“Baseball Days, ’61,” by Peter Balakian

Peter Balakian is an Armenian American writer and academic who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2016 for his collection, Ozone Journal. This collection includes the poem below, which shines a light on the fact that even as Roger Maris hit his historic 61st home run during the 1961 season, the world continued to move with myriad historic events simultaneously.

*

All summer the patio drifted in and out of light the color of margarine;
days were blue, not always sky blue.
At night the word Algeria circulated among the grown-ups.

A patient of my father had whooping cough, the words drifted into
summer blue. The evenings spun into stadium lights.
Kennedy’s hair blew across the screen. Castro was just a sofa.

I saw James Meredith’s face through a spread of leaves
on the evening news. The fridge sweat with orangeade,
the trees whooped some nights in rain—

a kid down the street kept coughing into his mitt.
Static sounds from Comiskey and Fenway came
though the vinyl, the plastic, the pillow—

So when it left Stallard’s hand, when Roger Maris’s arms whipped
the bat and the bullet-arc carried into the chasm the disaffections
at 344 ft. near the bullpen fence

under the green girder holding up the voices rising into the façade and over the
river
where a Baptist choir on Lenox Ave. was sending up a variation of Sweet Chariot
into the traffic on the FDR that was jammed at the Triboro

where a derrick was broken and the cables of its arms picked up the star-blast of
voices coming over the Stadium façade spilling down the black next-game
sign into the vector
of a tilted Coke bottle on a billboard

at the edge of the river where a cloud of pigeons rose over Roosevelt Island.
It was evening by the time the cars unjammed and the green of the outfield unfroze
and the white arc had faded into skyline before fall came

full of boys throwing themselves onto the turf with inexplicable desire
for the thing promised. The going. Then gone.

To Timothy H. Murnane, by Ralph E. McMillin

Tim Murnane was a former first baseman and center fielder turned sportswriter during the late-19th to early-20th century. He was considered the leading baseball writer at The Boston Globe for about 30 years until his death. While writing, he also organized and led professional sports leagues and helped govern the baseball industry. In 1946, the Baseball Hall of Fame established the Honor Rolls of Baseball and named Murnane one of twelve writers to be honored. He was also selected by the BBWAA as a recipient of the J. G. Taylor Spink Award for excellence in baseball journalism in 1978.

*

Pack up his bats, pick up his glove,
For him the Game is done;
At last the stars peep out above
The setting of the sun.
Once more the field, serene at night,
Is still, and hushed the shout.
The Presence chokes us as we write
Just this: “He ran it out.”

Above the plate Time held the ball:
He turned the last gray bag
With stride that weakened not at all.
His spirit did not lag,
But proudly Homeward bound he sped,
Nor feared the final rout.
High flung at last the silver’d head,
Unbowed “he ran it out.”

“The New Kid,” by Mike Makley

This piece by Mike Makley was published in 1975. I particularly love the twist at the end, and the fact that this was written so long ago, when girls playing ball was generally frowned upon, makes it all the better.

*

Our baseball team never did very much,
we had me and PeeWee and Earl and Dutch.
And the Oak Street Tigers always got beat
until the new kid moved in on our street.

The kid moved in with a mitt and a bat
and an official New York Yankee hat.
The new kid plays shortstop or second base
and can outrun us all in any place.

The kid never muffs a grounder or fly
no matter how hard it’s hit or how high.
And the new kid always acts quite polite,
never yelling or spitting or starting a fight.

We were playing the league champs just last week;
they were trying to break our winning streak.
In the last inning the score was one-one,
when the new kid swung and hit a home run.

A few of the kids and their parents say
they don’t believe that the new kid should play.
But she’s good as me, Dutch, PeeWee or Earl,
so we don’t care that the new kid’s a girl.

“Rain Delay: Toledo Mud Hens, July 8, 1994,” by Martin Espada

This poem by Martin Espada was published in his 1996 book of poetry titled Imagine the Angels of Bread, and Espada worked as groundskeeper for the Triple A Toledo Mud Hens for a time. This piece paints such a vivid picture of rural America; it’s certainly the kind of scene I would expect to find in a movie set in a small town.

*

Despite the rumors of rain,
the crowd spreads across the grandstand,
a hand-sewn quilt, red and yellow shirts,
blue caps. The ballgame is the county fair
in a season of drought, the carnival
in a town of boarded factories,
so they sing the anthem as if ready
for the next foreign war.
Billboards in the outfield
sell lumber, crayons, newspapers,
oldies radio, three kinds of beer.

The ballplayers waiting for the pitch:
the catcher coiled beneath the umpire’s alert leaning;
the infielders stalking with poised hands;
then the pitcher, a weathervane spinning in the wind;
clear echo of the wood, a ground ball,
throw, applause. The first baseman
shouts advice in Spanish to the pitcher,
and the pitcher nods.

The grandstand celebrates
with the team mascot
prancing pantomime in a duck suit,
a lightning bug called Louie
cheerleading for the electric company.
Men in Caterpillar tractor hats
rise from seats to yell at Louie
about their electric bills.

Ballpark lit in the iron-clouded storm,
a ghost dirigible floating overhead
and a hundred moons misting the grey air.
A train howls in the cornfields.
When the water strikes down,
white uniforms retreat from the diamond,
but in the stands
farm boys with dripping hair
holler their hosannas to the rain.

“Spring Training,” by Philip Raisor

There’s a lot of great imagery in this poem. It’s also quite nostalgic, full of memories expressed by the narrator. This piece was published in Philip Raisor’s poetry collection, Headhunting and Other Sports Poems.

