Now I don’t care how big a goof a man is, he’d ought to know better than get smart round a fella that’s slumped off in his battin’.
~Ring Lardner, “Where Do You Get That Noise?”
In Elysian Fields, released by Tom Evans this summer, proves itself a fascinating read. The events of this novel take place in the late-1950s, and the feel of the book definitely fits with that time period. Luke Allen is a major league ballplayer in the final season of his career, hoping to have a shot at finally winning a championship before he retires. Luke is having one of the best seasons of his already-Hall of Fame worthy career, due in part to the influence of a series of anonymous notes sent to him from a secret admirer.
The secret admirer, the reader learns, is a poet by the name of Norah Dailey. Norah admires Luke from a distance, and while the two do not physically meet for a very long time, they are nonetheless drawn to one another. The two dance around a desire to meet one another, yet not feeling sure whether they really should.
In the meantime, the reader learns a lot about each character’s background. Each has had a challenging life, in their own way, and each grew up to devote their lives to their respective passions — Luke to baseball and Norah to writing. If you’re the kind of reader who likes to hear about the backstories of a book’s characters (which I am), then you will love the details provided about these two.
As someone who loves baseball and literature, this book proved quite engaging and satiating for both interests. I have long felt that baseball and literature are excellent complements to one another, and the attraction between Luke and Norah serves as a great metaphor for this. Overall, I found the book quite enjoyable. It had hints of The Natural and of Bull Durham in its story line, and yet manages to stand unique, especially in terms of character development. I do wish the story would have continued on a bit longer than it did after Luke and Norah finally do meet, if only to wrap up Luke’s career and establish their relationship a bit more neatly. But again, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and I suppose that sometimes, the next chapters of our favorite characters’ lives are best left to the imagination.
George Rolfe Humphries was born in 1894, the son of Jack (John) Humphries, an 1880s professional baseball player. Rolfe Humphries grew up to write poetry, translate literature, teach Latin, and coach athletics, but naturally, his interests also gravitated towards baseball. “Polo Grounds” is his tribute to New York Giants baseball — as well as, it appears, to his father.
Time is of the essence. This is a highly skilled
And beautiful mystery. Three or four seconds only
From the time that Riggs connects till he reaches first,
And in those seconds Jurges goes to his right,
Comes up with the ball, tosses to Witek at second,
For the force on Reese, Witek to Mize at first,
In time for the out—a double play.
(Red Barber crescendo. Crowd noises, obbligatio;
Scattered staccatos from the peanut boys,
Loud in the lull, as the teams are changing sides) . . .
Hubbell takes the sign, nods, pumps, delivers—
A foul into the stands. Dunn takes a new ball out,
Hands it to Danning, who throws it down to Werber;
Werber takes off his glove, rubs the ball briefly,
Tosses it over to Hub, who goes to the rosin bag,
Takes the sign from Danning, pumps, delivers—
Low, outside, ball three. Danning goes to the mound,
Says something to Hub, Dunn brushes off the plate,
Adams starts throwing in the Giant bullpen,
Hub takes the sign from Danning, pumps, delivers,
Camilli gets hold of it, a long fly to the outfield,
Ott goes back, back, back, against the wall, gets under it,
Pounds his glove, and takes it for the out.
That’s all for the Dodgers. . . .
Time is of the essence. The rhythms break,
More varied and subtle than any kind of dance;
Movement speeds up or lags. The ball goes out
In sharp and angular drives, or long slow arcs,
Comes in again controlled and under aim;
The players wheel or spurt, race, stoop, slide, halt,
Shift imperceptibly to new positions,
Watching the signs according to the batter,
The score, the inning. Time is of the essence.
Time is of the essence. Remember Terry?
Remember Stonewall Jackson, Lindstrom, Frisch,
When they were good? Remember Long George Kelly?
Remember John McGraw and Benny Kauff?
Remember Bridwell, Tenney, Merkle, Youngs,
Chief Meyers, Big Jeff Tesreau, Shufflin’ Phil?
Remember Mathewson, Ames, and Donlin,
Buck Ewing, Rusie, Smiling Mickey Welch?
Remember a left-handed catcher named Jack Humphries,
Who sometimes played the outfield, in ’83?
