Sunday, October 6, 2019

Poetry in Motion

Larry Merchant (b. 1931)
From The Great American Sports Page: A Century of Classic Columns

Marianne Moore throws the first pitch of the season. Yankee stadium, April 10, 1968. Photographer unknown; image via Rosenbach Museum website.
Fanaticism? No. Writing is exciting
and baseball is like writing.
You can never tell with either
         how it will go
         or what you will do. . . .

                  —Marianne Moore, “Baseball and Writing” (1961)
Marianne Moore was one of America’s leading modernist poets—and one of its leading baseball fans. In the 1925 memoir Troubadours, poet and editor Alfred Kreymborg recalled one particular afternoon a decade earlier, near the end of New York Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson’s career, when he took Moore to a game at the Polo Grounds. They had just finished an intense discussion concerning the relative literary merits of Richard Aldington and Ezra Pound when they turned their attention to the action on the field.
. . . “Strike!” bawled Umpire Emslie. “Excellent,” said Marianne.
         Delighted, I quickly turned to her with: “Do you happen to know the gentleman who threw that strike?”
         “I’ve never seen him before,” she admitted, “but I take it it must be Mr. Mathewson.”
         I could only gasp, “Why?”
         “I’ve read his instructive book on the art of pitching—”
         “Strike two!” interrupted Bob Emslie.
         “And it’s a pleasure,” she continued imperturbably, “to note how unerringly his execution supports his theories—"
         “Strike three, batter’s out!” concluded the umpire and, as Shorty Slagle slunk away, glared toward the Chicago bench for the next victim. . . .
Setting aside Kreymborg’s penchant for embellishment, we do know that Moore greatly admired Mathewson’s Pitching in a Pinch: Or, Baseball from the Inside, often recommending the book to young patrons at the Hudson Park branch of the New York Public Library, where she worked in the 1920s, and still mentioning it in interviews in the 1950s. She kept up with the literature of baseball her entire life; in a letter published in The New York Times before the 1968 World Series, she quoted Orlando Cepeda’s My Ups and Downs in Baseball and Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times in a meandering forecast that the Cardinals would win the championship. She was wrong, but just barely: the Tigers rallied late in Game 7 to take the series.

A fervent Brooklyn Dodgers fan for decades, Moore transferred her allegiance to the Yankees when the Dodgers decamped for Los Angeles. Months after she turned eighty, the Yankees asked her to throw out the first ball at the opening game of the 1968 season—which inspired the following column by New York Post sportswriter Larry Merchant.

Before making his mark as a fearless boxing analyst for HBO and after spending a decade as the crusading sports editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, Merchant wrote three columns a week from 1966 to 1975 for the New York Post’s then-stellar sports section. “Hip and knowing, iconoclastic and socially conscious, Merchant could leave readers rolling with laughter in the aisles of subway cars or scorch the earth with outrage ignited by intellect,” writes fellow sportswriter John Schulian. “He once said his bosses at the Post would have been happy if he only wrote about Muhammad Ali, Joe Namath, and whatever hairy-chested hero had seized the moment, but the predictable wasn’t for him. If it was, he never would have written a column about getting ready for opening day of the baseball season with Marianne Moore.”

Much of this introduction was adapted and expanded from Nicholas Dawidoff’s headnote for Moore’s “Baseball and Writing” in Baseball: A Literary Anthology, and John Schulian’s headnote for several selections by Larry Merchant in The Great American Sports Page.

Notes: From 1964 to 1973 the television network CBS owned the New York Yankees, and in 1966 CBS vice president E. Michael Burke was named president of the team. (Before joining CBS in the 1950s, Burke had been general manager of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus after a decade-long stint as an OSS/CIA officer.) Roy Campanella’s baseball career came to a sudden end when, on his way home one night after closing the liquor store he owned, he lost control of his automobile on a patch of ice. The car overturned, breaking his neck. Although he was eventually able to regain partial use of his arms and hands, he required a wheelchair to get around for the rest of his life.

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce the selection, in its entirety, below.
You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs.

