Washington and the Literary Life

CapitolThis new undertaking in our nation’s capital is consistent with the mission of The City Club of San Diego, The Denver Forum, and The Great Fenway Park Writers Series of the Boston Red Sox; public forums that celebrate the dialogue of democracy – and men and women of letters.

America has a great literary tradition, but often we overlook that some of our best writing appears on the nation’s sports pages – and the subject of much of that writing is baseball.

The late John Updike, whose books won the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Howells Medal, is famous for his works of fiction, essays and poetry, but his 1960 New Yorker essay on Ted Williams, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”, may be the best remembered.

Donald Hall, born in Connecticut and acclaimed by many our finest poet, has written more than 30 books of poetry, including many on baseball, the game he loves most.

In “Extra Innings”, Hall wrote:

Who can say what his or her work is?
I write out these tentative verses
– K.C. at the Desk, Mudville at bat,
last of the ninth–working in the dark
morning while a cat climbs on my lap
nibbling at pen and paper. For sure,
my pleasure is an habitual
recreational tapping at blocks
of the language, absentmindedly.

But arguably Donald Hall’s book that will live on in people’s memory, long after other works have receded in memory, is “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons: Essays on Sport (Mostly Baseball).”

Tim Peeler is the quiet poet of the Carolina’s and has written two books of baseball poetry, “Waiting for Godot’s First Pitch”, and “Touching All the Bases.”

In his “The Longest Names for Back-to-Back Homers”, Tim Peeler wrote:

To end up on one same team
Might seem improbable,
This Stankiewicz and Grudzielanek,
After all, this is the American pastime,
Home of Smiths, Williamses, and Jacksons.

What was Felipe thinking, the silly Dominican,
When he made that card on a hot August night in ’97?
Did he check the spellings, glancing back
Several times at the computerized roster?
Did he dream those long balls
In his managerial prescience?
Knowing the twenty-tree letters
Of their consummate names
Would whip the Dallessandro and Nicholson,
The Yastrzemski and Conigliaro,
That Petrocelli and Yastrzemski,
And just too bad, too bad
For the many with 20.

There have been many wonderful American poets, but arguably the best remembered of all works of poetry published in this country, is Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat.”

The late George Plimpton, a Harvard man and Red Sox fan, and editor of The Paris Review, considered by many the finest literary quarterly in the world, wrote many books and essays, but his most famous was his April 1, 1985, Sports Illustrated article on “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch,” a fictional account of a brilliant young pitcher out of the Himalayas. That one story resulted in the greatest number of letters ever written to the magazine. Many who wrote believed there was a real Sidd Finch – and Sidd Finch believers are still among us.

George Plimpton was an extraordinary person, who following in the footsteps of another great writer, Paul Gallico, became a “participatory journalist”, someone who sought to play the sports he wrote about.

His first attempt was pitching to a lineup of major league all-stars at Yankee Stadium. His book, “Out of My League”, tells of that experience and became a best seller, helping establish Mr. Plimpton’s literary fame.

George Plimpton was a friend of long standing, whose writing skills exceed mine, but when the Boston Red Sox finally claimed a World Championship in 2004, after a wait of 86 years, I wrote an essay for Elysian Fields Quarterly (EFQ), a small but wonderful Minnesota based literary magazine devoted to baseball.

I was at Fenway Park the night of the fourth game of the ALCS playoffs that Sunday in ’04, when it appeared to virtually everyone the Sox were about to be swept from the series by the Yankees, especially given the 19-8 pummeling of the Sox the night before. That didn’t happened, of course, they came back to win – and they won seven more and accomplished the improbable. Of that defining moment, the 7th inning, when the game and Sox’s fortunes turned around, I wrote the following for EFQ:

“To have been there, to have witnessed the raising of the dead, for the Sox were surely dead in that fourth game, was for me a moment like few others I’ve experienced. It was a moment, as precise as one can ever define when life and sports intersect in what becomes an evolving mystery of transcendence; when you both know the moment but also know that the moment’s ultimate mystery is beyond your ability to understand in any rational context. In your intellectual hubris you may take pride in your cold analytical skills, but there comes a time when the force of an event exceeds your comprehension and its truth shatters your smugness. You can say you were there, you saw it happen, but being there and witnessing it and understanding it, are not the same thing. It is one of life’s great enigmas, how something can be both mythic and real at the same time – but is.

True, cynics tell us baseball is a business, but if that’s the beginning and end of one’s understanding of America’s Game, it reveals an ignorance of our national experience, as the USA cannot be understood independent of it, as the literary critic Jacques Barzun famously reminded us, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”

But what we cherish about the game, its beauty, its symmetry, and nuances, what awakens our literary longings and quest for poetical integrity, is, in the end, what separates the business of baseball from the game of baseball. We may be indifferent to the first reality, but we hold to the second as surely as we cling to any fundamental essential of the American character; for it defines us and elevates us to a level higher than what is otherwise the commonplace of our existence.

Finally, as noted at the outset, in the literary world sports writers are often viewed as second class citizens of the writing profession. Higher standing is accorded poets, essayists, historians, and novelists; an unseemly arrogance at best, deceitful at worst.

The ability to write at game’s end, to write under the intense pressure of deadline, and to write well, is a special gift, as writing under deadline doesn’t give one 117 chances to revise a single sentence, as Ernest Hemingway did when he wrote the last sentence of the last paragraph of the last chapter of “For Whom the Bells Toll.”

The Washington Writers Series celebrates men and women of American literature, who write of politics and history, of poetry and sports – and the long literary and intellectual history that preceded them.

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George Mitrovich, President, The Great Washington Writers Series