July 18, 2018

After the All-Star Game: Whitman, Twain, and Crane Step Up to the Plate

Baseball is the hurrah game of the republic! —Walt Whitman, April 1889

By Stuart Mitchner

The Good Grey Poet was speaking to his Boswell, Horace L. Traubel, whose notes of conversations between 1888 and Whitman’s death in 1892 were eventually published in the multi-volume series, With Walt Whitman in Camden. Walt went on to call baseball “America’s game.” It has “the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere — belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.”

The “good game of baseball” is also mentioned in the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), along with the race-course, picnics, jigs, and “he-festivals, with blackguard jibes, ironical license, bull-dances, drinking, laughter.” One of the first play-by-play accounts in print is by Whitman in the July 23, 1846 Brooklyn Eagle. Describing outs made as “hands lost,” Walt observes that the Putnams loss to the Atlantics was due to “careless play” in the “fourth innings” and three players being “so seriously injured as to be unable to run their bases.”

The Satanic Curve Ball

Four decades later, in May 1889, Horace Traubel recalls a curious exchange in which Walt wonders whether “the fellow who pitches the ball aims to pitch it in such a way that the batter cannot hit it? Gives it a twist — what not — so it slides off, or won’t be struck fairly?” Hearing that indeed this is “the modern rule,” Whitman roundly denounces it: (“I should call it everything that is damnable!”): “The wolf, the snake, the cur, the sneak, all seem entered into the modern sportsman — though I ought not to say that, for the snake is a snake because he is born so, and man the snake for other reasons, it may be said.”

Presumably this means that Walt’s enjoyment of “hurrah baseball” in the era of split-fingered fastballs, sliders, and sinkers would be confined to All-Star game festivities like Monday’s home-run derby, where nothing but honest straightforward pitches were thrown to the competing sluggers.

The recent death of Tab Hunter, who played “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal Mo” in the film version of Damn Yankees, has a certain out-of-left-field relevance to last night’s game, the first played in the nation’s capital in almost 50 years. The team for whom Joe sold his soul was the Washington Senators, the host of the 1969 game, notable mainly for the fact that the splashdown of Apollo 11 prevented President Richard Nixon from throwing out the first ball. At this writing, President Donald Trump is unlikely to make an appearance, given his low approval rating in D.C. Another factor, in the context of selling souls, would be Monday’s infamous meeting with Vladimir Putin.

Knights on the Diamond

Mark Twain, another native son of Hannibal Mo., developed an active interest in baseball after moving to Hartford in 1874. At a game between the Hartford Dark Blues and their National Association rivals the Boston Red Stockings, Twain kept a makeshift scorecard noting safe hits, foul tips, high balls, low balls, and long flies.

Twain’s vision of the game as played in A Connecticut Yankee in King’s Arthur’s Court reads like a preview of Monty Python. “There wasn’t a knight in either team who wasn’t a sceptered sovereign,” one team wearing “chain-mail ulsters,” the other “plate-armor of Bessemer steel.” According to Hank, the Yankee of the title, “their practice in the field was the most fantastic thing I ever saw. Being ball-proof, they never skipped out of the way, but stood still and took the result; when a Bessemer was at the bat and a ball hit him, it would bound a hundred and fifty yards sometimes. And when a man was running, and threw himself on his stomach to slide to his base, it was like an iron-clad coming into port.” At first Hank appointed men of no rank to act as umpires, but “the umpire’s first decision was usually his last; they broke him in two with a bat, and his friends toted him home on a shutter. When it was noticed that no umpire ever survived a game, umpiring got to be unpopular.”

Baseball Weather

That most Whitmanesque of novelists Thomas Wolfe called baseball “not merely ‘the great national game,’ but really a part of the whole weather of our lives, of the thing that is our own, of the whole fabric, the million memories of America.” Baseball weather is also the subject of the April 10, 1856 entry in the journal of Henry David Thoreau, wherein he notes that “some fields are dried sufficiently for the games of ball — with which this season is commonly ushered in.” He associates this day “with games of base-ball played over behind the hills in the russet fields toward Sleepy Hollow where the snow was just melted & dried up.”

