between the everyday details of the game and the moments we savor like poetry. Addressed to his fellow announcer, Rizzuto's impressionistic “Go Ahead, Seaver” (1991) makes a perfect final link between the two endeavors:
But by the way,
You’re doing the play-by-play, Seaver,
So go ahead.
I was gonna tell you something,
But I forgot what it was.
Go ahead.
Originally Published: October 24, 2007

COMMENTS (17)

On October 24, 2007 at 2:36pm Mary Sloan wrote:
Levi Stahl's piece on baseball is amazing!

On October 26, 2007 at 12:08pm Uptown wrote:
I have known Levi Stahl virtually all his

life. He has been and always will be my

favorite writer (especially when it comes

to baseball).

On October 26, 2007 at 11:50pm Michael Garcia wrote:
I read the poems listed and Iam surprised not one speaks of possibly the games greatest contribution to American culture,helping to break the color line.I recently learned,Jackie Robinson had written in his contract,he had to accept being spit on.This has to go to the mysterious soul of poetry.

On October 30, 2007 at 10:43pm Gregory Christiano wrote:
I hope to see more poetry devoted to the sport of baseball. One of my favorite passages, although not a poem, was from an essay from the late Bart Giamatti:

From A Great and Glorious Game: Baseball Writings of A. Bartlett Giamatti

by A. Bartlett Giamatti, et al

"The Green Fields of the Mind "

"It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. "

I carried this passage with me for many years in tribute to baseball's great commissioner and his devotion to the game and its traditions. I really enjoyed reading the poems you collected your tribute to an American institution.

On November 1, 2007 at 5:49pm Lewis Bruser wrote:
EXIT STRATEGY

Struck on the forehead by a baseball thrown

In the ninth inning of the seventh game,

I barely heard the shattering of bone

And glimpsed the entrance to the Hall of Fame.

The bases had been full; I broke the tie,

And thanks to how the tabulate the play

I get the credit for the RBI -

No need to live to fight another day.

Slow motion playback shows I didn't move;

It looks as if I thought the ball would curve.

I thought it wouldn't, but I had to prove

I'd rather lose my brains than lose my nerve.

The ump pronounced me safe; the doctor, dead.

And everyone agreed I used my head.

On November 3, 2007 at 10:30am Syd Lieberman wrote:
I loved this essay. I know a lot of folks who watch baseball and would never read poetry, and a lot of poetry readers who look down at baseball. They should read this piece.

I never thought about all the connections. The poetry you picked made them perfectly clear. I particularly liked what Donald Hall had to say about fathers and sons playing catch and the "long arc of the years in between" and his poem describing baseball as being made up of "specific, crystalline moments." Great job! Hoping to see more.

P.S.

These are the saddest of possible words:

“Tinker to Evers to Chance.?

Imagine: a time when my Cubs were feared.

On November 13, 2007 at 3:01pm J. Patrick Lewis wrote:
How the Book of Baseball Was Written

An old man who lived alone on an island was a little sad. Sprayed by whitecaps, swayed by trade winds,

he had only his daybook, a pen,

and a young boy’s heart for company. Each day the sun rode out at noon.

One morning a word—gleaming and new, never heard before—appeared like the glint of a ship’s hull on a distant swell.

He watched a gull hang, a sandpiper skip, a tortoise grip the earth as if it were a carousel. The new word hung

in the air until he reached out—

and caught it.

Shortstop.

The old man put it down in his daybook…

and kept on writing.

On January 10, 2008 at 8:09am John A. Blackard wrote:
Hasn't everybody written a baseball poem? Here's mine:

Breaking Ball

How great to believe that fried chicken

for early supper was a strike, Mom fussing

about clothes scattered on the floor

before a big game a ball.

Just listen to the whomp

against the brick wall of our house, my fastball

hitting the sweet spot inside the chalk-drawn

strike zone.

Just imagine the skinny, freckled southpaw,

aged eleven, hoping he’d be the next

Sandy Koufax. Will the day come when a baseball

seems like the ghost of someone

he used to know?

And what was Uncle Richard

thinking, even if egged on by my dad

who called him “the Babe?, when he grabbed

the catcher’s mit and squatted.

From the first pitch, I loved

a new game ball, skin soft as a pumpkin lily,

but not more than a ball in play,

discolored by dirt, grass stain, maybe even blood,

slightly warped by blunt trauma with

a blonde Louisville Slugger.

In my dreams I counted the miracle

of 108 waxed red cotton stitches: 108 to make

Hindu pitchers remember their mantra; 108 to

make Taoist pitchers thank their sacred stars; 108

to make Tibetan pitchers repent their evil deeds.

Every game the dirt pile

I would stand on in the middle

of the diamond felt like Mt. Olympus.

Every wind-up felt like being sucked up

in a tornado— pulling the right knee to the right

elbow, turning the chest

toward first, hiding the ball below

the left knee—

while riding a pogo stick.

In a vacuum, the terminal velocity

of a baseball and a body are the same.

Should I also throw my body in parabolic

kamikaze flight toward homeplate?

Get the hips free by pushing off

the front of the rubber. When the right leg stops

the torso, the left arm uncocks

like a pistol shot. Duchamp’s nude descending

the stairway from heaven should

have been a big league pitcher.

Then, resting my middle finger, like a lover,

inside the ball’s long seam,

I pulled down hard to make it rotate

thirteen times, and not reveal

its true nature— that it was a killer, that its color

was black—lights out—until

the final two-foot break.

In the front yard, we heard Sam

the Sham sing “Wooly Bully? on the kitchen radio.

