A Few Great (and lesser known) Baseball Poems
America’s pastime holds tradition in high esteem and that sentiment even extends to poetry about the game. This tradition exalts such pieces as Franklin P. Adams’ famous tribute to the Cubs’ double play combination, “Tinker to Evers to Chance/A trio of bear cubs fleeter then birds,” Ogden Nash’s “Line-Up For Yesterday,” with its list of formidable (and alphabetical) dead-ball era greats, and probably the single most well-known baseball poem, Ernest Thayer’s rib-tickling 1888 ballad entitled, “Casey at the Bat.”
It should also be noted that some of literature’s biggest names have taken up the topic, from Modernists like Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, to Beat poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso, to more recent giants such as Donald Hall, John Updike, and Denis Johnson.
However, baseball poems (in my humble opinion) tend to be very bad. These many bad baseball poems often forward one-dimensional characterizations of baseball players with the depth of the most casual fair weather fan, offer clichés on failure amid pastoral exhortations of spring and renewal, or get so caught up with baseball’s unique verbiage that they miss the subtlety of both the language and the human beings uttering the words.
Mostly, these bad poems miss either on the game’s scale or on its messy/lovely humanness (and sometimes on both). By scale, I mean that they don’t zoom in enough to the deeper stakes and minutia of what’s happening moment by moment or out enough to cover the vast connection networks that a team, a player, or a fan inhabits. Instead, such poems tend to settle into this boring middle ground of surface perception.
And by messy/lovely humanness, I mean things like the cosmic spontaneity of a shortstops’ glovework; the big dreams manifested and attained, but at tangible costs; the barely contained wildness coiled around each pre-pitch and the limb-tangled fun of breaking up double plays; the games seeded inside a game and its many multi-generational familial lines sprawling from fathers to sons like a drunken grounds keeper with infinite chalk to shake out; I mean the cringy balks dreamed on horizontal jumbo-trons above pitchers’ sleep paralysis, all the flavors of game delay, and the monotony of a stadium organist’s notated life; it’s the well-placed pine tar behind a cheating pitcher’s earlobe, the antics of ballplayer hotel rooms and fan dive bars, and angelic plays made by men far from angels.
Anyway, below are the baseball poems I actually enjoy re-reading again and again:
By Stuart Dybek
I once hit clothespins
for the Chicago Cubs.
I'd go out after supper
when the wash was in
and collect clothespins
from under four stories
was a strike-out;
the garage roof, Willie Mays,
pounding his mitt
under a pop fly.
Bushes, a double,
off the fence, triple,
and over, home run.
The bleachers roared.
I was all they ever needed for the flag.
New records every game—
once, 10 homers in a row!
But sometimes I'd tag them
so hard they'd explode,
legs flying apart in midair,
pieces spinning crazily
in all directions.
Foul Ball! What else
could I call it?
The bat was real.
Below is an excerpt from from Jack Spicer’s Four Poems for the St. Louis Sporting News
Pitchers are obviously not human. They have the ghosts of dead people in them. You wait there while they glower, put their hand to their mouths, fidget like puppets, while you're waiting to catch the ball.
You give them signs. They usually ignore them. A fast outside curve. High, naturally. And scientifically impossible. Where the batter either strikes out or he doesn't. You either catch it or you don't. You had called for an inside fast ball.
The runners on base either advance or they don't.
In any case
The ghosts of the dead people find it mighty amusing. The pitcher, in his sudden humaness looks toward the dugout in either agony or triumph. You, in either case, have a pair of hot hands.
Even when the game isn't over.
Sign for My Father, Who Stressed the Bunt
By David Bottoms
On the rough diamond,
the hand-cut field below the dog lot and barn,
we rehearsed the strict technique
of bunting. I watched from the infield,
the mound, the backstop
as your left hand climbed the bat, your legs
and shoulders squared toward the pitcher.
You could drop it like a seed
down either base line. I admired your style,
but not enough to take my eyes off the bank
that served as our center-field fence.
Years passed, three leagues of organized ball,
no few lives. I could homer
into the left-field lot of Carmichael Motors,
and still you stressed the same technique,
the crouch and spring, the lead arm absorbing
just enough impact. That whole tiresome pitch
about basics never changing,
and I never learned what you were laying down.
Like a hand brushed across the bill of a cap,
let this be the sign
I’m getting a grip on the sacrifice.
And for those who made it to end of this, here’s by absolute favorite baseball poem:
Body And Soul
By B.H. Fairchild
Half-numb, guzzling bourbon and Coke from coffee mugs,
our fathers fall in love with their own stories, nuzzling
the facts but mauling the truth, and my friend’s father begins
to lay out with the slow ease of a blues ballad a story
about sandlot baseball in Commerce, Oklahoma decades ago.
These were men’s teams, grown men, some in their thirties
and forties who worked together in zinc mines or on oil rigs,
sweat and khaki and long beers after work, steel guitar music
whanging in their ears, little white rent houses to return to
where their wives complained about money and broken Kenmores
and then said the hell with it and sang Body and Soul
in the bathtub and later that evening with the kids asleep
lay in bed stroking their husband’s wrist tattoo and smoking
Chesterfields from a fresh pack until everything was O.K.
