Peoria, Tazewell, And Woodford: Here, There & Everywhere

The Poetry of Baseball by Mike Foster


In honor of the 2014 all-time (well, this decade for sure) greatest World Serious seven-game serial ever, the best baseball we’ve seen in years, wherein Les Royals of Kansas City lost to San Francisco’s Los Gigantes in a final game squeaker, 3-2, we here at Peoria, Tazewell, & Woodford: Here There honor the players and the sport.

Giants’ catcher Buster Posey is sure to make the 2014 All-Name team.

Honoring the memory of the Royals’ reliever who helped defeat the The Louis Cardinals 29 years ago, we lead off with Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry’s stark, wry autobiography “Baseball Cards

Quisenberry, whose sidearm submarine strikes helped win the ’85 World Series, sees his younger self in his cards, “in a triage of rookies,” then gap-toothed and grinning,
“glory years…celebration mobs…
you can’t see
the cost of winning
lines on my forehead under the hat
trench line between my eyes
you don’t see my wife, daughter, and son
left behind

The last few cards
I do not smile

I look back
at who I thought I was

I used to be good
they say
we thought you were bigger
I say
I was.”

Quisenberry published this shortly before his death of a brain tumor at age 45.

Readers of this blog who are baseball fans (which team does not matter) should seek out Line Drives: 100 Contemporary Baseball Poems edited by Brooke Horvath and Tim Wiles

“If poetry is an occasion for well-put passion and expressive pondering, so also is baseball,” the editors declare.
Often passionate, rarely ponderous, this anthology limns baseball’s mundane and magnificent mysteries, from a family foursome’s sunset game on a sloping lawn up to “World Series , Game 5” (“Even God, I think, is here,/ so high up in the stands”–Karen Zaborowski).

Wiles, former National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum director of research, and Horvath, a Kent State English professor, read over four thousand poems for this hundred.
Every base is touched, from home-run hitting wisdom to a boy’s botched catch, Iowa minor league rainouts, Geronimo at the bat, a blue-eyed lady professor wearing a Yankees cap at a faculty picnic, Babe Ruth in heaven, the smooth-fielding shortstop struck down by a stroke, Downs Syndrome children playing “so in love with this moment/ when the bat makes the ball jump/ or fly that when it happens/ everybody shouts” –Wesley McNair).

Line Drives follows the rhythm of the two long seasons it celebrates, baseball and life.
Part one is full of the Opening Day spirit: youth and spring, this year for sure! Richard Behm’s marvelously mythopoeic “The Origin and Purpose of Baseball” leads off:

“It began on the veldt
when snakes were common,
and a woman
searching for food
saw the moon and thought
it was an egg
that her children might eat.
She plucked it from the sky
and took it home.”

Between them, the moon and the woman create baseball, “rules based on the rhythms/ of the sea, birth, the geometry/ of hope, the mysteries/ of nines and threes” so that with two out, bases loaded in the ninth “the egg spins toward the plate/ where a child with a stick/ that his mother used to batter snakes/ waits.”

Summer brings flowering and ripening and dog-day doubts. Earl Braggs’ “The Baseball Boys of 1964,” Jim Daniels’ “Polish-American Night, Tiger Stadium,” and David Baker’s Whitman-inspired “Cardinals in Spring” (at four pages, the longest here) fulfill Wordsworth’s criterion for poetry: “emotion recalled in tranquility,” old score cards, ossuaries of games long gone.

The poems “grow autumnal, then downright wintery” in sections three and four, the editors note, “as they meditate on lost youth, lost fathers, lost time, lost hopes, lost love while holding on to whatever lessons have been learned.”
Consider Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry’s stark, wry autobiography noted above,“Baseball Cards.”
Yet spring always comes, with new inspiration. Part five, like the Gospels, ends with resurrection, a coda of triumph, lost baseballs found, “Line Drive Caught By The Grace Of God,” as in Linda Gregerson’s poem title.

