Poems on
a Baseball Mitt
A CultureMap®
by Gabriel Rosenberg
Published on 4/20/15

Baseball is the most poetic of sports. From Walt Whitman’s free verse and Masaoka Shiki’s haiku to the tender image of Allie Caulfield’s forsaken mitt scribbled with poems in The Catcher in the Rye, this map shows that baseball is more than just fodder for poetry—it’s poetry itself.

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J.D. Salinger  (1919–2010 | American author)
to  Masaoka Shiki  (1867–1902 | Japanese poet)

The haiku might be a forgotten form today if not for Masaoka Shiki, who helped revive short-form Japanese poetry in the late 19th century by writing on modern themes and subjects. More than poetry, however, Shiki loved baseball. He was five years old when the game was introduced to Japan, in 1872, and at 23 he penned the world’s first baseball haiku:

spring breeze
this grassy field makes me
want to play catch

Baseball’s springtime lightheartedness and pastoral setting fit naturally into the mitt of a haiku writer. Here’s one from Jack Kerouac:

Empty baseball field
 — A robin,
Hops along the bench

Like Kerouac, J.D. Salinger celebrated Eastern culture and the haiku. He channeled this passion into the eldest of his fictional Glass siblings, Seymour, who, according to his brother, Buddy, “loved the classical Japanese three-line, seventeen-syllable haiku as he loved no other form of poetry” and he “wrote—bled—haiku.” Baseball likewise enraptures Seymour, who calls it the “most heartrending, delicious sport in the Western Hemisphere.” That the Eastern Hemisphere feasts on baseball as well is partly due to Shiki’s abundant baseball poetry, for which he was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002.

J.D. Salinger  (1919–2010 | American author)
to  Walt Whitman  (1819–1892 | American poet)

In 1947 J.D. Salinger published “The Inverted Forest,” his first story to examine the psychological anguish of poets. In it, he quotes Walt Whitman: “I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there.” Salinger and Whitman both suffered from their war experiences—perhaps to the point of post-traumatic stress disorder, say some scholars. Whitman volunteered in Union army hospitals; U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Salinger helped liberate a Nazi concentration camp. Slate even dubbed Salinger the “great poet of post-traumatic stress.” Before doctors classified shell shock as an injury, Salinger and Whitman self-medicated in similar ways. Both wrote poetry, took long walks in New York’s Central Park and ruminated upon baseball.

Whitman wrote of the game’s potential to relieve Americans’ war despair: Baseball “will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen [and] repair those losses.” For Salinger, baseball symbolized not his postwar hopes but his prewar innocence. His ball-playing characters, after all, are always children (think of the Comanche youth club in “The Laughing Man” and Holden Caulfield’s late brother, Allie). Applying the balm of baseball to their wounds, each of these authors discovered the sport’s singular ability—to quote the baseball movie Field of Dreams—to ease his pain.

Walt Whitman  (1819–1892 | American poet)
to  Pablo Neruda  (1904–1973 | Chilean poet)

“Latin American scholars today often express surprise at how few Americans remember Pablo Neruda’s days in baseball,” begins a popular 1985 feature in Harper’s magazine. “Even most dedicated fans…remain unaware that in the spring of 1965, the renowned Chilean poet put in almost a month at third base for the New York Mets.”

Sadly, Neruda neither played nor wrote about baseball. The above is from Vince Passaro’s “Neruda and the Mets,” a work of historical wishful thinking. If Neruda crossed paths with the game at all while growing up in baseball-benighted Chile, it would have been through his favorite poet—Walt Whitman.

It’s tempting to picture young Pablo leafing through Leaves of Grass (which he read obsessively as an adolescent) and finding himself transported to Whitman’s dreamy Manhattan afternoons spent “enjoying picnics or jigs or a good game of baseball.” But without any strong evidence linking Neruda to the game, some writers have relied upon their imaginations. In the micro-genre of Neruda baseball fantasy fiction, Neruda not only hot-corners for the Mets, he also appears at Fenway Park, eating a hot dog and rooting for Ted Williams, in Martín Espada’s poem “The Fugitive Poets of Fenway Park.”

