Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Essayists in the Outfield

Now that it’s World Series time—finally—I have a pretext for linking to this essay—finally--by Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Fernando Perez, from the September issue of Poetry magazine, about the alienation that poets and ballplayers share. Perez may have had a lousy year at the plate (.206 in 18 games) but his essay gave him the major-league-lead in appearances in prestigious literary journals. It also got him a lot of attention. A story on NPR called him, not quite correctly, “baseball’s poet.”

Most professional athletes don’t keep well-thumbed volumes of John Ashbery poems in their lockers. So it’s not such a surprise that Perez's essay and his reading habits made news. What’s remarkable is that his literacy hasn’t made him a clubhouse pariah. Perez’s writing places him in the long and troubled tradition of the Literate Jock--athletes whose literary inclinations won them public notice, but also alienated them from their less-literate peers.

The tradition dates back at least to boxer Gene Tunney, who in the 1920s famously corresponded with George Bernard Shaw and lectured on his favorite play, “Troilus and Cressida,” at Yale while he was heavyweight champ. (He compared the dimwitted Ajax to challenger Jack Sharkey.) His literary interests—or pretensions, as many said—were sensationalized in the press as something of a carnival sideshow, and the New York Times, put a report of his Yale lecture on its front page. But Tunney’s reputation as the brainy boxer only distanced him from boxing fans and writers, and he ended up ridiculed as a “phony intellectual.” “His aloofness from the sport…coupled with his literacy, scholarly bent and wealth, damn near made him a pariah,” wrote biographer Jack Cavanaugh.

The perils of jock literacy are even more evident in team sports, where one guy reading a book in a locker room tends to be seen as the sort of stunt that will upset team chemistry. In his seminal 1960 book, The Long Season, Jim Brosnan, who pitched for the Cubs, Cardinals and Reds in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, writes about confounding his teammates by reading a book on a team flight. They took to calling him “Professor.” When Brosnan’s own book appeared, it was seen as an outright provocation, a violation of the sanctity of the clubhouse. In the preface to a 1975 new edition, Brosnan explained the problem: "As an active player on a big-league team I had seemingly taken undue advantage by recording an insider's viewpoint on what some professional baseball players were really like. I had, moreover, violated the idolatrous image of big leaguers who had been previously portrayed as models of modesty, loyalty and sobriety -- i.e., what they were really not like. Finally, I had actually written the book by myself, thus trampling upon the tradition that a player should hire a sportswriter to do the work. I was, on these accounts, a sneak and a snob and a scab."

By then at least one other pitcher-author could commiserate. After former New York Yankee and Seattle Pilot Jim Bouton published his tell-all Ball Four in 1970—curse words included--the first stop he had to make was at baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s office. He was asked to repudiate his own book. Ball Four became a number-one bestseller, but that only seemed to aggravate Bouton’s offenses in the eyes of other ballplayers. He'd told clubhouse secrets and, maybe even worse, he'd engaged in the intellectual pretense of writing a book - and he wasn't even a star. When batters knocked his pitches all over the park, as they increasingly did, the catcalls came from the opposing dugout: ''Put that in your book, Shakespeare.” (My old essay on Bouton from the New York Times Book Review is here.)

Even before the book came out, Bouton’s interest in reading and writing separated him from his teammates. He wrote of his teammates trying to sneak a look at the notebook he kept with him, and of a teammate asking him if reading makes him smarter. Nothing in Ball Four is more touching than Bouton's take on the lot of the outsider on a baseball team, traveling for six months with two dozen men who have little use for him: ''I know about lonely summers. In my last years with the Yankees I had a few of them. You stand in a hotel lobby talking with guys at dinnertime and they drift away, and some other guys come along and pretty soon they're gone and you're all alone and no one has asked you what you're doing about dinner. So you eat alone.''

Given the history of literate jocks, you might expect Perez to be in for a similarly cold shoulder. It’s not so much that Perez published (after all, sports memoirs are now legion, of course, and so are jock-blogs) but that he’s so unapologetically bookish. He writes in “Para Rumbiar”: I’m not especially touched when a poet deals with a ball game; I’m not especially interested in having one world endear itself to the other. Right now I need them apart, right now I’m after displacement, contrast. The thick wilderness of, say, late Ashbery, can wrangle with the narrowness of competition.”

That doesn’t sound like anyone’s idea of clubhouse banter, but Perez’s erudition—like Brosnan, he has been known to keep books in his locker-- hasn’t seemed to alienate him from his teammates. A scout quoted in a New York Times profile called him a “clique-breaker,” the kind of player who gets along with all the factions that tend to form in a big-league clubhouse. Nor has he run afoul of the authorities, like Bouton. Perez was the subject of an admiring story on Major League Baseball’s website, the kind of attention that doesn’t usually come to weak-hitting outfielders who spend much of the season recovering from wrist surgery.

Not that I mean to suggest that Perez is wiping out anti-intellectualism in sports. Locker rooms are not turning into libraries. And the next time you hear an ex-jock broadcaster use a multi-syllabic word on the air, you will also more than likely hear his partner bust his chops for it. What’s different about Perez’s essay is that, even though it’s written by a baseball player, it’s not really about baseball at all. “Para Rumbiar” mentions three poets—Ashbery, Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsberg—but not a single major leaguer. That may be one reason Perez has avoided the trouble other Literate Jocks have found. His essay didn’t bother the baseball world because it didn’t hit close to home.

But then, that’s what makes it worth reading. Perez in “Para Rumbiar” tells us less about playing baseball than about some of the psychic states—exhaustion, isolation, idleness—that go along with the job. It took a Literate Jock to notice that these are the places poetry often comes from, too.

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