July 3, 2019

Baseball at Morven On Franz Kafka’s Birthday — If You Call Him, He Will Come

By Stuart Mitchner

If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come. This is the essence of magic, which does not create but summons.
—Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

The term “Kafkaesque” has been loosely applied to a wide range of human situations, as often as not by people who have never read a word of Kafka and know nothing about the doings and undoings of K. in The Castle or Joseph K. in The Trial. The word came to mind again when I read about the “strange,” “off-the-wall,” “dysfunctional” history of the New York Mets in Friday’s New York Times (“Just Embrace It: Mets’ Eccentricity Is Worthy of Veneration”). But once I got past the instinctive associations prompted by those adjectives, I found nothing convincingly Kafkaesque in the incidents Victor Mather  cites. As he admits, the Mets don’t own the rights to eccentricity; after all, quirky, odd-ball behavior is one of the the National Pastime’s enduring charms.

As a St. Louis Cardinal fan, I paid special notice to the fact that “trouble started early” when the newborn 1962 Mets suffered the first of their 120 losses in St. Louis. There’s something closer to Kafkaesque, however, in the no-man’s-land of extra inning games that seem to go on forever. In a previous article, I quoted Cardinal catcher Yadier Molina’s father telling Yadi’s brother and fellow catcher Bengie that it was possible for a baseball game to last “forever” if no team scored. The idea that baseball could defy space and time sounded to Bengie “more like God than anything I heard in church.” As it happens, the game between the Mets and the Cardinals on September 11, 1974, lasted 7 hours and 45 minutes; it was 3:13 a.m. and only a thousand fans were still at Shea Stadium when the Cardinals won it 4-3 in the 25th inning. These days baseball’s infinitely fluid rules permit such marathons to be suspended, never to be made up, which leaves a confusion of possibilities both Kafka and Yogi Berra would have appreciated: apparently “it’s never over until it’s never over.”

“The Essence of Magic”

On July 3, 1883, the day Kafka was born, the Chicago White Stockings set what was then a major league record with 14 doubles, including four each by Cap Anson and Abner Dalrymple as they routed the Buffalo Bisons 31-7.

In Kafka’s diary dated October 16, 1921, a week after after the Giants defeated the Yankees in the 1921 Series, he writes, “Should I greatly yearn to be an athlete, it would probably be the same thing as my yearning to go to heaven and to be permitted [to be] as despairing there as I am here.”

Kafka’s mood takes a healthy upward swing two days later when he begins the October 18 entry, “Eternal childhood. Life calls again,” and goes on to imagine that “life’s splendor forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible, far off. It is there, though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come. This is the essence of magic, which does not create but summons.”

In the 1989 film Field of Dreams, something “deep down, invisible, far off” tells Kevin Costner’s Iowa farmer, “If you build it, he will come.” Sure enough, when the field is built, Shoeless Joe Jackson and his teammates on the Kafkaesque 1919 White Sox magically appear and play a game on “the field of dreams.”

Kafka and the Almighty Strikeout

Kafka’s presence on the baseball diamond is signified by the relevance of his name to the game’s darker curiosities and by the fact that his authorial DNA is inscribed every time a pitcher pitches a strikeout and a scorer puts a K on the scorecard. When a strikeout pitcher is on a roll, the hometown fans hold up a series of placards, a veritable victory parade of Ks big enough to be seen by Kafka from his seat in the celestial bleachers.

When I led off the first inning of this column by googling “Kafka and baseball,” the only hit was a lecture by Kafka scholar and Princeton resident Stanley Corngold, who grew up playing on the sandlots of Bensonhurst and “religiously, passionately” watches Yankee games every night after a hiatus of about 70 years and—of course, while composing a page on Thomas Mann. In Professor Emetitus Corngold’s “Aphoristic Form in Nietzsche and Kafka with an Aside from Inside Baseball,” the “aside” explores the possibility that “if baseball is taken as a language, then the baseball game is a composition,” and therefore “must belong to a genre.” One such genre would be “Inside Baseball,” a common metaphor in politics “to describe background machinations.” At this point, Corngold pitches a quote from baseball historian Bill James to the effect that “the Inside is a hall of mirrors,” which opens the free association gates not only to Kafka, but to Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, and numerous other filmmakers with Kafkaesque leanings.

