Monday, October 18, 2010

54. Jack Kerouac: Manager of the Pittsburgh Plymouths


I needed a literature course one semester in college and after discovering all the other options were taken, had to enroll in a poetry class. Now I was a big reader, always was, but poetry seemed such an elitist indulgence to me. I had never tried or even considered writing a poem before and the thought of taking an entire class in that really scared the hell out of me. What do I write about, flowers and trees, love and longing? Hell, I was from Jersey and we were taught to keep all that stuff to yourself. Fortunately for me, the head of the poetry department at my college was an old beat writer by the name of Joe Carderelli. He was a big, bearded guy, built like a football player, not your stereotypical idea of the anemic poet. For one of my first assignments, I had written a piece about listening to a baseball game on the radio and after I had read it to the class got many blank stares and then comments that no one understood baseball and asking me why I had even written about such a stupid game. I was in art school, a real legit ivy-league art school, and no one was supposed to like sports, let alone write poetry about it. During a break in the class, I went outside to have a smoke and up comes Ol' Joe Carderelli. To have him spend the smoke break talking with you was kind of a unwritten honor only awarded to the students whose work he liked. So Joe walks up, fires up a cigarette and asks me about baseball. What team I followed?, do I go to many games?, did I play?... and then he said something I always remembered: Baseball was the poets' sport. He went on and on talking about the beauty of a centerfielder racing to catch a fly ball, the quiet moment during the time between a pitcher's stretch and throw to the plate. The feeling of indescribable joy walking towards the well-lit stadium before a night game. Over the course of the semester we talked often about baseball and writers who were fans of the game. I knew Hemingway was a life-long White Sox fan and Joe told me that all the beats he palled around with back in the sixties were big fans. The more I immersed myself in poetry, the more writers I found who mention the National Pastime in their work. But the one writer who I think embraced the spirit of baseball more than any others was Jack Kerouac.

One of the most iconic and least understood characters in American literature has got to be Jack Kerouac. Father (or at least the "Fun Uncle") of the hippie generation, counter-culture iconoclast and all-around cool guy, Kerouac's image over the years has been molded and formed to fit the views of pretty much any one's idea of what a social rebel and romantic writer should look and act like. Just like pretty much any 17-year-old art student, I was fascinated by Jack Kerouac's book, "On The Road". There are so many classic scenes in the fast-moving novel that to this day stand out in my mind, and it was the little "moments" that he was able to put words to that really made me a fan of his writing. For instance, he perfectly captured that feeling of expectation and excitement I always got riding the bus through the Lincoln Tunnel from my home in North Jersey on my way to a night out in New York City. In that scene I could almost smell the exhaust, see the dim fluorescent lights that lined the tunnel zip by and get that flurried feeling in my stomach knowing that in a few moments I would emerge into the greatest city in the world, where anything can happen. To me, it is the true measure of success for a writer if they can give a reader that feeling of connection, a familiar bond that makes the words truly have meaning and weight. Jack Kerouac might not have been the best writer in history (his work was called not "writing" but "typing" by Truman Capote), but you can't deny that something in the words he wrote was able to capture the imagination of whole generations. (The jury is still out on what generation, if any Mr. Capote had the most impact on...). There's another great scene in "On The Road" where Kerouac's character, Sal Paradise and his friend Dean Moriarty are trying to simultaneously watch and listen to a bunch of baseball games:

"We made a date to meet at my aunt’s house before I left. He came the following Sunday afternoon. I had a television set. We played one ballgame on the TV, another on the radio, and kept switching to a third and kept track of all that was happening every moment. “Remember, Sal (Dean speaking), Hodges is on second in Brooklyn so while the relief pitcher is coming in for the Phillies we’ll switch to Giants-Boston and at the same time notice there DiMaggio has three balls count and the pitcher fiddling with the resin bag, so we quickly find out what happened to Bobby Thomson when we left him with a man on third. Yes!”