Poetry in Motion

Marianne Moore, the poet, eighty years young, got up from the chair to fetch her baseball glove. It was in her bedroom, where every kid keeps his, or her, glove.

“It’s a fielder’s glove,” she said, trying it on her right hand, then her left. Her hands are small and delicate, like fine ivory, and she laughed at the sight of that saddle-sized hunk of leather reaching halfway up her arm. “It’s a little big for me. . . . Wait, I’ll get my baseball too. I have two of them.”

She disappeared into her bedroom again, fetching both baseballs, presumably from under her pillow. She called them “horsehide.”

Marianne Moore is not in the habit of taking spring training in her apartment in Greenwich Village—“I like to go to Saint Petersburg,” she said—but it seemed like a sensible concession to time. She doesn’t have to cover as much ground as she used to. “I was a left fielder,” she said. “I wasn’t very good.”

From out of left field though she has been given an honor she deems more astounding than all the honorary degrees and poetry prizes bestowed on her. She is going to throw out the first ball at Yankee Stadium.

“My goodness,” Marianne Moore said. “I thought that was reserved for presidents and governors.”

It was, when it was safe for presidents and governors to show up in public. It was, before Mike Burke took over the Yankees for CBS. Mike Burke has been trying to put the team together again and redo their image while he’s at it. Last year there was that paint job on the stadium, powdery white with blue eyeshade for the old dowager. This year there are shrimp pink foul poles and Marianne Moore. It’s hard to root against shrimp pink foul poles and Marianne Moore.

Mike Burke gave her the glove and the balls, to get her soupbone in shape, to work out the kinks, to be ready to go nine, in fact, Yankee pitching being what it is.

“He gave me everything but the mound and home plate,” she said. She has a catcher, her brother. “My brother said I should return the glove after the game, but I’m going to keep it. He told me to throw the ball in a nice arc so the photographers can get their pictures, but I think I’ll throw it around the knees; that’s where they tell pitchers to throw it. You know what Campanella told the photographers when they asked him to smile? ‘I haven’t heard anything funny.’ ”

Roy Campanella was Marianne Moore’s favorite ballplayer. Her brother took her to Ebbets Field. “Karl Spooner was pitching. Campanella went out to talk to him. He had an awkward look, but he moved with celerity.”

Marianne Moore sees baseball with her own beautiful blue eyes. She doesn’t see batting averages and strategy. She sees a game played by people. A very long time ago she taught commercial law at the Carlisle School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and she had a student named Jim Thorpe. She watched him play football and do it all in track and field, but what she remembered was, “He was a gentleman. I called him James. It would have seemed condescending, I thought, to call him Jim.”

There is a story, an anecdote, a piece of character exposure, that goes with all her favorites and unfavorites.

“A guard in the bank of Williamsburgh told me Campanella was thinking of his son, who had got in trouble, when he had his car accident.

“Elston Howard is my second favorite. I remember reading that he got $30 to play his first game and he couldn’t believe anyone could get paid for doing what he loved to do. I named my pet alligator after him. Isn’t that awful?

“I did a radio show with Mary Margaret McBride. She told me Willie Mays had been a guest too. He talked about his big new house in San Francisco. She asked him how he was furnishing it. He said, ‘French Provincial.’ ”

She said that neither Mickey Mantle nor Babe Ruth appealed to her, although she admired them as athletes. Mantle seems “gruff” and “never hits a home run when I expect him to.” Ruth was “boorish.”

The game itself, as a thing apart, touches another sensibility in Marianne Moore.

“It’s the dexterity and accuracy that I like most about it. The nimble movements of the first baseman, the way a ball lights in his glove. The way an outfielder catches one backhanded. But I don’t like the double play; the execution is nice, but someone is always disappointed.

“Whenever I feel gloomy I watch a game. The people aren’t sheep. The grass is so green. I’m annoyed only that I never get a foul ball; it always rolls down the screen.”

Marianne Moore tapped her glove. Next Tuesday might be the day.

Originally published in 1968 in The New York Post and collected in Ringside Seat at the Circus (1976). Copyright © 1968 by Larry Merchant. Used by permission of the author.