Baseball: A Literary Anthologyby Nicholas Dawidoff
Robert Frost never felt more at home in America than when watching baseball "be it in park or sand lot." Full of heroism and heartbreak, the most beloved of American sports is also the most poetic, and writers have been drawn to this sport as to no other. With Baseball: A Literary Anthology, The Library of America presents the story of the national/b>
Robert Frost never felt more at home in America than when watching baseball "be it in park or sand lot." Full of heroism and heartbreak, the most beloved of American sports is also the most poetic, and writers have been drawn to this sport as to no other. With Baseball: A Literary Anthology, The Library of America presents the story of the national adventure as revealed through the fascinating lens of the great American game.
Philip Roth considers the terrible thrill of the adolescent centerfielder; Richard Ford listens to minor-league baseball on the radio while driving cross-country; Amiri Baraka remembers the joy of watching the Newark Eagles play in the era before Jackie Robinson shattered the color line. Unforgettable portraits of legendary players who have become icons-Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Hank Aaron-are joined by glimpses of lesser-known characters such as the erudite Moe Berg, who could speak a dozen languages "but couldn't hit in any of them."
Poems in Baseball: A Literary Anthology include indispensable works whose phrases have entered the language-Ernest Thayer's "Casey at the Bat" and Franklin P. Adams's "Baseball's Sad Lexicon"-as well as more recent offerings from May Swenson, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Martin Espada. Testimonies from classic oral histories offer insights into the players who helped enshrine the sport in the American imagination. Spot reporting by Heywood Broun and Damon Runyon stands side by side with journalistic profiles that match baseball legends with some of our finest writers: John Updike on Ted Williams, Gay Talese on Joe DiMaggio, Red Smith on Lefty Grove.
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As a young man, Charles Emmett Van Loan (1876-1919) worked at a meat packing company and went to minor-league baseball games around Los Angeles with his boss. He began taking notes on what he saw, and when he converted them into dispatches and submitted them to the Los Angeles Examiner, he was on his way to becoming California's best baseball writer. He worked for the Los Angeles Morning Herald in 1904, and then for the Denver Post, where he met Damon Runyon. By 1910, the two men were house mates in New York, colleagues at the sports department of the American. Over the next nine years Van Loan's journalism and short stories about boxing, horseracing, golf, Hollywood, and of course baseball appeared in a number of publications, including The Saturday Evening Post, for which he served two stints as an editor. During the first, he became the editorial conduit for Ring Lardner's humorous sketches that would later be collected as the novel You Know Me Al. This piece, published in The Outing magazine in 1909, shows Van Loan's ample humor and his sophisticated understanding of the skills involved in baseball. The portraits of Ty Cobb and Hal Chase are especially interesting since they provide glimpses of the two players before a reputation for recalcitrance (Cobb) or dishonesty (Chase) overtook them.
Baseball as the Bleachers Like It
By Charles E. Van Loan
The man in the box office, whose swift, money-changing fingers play on the pulse of the amusement-loving public, will tell you that a baseball franchise in a large city is a "mint." The man in the box office cares little for sport; he views it with the sordid eye of one who thinks in figures and dreams in dollars. Those who make a study of the great business of providing amusement for a nation, will tell you that where other outdoor sports and "attractions" count their devotees by tens, baseball drags its hundreds and even thousands through the turnstiles. There must be some good reason for this state of affairs.
The same men sit on the bleachers day after day, their straw hats tilted down over keen eyes, their fingers fumbling score cards and pencils. Everything that the gallery is to the stage, the bleachers are to the diamond. The most merciless critic may be found somewhere behind first or third base where he can see everything which happens. The grand stand may be all very well for the thin-skinned ones who must mingle personal comfort with their amusement; the true baseball fan sits on the bleachers, trimmed down to his shirt sleeves. No wire nettings in front of him, if you please.
Why is he there day after day? He can hope to see nothing absolutely new, for in the present high stage of its development, professional baseball has reached a point where one new play a season is the average. What is the lure of this mighty magnet -- this thing, half sport, half business, which draws its millions of dollars every year?