“Baseball is a good antidote for death,” Katherine Harer writes. “Where else do we mutter belief scream/ hope.”
Keith Eisner adds:
“Yes, they cut down the flowers in the infield, and the flowers/ grow again./ A miracle under our feet, every day, every game.”
So buy us some poems and Cracker Jack. We know that we will always get back.

Another instant classic co-edited by Peoian Tim Wiles, erstwhile historian and archivist for The Baseball Hall Of Fame And Museum in Cooperstown, New York, and a graduate of Bergan (now Notre Dame) High School and Illinois Central College Harbinger’s newspaper feature editor
Baseball’s Greatest Hit: The Story of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game
by Andy Strasberg, Bob Thompson, and Tim Wiles
New York: Hal Leonard Books
224 pages
Hardbound: $29.95

This year “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” celebrated its one hundredth birthday, and this sweet-swinging story traces it from its birth to its current status as the third-most often sung tune in America.

“The experience of large masses of human beings singing together is predawn. We experience it in our religious ceremonies, at birthday parties and other rites of passage, in cultural and artistic celebrations, at mealtimes and other family gatherings, and of course, at the ballpark,” writes Bob Thompson, one of the three writers who assembled this tribute. Richly enhanced with vintage photos and postcards, sheet music replications, record sleeves, newspaper headlines, movie stills, and baseball cards, it also sports a 16-track CD with everything from the earliest recorded versions to performances by Bruce Springsteen, Dr. John, George Winston, a fellow playing a musical saw, and, of course, its most famous practitioner, the late Harry Caray recorded live at Wrigley Field.

The perfect Christmas stocking stuffer for folks with very wide, long, and flat feet, Baseball’s Greatest Hit is a delight from its foreword by Carly Simon, who recalls living with the Jackie Robinson family in 1955 and sitting on Pee Wee Reese’s lap in the Brooklyn Dodgers dugout, to its conclusion, a boggling 30-page discography of every known recording of the tune, from piano rolls and wax cylinders to CDs.

The illustrations, beginning with the scratchily revised original lyric holograph by Jack Norworth and a photograph of Harry’s last seventh-inning stretch singalong, are a pennant-winning pinnacle of pop culture. This book belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, where co-author Tim Wiles is director of research.

Norworth wrote the lyric on New York’s 9th Avenue subway in 1908 after seeing an advertisement for a game at the Polo Grounds. Co-author Albert Von Tilzer added the melody. Heroine Katie Casey starred in two now-forgotten verses leading up to the famous chorus.

Its lilting waltz tempo and one-octave range makes it singer-friendly. The opening octave leap of “Take me” replicates two other beloved American songs, “The Christmas Song” and “Over the Rainbow.”

A sing-along staple during the silent film era, the tune was featured in over 1,200 movies and television shows. But it wasn’t until 1976 that it became a seventh-inning-stretch ritual with Caray leading the White Sox faithful at Comiskey Park.

Lavish details include chapters on Cracker Jack, other now-forgotten baseball songs, 1908 baseball slang, parodies, and women in baseball (“Dame Yankees”). Behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner taught pigeons to play it on a simplified seven-key piano. In 1949, the song lent its title to a movie starring Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Esther Williams.

In the tedious months between the end of the season and the blessed entrance antiphon “Pitchers and catchers report,” this book is warmth and sunshine in the dread dead of winter.
This reviewer received the book last April, just as the baseball season was opening, with its eternal spring promise of hope and happiness.

As May blossomed and flowered and Chicago Cubs seized first place in the National League Central division, we sang along cheerily through the summer into September.
When the season ended with Cubs atop the standings with their best record since their last World Series appearance in 1945, we dared think the unthinkable: that the hundred-year drought was over and that this was, at last, the year.

And, of course, in the first round, all the Chicago stallions turned into geldings, the ham-handed infield yielded four errors in the second game alone, and the pitching melted down like a cheap candle.

Oh, well. Wait till next century.