*

I carry my spikes and step on the field an hour
ahead of the others. Last day of March with April
offering tickets for the new season. I’m full of sun
on wet grass, in love with blistered benches.

A sparrow sits on the backstop, watching, ready
to dart if I catch its eye. I drop my bag on home plate
and swirl my foot in the dust the way my cousin does
with his fingers on the skin of a drum head. Next year

he’ll be released with the others who spent mornings
breaking windows and trashing vacation homes
like drunks in the right field bleachers. Here, I’m alone
with a sparrow and the smell of a baseball morning

settling around me like a comforter. I start trotting
to first base, the ankles loosening, then the knees,
as the dust begins to lift into the breaking light.
Around second and third I stretch my arms

in a rotary motion ready to fly. A hand waves back
from a passing car, someone who knows me
or remembers rising one morning when the game
of who you are is played out in your mind,

and around you a stadium full of fans begs you
to do what you usually do in the clutch. The bat I pull
from the bag for the first time is my father’s
Louisville Slugger, thirty-three inches, wood barrel.

I thought enough time had passed, the attic dust
hard in the grooves. I stroke it slowly like a weapon
you love to touch but would never use. He hit .304
at Omaha the season he was drafted, all-star

rookie-of-the-year. He said we’d join him soon.
Then that other draft. He would have been here.
I swear he would. The silence feels oppressive now.
I dig for a scuffed ball and throw it up, shoulder high,

but let it fall. A natural hitter, my father said, holding
my hands. I grip the tar-stained handle. Tears blur
the wall that’s so far away it looks warped. I aim
for marrow deep inside, April hungry for the kill.

“Along Came Ruth,” by Ford Frick

This poem by Ford Frick ends with the line, “Nothing’s simpler than that!”, which is quite fitting, as this piece is pretty straightforward. This was published in Ford Frick’s memoir, Games, Asterisks, and People: Memoirs of a lucky fan.

*

You step up to the platter
And you gaze with flaming hate
At the poor benighted pitcher
As you dig in at the plate.
You watch him cut his fast ball loose,
Then swing your trusty bat
And you park one in the bleachers-
Nothing’s simpler than that!

Ford_Frick_at_1937_All-Star_Game - Library of Congress
Ford Frick at the 1937 All-Star Game (Library of Congress)

“The Miners, the Minors, Carbondale, Illinois,” by Edie Meade

This piece by Edie Meade was published in Skyway Journal in April 2021. The author describes attending a game featuring the Southern Illinois Miners while playing with the homophonic natures of ‘Miner’ and ‘minor’.

I don’t attend minor league or independent league ballgames nearly as much as I should, and pieces like this remind me that I really ought to change that.

*

I come from a no-team town to see the Miners play,

fall down drunk in the stands with you, obnoxious

off the train from Chicago

in your Pittsburgh stovepipe,

Expos jersey, beard shaved to handlebars

for a bygone day in downstate minors country.

Spilling, lisping, rubbing up

against you, admiring

sinew-ripping throws, welp, he’s going nowhere

fast like that. I lament

poor Miners, poor minors, poor Carbondale

a literal coal field, spent.

Confessions & taunts & kisses & curses, wise cracks

of bats & beer cans, getting backward looks –

he’s probably that player’s grandpa, poor grandpas, you know

I don’t like baseball

fans, but I’m a fan of baseball

men. You get a piece

of the action when a foul ball pops

me, inattentive

yet rapt, as I get

drunk & near-sighted in the sun.

“Enthusiasm,” by Charles Harper Webb

I find that I relate to this poem quite a bit. Like the narrator, I had a penchant for taking things to extremes when I was young. Anything I was interested in, I dove into with intensity. This approach to things frequently led to burnout.

As an adult, I’ve reined that tendency in quite a bit. Sure, every now and then I find myself getting into something obsessively for days or weeks at a time, but overall, I’m much more about moderation.

*

“Don’t overdo it,” Dad yelled, watching me
Play shortstop, collect stamps and shells,
Roll on the grass laughing until I peed my pants.
“Screw him,” I said, and grabbed every cowry

I could find, hogged all the books I could
From Heights Library, wore out the baseball
Diamond dawn to dusk, and—parents in Duluth—
Gorged on bountiful Candy dusk to dawn.

Not until a Committee wrote of my poems,
“Enthusiasm should be tempered,”
Did I change my song. I write now
The way I live: calm and sober, steering

Toward the Golden Mean. The Committee
Was right to withhold funds. I’d have bought
A hundred box turtles with lemon-speckled shells,
Flyfished for rainbows six months straight,

Flown to the Great Barrier Reef and dived
Non-stop among pink coral and marble cones,
Living on chocolate malts, peaches, and barbecue.
I’d have turned into a ski bum, married

Ten women in ten states, written nothing
Poetry would glance at twice, instead
Of rising at 5:00 as I do now, writing
‘Til noon about matters serious and deep,

Teaching ’til 6:00, eating a low-fat meal
High in fiber and cruciferous vegetables,
Then bed by 9:00, alarm clock set
Five minutes late: my one indulgence of the day.

“A Fisherman’s Tale,” Anonymous

This piece was published in 1942 and it references Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. In the novella, the main character, Santiago, idolizes DiMaggio and is a big Yankees fan. To Santiago, DiMaggio represents an ideal, and he compares himself against the ballplayer as a way to measure his own success and worth.

*

Ernest
Hemingway
Immortalized
Joe
DiMaggio
and
Joe
DiMaggio
Immortalized
Himself
And
So
Did
Ted Williams
that wonderful slugger from Boston.