Is it the science of the game -- the inside baseball?
Nine tenths of the men who go to the theater hope for one of two things: they want to be amused or thrilled. The problem play does not appeal to the man who has found life its own problem.
The man who goes to the race track for an afternoon's sport and does not sell his interest for a bookmaker's ticket hopes to see a great race with a nose-and-nose finish and three horses driving at the wire.
Patrons of the gentle art of the lamented Queensberry, hoot two clever men, who spar for points without damage or gore. These are the same men who make baseball profitable; what then do they see in the national game?
PROBLEM PLAYS ON THE DIAMOND
For example: it is the ninth inning; the score is 1 to 0, and it has been a battle of the pitchers from the clang of the gong. There have been a few scattering hits, a few brilliant bits of individual fielding, and many weak flies hoisted into the air. It has been a very scientific contest from first to last -- so full of science that there has been little else. Ask your bleacher friend what he thinks of that sort of a game.
"We-ell," he will say, "Matty was good today and so was the other fellow. We won, of course, but..."
Behind that "but" lurks the secret of the whole thing, the power of the game over its millions of devotees. The melodrama had been lacking; the sensational plays which stir the blood, the long sharp hits and the brilliant catches. It had been a problem play with two stars in the cast and sixteen walking gentlemen.
Now then, watch your friend in the last half of the eighth inning with the score 3 to 2 against the home team, two men out and the bases filled. It has been a slashing contest, full of free hitting, sharp fielding, and the brilliant double plays which hold the score in small figures.
The hard-hitting outfielder of the home team is at bat. Your friend is out on the edge of his seat. Any sort of a safe hit means a tied score; a long single might win the game, and a double... your friend hopes for a double! Watch his eyes when the umpire's right arm jerks upward as the first ball splits the plate.
"Aw, what was he waiting for? Might have known the first ball would be a groover!" Your friend seems peevish.
One ball. Wild cheering. Two balls. A demonstration and yells of "Going Up!" Ah! He missed that one! Well, he still has the big one left. Three balls.
From the box back of first base comes the sharp bark of the coacher.
"Three and two now, ole boy! Three and two! Make him be good!"
Watch your friend now. He has stopped breathing. His cigar is dying an unpleasant death. He does not care. Three and two! He has eyes and ears and a taste for one thing only -- the drama spread out before him.
Once more the gray-clad pitcher cuddles the ball to his chest, nodding slightly in answer to the catcher's signal. Up goes his foot, back goes his body from the hips, a forward lunge, and the arm snaps out in a half circle like a powerful spring uncoiled. The ball flies straight for the catcher's mitt and at the same instant the three base runners flash into motion. Three and two and two men down -- nothing to do but run.
The batter pivots with a mighty swing, there is a splitting crack as wood meets leather, and a white dot shoots out over the second baseman's head, mocking his futile leap. The center fielder is sheering off toward right, racing with a forlorn hope and the right fielder, wiser still, is already on his way toward the fence.
DELIRIUM ON THE BLEACHERS
How about your friend now? There he is, standing up in his place and tearing the air with a series of Comanche war whoops. All around you men, and women too, are screaming unintelligible words. The man beside you who gave you such a nasty look when you stepped on his feet, hammers you between the shoulder blades and bellows into your ear:
"A triple with bases full! A triple! What do you know about that, eh?"
What is the attraction in baseball? Your answer is out there on the bleachers, several thousand strong. Those leaping, howling, white-shirted dervishes have given it to you. It is the melodrama which makes baseball.
A baseball fan will go to a dozen poor games rather than miss that sort of a play, and when at last he recovers his breath he will tell you that he is amply repaid for his time and money.
The scientific contest interests him because he understands every move in the game, but if you want to bring him to his feet, you must give him melodrama.
Inside baseball? Yes, he knows something of that, too. He has made a study of inside baseball, sitting above the great masters. He recognizes and appreciates good pitching, but the thing which brings him to his feet with the howl of a timber wolf is the long clean drive to the fence, or the seemingly impossible catch. The melodrama "gets" him every time.