A sixty-year-old classic of beguiling baseball fantasy is Damn Yankees by Douglass Wallop
Douglass Wallop’s baseball tale was originally titled The Year The Yankees Lost the Pennant, and in 1954, the year of its publication, the notion of the Yankees losing the American League race to anyone—much less the lowly Washington Senators—was fantasy indeed.

The fear and loathing the Yankees inspired a half-century ago can scarcely be underestimated. The pinstriped powerhouse swaggered through season after season crushing their rivals on the way to yet another World Series champion’s crown.

They were hated even in their hometown, where New York Giants’ and Brooklyn Dodgers’ fans outnumbered the Yankees’ sneering partisans. Unsurprisingly, Damn Yankees, the musical inspired by this novel, was an instant and long-running Broadway hit.

Set four years in the future, in 1958, the tale begins in Washington, D.C., on a muggy July night. Joe Boyd, a middle-aged real estate salesman, sits alone on his screened porch, listening to his beloved Senators lose yet another game to the Tigers by eight runs.

Meanwhile, the Yankees are sweeping the White Sox to move into first place. Another New York pennant seems assured, barring an act of God…or the Devil.

For at this moment, Applegate, a dapper, suave incarnation of Chesterton’s notion that “the Devil is a gentleman,” walks into Joe Boyd’s life with a Faustian offer.

For the small price of his soul, flabby, pot-bellied Joe Boyd can be transformed into lean, muscular Joe Hardy, a baseball phenomenon who can lead the hapless Senators out of the cellar and cast the Yankees into second place.

Applegate even offers his wary victim a way out: he can be Joe Hardy till Sept. 21, then return, fifty-year-old body and immortal soul intact, to his mundane life as Joe Boyd, complete with a dowdy wife who just doesn’t understand why her husband wastes so much time listening to Senators’ games on the radio.

So Joe Boyd swallows his misgivings, agrees to the demonic deal, leaves his wife Bess an enigmatic farewell note, and is transformed into Joe Hardy, a homer-slugging Golden-Glove fielder who, like a baseball Moses, can lead his people out of the wilderness of the cellar into the Promised Land of the Series.

Any Chicago Cubs fan, as this reader has been ever since he first read this book at age ten, will sympathize.

Wallop’s devilish Applegate is well-drawn, an all-American Screwtape who dresses nattily, eats ravenously, beguiles cunningly, and lights his cigarettes with a snap of his fingers.
From his box seat, he cheers loudly as Joe Hardy leads the Senators through a late-summer winning streak that moves them up the standings like a baseball bat out of Hell.

He sweetens the brimstoned pot by dangling the lovely Lola, another sold soul, as the beautiful, beguiling bait that strains Joe’s bond to his vows to Bess.

Lola, for her part, truly loves Joe. He resists her temptations chivalrously but realizes that if he stays on as Joe Hardy after the Sept. 21 deadline, she will be his, Marilyn Monroe to his Joe Dimaggio, the most beautiful girl in the world and the greatest baseball player ever, together in love, forever: a sweet damnation.

Lola, for her part, truly loves Joe. He resists her temptations chivalrously but realizes that if he stays on as Joe Hardy after the Sept. 21 deadline, she will be his, Marilyn Monroe to his Joe DiMaggio, the most beautiful girl in the world and the greatest baseball player ever, together in love, forever: a sweet damnation.

“Poor Joe,” Lola tells him during a moonlit canoe ride. “You’re so naïve in some ways. It doesn’t have anything to do with burning.”

As the Senators’ winning streak continues so does Joe’s dismay. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “the splendour of the daylight grows drearier than the dark/ And life droops like a vulture that once was such a lark.”

Joe rents a room from Bess (who has become a Senators fan) in his old home and feigns sickness, but a visit from the team’s gentle, benevolent owner Adam Welch, who reveals that he has only months to live, brings him back to the team.
A New York sportswriter’s column questioning his mysterious past leads to a suspension for a commissioner’s hearing on Sept. 21, which clears him but carries him past the Devil’s deadline.
Doomed and damned, he faces New York for the last time in a game that will decide the pennant.

