George Plimpton once noted “a correlation between the standard of writing about a particular sport and the ball it utilizes.” He called it “the Small Ball Theory” because the editors whose job it was to knock down the caps and hyphenate the compound modifier either nodded or lost the argument to the World Famous Author. Of the four or five major professional team sports in America, baseball makes for the best writing, according to the scheme Plimpton laid out in his introduction to The Norton Book of Sports (1992). A few weeks before the volume’s publication, the New York Times ran his essay (adapted) under the title “The Smaller the Ball, the Better the Book: A Game Theory of Literature”:
The smaller the ball, the more formidable the literature. There are superb books about golf, very good books about baseball, not many good books about football or soccer, very few good books about basketball and no good books at all about beach balls.
Plimpton found it hard “to apply any theory to poetry about sports,” however. Donald Hall agreed with him that “though hundreds of poems have been written” on the topic (only hundreds?), almost all were “second-rate.”
Hall: “One of the problems, of course, is that poems should never be about anything.”
As if to prove his two points, that sports poems tend to be meh and that poems about anything should never be about anything, Hall wrote “Baseball” (1993), apparently a labor of love. A little more labored than lovely, alas. Baseball is in the poem, but so is the kitchen sink. None of it excites me much. Still, I’m glad that literary oddity exists, all nine sections of it, each consisting of nine stanzas of nine lines of nine syllables: nine to the fourth power because the author knew baseball numerology, which is dominated by 3 and 4 and multiples thereof. If you want to determine who the three best players of all time are, consider that the last name of George Herman Ruth, Tyrus Raymond Cobb, and Willie Howard Mays each has exactly as many letters as there are bases, and balls to a base, and that the number of letters in their full name is, in each case, four squared. Sorry, Theodore Samuel Williams. Hall, a New Englander most of his life, was a Sox fan.
He died in Wilmot, N.H., eight days ago. To eulogize him now breaks the rules of the caffeinated fast-twitch news cycle, and then to praise him specifically for his baseball writing decades after its publication violates the spirit of the game as the current commissioner, with his fixation on clocks and his anxiety over the passage of time, would like to remake it. Well, let’s break those rules. And violate that spirit. Hall was not one for hot takes anyway. The purpose of baseball was to provide material for him to write about, and he held up his end of the bargain.
Baseball inspires “the best prose,” he wrote. That would be his. You know the form of writing that the 14th Poet Laureate of the United States is most famous for, but his range was greater than that. In that department, range, he was, you might say, up there with Ripken Jr., the best shortstop ever for the team that bears the same name, Baltimore Orioles, as that of the minor-league club that in 1929 offered a contract to Hall’s father, who turned it down because in those days professional ballplayers didn’t earn so much “and besides,” as Donald later imagined him telling the scout, “there is the baby.” The baby grew up to embarrass himself a little as a wannabe athlete, and then to distinguish himself as the author of more than half a hundred books. They include — besides the poetry — essays, memoirs, biographies, plays, short stories, children’s literature, and a couple of textbooks. That’s range.
“It all began in the eighth grade,” Hall recounted.
When I tried out for the baseball team, they didn’t cut me, they just laughed at me. . . . That’s why I started to write poems. The humiliation. I could not be good at anything in sports, so I looked around to see what else I could do, to get attention. Especially from girls.
He found attention. He’d been basking in a fair amount of it for much of his adulthood when a literary agent pressured him, now in his mid forties, to revisit the trauma of eighth grade. The plan was for Hall, American man of letters, to spend spring training with the Pittsburgh Pirates, in a uniform, running (or trying) and fielding and taking batting practice and so on, and then writing it all up into something after the fashion of Plimpton’s Out of My League (1961).
Torn, between dread of renewed humiliation and the thrill of being almost a major-leaguer for a few weeks, he braces himself and goes down to Florida. “I am terrified. . . . My palms sweat. . . . I call George Plimpton.”
George answers the phone. I tell him, rapidly and apparently in accents of panic, what I am up to. George seems concerned for my spirits. “Why are you whispering?” he says. “You seem to be telling a secret.”
But he agrees to give me advice. He suggests that I listen — a lot.
“You mean that I shouldn’t talk?” I say.
“Yeah,” says George. There is a pause. “Do they know who you are, Donald?” he says.
I say I don’t think so. . . .
“I wonder if I know anyone on the Pirates,” he says. “Do I know anybody?”
I let him think about it.
“No,” he says.
There is another long pause. He can’t think of anything more to tell me. Or perhaps it is difficult for him to phrase his final piece of advice. “Oh,” he says, “. . . above all, Donald, don’t be solemn.”
“Oh,” I say, “yeah. I guess I sound sort of solemn, do I?’
“You sound,” says George, “as if you were entering the Valley of the Shadow of Death.”
Hall records the astonishment that the Pittsburgh players and coaches expressed at the sorriness of his physical condition. They found his serious athletic incompetence entertaining and gathered round at batting practice to watch the show. One of the players who enjoyed teasing him was Dock Ellis. He became a friend, and then the subject of Hall’s book set in “baseball country,” where “time is the air we breathe, and the wind swirls us backward and forward, until we seem so reckoned in time and seasons that all time and all seasons become the same.”