One of the grizzled old baseball generals once said:
"Give me a team of sluggers and I'll chance the errors." He knew what the fans wanted to see.
Ask the first youngster you meet to name the two greatest baseball players in the two big leagues. Nine times out of ten the answer will come like a flash:
"Hans Wagner and Ty Cobb!"
These are the names of the two great batters, Wagner in the National and Cobb in the American League.
The tenth youngster may take time to think and give you another answer. If you lift his hat you will find that youth has a high, intellectual brow. He will enjoy problem plays when he grows up.
The leading men of this national melodrama form interesting contrasts. Some of them have found it a long road from the sandlots to the pay roll of a big league team; others jumped into fame in a single week. Personal appearance counts for nothing; nationality counts for nothing; it is the man who "delivers the goods" who is always sure of his welcome from the lynx-eyed critics on the sunny seats.
Baseball fans are quick to recognize and identify the thing which we call "class." After your bleacher friend has watched a visiting team through an entire series he can place his finger on the weak spot in the organization; he can tell you how the games were lost and which players lost them.
Of the ball players who have jumped into prominence at a single bound, two might be mentioned: Hal Chase and Tyrus Cobb.
CHASE BREAKS INTO FAST COMPANY
A few years ago the Los Angeles team of the Pacific Coast League had need of a substitute first baseman. Frank Dillon, first baseman and team captain, had signed a contract to play with the Brooklyn club of the National League. Dillon was anxious to remain in California and did not report with the Eastern team for spring practice.
The manager of the Southern team, looking about him for a substitute player, engaged a boy from a small college team in central California, devoutly hoping that he might not have any use for him.
On the opening day of the league season, Dillon went out on the field to put the team through the preliminary practice, playing his old position at first base. The substitute sat on the bench. His face was unknown to the Southern baseball fans who immediately dubbed him a "bush leaguer" and forgot about him. The youngster sat there on the bench, nursing an odd-shaped pancake glove; a battered relic contrasting strangely with his new flannel uniform and spiked shoes.
It was his first appearance in "organized baseball." Success meant a chance to earn money; failure meant a ticket back to the prune orchards of Santa Clara County.
The gong clanged, announcing the opening of the game. The umpire drew a paper from his pocket, showed it to Dillon, and the captain and first baseman slowly left the field. He had been informed that every game in which he played would be declared forfeited. Baseball magnates have many ways of protecting themselves in business deals; Dillon had signed with Brooklyn and Brooklyn meant to have him.
The long-legged country boy arose and ambled out to Dillon's old position. The stands were in an uproar. Dillon had been the idol of the baseball public; the best first baseman in the league and the brainiest team captain the town had ever had. The contagion spread to the Los Angeles players, not one of whom had confidence in the raw college boy, thus thrust into an important position.
It would be hard to imagine a more unfortunate first appearance. The game opened with a rush. The first batter smashed a ground ball at the Los Angeles shortstop and tore down the line to first base. Mechanically the shortstop raced over, dropped his glove in front of the ball, and faced about to make the throw to first base. Instead of Dillon, there was the "bush league kid" on the bag.
The base runner was a fast man; in the twinkling of an eye the thing had been done -- the panic was working. Instead of the perfect line "peg" to first base, the shortstop threw fully eight feet outside the bag and correspondingly high, shooting the ball with the speed of a rifle bullet. It would have been a vicious throw for a right-hander to care for, even though on his glove-hand side; the bush league boy was a left-handed player and wore the glove on his right hand. The ball was coming to his bare hand and coming with such speed that there was little chance to hold it, even if a man cared to risk injury by reaching for a wide ball with the bare hand.
"ACCIDENT" THAT BECAME A HABIT
With the fraction of a second in which to decide what to do, the country boy whirled with his back to the diamond, hooked the spikes of his left shoe in the bag, and thrust out a long right arm for a backhand catch. The runner was beaten a stride on a circus catch which few big-leaguers would care to attempt.
