As good ole Mike from Pickers would say, some of these do indeed look “pretty toasty.”
It’s time to expand the digital collection of the best worst Mickey Mantles. Some of these appear just mildly, colorfully marred–while others belong in a category specially reserved for the utterly wretched, shipwrecked, and weather-wracked. . . . And, again, if you happen to have a beautifully ruined Mickey Mantle that you’d like to share, then by all means please feel free to comment to this post with a link to your own poor Mickey Mantle.
This is an example of the timeline for publishing creative, short non-fiction about baseball: write a rough draft in 2011, edit several times, submit to a half-dozen journals, receive rejections six months later; rewrite in 2012, edit several more times, resubmit to a few places, receive more rejections after six or even nine months; and, “one last time,” edit & tweak just a little more in 2013, submit to just one very niche yet fitting publication, and, at last, receive word of acceptance–then wait just a little longer, out of courtesy to the editors, before sharing on a blog in 2014. . . . I therefore figure that enough time has passed that I can finally post at least an excerpt from “Bums, Burns, & the Brooklyn Dodgers,” an essay of mine that the kind editors at Spitball published last year in issue #73. However, out of respect for the little baseball literary magazine, I’m still not going to post the entire piece; anyway, the original is bookended by a more personal narrative that doesn’t really need to appear here.
Lastly, about this beautiful, blue-hued image of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers: the photo is from the cover of Dem Bums: The Brooklyn Dodgers, which my lovely wife gave to me as a gift during the annual and seemingly interminable baseball drought that is winter.
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. . . . So imagine my surprise when in the middle of watching the “Shadow Ball” episode from Ken Burns’s sprawling PBS series, Baseball (1994-2010), I heard a narrator elucidate the deeper historical roots of this often (though not exclusively) derogatory expression. Yes, the marvelous, two-hour program documents the surely more broadly, culturally intriguing dilemmas—and, strangely enough, delights—of baseball’s “Negro leagues.” For example, Burns edifies with accounts of how black players sometimes performed a curious game of “shadow ball.” The term referred not to any racial epithet, as you may tentatively cringe with suspicion, but instead how these vastly underappreciated athletes practiced with a “ghost” ball—and with such reputed skill as to dupe the eyes of even the most watchful onlooker. All this, alongside detailed attention to other key events, rising stars, and the fading of that greatest star of the major leagues, Babe Ruth, and Burns delivers a masterpiece once more.
However, in the midst of this greater narrative delivered via some gravelly though often eloquent voices of historians, poets, broadcasters, and aficionados, the episode segues into the exploits and largely laughable disasters of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Disdainfully known for their notoriously poor performances and almost clownish attitude, the team came to be named by fans and foes alike as, you guessed it, “dem bums.”
This rather popular moniker aside, though, the team’s official name originated from an even more ubiquitous notoriety. The Dodgers name actually stemmed from a joking insult that many New Yorkers reserved for Brooklyners. It was all due to that unfashionable borough’s muddled network of trolley cars—hence the old slur, “trolley dodgers.” Early on, the team also moved to a precariously located stadium (at Eastern Park), bordered treacherously on two sides by busy trolley line tracks. The team was thereafter known as the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers. Albeit this nickname was subsequently shortened to simply the Brooklyn Dodgers, which, despite a number of other christenings given by fans, eventually ended up as the team’s official name in the early 1930s.
All this was but merely a predecessor to the team’s status as “dem bums.” Despite an outstanding hitter, Babe Herman, who was just as outstanding a mishap in the outfield, the Brooklyn team largely disappointed the citizenry. As their slump persisted, their unofficially eponymous reputation did, too. And the other name finally stuck when it appeared in the work of newspaper cartoonist Willard Mullin and his popular drawings of the time. Fittingly, the story goes that Mullin first heard the term of endearment one day from a cabbie curious to know how the team fared that afternoon.
Indeed, it did become an endearing term—and one that endured as, eventually, Brooklyn started to actually win some games. But that was long ago. Funny enough, any such fondness in the old expression seems far removed now. . . .
Maybe my fevered pitch on Friday night had something to do with the fact that I recently watched more Sports Night episodes than I care to admit. Or it could be that I religiously follow Keith Olbermann’s show on ESPN–so much that I often check his Twitter feed for updates on his latest shingles flare up so I know in advance if he’ll be on the air. Whatever the case, when actor Josh Charles (a.k.a. Dan Rydell) made a surprise guest appearance and joined Olbermann to help out with some of the highlights, I believe I emitted a sound resembling that of a starstruck little girl. Indeed, my wife turned to me with a perplexed look–as if to confirm I had, in fact, morphed into that very form.
Hey folks, I have a featured piece this week on Sports Collectors Digest! Really, I promise. (I even have a screenshot to prove it.) And in case you’re new to SCD, it’s also an old haunt of Keith Olbermann’s, an occasional contributor for the publication. So that definitely made my day, week, and month. In any case, you can read the Poor Mickey Mantle(s) essay here.
Dan Quisenberry, in Memoriam
—on reading a Quisenberry baseball poem
smudge of a fruit-bearing shrub:
miniature lines aquiver, hookt—
bittersweet orbs to glove
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Honestly, I only recently heard about Dan Quisenberry’s story as pitcher-turned-poet. I first encountered the curious, redolent name when reading Roger Angell’s brief but remorseful account in “Penmen.” In this quintessential piece from his “Takes” column, Angell reflects how the aspiring writer turned to an all too dubious professional essayist and author in Angell himself, who would later come to regret his hasty skepticism. Later, “Quiz” resurfaced in my baseball reading—while amidst thumbing through some Aethlon back issues I stumbled upon Andrew Hazucha’s “An Elegy for Quiz: the Plaintive Verse of Baseball’s Best Poet.” Baseball and poetry: now I was hooked.
