It’s the start of a new week — the first full week without baseball in seven months. When I was younger, I wanted, sort of desperately, to be a baseball player. Later, I wanted to be a poet. But I think my interest in baseball must have led to my interest in poetry. Because how could a kid immerse himself in the sport’s lexicon — the alliterative nicknames: the Sultan of Swat, Joltin’ Joe, Dizzy Dean; the fanciful terms: the double steal, the suicide squeeze — and not want to make some of that music himself on the page?
Some of the earliest poetry I remember came from the baseball books I checked out of the Towson Library. “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.” “Tinkers to Evers to Chance.” And the names! Names I had never heard — have still never heard — anywhere else: Harmon, Thurman, Rollie, Clete, Vida, Rogers (with an “s”!) And the greatest of all monikers: Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown. (As if a man called Mordecai needed a nickname.) And a catcher named Yogi! — a homespun sage whose advice included, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I followed players like Catfish Hunter, Blue Moon Odom, Spaceman Lee, the Mad Hungarian, and Oil Can Boyd. In 1997 I moved to Seattle and began rooting for a band of R-rated Mariners: the Big Unit, A-Rod, Blow, Junior, and the Bone. (I first noticed the phallic common denominator while standing in front of a — no joke — Kingdome sausage stand. “Get your Junior Kielbasa! Get your Big Unit Red Hot!”)
Part of what I know about the world — which means part of what I have to work with as a poet — comes from baseball. A gesture of nonchalance: U. L. Washington lipping a toothpick. A gesture of menace: Lee May waving a bat. The number 56 means “hitting streak.” Gary, Indiana means “Lyman Bostock’s murder.”
Baseball also reminds me that remarkable things can happen: Carl Hubbell can strike out five consecutive Hall of Famers; Johnny Vander Meer can throw back-to-back no-hitters. That’s a poetry lesson, as well. How could I read Hopkins or Moore or O’Hara or Edson without having learned it?
Whitman played baseball. He called it “America’s game: has the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere.” Floyd Skloot has a wonderful poem that imagines Whitman pinch-hitting in a pick-up game at the edge of a Long Island Potato Farm. “In his hands, the wood / felt light. He stood beside the folded coat that represented / home, shifted his weight and stared at the pitcher who glared / back, squinting against the sun, taking the poet’s measure.”
Later this week I’ll post a few baseball poems by Robert Francis, May Swenson, Eric McHenry, and Charles North. Then I’ll accept that the off-season has arrived. Until then, two quotes:
“It’s not always easy to tell the difference between thinking and looking out of the window.” – Wallace Stevens
“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” – Rogers Hornsby