Last Sunday I sat through 11 innings of a baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays. When the game hit the four-hour mark, I glanced at my wife, who gave me the nod, and we headed for the exit. Ten minutes later rookie Jake Bauers creamed a walk-off home run, and the Rays won 7-6, sweeping the first-place Bronx Bombers.
That’s baseball for you. An Eastern mystic — a Yogi — got it right: In baseball “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Has there ever been a more poetic line about the game, about any game? It strikes out “Casey at the Bat” and beats out “Tinker to Evers to Chance.”
More than any game, baseball is for poets. Perhaps it’s the timelessness (caused these days by slow pitching, trips to the mound, shifting infielders, and batters adjusting their freaking gloves), or the pastoral smell of the grass (except in my domed stadium, Tropicana Field). It turns out that Walt Whitman loved baseball, as did Robert Frost.
I would argue that no one appreciated the poetic aspects of the game more than a bard you may never have heard of. His name was Donald Hall, a scribe who in 2006 became Poet Laureate of the United States.
Hall died yesterday at the age of 89. In 1982 I invited him from his frosty New Hampshire home to sunny St. Petersburg, Florida. I had this strange idea that he might read his poems to a group of ink-stained wretches better known as sports writers.
Over the next few years we stayed in touch and bonded, with friendly chatter about writing, baseball, and life. I would read his latest work and congratulate him or joke that he had written the best poem ever on the glories of cheese. I would discover another practical nugget of wisdom from “Writing Well,” the college textbook he wrote while teaching at the University of Michigan. I sent a note of condolence in 1995 after the death of his wife Jane Kenyon, a wonderful poet in her own right and the love of his life.
During his time in St. Pete I interviewed Hall about his love of baseball and its connection to poetry. I learned that in 1973 he persuaded the Pittsburgh Pirates to let him work out with them for spring training in Bradenton, Florida. Picture Walt Whitman in a Pirate’s uniform. Now give him the paunch of a beer league batter, the speed of the Washington Monument, Babe Ruth’s nose, and the rear end of Andre the Giant.
Remember George Plimpton, who wrote sports stories as a participant observer for football and hockey? Donald Hall was George Plumpton.
“I’ll always write about baseball,” he said during a 1982 interview with me. “It is a game that grips us because we can see mirrored in it everything that we feel and desire.” Hall’s visits to St. Pete renewed a love affair with baseball that began at Ebbets Field in the era of Pete Reiser, who crashed into walls diving for fly balls, and Pee Wee Reese.
He wrote two books on baseball: “Playing Around,” a chronicle of his adventures with the Pirates, and “In the Country of Baseball,” a book about Pirate Pitcher Doc Ellis, one of the game’s great eccentrics. (Hall admitted to me much later that, to protect Ellis, he lied in his book, writing that the pitcher’s misadventures were caused by alcohol when they were really caused by cocaine.)
By 1982, Hall was already one of the most prolific and versatile authors in America. In the three decades since, he maintained a high literary batting average, publishing poetry, memoirs, children’s books, social commentaries and criticism, a body of work that rivals any living American author. He won awards aplenty and was competitive as a wordsmith, regretting never having won a Pulitzer Prize, which he joked he had lost to a series of “Ronald McDonalds.”
He read his poems aloud on more than 1,000 occasions — often at universities — in a deep and theatrical voice that brought the rich texture of his words to life. “I am not the best poet,” he told me, “but I may be the best reader of my poems.”
Part of my interview with Hall took place at a spring training game between the Mets and the White Sox. Looking down at the natural green of Al Lang Field against the backdrop of the dark blue of Tampa Bay, he watched Dave Kingman crank one over the left field fence.
As Hall looked on, he spoke of his own work and his love for the game. He watched the young players, some younger than his own son, and noted the importance of baseball as a marker of time. He recalled that poignant moment when a man realizes he is old enough to be a major leaguer, and the more poignant moment when he sees that he is older than any active ballplayer.
Yet love and memory permit the aging fan a magical connection with his boyhood. “In the country of baseball,” Hall wrote, “time is the air we breathe, and the wind swirls us backward and forward, until we seem so reckoned in time and seasons that all time and all seasons become the same.”
Suddenly, Hall began remembering his own boyhood, the place and time when the seeds of his appreciation for the sport were planted.
In 1939, at the age of 11, in Hampden, Connecticut, Donald Hall exercised his imagination in his father’s Studebaker. There on the radio he would listen to the sweet Southern sounds of Red Barber, and in his mind he would recreate images of battle from Ebbets Field, Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds.
More than 30 years later, he would remember those sounds as he listened to Detroit Tigers games from his home near the University of Michigan where he taught writing:
At night after supper and on weekend afternoons, we heard the long season unwind itself, inning by inning, as vague and precise as ever. The patter of the announcer, and behind him always the baseball sounds of vendors hawking hot dogs, Coke and programs; and the sudden rush of noise from the crowd when a score was posted; the flat slap of a bat, and again the swelling crowd yells; the Dixieland (band) between innings; even the beer jingles.