To his horror, he realizes too late that the Devil is (but of course!) a Yankees fan.
What happens? Pull Damn Yankees off the shelf and read it for yourself.
What happened for real in 1958? Well, the Senators sure didn’t win the pennant. The Yankees did, ten games ahead of the White Sox, and went on to win yet another World Series, defeating the Milwaukee Braves in seven games, winning the last three.
The Senators? They finished dead last, 31 games out of first place and 12 games out of seventh.
But they played the Yankees tough, going into their last meeting down 11-10 in their head-to-head series, battling for a tie on the season.

The Yankees shut them out, 7-0.

G.K. Chesterton was right: “For the Devil is a gentleman, and doesn’t keep his word.”

Thanks for the baseball memories for this to Journal Star features editor and Cubs fans who once attended a 15-inning win with me and my Marquette University 1964-68 chum, Dave “Dwarf” Hoose, Dennis Dimond (RIP 2005) and Illinois Central College Harbinger and Journal Star sportswriter and Foster ICC journalism survivor Ryan Ori.

Memories are what baseball is all about, of course.

A 2013 anthology of a hundred memories celebrates the centenary of the beleaguered Cubs.

WRIGLEY FIELD: 100 STORIES FOR 100 YEARS is edited by Brad Campana and ICC Harbinger feature editor survivor Rob Carroll.

My memoir is #39. The book also features 99 other short essays by Joe Girardi, Rick Sutcliffe, Dan Roan, Mitch Williams, Jeff Santo, Chip Caray, Steve Stone and assorted Cubs players, broadcasters, local fans like Lacon’s Matt Junker, and Ronnie “Woo Woo” Wickert.

You never forget your first time.

My first visit to Wrigley Field happened during midsummer, 1983.

All-around All Star Journalist, writer, editor, and retired Western Illinois University professor Bill Knight, my erstwhile editor at the Prairie Sun, a lively free Midwestern newspaper covering politics, music, and so on, had been amazed to learn that I had never ever been to a game in the friendly confines of that brick Mecca.

Guilty as charged.

My dad Claude taught me to love reading and jazz, but he was not the kind of father to go out and throw a baseball back and forth with. In baseball, as in other sports, what I lacked in size and strength, I made up for in slowness and lack of coordination.

Growing up on Peoria’s East Bluff, I avoided Little League successfully and spent my summer days swimming in Glen Oak Park’s pool and making moolah as a Peoria Journal Star paper boy. I had a decent glove and a forty-ounce Louisville Slugger bat, both gifts that languished in the closet while I built my record and comic book collections.

So one fine hot Saturday, Bill procured tickets for five: me, my wife Jo (a longtime fan of the Milwaukee Braves, her hometown team), and my erstwhile Illinois Central College journalism student Jeff Putnam and his wife Janice.

We loaded into my 1976 Dodge Aspen Station Wagon From Hell and set off from Metamora to Wrigleyville. I found a tight parking place on Irving Park, squeezed it in, and we hiked over to the ball game.

Our seats were on the first base side, about twenty rows up. A balmy breeze blew in from the west. The sky glowed bright blue with puffy clouds straight out of a Maxfield Parrish painting.

“Beer man! Five!” Bill shouted, and for the first time I witnessed the honest chain of money going down the row one way and Old Styles coming back down the other. “Hot dog man! Five!” Bill called out again, and again the dollars went one way and the dogs came back the other.

And right there and then I decided that, like Paris and Oxford, Wrigley Field was a place I wanted to return to soon and often. And that was before the Frosty Malts. Heck, the Cubs may have even won that game.
In 1984, Knight and I co-authored and self-published THE CUB FAN’S CHRISTMAS WISH, a baseball fantasy set in that brownstone on Waveland just over the left field wall.