After the cheering, the bleacherites decided that it had been a blind, back-hand stab or a lucky accident. Twenty minutes later every man inside the grounds knew that he was seeing first base played as no youngster had ever played it before. The infield, still in a state of panic, threw the ball high, wide, and on both sides of him, but the flat pancake glove was always there when it arrived.
The boy covered the ground with great loose-jointed strides, dug up impossible ground balls beyond the reach of an ordinary fielding first baseman, picked line drives out of the air, nipped bunts ten feet from the plate, caught advancing runners, and capped the climax by starting and finishing a double play thought to be possible with only one first baseman in America, Fred Tenney of the Nationals. There was but one verdict at the end of the game; the boy was the greatest first baseman ever seen on the Pacific Coast. He found his place in a single afternoon.
On the next opening day, the youngster wore a New York uniform. New York had heard of him as a marvel and a boy wonder, but New York accepts no verdict except her own. In less than a week Hal Chase was the baseball sensation of the season, and baseball critics burned up columns in an attempt to analyze his method of playing his position. In the end everybody agreed that it was not possible to understand a raw boy who broke into the fastest company in the business, ready-made, as it were. The veterans of the American League could not teach him anything about inside ball; he was a revelation to his team mates and a terror to opposing clubs.
Chase is still the premier first baseman of the country and the great star of baseball melodrama. He makes his plays by some unerring instinct which must have been born in him, and when it comes to handling bad throws at first base, there never was a player like him. Time after time he has been seen to turn his head away from a lowthrown ball and jam his glove down, making a blind catch of a ball which he could not have followed with his eyes.
Fielders have little trouble with ground balls, but this is because they can move about and suit the catch to the bound of the ball. The first baseman is anchored to the bag; he must play the ball as it comes to him or miss the base runner.
Other men have had more years of experience; many players are better at postmortem analysis of a baseball problem, but when a ball is hit down to Hal Chase, you will see the bleachers come up as one man. The fans never know what he is going to do with the ball when he gets it, but they do know that there will be no fumbling or "booting," but a chain-lightning play directed at the one spot where the most damage can be done. Chase is the personification of baseball by instinct and the most popular first baseman the country has ever seen.
"TY" COBB'S FIRST BASEBALL MONEY
"Ty" Cobb was not so fortunate in his beginning. Tyrus was born in Georgia and early decided to be a semi-professional ball player. The difference between a professional and a semi-professional is that the former has a stated salary and always gets it, while the latter takes what he can get when he can get it.
Young Cobb walked six miles in the hot sun to play his first "money" game. When the receipts had been counted, Cobb's share was one dollar and twenty-five cents. He walked six miles to his home and on the way decided that there was a future in professional baseball.
The Charleston team secured him. He was a wild, erratic youngster who could bat like a demon, but never knew when to stop running bases. It is just as important to know when to stop running as it is to know when to begin. He gained the reputation of a crazy base runner and Charleston sold him to Augusta for one hundred and fifty dollars and was glad to get the money.
Augusta tried him and found the same fault. He could hit, but he was wild and discipline irked him. He was a firebrand on the team and he would fight on the field or off. Ty won and lost several battles with the Augusta players and then the management sold him to Detroit for seven hundred dollars -- the greatest bargain in the history of the game.
In Detroit young Mr. Cobb, the firebrand, found men who made baseball a study. It was a slugging team, but mixed with the hitting was the judgment which wins games. The players took a hand in taming that hot Southern blood. They argued with him, but as Ty would rather fight than argue, most of the debates ended on the floor of the dressing room. Those cool, seasoned veterans of the Tiger team knew that in Cobb they had a phenomenon, so they went at him methodically, literally "licking him into shape." Some of them fought him more than once. Even to this day McIntyre plays left field and Cobb right field, because it is necessary to keep these two stars as far apart as possible.
Cobb has lost most of his rough edges. He has gone out of the rough-and-tumble business; he sheds no more blood in defense of his principles. He knows when to quit running bases, hits the ball hard and often, and makes doubles on hits which any other man would call legitimate singles.