Time is of the essence. The shadow moves
From the plate to the box, from the box to second base,
From second to the outfield, to the bleachers.
Time is of the essence. The crowd and players
Are the same age always, but the man in the crowd
Is older every season. Come on, play ball!
I have previously shared here variations of the legendary poem, “Casey At the Bat.” It’s interesting, coming across the various spin-offs and seeing how fans might opt to continue Casey’s tale. In this piece by Clarence McDonald, mighty Casey gets a chance to redeem himself — much later in his life.
The Bugville team was surely up against a rocky game;
The chances were they’d win defeat and not undying fame;
Three men were hurt and two were benched; the score stood six to four.
They had to make three hard-earned runs in just two innings more.
“It can’t be done,” the captain said, a pallor on his face;
“I’ve got two pitchers in the field, a mutt on second base;
And should another man get spiked or crippled in some way,
The team would sure be down and out, with eight men left to play.
“We’re up against it anyhow as far as I can see;
My boys ain’t hitting like they should and that’s what worries me;
The luck is with the other side, no pennant will we win;
It’s mighty tough, but we must take our medicine and grin.”
The eighth round opened- one, two, three- the enemy went down.
The Bugville boys went out the same- the captain wore a frown.
The first half of the ninth came round, two men had been put out,
When Bugville’s catcher broke a thumb and could not go the route.
A deathly silence settled o’er the crowd assembled there.
Defeat would be allotted them; they felt it in the air;
With only eight men in the field ‘twould be a gruesome fray,
Small wonder that the captain cursed the day he learned to play.
“Lend me a man to finish with!” he begged the other team;
“Lend you a man?” the foe replied; “My boy, you’re in a dream!
We came to win the pennant, too – that’s what we’re doing here.
There’s only one thing you can do – call for a volunteer!”
The captain stood and pondered in a listless sort of way.
He never was a quitter and he would not be today!
“Is there within the grandstand here”- his voice rang loud and clear
“A man who has the sporting blood to be a volunteer?”
Again that awful silence settled o’er the multitude.
Was there a man among them with such recklessness imbued?
The captain stood with cap in hand, while hopeless was his glance,
And then a tall and stocky man cried out, “I’ll take a chance!”
Into the field he bounded with a step both firm and light;
“Give me the mask and mitt,” he said; “let’s finish up the fight.
The game is now beyond recall; I’ll last at least a round;
Although I’m ancient, you will find me muscular and sound.”
His hair was sprinkled here and there with little streaks of gray;
Around his eyes and on his brow a bunch of wrinkles lay.
The captain smiled despairingly and slowly turned away.
“Why, he’s all right!” one rooter yelled. Another, “Let him play!”
“All right, go on,” the captain sighed. The stranger turned around,
Took off his coat and collar, too, and threw them on the ground.
The humor of the situation seemed to hit them all,
And as he donned the mask and mitt, the umpire called, “Play ball!”
Three balls the pitcher at him heaved, three balls of lightning speed.
The stranger caught them all with ease and did not seem to heed.
Each ball had been pronounced a strike, the side had been put out,
And as he walked in towards the bench, he heard the rooters shout.
One Bugville boy went out on strikes, and one was killed at first;
The captain saw them fail to hit, and gnashed his teeth and cursed.
The third man smashed a double and the fourth man swatted clear,
Then, in a thunder of applause, up came the volunteer.
His feet were planted in the earth, he swung a warlike club;
The captain saw his awkward pose and softly whispered, “Dub!”
The pitcher looked at him and grinned, then heaved a mighty ball;
The echo of that fearful swat still lingers with us all.
High, fast and far the spheroid flew; it sailed and sailed away;
It ne’er was found, so it’s supposed it still floats on today.
Three runs came in, the pennant would be Bugville’s for a year;
The fans and players gathered round to cheer the volunteer.
“What is your name?” the captain asked. “Tell us you name,” cried all,
As down his cheeks great tears of joy were seen to run and fall.
For one brief moment he was still, then murmured soft and low:
“I’m the mighty Casey who struck out just twenty years ago.”
But baseball was different. Schwartz thought of it as Homeric – not a scrum but a series of isolated contests. Batter versus pitcher, fielder versus ball. You couldn’t storm around, snorting and slapping people, the way Schwartz did while playing football.You stood and waited and tried to still your mind. When your moment came, you had to be ready, because if you fucked up, everyone would know whose fault it was. What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see?
~Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding
This piece was published in 1996 in Avalanche, a collection of poetry by Quincy Troupe. It is not only a piece from a son to his father, but also a great tribute to the Negro Leagues.
for Quincy T. Trouppe Sr.
father, it was an honor to be there, in the dugout
with you, the glory of great black men swinging their lives
as bats, at tiny white balls
burning in at unbelievable speeds, riding up & in & out
a curve breaking down wicked, like a ball falling off a table
moving away, snaking down, screwing its stitched magic
into chitlin circuit air, its comma seams spinning
toward breakdown, dipping, like a hipster
bebopping a knee-dip stride, in the charlie parker forties
wrist curling, like a swan’s neck
behind a slick black back
cupping an invisible ball of dreams
& you there, father, regal, as an african, obeah man
sculpted out of wood, from a sacred tree, of no name, no place, origin
thick branches branching down, into cherokee & someplace else lost
way back in africa, the sap running dry
crossing from north carolina into georgia, inside grandmother mary’s
womb, where your mother had you in the violence of that red soil
ink blotter news, gone now, into blood graves
of american blues, sponging rococo
truth long gone as dinosaurs
the agent-oranged landscape of former names
absent of african polysyllables, dry husk, consonants there
now, in their place, names, flat, as polluted rivers
& that guitar string smile always snaking across
some virulent, american, redneck’s face
scorching, like atomic heat, mushrooming over nagasaki
& hiroshima, the fever blistered shadows of it all
inked, as etchings, into sizzled concrete
but you, there, father, through it all, a yardbird solo
riffing on bat & ball glory, breaking down the fabricated myths
of white major league legends, of who was better than who
beating them at their own crap
game, with killer bats, as bud powell swung his silence into beauty
of a josh gibson home run, skittering across piano keys of bleachers
shattering all manufactured legends up there in lights
struck out white knights, on the risky edge of amazement
awe, the miraculous truth sluicing through
steeped & disguised in the blues
confluencing, like the point at the cross
when a fastball hides itself up in a slider, curve
breaking down & away in a wicked, sly grin
curved & posed as an ass-scratching uncle tom, who
like old sachel paige delivering his famed hesitation pitch
before coming back with a hard, high, fast one, is slicker
sliding, & quicker than a professional hitman—
the deadliness of it all, the sudden strike
like that of the “brown bomber’s” crossing right
of sugar ray robinson’s, lightning, cobra bite
& you, there, father, through it all, catching rhythms
of chono pozo balls, drumming, like conga beats into your catcher’s mitt
hard & fast as “cool papa” bell jumping into bed
before the lights went out
of the old, negro baseball league, a promise, you were
father, a harbinger, of shock waves, soon come
I have known folks who mow their lawn this way. Pine cones? Run ’em over. Thick coatings of leaves? The mower can handle it. Rocks? Who cares if they go flying?
I don’t mow that way 1) because I don’t have the money to buy a new lawn mower every other month, and 2) because I learned in a most unfortunate manner what happens when the mower picks up a stray rock and sends it flying into a window.
Running over a baseball would surely wreak havoc on any mower, no manner how sturdy and well-built it may be. And any mower would wreak just as much havoc on the poor baseball.
each day mowed
and mowed his lawn, his dry quarter acre,
the machine slicing a wisp
from each blade’s tip.
Dust storms rose
around the roar: 6:00 P.
, every day,
spring, summer, fall.
If he could mow
the snow he would.
On one side, his neighbors the cows
turned their backs to him
and did what they do to the grass.
Where he worked, I don’t know
but it sets his jaw to: tight.
His wife a cipher, shoebox tissue,
a shattered apron.
into her head he drove a wedge of shale.
Years later his daughter goes to jail.
Mow, mow, mow his lawn
gently down a decade’s summers.
On his other side lived mine and me,
across a narrow pasture, often fallow;
a field of fly balls, the best part of childhood
and baseball, but one could not cross his line
and if it did,
as one did in 1956
and another in 1958,
it came back coleslaw — his lawn mower
ate it up, happy
to cut something, no matter
what the manual said
about foreign objects,
stones, or sticks.