Chicken sputtered in the frying pan.

And blood from the Babe’s nose flowed between

his fingers, dripped off

his white shirted elbows into the grass.

John Blackard

On April 14, 2008 at 9:34pm Guillermo Calderon,Jr. wrote:
My original poem: Clemente

CLEMENTE

You patrolled your expansive terrain,

With the range and prowess of the Peregrine falcon.

Fielding the ball at the base of the outfield fence,

You hurled the Rawlings diamond towards home plate,

As David had slung his stone towards the Philistine,

With the force of the cannon shot.

On the fly, and with a leathery thud, the horsehide cradled in the web of the catcher's mitt,

A split second prior;

No RBI.

You wielded your sword of lumber,

With the ferocity of the Crusader.

A frozen rope towards the power alley,

One more step toward 3000, and immortality.

You stood majestically atop second base,

As the bald eagle stands above its captured quarry.

Stretching the double to a triple, we witnessed your

effortless emotion, rhythmic perfection of sheer will.

In a cloud of dust from the thrust of your silvery spikes,

You sacrificed your being, as a loyal warrior honors his king, sliding safely beneath blue's acclamation.

You cradled third base with both arms, as

In admiration of the spoil of the vanquished.

A symphony, of grace, athleticism, stamina and sacrifice.

The familiar number 21,

Your uniform of the black and gold.

Stained by pine tar and the blades of St. Augustine,

Acquired from the grass fields of Fenway, Chavez Ravine,

Wrigley, and the House of Ruth.

Your aged body,

Shrouded in dirt and chalk,

Scarred by weather, turf and time,

As if the worn armor of a Grail Knight.

As "El Primer Latino",

You passed through the gates of Baseball's Hall.

With the courage of Martin Luther King, Jr.,

You destroyed barriers of color.

You weathered the curse of celebrity and prejudice,

When doubters queried your strength of heart.

Fatefully, as the earth's plates shifted,

So, did your sands of time.

The Lord called upon your courage and strength of soul,

You answered His call for righteous endeavor,

With an absence of fear.

On the wings of Pegasus,

Your valiant effort to ease the travail of others.

As you fell from the sky,

Our wounded souls mourned.

You returned to the depths of life's beginnings,

A life extinguished prematurely,

As the fleeting life of a shooting star.

We acquired understanding…

For your love of home,

As your brother's keeper.

We cannot question your countenance,

Or Your love of the game.

And smiled as you passed through the pearly gates of Heaven's Hall.

Your moments of greatness,

On the hallowed fields of dreams,

Are mere shadows to your everlasting truth,

Not as a ballplayer….

But as a human being.

Gracias Roberto….

We are humbled, proud, and blessed,

By your strength of culture, your Grace,

Your richness of Faith.

Gracias Roberto….

We pray future generations,

Are witnesses to your magnificence,

Your strength of character,

Your standard of excellence,

Your inspiration.

Gracias, Roberto

On July 8, 2008 at 8:10am Richard Nugent wrote:

In Right Field

At crack of bat

Angel fading back

turns to dig

head-down for the wall

lunges up the bricks

to miss the ball by inches.

Never seen that done I said.

Not good enough she said.

On August 11, 2008 at 8:56am Sara Kniffen wrote:
Thanks for linking this to ShysterBall; I would have missed it otherwise. It's a lovely piece of work! It's always a thrill to discover another person who understands both dactyls *and* the infield-fly rule. And I love that the commenters are posting their baseball poetry. Baseball *is* poetry...

On January 7, 2009 at 11:28am e lefrak wrote:
looking for W. Whitman's poetic references to baseball. Any suggestions? Thank you.

On May 9, 2009 at 10:18am Frank J Ceresi wrote:
I am compiling baseball poetry for an article and/or possibly something a bit longer. See www.fcassociates.com.

My focus will be poetry that ties into opening day.

I am searching for the opening day poems of Robert Frost. Any help in locating the same would be most welcome. Please email me at fceresi@fcassociates.com.

Or share your posts with others.

On March 31, 2011 at 11:47am Joe Ahearn wrote:
Perhaps readers of this article may be interested in my blog post:

Baseball Poetry on the Web: The Classic American Poems

at http://batterrier.com/2010/10/27/baseball-poetry-on-the-web-the-classic-american-poems/

Best,
Joe Ahearn
http://www.batterrier.com

On April 7, 2011 at 11:30am syd Lieberman wrote:
That was beautiful and it captures the power of baseball. Those moments. Those people.

It explains why I watched the Cub's opener on TV today even though I expected them to lose. I waited for those moments and a hero. but they didn't happen. But here I am, a lifetime Cubs fan. I can't give them up.

On November 2, 2011 at 7:52pm Oliver wrote:
The NY Times article on "the Mets Poet" mentioned by Levi is actually about Frank Messina, author of Disorderly Conduct, and later, Full Count: The Book of Mets Poetry. It's great to see an accomplished poet writing about baseball. Messina's work is great fun, and his reading I saw at the Louisville Center for the Arts was spectacular. I wish more poets would write about baseball. Cheers!

On April 5, 2012 at 1:18pm Patrick wrote:
This is a lovely article - really - but how can you get
through an entire article on baseball and poetry without a
mention of Ogden Nash?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Line-Up_for_Yesterday :)

Selfish, I know, but it's my favorite - By far.

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Biography

Levi Stahl is the publicity manager of the University of Chicago Press. He has reviewed books for the Chicago Reader and the Bloomsbury Review, and he blogs at I've Been Reading Lately. He roots for the Cardinals, but he finds a place in his heart for the Cubs as well.

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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