When I was eleven, Willie Mays came to town. Not just Mays, but also Johnny Antonelli, Ruben Gomez, Stu Miller, the once-great Hank Sauer, the soon-to-be-great Orlando Cepeda, and the incomparably named Valmy Thomas, a circus of major league baseball talent suddenly to be found at the far end of the F-train in San Francisco, a city I could see from the back porch of my grandparents’ house in Albany, California. In 1958, Walter O’Malley persuaded Major League Baseball to permit him to transplant his team, the Dodgers, from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and—at least as important—sweet-talked Horace Stoneham, owner of the neighboring New York Giants, to bring his team along to San Francisco, thereby preserving a “natural” rivalry that had existed in New York, and making it economically feasible for National League teams to travel to the West Coast to play games. The self-anointed national pastime was now truly national.
In 1958, you could very easily make the argument that Willie Mays was the greatest living baseball player. He was one of just two “five-tool” stars then at the height of their careers, hitting, running, fielding, throwing, and hitting with power. The other, Mickey Mantle, had bad knees and too much of a fondness for alcohol ever to reach his full potential, which left Mays alone at the top of the baseball pyramid. In many ways, Mays was the first great black player to fully benefit from the sacrifices made by Jackie Robinson and other Negro League stars who had entered the majors at great personal cost over the previous dozen years. Mays’s top salary of $165,000 was not only $65,000 more than Mantle ever made in one year; it was almost four times what Robinson earned at his peak in 1953.
Mays had cemented his reputation nationally with an astounding over-the-shoulder catch of a long fly ball hit by the Cleveland Indians’ Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series. The importance of Mays’s catch was not that it was the greatest ever made—Mays doesn’t think it was even in his top five—but that it was on television in the World Series right at the moment that tv became a universal phenomenon. Mays’s catch was baseball’s first great replay and by the time the Giants showed up in Seals Stadium four years later, every fan had seen Mays catch, whirl, and throw the ball to the infield in that single fluid motion dozens if not hundreds of times. By comparison, Bobby Thomson’s 1951 home run that enabled the Giants to beat the Dodgers for the National League championship took place as television was just starting to take off. The reason Thomson’s dinger was the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” wasn’t because it wasn’t filmed—it was—but because most people in New York and beyond experienced it first over the radio, Giants’ announcer Russ Hodges screaming “The Giants win the pennant!” over and over.
Eleven-year-old boys were not the only people transfixed by the sudden arrival of the major leagues on the West Coast. Thirty-three-year-old Jack Spicer liked to spend his afternoons on the concrete amphitheater next to the Maritime Museum at San Francisco’s Aquatic Park, listening to the games over a radio. Earlier in the fifties, Spicer had spent two years teaching at the University of Minnesota, a school that did not require its faculty to sign a loyalty oath, which Spicer had refused to do at Berkeley. During Spicer’s years at Minnesota, the big man on campus, a two-sport star and the 1953 runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, was Paul Giel. Professionally, Giel chose baseball over football, ending up with a short career in the majors as a “swing man,” a spot starter who more often pitched in relief. The four games he won for the Giants in 1958—one of which I saw in person—tied for the most Giel ever won in a single season. He was out of baseball within another two years.
The young hotshot in over his head is a figure Spicer makes great use of in the poems that appear as “Four Poems for the St. Louis Sporting News,” in his last volume, Book of Magazine Verse. What sets these poems apart from the bulk of baseball poetry, and from the ideology of individual accomplishment that is so much a part of the ethos of the sport, is that they’re about failure, and about intimacy, implying a deep, even necessary connection between the two.
Other than a brief suggestion that “there are people that talk about poetry like tired insurance clerks talk about baseball,” in “Letters to James Alexander” (1958–59), Spicer doesn’t really take notice of baseball in his poetry until 1962, the year the Giants beat the Dodgers in a one-game playoff to get into the World Series. The hoopla over that series is seen by Spicer as part of the corruption of the world in the first section of Golem, comparing that with Robert Duncan accepting money for a reading in Seattle and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson colluding with gamblers to fix the outcome of the World Series in 1919. Spicer’s line—
I have seen the best poets and baseball players of our generation caught in the complete and contemptible whoredom of capitalist society
—also invokes Allen Ginsberg as one of the whores of poetry, a theme he returns to in Magazine Verse.
But for the later Spicer what matters in baseball is that pitcher and catcher have an inescapable intimacy that is both visible to everyone in the stands and yet inaudible at the same time. You can’t hear what they’re saying, if they speak at all. A secondary intimacy involves the batter, but it’s more of a passing romance, one batter after another. Surrounding all three, however, is an inevitability of failure. Careers are short, it’s hard to get the ball over the plate, batters make outs most of the time. “God is a big white baseball,” but “Pitchers are obviously not human. They have the ghosts of dead people in them.”
“Four Poems for the St. Louis Sporting News are some of the saddest love poems ever written, envisioning a world in which impermanence rules and all relations are determined solely by how they fail. Having lived near Philadelphia, where fans expect to be let down, I have some sense now of what Spicer was seeing in baseball, a Philadelphia of the heart. But I wouldn’t have believed it when I was eleven or even when I was seventeen and Book of Magazine Verse was published within weeks of Spicer’s death at forty in 1965. Had he lived another forty years, Spicer still would not have experienced the Giants finally winning the championship, which did not happen until 2010.
An influential figure in contemporary poetics, Ron Silliman became associated with the West Coast literary movement known as “Language poetry” in the 1960s and ‘70s. He edited In the American Tree (1986), which remains the primary Language poetry anthology, as well as penned one of the movement’s defining critical texts,...