By then I was helplessly, hopelessly hooked. We’d been at the Peoria Bergner’s store before it opened on the day single game tickets first went on sale in 1984, speed-walked to the Ticketmaster outlet, and bought tickets for four games for us and our two daughters, Martha and Megan, then fourteen and nine. I attended three more games with buddies.

What a summer that was! No bad seats, no bad weather. Behind MVP Ryne Sandberg and Cy Young winner Rick Sutcliffe, the Cubs went 96-65 and finished in first place with a .596 percentage. The girls learned to know and love the Cubs, even (uh-oh) relief pitcher Lee Smith. This was the year!

Then in the fifth game of the 1984 playoff series with the Padres, a routine grounder skipped under Leon Durham’s glove and between his feet. Midnight had tolled for Cinderella. Never mind, we said. Next year for sure.

That was thirty years ago.

For our sins, we would return many times. The ticket prices and beer prices steadily increased, street parking became impossible, and the Cubs slowly declined.

But memories rich as rubies remain. We were there when Padres pitcher Eric Show beaned Andre Dawson, who’d homered off him in the first inning. Dawson went down like a dead man. An angry howl came from the stands while a Niagara of beer descended on the San Diego outfielders. After seconds that seemed minutes, Dawson got up and woozily charged the mound while Rick Sutcliffe led an enraged dugout full of Cubs out to the mound on a vengeful vendetta.

Once we took a charter coach trip up to a game from the Metamora IGA. The bus was late and we arrived just in time for Kerry Wood’s “comeback” game. He gave up six hits and five runs and was pulled in the first with an extrapolated ERA of infinity. The bus rides took longer going and coming than the game did.

For a while, I did opening day games with Knight, Jerry McDowell, and Dennis Dimond, a group of Journal Star newsroom cronies from Peoria. No matter how many layers I wore, I froze from the feet up, a Cubscicle, drinking a beer that got steadily colder as we did.

For several years, I saw opening day from the bleachers, standing along the fence with Washington ICC English, mythology, and creative writing professor Craig Shurtleff, Metamora farmer Pete Streid, in the left field bleachers with Tom Tonnesen, Dave Hoose and the Wisconsin Cheese-heads party.

The longest game I ever saw was 15 innings. Harry Caray sang twice. From our upper deck vantage point, Journal Star feature editor Dimond and I could see two people (at least) holding him by his belt as he leaned out in the 14th. We composed the headline (WOMAN, TWO CHILDREN KILLED AS CUBS’ SEMI-NUDE ANNOUNCER FALLS FROM WGN BOOTH) but it was unneeded.

Cubs won.

I was in the bleachers on opening day the year after Harry Caray died. We didn’t see the phalanx of bagpipers massed on Waveland right behind us. When they swirled in with “Amazing Grace,” there were no dry eyes in Wrigley.

Time passed. In 2000, I broke three lower back vertebrae in a swimming accident. Seven years later, a hip replacement slowed me down further. For all its charms, Wrigley isn’t a handicapped hobbler’s best friend. Wife Jo and I took in our last Friendly Confines game in 2011. We’ve seen them play in Atlanta, Milwaukee, and St. Louis, but whatever their virtues, those parks are not Wrigley.

Oh, well. Anyone can have a bad year, or 105 of them. The Cub Fan’s Christmas Wish is in the library of the Baseball Hall Of Fame and Museum, so even if Sammy Sosa isn’t in Cooperstown, our book is.

My younger daughter Megan and her husband Frank took their daughters Madeleine and Emma to Wrigley for the first time last year, and the Cubs won.

So hope springs eternal. Next year for sure!

But let’s let a true historian of American have the last at-bat of this chronicle.

In Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir by Doris Kearns Goodwin that I reviewed with research help from retired Illinois Central College sociology professor Carol May, Goodwin tells her tale of many heartbreaks and—at last–triumph. reviewed by Mike Foster.

