March 18: George Plimpton was born on this day in 1927, and James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was published in The New Yorker on this day in 1939. The first of Plimpton’s athlete-for-a-day books was Out of My League, his account of taking the mound to face eighteen big league all-stars; when first pitching the idea to Sid James, editor of Sports Illustrated, Plimpton invoked Mitty’s spirit and Thurber’s name:
“I’ve no pretensions about any sudden career as a pitcher,” I assured him. “I mean I’m not trying to use my … ah … vague connections with Sports Illustrated to wangle a big-league tryout, or anything like that.”
“That would be a novel idea,” he said. “Incidentally, you can pitch, can’t you?”
“I pitched at school,” I told him, “and at college a bit, and once or twice in the army. But the point is,” I went on, “that I would pitch not as a hotshot that’d be a different story but as a guy who’s average, really, a sort of Mr. Everybody, the sort who thinks he’s a fair athlete, a good tennis player, but always finds himself put out in the second round of the club tournament by the sandy-haired member who wears a hearing aid.”
“I see,” he said.
There was a leather sofa behind me and I sat down in it. “James Thurber,” I said obliquely, “once wrote that the majority of American males put themselves to sleep by striking out the batting order of the New York Yankees. That’s my fellow, you see, lying there staring at the bedroom ceiling … the bases loaded, and he’s imagining himself coming in from the bullpen….
As epigraph for his book, Plimpton chose the line, “I do not think that they will sing to me” from T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Apart from setting the ineffectual, Mitty tone, the quotation foreshadows Plimpton’s introduction by the Yankee Stadium announcer:
“…Your attention, please, (pause) George … F… P…” then another pause, the announcer apparently working over a name scribbled on a pad, “…Prufrock” — and then, repeated with immeasurable confidence that boomed through the stadium, “GEORGE PRUFROCK of Sports Illustrated will now pitch against the ENTIRE National League team, and the ENTIRE American League team….”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.