Well, you get the idea. Life goes on, the next day is Sunday,
another ball game, and the other team shows up one man short.
They say we’re one man short, but can we use this boy,
he’s only fifteen years old, and at least he’ll make a game.
They take a look at the kid, muscular and kind of knowing
the way he holds his glove, with the shoulders loose,
the thick neck, but then with that boy’s face under
a clump of angelic blonde hair, and say, oh, hell, sure,
let’s play ball. So it all begins, the men loosening up,
joking about the fat catcher’s sex life, it’s so bad
last night he had to hump his wife, that sort of thing,
pairing off into little games of catch that heat up into
throwing matches, the smack of the fungo bat, lazy jogging
into right field, big smiles and arcs of tobacco juice,
and the talk that gives a cool, easy feeling to the air,
talk among men normally silent, normally brittle and a little
angry with the empty promise of their lives. But they chatter
and say rock and fire, babe, easy out, and go right ahead
and pitch to the boy, but nothing fancy, just hard fastballs
right around the belt, and the kid takes the first two
but on the third pops the bat around so quick and sure
that they pause a moment before turning around to watch
the ball still rising and finally dropping far beyond
the abandoned tractor that marks left field. Holy shit.
They’re pretty quiet watching him round the bases,
but then, what the hell, the kid knows how to hit a ball,
so what, let’s play some goddamned baseball here.
And so it goes. The next time up, the boy gets a look
at a very nifty low curve, then a slider, and the next one
is the curve again, and he sends it over the Allis Chambers,
high and big and sweet. The left fielder just stands there, frozen.
As if this isn’t enough, the next time up he bats left-handed.
They can’t believe it, and the pitcher, a tall, mean-faced
man from Okarche who just doesn’t give a shit anyway
because his wife ran off two years ago leaving him with
three little ones and a rusted-out Dodge with a cracked block,
leans in hard, looking at the fat catcher like he was the sonofabitch
who ran off with his wife, leans in and throws something
out of the dark, green hell of forbidden fastballs, something
that comes in at the knees and then leaps viciously towards
the kid’s elbow. He swings exactly the way he did right-handed,
and they all turn like a chorus line toward deep right field
where the ball loses itself in sagebrush and the sad burnt
dust of dustbowl Oklahoma. It is something to see.
But why make a long story long: runs pile up on both sides,
the boy comes around five times, and five times the pitcher
is cursing both God and His mother as his chew of tobacco sours
into something resembling horse piss, and a ragged and bruised
Spalding baseball disappears into the far horizon. Goodnight,
Irene. They have lost the game and some painful side bets
and they have been suckered. And it means nothing to them
though it should to you when they are told the boy’s name is
Mickey Mantle. And that’s the story, and those are the facts.
But the facts are not the truth. I think, though, as I scan
the faces of these old men now lost in the innings of their youth,
I think I know what the truth of this story is, and I imagine
it lying there in the weeds behind that Allis Chalmers
just waiting for the obvious question to be asked: why, oh
why in hell didn’t they just throw around the kid, walk him,
after he hit the third homer? Anybody would have,
especially nine men with disappointed wives and dirty socks
and diminishing expectations for whom winning at anything
meant everything. Men who knew how to play the game,
who had talent when the other team had nothing except this ringer
who without a pitch to hit was meaningless, and they could go home
with their little two-dollar side bets and stride into the house
singing If You’ve Got the Money, Honey, I’ve Got the Time
with a bottle of Southern Comfort under their arms and grab
Dixie or May Ella up and dance across the gray linoleum
as if it were V-Day all over again. But they did not.
And they did not because they were men, and this was a boy.
And they did not because sometimes after making love,
after smoking their Chesterfields in the cool silence and
listening to the big bands on the radio that sounded so glamorous,
so distant, they glanced over at their wives and notice the lines
growing heavier around the eyes and mouth, felt what their wives
felt: that Les Brown and Glenn Miller and all those dancing couples
and in fact all possibility of human gaiety and light-heartedness
were as far away and unreachable as Times Square or the Avalon
ballroom. They did not because of the gray linoleum lying there
in the half-dark, the free calendar from the local mortuary
that said one day was pretty much like another, the work gloves
looped over the doorknob like dead squirrels. And they did not
because they had gone through a depression and a war that had left
them with the idea that being a man in the eyes of their fathers
and everyone else had cost them just too goddamned much to lay it
at the feet of a fifteen year-old boy. And so they did not walk him,
and lost, but at least had some ragged remnant of themselves
to take back home. But there is one thing more, though it is not
a fact. When I see my friend’s father staring hard into the bottomless
well of home plate as Mantle’s fifth homer heads toward Arkansas,
I know that this man with the half-orphaned children and
worthless Dodge had also encountered for his first and possibly
only time the vast gap between talent and genius, has seen
as few have in the harsh light of an Oklahoma Sunday, the blonde
and blue-eyed bringer of truth, who will not easily be forgotten.