July 22, 2020

Rounding the Bases with Sgt. Pepper and Philip Roth on the Eve of Opening Day   

By Stuart Mitchner

I have seldom, very seldom, crossed this borderland between loneliness and fellowship. I have even been settled there longer than in loneliness itself. What a fine bustling place was Robinson Crusoe’s island in comparison!

—Franz Kafka, October 29, 1921

My bedside copy of Kafka’s Diaries 1914-1923 opened to that passage as I was adjusting to the idea of baseball being played before a virtual crowd in an empty stadium. I kept thinking of the recent New York Times photograph of a stylishly masked player batting in front of a “crowd” of cardboard cutouts at Citi Field. Why was that jumbled arrangement of forms and faces so hauntingly familiar? Why was I smiling at the thought of something so creepy, so unreal, so — Kafkaesque?

The answer came by way of the reference to “loneliness and fellowship” in the passage just quoted. Given all the precautionary no-nos the pandemic has inflicted on baseball — no spitting, no high-fives, no hugs, no fist bumps, no intimate catcher-pitcher sessions on the mound, no round-the-horn-and-back-to-the-pitcher routine after an out — who’d have thought that the no-fans challenge would lead to the invention of  ballpark variations on the cover design of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band?

Never mind the financial upside already being explored by the owners, like having fans pay to reserve a seat in the stands for cutouts of their choosing. Never mind the distraction potential, like putting an image of the opposing pitcher’s estranged wife in a key position behind home plate. What’s making me smile is the back story wherein Jann Haworth and Peter Blake, the co-creators of the Sgt. Pepper cover, left the choice of cutouts to the Beatles. Told to think of themselves posing for a photograph with a crowd of fans behind them — “the fans could be anybody, dead or alive, real or fictitious” — each Beatle was asked to make a list.

Philip Roth’s Passion

It’s no wonder that I relate to the Sgt. Pepper connection after a decade and a half filling this weekly newspaper’s ballpark with living and dead authors, composers, artists, and real and fictitious characters and events. As soon as I realized we’d be printing on the eve of Opening Day, with the game and the nation headed for November and a do-or- die election, my plan was to feature American novelists born in July, Ernest Hemingway (July 21) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (July 4). Then along comes Kafka and his admirer, the most baseball-minded of authors Philip Roth, whose wartime fantasy The Great American Novel (1973), a precursor to The Plot Against America (2004), grew out of his passion for the game. Hailed as the “best of the fantasists” in Daniel Okrent’s “All-Star Team” of writers (New York Times, May 3, 1981), Roth hit “a grand slam” with his creation of the Patriot League because he “knew his target” and “loved it dearly.”

Roth’s views on baseball have a poignant resonance in the summer of 2020. In his April 2, 1973 Times op-ed, “My Baseball Years,” he sees the sport as “a kind of secular church that reached into every class and region of the nation and bound us together in common concerns, loyalties, rituals, enthusiasms, and antagonisms.” He also gives the game credit for helping him understand “what patriotism was about, at its best … its tender and humane aspects, lyrical rather than martial or righteous in spirit, and without the reek of saintly zeal” of wartime patriotism “grounded in moral virtuousness and bloodyminded hate.”

There’s a hint of how Roth might have regarded the highly irregular “regular season” of 2020 in a passage from his novel Operation Shylock (1993), quoted here two years ago in the aftermath of his death. Recalling afternoon classes at the Hebrew school in Newark where “we learned to write backwards, to write as though the sun rose in the west and the leaves fell in the spring, as though Canada lay to the south, Mexico to the north,” the narrator recalls how “we escaped back into our cozy American world, aligned just the other way around, where all that was plausible, recognizable, predictable, reasonable, intelligible, and useful unfolded its meaning to us from left to right.” The great exception, the only place where “we proceeded in reverse, where it was natural, logical, in the very nature of things, the singular and unchallengeable exception, was on the sandlot diamond. In the early 1940s, reading and writing from right to left made about as much sense to me as belting the ball over the outfielder’s head and expecting to be credited with a triple for running from third to second to first.”

Haunted by Poe

If the author of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque can haunt the cover of Sgt. Pepper and John Lennon’s “I am the Walrus,” what’s to keep him from lurking behind the scenes of The Game Without a Crowd played April 29, 2015, at Baltimore’s Oriole Field? Who else but Edgar Allan Poe would be haunting the premises when, for the first time in history, a Major League game was played with the fans locked out, presumably to prevent the overflow of the “civil unrest” set off when Freddie Gray died in police custody. Among the various precautionary grotesqueries and arabesques — the recorded singing of the National Anthem into the “quaint and curious” void; a spectral organist playing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” for the benefit of 46,000 empty seats during the nobody-stretching seventh inning stretch; the launching of a long home run into a bottomless pit of silence (“…the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token”), the ball landing on Eutaw Street a few blocks from the spot where on election night 1849 Poe was found lying on the pavement outside Gunner’s Hall tavern, delirious and near death.   

Hawthorne on the DL

I used to think the closest Nathaniel Hawthorne came to the grand old game was at the Berkshires picnic where the author of The Scarlet Letter threw a baseball back and forth with the author of Moby-Dick on Herman Melville’s birthday, August 1, 1850. Without that first meeting and the short-lived bromance that followed, Melville’s novel, which he dedicated to Hawthorne, would almost certainly not be the masterpiece we know today. Without going into the maze of politics and patronage that led Hawthorne astray after he penned a campaign biography for his college friend Franklin Pierce, I was surprised to learn that, according to Hawthorne’s biographer Edwin H. Miller, the 9-year-old future novelist was hit on the leg while playing “bat and ball” on November 10, 1813, and as a consequence “became lame and bedridden for a year” (in baseball terminology, that’s a long stint on the DL, current usage for the “disabled list”).

Hemingway’s Opening Game

On April 12, 1912, a day after that season’s Opening Day, 13-year-old Ernest Hemingway wrote a poem he called “The Opening Game.” Written under the influence of “Baseballs Sad Lexicon” by Franklin P. Adams, it begins,

“With Chance on first and Evers on Third, / Great things from the Cubs will soon be heard.” Then Cubs slugger Frank Shulte “on the plate his bat does rap, /Takes a slug at that old ball, /Makes it clear the right field wall.” Hemingway’s biographer Carlos Baker ends the poem at that point, without divulging that the Cubs lost the game and without reference to what may be the most quoted line of verse in the literature of baseball: “These are the saddest of possible words: / ‘Tinker to Evers to Chance.’ “

Opening Daydream

My opening daydream is of a Sgt. Pepper cover backdrop at Busch Stadium when, as Hemingway’s fisherman Santiago would put it, the Cardinals of St. Louis will host the Pirates of Pittsburgh. In fact, I’d put the author of The Old Man and the Sea in the front row, along with cut outs of Spencer Tracy as Santiago and Felipe Pazos, who played the boy in the 1958 film. And much as the Great DiMaggio was a hero to the boy and Santiago, I’d have the Great Musial front and center, especially since 2020 is his centenary. From there on, it would be easy to create a crowdscape montage of players and hometown heroes like Bob Gibson, Ozzie Smith, Lou Brock, Chuck Berry, Clark Terry, T.S. Eliot, and William Burroughs.

In the we’re-all-in-this-together spirit, I’d have a seat for Cardinal fan Michael Brown, whose killing helped launch the Black Lives Matter movement. And why not go all out and have him and his Cardinal fan father and the family sitting alongside the Cardinal fans on the St. Louis police force? This is a daydream, after all, with a cardboard crowd, and there are thousands of seats to fill.