J.D. Salinger  (1919–2010 | American author)
to  Shoeless Joe  (W.P. Kinsella | novel | 1982)

In W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe, a baseball-mad Iowa farmer kidnaps J.D. Salinger at finger-point and takes him to a baseball game. The book’s working title was, appropriately, The Kidnapping of J.D. Salinger, but, fearing a lawsuit, Kinsella went with Shoeless Joe after White Sox left fielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, around whose specter the story revolves and who had neither mind nor body to sue. When Shoeless Joe was adapted into the film Field of Dreams (1989), Salinger’s character was renamed Terence Mann.

To explain Salinger’s presence in the book, Kinsella invents an interview. “If you hadn’t become a writer,” the interviewer asks, “what would you have liked to be?” Salinger replies, “When I was a kid, I wanted more than anything else in the world to play at the Polo Grounds.” The real-life Salinger never spoke these words—though he could have, considering his esteem for baseball. Many of his characters boast some connection to the game, foremost his self-confessed alter ego, Buddy Glass, who adores baseball, and Allie Caulfield, Salinger’s touchstone of innocence in The Catcher in the Rye, who scribbles poems on his glove “so that he’d have something to read when…nobody was up at bat.”

Shoeless Joe  (W.P. Kinsella | novel | 1982)
to  “Casey at the Bat”  (Ernest Lawrence Thayer | poem | 1888)

With two on and two out, trailing by two in the bottom of the ninth, mighty Casey comes to bat for the Mudville Nine:

There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile lit Casey’s face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ’twas Casey at the bat.

But the hero watches two strikes pass and whiffs a third, achieving one of poetry’s funniest anticlimaxes. On the centennial of “Casey at the Bat,” by Harvard Lampoon alumnus Ernest Lawrence Thayer, Shoeless Joe author W.P. Kinsella wrote a parody in which Casey never even sees a pitch, his at-bat interrupted by an angry landscaper:

“I’ve not been paid for the landscape work,”
He said, “And I’ll tell you where it’s at,
I want fifteen hundred dollars
Or Casey will never come to bat.”

In 1994 Kinsella recited his version for an audience that included poet Rennie McQuilkin, who afterward said, “I’m a Red Sox fan. Who else? It’s a poet’s team, full of angst and failure.” Apparently baseball’s washouts, not its triumphs, are most worthy of poetry.

Walt Whitman  (1819–1892 | American poet)
to  Bull Durham  (Ron Shelton (dir.) | film | 1988)

In the film Bull Durham, Annie Savoy is a baseball groupie and poetry savant. Her idea of foreplay is to strip her ball-playing beaux to their undies, restrain them to bedposts and tantalize them with free verse:

Annie: Sweetie, have you ever heard of Walt Whitman?
Ebby: Who’s he play for?
Annie: Well, he sort of pitches for the Cosmic All-Stars.
Ebby: Never heard of ’em.
Annie: Good—then listen: “I sing the body electric. The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them—”
Ebby: We gonna fuck or what?

Every season, Annie (Susan Sarandon) picks a new hotshot from the Durham Bulls, a fledgling North Carolina minor-league club, to be her lover and poetry student until October. “There’s a certain amount of life wisdom I give these boys,” Annie muses. “Sometimes when I’ve got a ballplayer alone, I’ll just read Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman to him.” It’s not Whitman’s only cameo in a baseball film. His words form the epigraph to Ken Burns’s epic 18-hour-plus documentary Baseball (1994): “Let us go forth a while and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms. The game of ball is glorious.”

Bull Durham  (Ron Shelton (dir.) | film | 1988)
to  Shoeless Joe  (W.P. Kinsella | novel | 1982)

Kevin Costner’s portrayal of Ray Kinsella in the classic baseball film Field of Dreams, adapted from W.P. Kinsella’s magical realist novel Shoeless Joe, came one year after Costner played Crash Davis in the equally brilliant Bull Durham—a cinematic doubleheader that typecast Costner in bittersweet, often sappy ballplayer roles for decades to come. In the closing moments of Field of Dreams, the reclusive, Salinger-esque Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) delivers this elegy to America’s pastime:

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: It’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again.

Bull Durham also sings baseball’s poetic praises in its final notes, quoting a line commonly attributed to Walt Whitman: “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.” If nothing else, these two late-1980s flicks affirm this: Baseball and poetry make a beautiful team.