He is as fast as a thunderbolt on the lines and the most daring man on a slide that baseball has seen in many a day. His slim, wiry legs are covered with bruises from April until October and he is always slightly lame until he hits the ball; then he forgets his soreness. Absolutely fearless, of great hitting ability, and a fighter every inch, Cobb is one of the great drawing cards in the baseball of today.
THE MAN WHO HITS EVERYTHING
Then there is the veteran Hans Wagner whose big stick has kept Pittsburgh in the first division for more years than he cares to remember. Hans is the last man in the world who would be taken for a great ball player. On appearance, he might be a piano mover. Immensely broad from shoulders to hips, awkward of gait, long armed, and bowlegged, this great German has won his place in baseball by his uncanny ability to hit the ball harder and more often than any living man.
Hans is no moving picture either in the field or at bat, but once he connects with the ball he becomes a human whirlwind. National League pitchers dream about him and call it a nightmare. The lucky man who strikes him out receives an ovation, for he has done something.
The only ball which worries Hans is the spit ball. He does not care for the wet ones, but they are all alike after he hits them. One of the spit ball artists of the National League has this to say about Wagner:
"He'll hit anything anywhere. No pitcher ever scares him. He may hate to see you wetting that ball and when you say to him:
"'This is IT, you big Dutchman!' his eyes will get about as big as butter plates, but if he hits it! GOOD NIGHT!"
THE MOST SENSATIONAL OF ALL
The most sensational play ever made? Every fan will give a different answer to this question. Some will say that Chase made it when he saved a game by racing into the middle of the diamond on a pop fly, reaching the ball when it was only a few inches from the grass. Ed Walsh, the Chicago White Sox pitcher, thinks it was made at Detroit two years ago.
It happened in the game in which Walsh broke the Detroit hoodoo. The Tigers had beaten Walsh every time he faced them. They regarded him as their lawful prey. The game was played in Detroit, and Mullin, who started this season with eleven straight victories for the Tigers, was slated to pitch against Walsh.
Early in the contest George Davis, the veteran shortstop of the Chicago club, secured the only hit made off Mullin and it was enough to win the game. The ball, driven down the first base line into right field, struck a fire hose lying in the grass and bounded into the bleachers for a home run. After that Mullin was invincible.
Toward the end of the game, Detroit opened with the usual rally. Rossman, Detroit's first baseman, leading off in the inning, smashed the ball against the fence for a clean triple. "Dutch" Schaefer drew a base on balls. Schmidt, next at bat, gave the hit-and-run sign and, with both runners in motion, hit a hard bounder down toward third base where Tannehill of Chicago was playing. Tannehill made a perfect scoop and threw the ball to the plate twenty feet ahead of Rossman, who seeing that he was caught, doubled back on the line, hoping to dodge the tag long enough to allow Schaefer to reach third.
Sullivan raced down the line with the ball, driving Rossman before him. Rossman slipped and fell close to third base and just as Sullivan tagged him for the first out, Schaefer slid to third. In the meantime, Schmidt, a slow runner because of an injury to his ankle, had rounded first base and was well on his way to second. Sullivan straightened up and whipped the ball to Rohe who was covering second base and calling for the throw.
As Schmidt slid, Rohe's arm came down with a thump and Schmidt made the second out. The instant Sullivan threw the ball, Schaefer was on his feet and dashing home from third base. The plate had been left unprotected; Sullivan was down near third base. Walsh, the pitcher, yelled for the ball and raced Schaefer to the rubber, closely followed by George Davis. The two runners collided in front of the plate.
Walsh was stunned and Schaefer was thrown ten feet from the plate, alighting on his shoulders. Davis, who arrived about the same time, took the throw and dropped the ball on the struggling Tiger, completing the third out and the most sensational triple play ever made in the big leagues.
George Davis, who is a scientist, says that it was not a clean triple, but every man at the ball park went home talking about it in whispers. It is the melodrama of the game which counts in the penciled statement of the autocrat of the box office.
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