If you don’t know about Quisenberry’s delightful personality and lamentably abrupt end, “An Elegy for Quiz” is as good as any place to start. Hazucha’s prose conveys that often illusive, utterly heartfelt tonality without succumbing to those pitfalls of sentimentality. (An excerpt of the finely woven biographical narrative and poetic analysis follows below.) In fact, Hazucha’s informative essay compelled me to seek out more of Quisenberry’s poetry.
Indeed, I simply couldn’t resist the urge when I found a used copy of On Days Like This, Quisenberry’s collection of poetry. And the secondhand paperback isn’t too badly weathered either: a small tea or coffee stain mars the edge of the front cover, but the binding is tight. Anyway, it’s inside what matters. Albeit a little uneven—if not, understandably, underdeveloped in his poetic prowess—ultimately Quiz does not disappoint. The slim volume contains some stunning, fruitful efforts that in all likelihood only a former, experienced ballplayer could have crafted with such authenticity. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten this close to the diamond’s evocative smells of bruised leather and freshly pulled dirt as Dan’s poetry so succeeds in bringing it to me.
Again, though, Hazucha says as much in reviving this notable baseball poet, and I’m very glad he does.
Excerpt from “An Elegy for Quiz: the Plaintive Verse of Baseball’s Best Poet”:
September 2010 marks the twelfth anniversary of the death of Dan Quisenberry. Although he was the most dominant relief pitcher in baseball from 1980 to 1985 and the recipient of numerous pitching awards during his playing days with the Kansas City Royals, it is Quisenberry the poet who continues to surprise and delight those who are fortunate enough to come across his numerous forays into free verse. (1) Although legions of other baseball players have dabbled in literature, the most famous of whom is Jim Bouton in his tell-all memoir Ball Foul; precious few have aspired to write poetry, and none so studiously and successfully as Quisenberry. (2) After his baseball career ended in 1990, Quisenberry enrolled in multi-genre writing workshops in the Kansas City area and quickly found his niche with poetry. His second career as a poet was just beginning to take off, with frequent public readings and a book contract, when he was cut down by cancer at the age of 45.
A good introduction to Quisenberry’s verse is “Ode to Dick Howser,” first published in the spring 1996 issue of the poetry journal New Letters. In this poem Quisenberry honors the former manager of the Kansas City Royals not by sentimentalizing his memories of the man or dwelling on the brain tumor that killed him, but instead noting Howser’s very human shortcomings: the pet phrases Howser liked to repeat to his team ad nauseum, his stubborn habit of almost never dipping into his bench to relieve the same nine men he played every day, and the careful emotional distance he maintained between himself and his players, symbolized by the dark sunglasses he perpetually wore that gave him “shadows for his eyes” (3). Yet, despite his refusal to let his players get to know him, Howser somehow managed to win until the very end, when a malignant brain tumor finished his 1986 season at the All-Star break. The following spring, writes Quisenberry, Howser abandoned a comeback attempt at managing the team and gave a final speech to his players. As Quisenberry describes the scene, Howser had now discarded his sunglasses:
this small man who fought big now looked us in the eyes just a man who no longer talked of winning but hinted at life beyond champagne. (78-83)
Two years after the publication of this poem, Quisenberry was himself dead of a malignant brain tumor, a disease that took his life a few short months after his first full-length book of poems, a volume entitled On Days Like This, was published by Helicon Nine Editions, a small Kansas City press. When he was writing these poems, Quisenberry had no idea that he would share the fate of his old manager because he was asymptomatic until the book was nearing completion. (3) Yet, despite Quisenberry’s ignorance of his own impending and early death, several poems in the collection treat not only the passage of time and the poet’s own aging, but also the figurative death that awaits him beyond baseball. In a sense, then, Dick Howser’s sunglasses become for the poet a metaphor for false bravado in the face of the unknown. The bare-faced skipper is more authentic than the bespectacled one for Quisenberry, whose ars poetica is his own fierce refusal to put on masks, his insistence always on his own ordinariness, and his assertion that, when used with the proper reverence and humility, language itself has more power than the arm of the closer, who so often stands on the mound “scared, lonely, surrounded.” (4)
Angell, Roger, and Steve Kettmann. “Penmen.” Game Time: A Baseball Companion. San Diego: Harcourt, 2003. 238-?.
Hazucha, Andrew. “An elegy for quiz: the plaintive verse of baseball’s best poet.” Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature 26.2 (2009): 103-?.
*Visit the Dan Quisenberry Wikipedia entry here.
Or Kenneth “Kingfish” Washington–the first African American signed to an NFL team in the modern era. He played college football with Jackie Robinson at UCLA and was considered by many to be a standout athlete in his own right. After some gigs with a couple of minor professional football leagues and more than a few knee injuries later, the NFL finally ended a prolonged ban on black players when Washington joined the Los Angeles Rams. However, too much time and too many injuries had already transpired. Playing only three seasons with the Rams, Washington retired in 1948–but not before at least one vibrant, beautiful card issue could be made. Now it’s been gradually unmade by man and the brutal process of deterioration. Now it’s been beautifully wrecked with all of the fitting metaphoric potential. Colors appear faded, corners indicate signs of dogeared folds, and an almost evenly divided quadrant of creases seems to segregate poor Kenny from himself. But it’s still here holding on strong to an ever slipping, tenuous existence. And while in the hushed arenas of collective memory his stat. lines may yield only whispers, Kenny Washington’s breakthrough should instead summon from bottom to uppermost tiers a resonant, undulant roar.
Visit the Kenny Washington Wikipedia entry here.
Image courtesy of COMC.com.