Presidential and baseball historian Goodwin grew up both Catholic and a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, so from about age six onward, she was well acquainted with the notion of suffering and joy.
Famed as a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jack Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, Goodwin here writes about every writer’s favorite subject: oneself.
“When I was six, my father gave me a bright-red scorebook that opened my heart to the game of baseball,” Goodwin begins.
Brooklyn-born in 1943, she was soon immersed in scoring each day’s Dodgers game heard on the radio, still the best way to savor baseball, as reading books is superior to seeing films of them.

Summer nights after supper, she and her bank examiner dad Michael would discuss it on their porch. A historian was incarnated.

The postwar Dodgers were a grand bunch: Campanella, Hodges, Reese, and the big leagues’ first Negro player, Jackie Robinson. “Never would there be a better time to be a Dodger fan.”

In Rockville Centre, where the Kearns had migrated, loyalties were divided between the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers “with the crucial moments in a team’s history repeated like the liturgy in a church service.” The German butchers, who called her “Ragmop,” were Giant fans who mocked her good-but-never-good enough “dem Bums.”

Melded into this memoir, lovingly illuminated by family photos, are accounts of girlhood trips with her two older sisters to Jones Beach, school friends and enemies, the Bobbsey Twins and the Rosenbergs, the HUAC and the NAACP, demagogue Sen. Joe McCarthy and heroic reporter Ben Fine, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino.

In 1950 at age seven, her “twin passions for the church and baseball collided.” Her first confession , fraught with trauma, is recounted:

“Speaking as softly as I could, I made my admission.

‘I wished harm to Allie Reynolds.’

‘The Yankee pitcher?’ he asked, surprise and concern in his voice. ‘And how did you wish to harm him?’

‘I wanted him to break his arm.’

‘And how often did you make this wish?’

‘Every night,’ I admitted, ‘before going to bed, in my prayers.’

‘And were there others?’”

There were. After a gentle but firm rebuke, the priest absolves her.

“‘For your penance, say two Hail Marys, three Our Fathers, and’ he added with a chuckle, ‘say a special prayer for the Dodgers.’”

After many “tales of tragedy and memories of defeat,” five during her young lifetime, at last, in 1955 when she was 12, came redemption and glory.

In a seven-game thriller against the feared and loathed Yankees, she listens, transfixed, to the Series’ last game with her classmates. Running the mile home, she hears the bottom of the ninth. “Give us three more outs, I prayed. Please, God, only three more outs.”

God hears. Elston Howard grounds to Reese who throws to Hodges.

“There was a moment of frozen silence. Then Vin Scully said the words I had waited most of my life to hear: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the Brooklyn Dodgers are the champions of the world.’”

But in 1957, Jackie Robinson retired and the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Babylon: Los Angeles. Television and flight to the suburbs had changed Rockville Centre for good , but not for the better.

In 1958, her beloved mother Jeanne died suddenly. The girl, now a woman, had gone from grief to glory to grief again.

As Walter Cronkite would say at the end of CBS’ You Were There show:
“What kind of a day was it? A day like all days, filled with events that alter and illuminate our time. And you were there.”

Finally, let a priest, Chicago native and Cubs fan Fr. Gregory Josefiak, pastor of St. Mary of Lourdes Catholic Church, have the benedictionary last word as he did in his All Soul’s Sunday Mass on Nov. 2, the day this was written.

Today Fr. Greg said in another gibe at our parish’s many St. Louis Cardinals’ fans:

“We Chicago Cubs fans will bypass Purgatory because we’ve endured 108 years of it here on earth.”


3 comments on “The Poetry of Baseball by Mike Foster

  1. John G. Moffatt
    November 7, 2014

    Nice hit Mike!


  2. Avis Moffatt-Clark
    November 11, 2014

    Enjoyed this.


  3. Mike Foster
    November 17, 2014

    Thanks, Canadians Avis & John


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This entry was posted on November 4, 2014 by in Reflections, Sports and tagged , , .


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