There’s a still earlier literary reference to the sport and the eventual home of baseball’s Hall of Fame in James Fenimore Cooper’s Home As Found (1838), which refers to “playing ball on the ball-grounds” of Cooperstown.

“A Capital Catcher”

Among major American authors, Stephen Crane may have been the most talented ballplayer. “Rated the best infield man of his time,” according to his biographer R.W. Stallman, he “declined a post on a major baseball team after deciding to risk his future as a writer.” Playing for the Syracuse University varsity squad in 1891, Crane began as a catcher, and, as recalled by one of his fellow teammates, “He had the habit of striking his bare, clenched fist three or four times into the palm of his gloved hand to express his approval of a ‘strike,’“ and whenever a strikeout was recorded, “an expression of diabolical glee would light up his face.” On the field, “he was constantly in motion, agile on his feet, a fast base runner, and a good batter although not a hard hitter.”

Even when he was writing for the Asbury Park Tribune and had begun his first novel, Maggie, Crane kept his hand in. The day he met established author Hamlin Garland, who introduced him to the literary world as “a writer who has sprung into life fully armed,” Crane suggested they play catch along the beach. Garland thought him “a capital catcher of curved balls,” and described subsequent pitch-and-catch sessions and conversations on “theories of pitching in-shoots or out drops to confound the laws of astronomy by making a sphere alter its course in mid-air” (imagine Walt Whitman’s reaction to these violations of baseball civility). Even after winning fame with The Red Badge of Courage (1896), Crane told his editor, “I am rather more proud of my baseball ability than some other things.” When Garland asked him how he could write about war without seeing combat, Crane cited baseball: “The opposing team is an enemy tribe.”

War Games

According to Civil War Trails online, Abe Lincoln “learned and loved the game prior to his election campaign in 1860.” During the war “he even had a baseball field constructed on the White House lawn.” Baseball-savvy New Yorkers inducted and instructed fellow soldiers from other Northern states, with generals sending reports “saying promote baseball activities in your camps.” Southern soldiers learned to play in prisoner of war camps and there were games “between Northern and Southern teams,” with the sport reportedly played on the battlefront. “George Putman, a Union soldier fighting in Texas wrote home saying, ‘We were playing baseball near the front lines after a break in our skirmish. Suddenly there was a scattering of fire, which three outfielders caught the brunt: the centerfielder was hit and captured. The left and right field managed to get back to our lines. The attack was repelled, but we had not only lost our centerfielder, but the only ball we had.’”

All Stars

The iconic image of Walt Whitman reproduced with the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass is a long way from Camden’s bearded patriarch fretting over the perfidious curve ball. The look he’s giving the reader might be compared to the batter-intimidating stare of a pitcher who is about to throw everything he has; forget measuring the speed of his fast ball: “You shall no longer take things at second or third hand … nor look through the eyes of the dead … nor feed on the spectres in books.” A stanza later he says “There was never any more inception than there is now,/Nor any more youth or age than there is now;/And will never be any more perfection than there is now,/Nor any more heaven and hell than there is now.”

On a lighter note, the All-Star game had me thinking of a literary equivalent with that hard-staring Leaves of Grass Walt on the mound and maybe Stephen Crane behind the plate. But then the idea of characters as players worked better, with, say, an oldschool hurler like Natty “Hawkeye” Bumppo of the Lake Glimmerglass Leatherstockings, whose credo is “Use, not waste,” and Chingachgook as his catcher. You could have a Moby Dick outfield of great arms, with harpooneers Queegueg in right, Tashtego in center, Dagoo in left. Still, I’d rather go with Robert Atwan’s “Great Moments in Literary Baseball” in the May 1987 Atlantic, which begins with Henry James making baseball history as the only pitcher ever to issue a walk to the lead-off batter because “I prefer the extra complication.” Atwan also brings in Kafka, Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, but my favorite is Jorge Luis Borges coming on in relief for the 1936 Washington Senators and throwing “a slow curve ball that never arrived at the plate.”

But when I put together the words Washington and Senators I don’t feel like laughing any more.