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March 31, 1996

Who's on Verse?

By TIM WILES
On June 3, 1888, "Casey at the Bat" first appeared quietly on the pages of The San Francisco Examiner. Since that time, it has become one of America's best-known and best-loved poems.

And even though Mighty Casey's failure at the plate is initially tragic and surprising, it is, perhaps, a comforting metaphor for all of us in the Mudville masses.

As a baseball ballad, with its keen sense of the sport's ever-building drama, Ernest Lawrence Thayer's "Casey at the Bat" is perfection. But in another sense, it has plenty of company, for it is just one of tens of thousands of baseball poems, many of which are housed in the archives of the Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown.

Some of these efforts are pure doggerel but others are well-crafted verse from some of our country's best poets -- Robert Francis and Marianne Moore and May Swenson and Carl Sandburg. It is one more reminder, as a new season begins tonight, that baseball and poetry -- like some veteran pitcher and catcher -- have long been intertwined.

Indeed, scholars of baseball's origins point to a poem from an English children's book as the first mention of baseball in print. The poem, entitled "Base-Ball," appeared in "A Little Pretty Pocket Book," in 1744:

The ball once struck off

Away flies the Boy

To the next destin'd Post

And then Home with Joy.

There has been plenty more in the 250 years since then. Baseball, after all, has consistently intrigued good writers, more so than any other American sport. Any number have weighed in with short stories and novels; perhaps as many or more have turned to poetry. And it should be noted that for every Hall of Fame poet who has stepped to the plate -- every Sandburg and Moore and Walt Whitman and Robert Frost -- there has been an aspiring writer who has swung away, and swung away, and finally connected.

Take, for example, the 83-page poem written in 1961 by one Weldon Myers, called "Twelve Perfect Innings," and subtitled a "A Pretty Good Game." Myers wrote a pitch-by-pitch account, in verse, of the May 26, 1959, evening when Pittsburgh's Harvey pitched a 12-inning perfect game against Milwaukee only to lose on Joe Adcock's 13th-inning home run. In his short introduction to the chapbook publication of his work, Myers states that he felt an obligation "to bring along some element of perfection in the telling" of Haddix's story.

Myers did and then, like others, was never heard from again. The established poets, however, don't fade from view. Their poems mirror baseball's cadences, almost perfectly, as in two fine works by Francis, called simply "Pitcher" (1953) and "The Base Stealer" (1947).

The latter poem teems with energy, exactly like a base runner leading off first, taunting and daring the pitcher. But "The Pitcher" leaves the physical world for the higher realms of the moundsman, whose "art is eccentricity," whose aim is "how not to hit the mark."

The poem turns over mentally every line or two, making the reader as unsure as a batter facing the craftiest of pitchers, until finally, the batter makes an out and in the last line, the pitcher succeeds in his objective: "making the batter understand too late." Perhaps no finer six-word definition of the art of pitching has been written.

America's best-loved poet, Robert Frost, was also a devotee of baseball. "Some baseball is the fate of us all," he once wrote, and he also led workshop students in hearty games of softball. In his poem "Birches," he rhapsodizes about "Some boy too far from town to learn baseball."

Another of baseball's poetic traditions is the newspaper poem, often composed by sportswriters, who once fancied themselves to be literary men to a much greater degree than seems evident today.

The most famous of these poems is an eight-liner called "Baseball's Sad Lexicon," written by Franklin P. Adams of The New York Evening Mail in 1910. Adams was a native Chicagoan who had moved to New York in 1904, and reportedly still harbored an admiration for the Cubs. He must have secretly admired the Cubs' double-play combination of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance. The poem, in its entirety:

These are the saddest of possible words,

Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance.

Trio of Bear Cubs and fleeter than birds,

Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance.

Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,

Making a Giant hit into a double,

Words that are weighty with nothing but trouble

Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance.

As the story goes, Adams was told that he needed eight lines of filler for an empty spot on the sports page. Thus, the "Sad Lexicon." Never mind that some baseball historians have observed that Tinker, Evers and Chance did not dazzle as a double-play combination. After being forever linked by Adams's poem, the three men were elected to the Hall of Fame together in 1946. A year later, the irrepressible Ogden Nash provided a postscript in his poem "Line-Up for Yesterday":

E is for Evers,

His Jawcq in advance;

Never afraid

To Tinker with Chance.

Almost 50 years later, baseball poetry is a growth industry, at a time when any number of commentators are arguing that baseball's appeal is in decline. "Spitball" and "The Elysian Fields Quarterly" are two of the more notable journals for baseball poets while Michael Schacht's "Fan" carries baseball poetry and artwork.

And then there are all the unpublished poems, the ones that don't find their way into quarterly journals. Baseball fans regularly mail their work to the Hall of Fame on subjects as diverse as the life and death of Mickey Mantle, the rise and fall of Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson, the nostalgic joy of remembered baseball cards, the romantic joys of opening day or the time they, like the Mighty Casey, struck out with the game on the line. These poems are faithfully added to the collection, and kept in several thick files, alphabetically by author. Their tributes and celebrations can be quite touching, not to mention quite clever. One woman called her collection of poems about the Cincinnati Reds of the early 1970s, "From Bat to Verse."

Why this large and unsolicited output? Perhaps it's because baseball is brimming at the seams with poetry, some of it intentional and some spontaneous. Baseball announcers seem almost as though they've studied zen Buddhism when they say, as they have in recent years, "He's a master of staying within himself."

There are also baseball's utterances of folk poetry, like "Hit 'em where they ain't," and "I call 'em as I see 'em." Paul Simon's line "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you" is intensely evocative poetry. And who can forget the wonderful image from "The Catcher in the Rye," where Holden Caulfield speaks an elegy for his dead brother, Allie, who had poems written in green ink all over his glove, because it gets lonely sometimes in the outfield.

Even a baseball commissioner can toss a poem around the yard. A. Bartlett Giamatti was writing in the essay form in 1977 when he penned this immortal passage: "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."

For all the players, and all the poets, there are actually three who have done both. The first was Edward Benninghaus Kenna, who pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics back in 1902. He preferred poetry to baseball, however, and later published a book entitled "Lyrics of the Hills." Next to appear was David Malarcher, who played 20 years for the Chicago American Giants in the Negro Leagues. One of his poems is a meditation on sunflowers, which, according to Malarcher, "actually follow the sun ... as if they were created by God for complete trust." A deft hand serves one as well in poetry as in baseball.

And then there was Ed Charles, who played eight years in the majors, with the Mets and, like Kenna, the A's. He was a valuable member of the Mets' 1969 World Series champions, platooning at third base, and he also was a devoted writer of poetry. He once wrote:

Perform we must, both day and night

Seeking victory, with all our might

Seeking a place, with other sport greats

In the Hall of Fame, where ability rates.

In the Hall of Fame, ability does rate. And it writes. Ed Charles found his way into the poetry files at the Hall's library.

From academics to ballplayers, from fans to folksingers, from novelists to newspaper writers, and from announcers to "anonymous," baseball poetry springs eternal. Now it's time for 1996 to spin its verses.




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