Essay

Baseball and Verse, from Tinker to Evers to Big Papi

Grand slam poetry: our twin national pastimes.
Introduction
"Poets are like baseball pitchers," claimed Robert Frost. He wasn't the only poet who felt an affinity for the game. From Marianne Moore to Longfellow to Franklin P. Adams, Levi Stahl takes a look at poetry about baseball, finding a few poets who throw strikes and a few who don't.

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 24th, 2007

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....

  1. October 24, 2007
     Mary Sloan

    Levi Stahl's piece on baseball is amazing!

  2. October 26, 2007
     Uptown

    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).

  3. October 27, 2007
     Michael Garcia

    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.

  4. October 31, 2007
     Gregory Christiano

    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.

  5. November 2, 2007
     Lewis Bruser

    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.


















  6. November 14, 2007
     J. Patrick Lewis

    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.


  7. April 15, 2008
     Guillermo Calderon,Jr.

    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

  8. July 8, 2008
     Richard Nugent



    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.

  9. August 11, 2008
     Sara Kniffen

    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...

  10. January 7, 2009
     e lefrak

    looking for W. Whitman's poetic references to baseball. Any suggestions? Thank you.

  11. May 9, 2009
     Frank J Ceresi

    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.

  12. March 31, 2011
     Joe Ahearn

    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/...

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

  13. April 7, 2011
     syd Lieberman

    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.

  14. November 3, 2011
     Oliver

    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!

  15. April 5, 2012
     Patrick

    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/L... :)

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