Baseball and Verse, from Tinker to Evers to Big Papi
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:
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,
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
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,
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.
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....