Growing up where I did with the Mets, Yankees and Phillies all within reach of my Emerson Radio dial, I really could connect with that feeling of trying to keep track of a bunch of ball games at the same time. But I'm not here to write about how much I enjoy Kerouac's work. I'm here to write about Jack Kerouac and his connection with the great game of baseball.

Since he was a boy growing up in blue collar Lowell, Massachusetts, Kerouac was a huge baseball fan. Sports in general played a big part of his life and he played American Legion baseball, was a high school football star and managed to get a scholarship to Columbia University to play football. Not your typical poet. An injury in his freshman year coupled with his combative relationship with Columbia's head coach put an end to his athletic aspirations but what his time at school did was immerse him in writing. Kerouac began writing for the University newspaper as a sports writer and he began making acquaintances with other writers in the city. During the war he shipped out on a merchant ship bringing supplies to England through U-Boat infested seas and after the war he began his writing career in earnest. In between carousing, drinking, travelling, whoring and be-bopping around the country, Kerouac did something that only his closest friends knew of: he played a fantasy baseball game that he had created as a boy in back in Lowell.

Kerouac created entire leagues and rosters of fictitious players like Owen Devine, Bop Walters, Red White and the mysterious Cuban, El Negro. Not only did he keep copious standings and statistics but he also wrote newspaper articles, created correspondence between fictitious owners about trades and capped off each season with a hotly contested world series. The teams were named after automobiles such as the Philadelphia Pontiacs, New York Chevvies, Chicago Nashes, and the Pittsburgh Plymouths, the last of which Kerouac pencilled himself in as the teams’ manager. Only a select few of his literary companions knew of his fantasy game but he carried around the stacks of cards he made, playing the game any chance he got. Kerouac continued his game up until his death in 1969 at age 47. Few people knew about his fantasy league until an exhibit a few years ago at the New York Public Library displayed the cards and other ephemera that went along with his made-up baseball universe.

It was just another facet of the complex character Kerouac was. The public face of the smoke-filled cafe poetry readings, Kerouac was in actuality a shy and private man. Known as a founder of the beat generation, fore-runners of the counter-culture hippies, the real Jack Kerouac was a conservative Republican. While at an Allen Ginsberg drug party in the mid 1960's he was offended to find an American flag disgracefully being used as a couch cover in an unsavory anti-American political statement. The patriotic Kerouac made the occupants of the couch get up and he lovingly folded the flag in its correct triangle pattern and carried it away to safety, much to the shock and amusement of the drug-addled party-goers. Although he always denied that the crazy holy con-man character of Dean Moriarty (in fact based on Neal Cassady) was not himself, he spent the rest of his life trying to live up to the character he created.

Besides my obvious connection to the words he wrote, I think my admiration of him grew stronger as I learned of his contradictions which I found often echoed my own. I was a guy whose life revolved around the arts, yet never forgot my blue-collar roots and convictions. The fact that like myself, he was a life-long baseball fan, something not readily accepted by many in the artistic community, only made me like and understand the man even more.

So here is Jack Kerouac, manager of the 1949 Pittsburgh Plymouths, before a game contemplating whether to pencil in Gus Texas or Homer Landry in the clean-up spot for that nights game against the World Champion St. Louis LaSalles...


6 comments:

  1. Sorry, no plans to make a real-life card of Jack.

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  2. I really liked what you wrote about being able to connect with something an author writes. I've been reading a collection of what is considered to be the "best fiction of the 20th century" and of those 25 books, only 5 or 6 have I really connected with. I see why they are considered classics, but the ones that have moved me, the ones that I will go back to re-read had moments that brought me in.

    And On the Road was on that list.

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  3. As a native Pittsburgher, a fan of Kerouac, and a person who knew about Kerouac's made-up, detailed, paper-based baseball game, this is your greatest card. I absolutely love it.

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  4. Glad you like the card Brian, almost seems like it was made just for you...

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  5. Great stuff Gary! Speaking of fictional players, the day I discovered your blog, Peanuts was running an old Joe Shlabotnick gag...love it when God does that...maybe you will grace us with an entry?

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