Baseball at Morven

If you peeked inside the rear window of the Sherwood-forest-green 2000 CRV parked the other day outside Morven Museum & Garden, you’d have seen a pair of elderly mitts and a well-scuffed, grass-stained vintage baseball, an inadvertent evocation  of a display found inside Morven’s “New Jersey Baseball: From the Cradle to the Major Leagues, 1855-1915,” which will be on view through October 27. The ball in the glass case is c. 1876, the glove c. 1898. The ball in the CRV is a regulation Major League Spalding dating back to the mid-1960s; the fielder’s mitt was purchased for $5 at a Princeton garage sale in the mid-1980s, and the well-oiled, still supple c. 1950 trapper’s mitt was broken in during junior high sandlot games in Indiana and while playing pitch and catch and grounders with my son. On the passenger seat is a copy of Franz Kafka’s Diaries 1914-1923.

Consider the possibilities. You’ve been engrossed in the Diaries. You have the upper story exhibit to yourself. You’re in a historic home built in 1730, where Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, lived from 1758 to 1781. Every move you make can be heard on floors that seem to be saying kafka kafka. Spectral players endlessly run the bases on the wall of one room as the Reading Phillies play the Newark Bears in The Ball Game, a 27-minute-long Edison film made in 1898, around the time the teenage Kafka was enrolled in a dance class, experiencing, in his biographer Reiner Stach’s words, “the dissonances he would seek to resolve in literature: the antinomy of zest for life and fear of life.”

How strange, if not Kafkaesque, to encounter a card showing Hall of Famer Cap Anson, the same player who hit four doubles in a game played the day Kafka was born, except that here his fame is shadowed by the fact that he refused to allow his White Stockings to take the field against a team that had two black players.

It’s also hard not to think of the author of The Trial when you come to a diagram delineating the trajectory of a curve ball accompanied by a photo of Princeton pitcher Joseph Mann (Class of 1876). According to the exhibit’s companion volume, Joseph G. Zinn’s New Jersey Baseball (the cover pictured here), Mann was pitching in an intramural game when he released the ball “in a different manner” due to a blister on his finger. The result was a pitch “that curved,” which happened, Mann claimed, “because the top and bottom were moving at a speed of 100 feet/second in opposite directions.” After “working on the pitch all winter,” he used it the following season with “great success” that included a no-hitter against Yale.

Writer to Writer

In the framed photographs of the 1901 Princeton team, and the Rutgers teams of 1889 and 1893, the players with few exceptions look ready to play, fresh off the field, the dust of a game still palpable in the atmosphere. If Kafka were looking over my shoulder, he’d probably connect with  the photograph of the Orange A.C. team from Newark, where the slightly built gentleman in civilian attire in the back row seems to have stepped into the image from a street in Prague or Berlin. As one who wrote in October 1921 that “life’s splendor forever lies in wait,” Kafka might also be struck by   the charismatic individual on the far right of the front row, the young man leaning on his bat like a Galahad on his sword, staring at the cameras as if he were Don Juan zoning in on a conquest. The piercing intensity of Zane Grey’s gaze might remind the author of Amerika of his vision of the west in “The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma,” a passage that first appeared in print in 1913 and one that he was particularly fond of reading aloud. Here, on the Kafka-creaky 18th-century floors of Morven, he finds himself gazing into the eyes of the future author of Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), The Mysterious Rider (1921), and The Call of the Canyon (1924).

I should have noted that the Morven exhibit has room for New Jersey luminaries like Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, and two of the greatest players of the 21st century, Pequannock’s Derek Jeter and Millville’s Mike Trout. Although he hails from Walnut Creek, California, and pitches for the University of Oregon, there’s another player worth mentioning. His name is Cullen Kafka.

The next Morven event, “The Color Line on the Baseball Diamond,” on August 22 at 6:30 p.m., features  historian and film producer Dr. Lawrence Hogan, Negro League All Star James Robinson, and poet Kevin Kane.