In 1941, at the age of 13, the same year that Ted Williams batted over .400 and Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games, Hall realized he would never be a superstar. He was cut from his eighth-grade team. And yet he clung to “one vast generalized ambition,” the same one that led Joltin’ Joe to Marilyn Monroe: “I wanted girls to love me.”
Hall turned to acting and eventually to poetry. He ignored homophobic cronies who called him names because he wrote poems. He fought against the stereotype of the poet as “the spacey weirdo who walks into walls.” Baseball was the one rock which anchored him. Eventually he realized he was part of a tradition.
“I just found out that Walt Whitman loved baseball,” he told me. “And Robert Frost obviously did. His hero as a child was Cap Anson. Of course, in 'Birches' he writes about the boy too far from town to play baseball. That’s how he pronounced it; that’s how my grandfather pronounced it. With two equal stresses. Base Ball.”
There was more than a twinge of nostalgia in his voice when Hall talked about baseball and his boyhood. It turned out that poetry and theater did not attract the type of girls the teen-aged Hall desired.
“If I had been a talented athlete…” his voice trailed off in self-deprecation. Let’s just say that, like the Mighty Casey, the young Donald Hall struck out.
But unlike the rest of us, whose dreams of stardom die and stay dead, Hall got one more simulated shot at the big time, a chance in 1973 at the age of 45 to wear the uniform of Stargell and Clemente.
In the Pirates’ spring training camp, Hall looked more like an Old Testament prophet or a professional wrestler than a ballplayer. The Bucs nicknamed him “Abraham,” although third baseman Richie Hebner preferred “Jumbo.”
The photos of Hall in “Playing Around” are hilarious. The cover photo shows him stuffed into a Pirate’s uniform, like a fat foot in a glass slipper. Another shows him panting after running several laps with the Pirates.
No picture shows Hall holding a bat. This may be explained by former Pirate pitcher Doc Ellis, who became friends with the poet and collaborated with him on a book. Ellis writes of Hall: “So then the poet, the frustrated ballplayer, you could tell this guy wanted to play ball all of his life and he just knew he could hit the ball so he got in there and swung about 10 times. So I said ‘Turn the machine down,’ so then he fouled one off and he was so happy he jumped out of the cage and everyone cracked up.”
I argued back then that Hall may someday be enshrined in Cooperstown as the most corpulent second sacker to don a major league uniform. He described his career stats this way:
Donald Hall…6-2…240…Bats right…Throws wrong…walking contradiction to Horatio Alger motto that hard work pays off…almost made the Harvard freshman squash team in 1948…the summit of his athletic career…playing ping pong in recreational league in Ann Arbor in 1964.
A graduate of Exeter, Oxford and Harvard, Donald Hall loved baseball as a game, but understood its symbolic and philosophical dimensions as well.
“What I love in sports reporting,” he said, “is that the game and the players form a kind of world in miniature in which our whole lives can find their reflection. Birth, desire, copulation, ambition, fame, aging and decay — all the things that run through and animate our lives — this can be the content of the sports page.”
Hall also saw sports, especially baseball, as an emblem of the American past, a pastime that lends Americans a sense of themselves as a people.
“We are a people without a sense of history,” he said. “The past is a threat to us because we’ve abandoned it so much. And when you have no past, you have no future. The sports page, and I do mean baseball, connects itself to the American past. We write narrative out of the past, anecdotes, even statistics that move people deeply.”
Finally, Hall sees the sports page as one place for the preservation of language, where each day readers can enjoy the playfulness and excitement of the sparkling metaphor, the telling analogy, and the surprising image.
His own work shines with them. “Baseball is fathers and sons,” he wrote in “Playing Around.” “Baseball is the generations, looping backward forever with a million apparitions of sticks and balls, cricket and rounders and the games the Iroquois played in Connecticut before the English came. Baseball is fathers and sons playing catch, lazy and murderous, wild and controlled, the profound archaic songs of birth, growing, age and death. The diamond encloses what we are.”
An interval of about 30 years passed without my hearing from Donald Hall. Then, last Christmas, a small note appeared in my mailbox, with a return address to Eagle Pond Farm, the poet’s New Hampshire home. It contained thanks for something nice I had written about his old textbook, “Writing Well.” He told me he had a book coming out in July: “A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety.”
I wrote back telling him I liked that title. He returned the favor:
You approach 70 as I approach 90. Probably if you had seen my last prose book, “Essays After Eighty,” you would have mentioned it. Shall I call the next one “Senility Is My Subject?” Yup, some of us continue to hang around. Who wants life without work? Lots of people actually!
Best to you,
The obituary in the New York Times includes a quote from the 1989 baseball anthology “Diamonds Are Forever,” and a poet laureate deserves the last word: “It is by baseball, and not by other American sports, that our memories bronze themselves. By baseball we join hands with the long line of forefathers and with the dead.”