To celebrate the onset of October baseball, I decided to read a book my wife purchased a year ago that had been sitting on our bedside table since: Fathers Playing Catch with Sons: Essays on Sport [Mostly Baseball] by Donald Hall, former poet laureate of the United States (2006-7). Hall passed away this June at the age of 89, a rare breed of American poet that somehow managed to cross over into popular acclaim during his lifetime. Hall and his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, were the subject of Bill Moyers’ 1993 documentary Life Together, Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall, and you can find a PBS remembrance of Hall below. Reading the book felt pivotal, both in homage to Hall and in preparation for the playoffs!
Hall was a life-long advocate of baseball and incorporated sports writing into his poetic practice regularly. Poets rarely admit their love for sports, if they have any, and poems about sports are hard to come by—good ones anyway. Despite this, baseball has somehow managed to capture the attention of a great deal of our most famous poets—Walt Whitman, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams—though generally only for a poem or two.
Hall, on the other hand, wrote about baseball regularly and across genres. His most famous sports poem is called, simply, “Baseball”, appearing originally in The Museum of Clear Ideas (Houghton Mifflin, 1993). The poem consists of nine innings, with each “inning” composed of nine stanzas of nine lines each. That’s nine cubed, in case you are wondering—729 lines of poetry!—a lengthy undertaking, much like a single game of baseball. The poem blends personal instance with a wide range of philosophical topics, all viewed through the lens of wanting to explain baseball to the early 20th century German collagist and sound artist Kurt Schwitters. Not your standard baseball poem!
In Fathers Playing Catch with Sons, however, Hall includes only two brief poems: “The Baseball Players” and “Couplet.” The majority of the book is comprised of memoir-like essays of not only Hall’s thoughts on sport, but also his personal accomplishments and travails as an “athlete.” The book oscillates between a serious and jocular tone throughout, and is a great read for not only lovers of baseball, but for anyone interested in how a poet might invite sport into his or her life as an aid, rather than a hindrance, to writing life.
The most fascinating portion of the book, for sports fans and poets alike, is Hall’s foray to Pittsburgh Pirates’ spring training in 1973. Hall’s agent set it up that Hall could participate in spring training with the team, in all aspects, as a journalistic assignment. Hall arrives uproariously out-of-shape, barely able to complete two laps around the field. The comedic nature of Hall’s batting practice, for instance, is entertaining, but also insightful in regard to how the players treat Hall and interact with him. They are welcoming, for the most part, if also slightly confused and, of course, making use of the moment to poke fun at the “old man” (he is 44 at the time).
The most charismatic Pirate is Dock Ellis, and this initial journalistic assignment led to Hall collaborating on a loose biography with Ellis, Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball (Simon & Schuster, 1976). Of course, Ellis later became wildly famous for his no-hitter pitched on lysergic acid (LSD) on June 12, 1970 against the Padres. Despite the mythic, “How could that even be possible?” nature of Ellis’ no-no on LSD, Ellis was, more importantly, an outspoken advocate for equal rights in baseball and wasn’t shy about calling out the sport’s institutional racism in the mid-70’s. Hall and Ellis formed a deep bond, and the opening 45 pages to Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball are included in Fathers Playing Catch with Sons.
Along with the title essay, where Hall does in fact discuss his father, and how the love of baseball was ingrained in him at a very young age (as it is for many of us, by our mothers and fathers), the other essays in Fathers Playing Catch with Sons discuss Fenway Park (Hall hailed from New England), the pleasures of attending an old-timer’s game, the attraction baseball has held historically for poets (even if sporadically), and, for anyone wanting to delve deeply into the history of baseball literature, Hall provides, in two separate essays, an extensive list, with accompanying synopses, of books and shorter pieces he deems indispensable to the pantheon of American baseball writing. Though parts of these sections are unbelievably dry, the suggestions for further reading are exhaustive and illuminative and speak to Hall’s avid dedication to both the game and its writerly champions.
Finally, in a pleasing addendum, the book concludes with essays on basketball, football, Kevin McHale, a remembrance of Hall’s adolescent aspirations as a fledgling sportswriter, and ping-pong.
While this book is entirely refreshing and a great entrance point for anyone wanting to bridge the worlds of creativity and sports, it is difficult to look past Hall’s unwillingness to include women in the book. Granted this book was published over thirty years ago, most of it written well before then, but it would be remiss not to mention this, given Hall’s unabashed masculine tone throughout the book.
Other than a brief passage concerning his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon (“Jane loves baseball too”), women are basically absent from the entire book. I found this unfortunate, given that Hall is not an athlete but a writer investigating athletics in a unique and intelligent way—surely women in some capacity were involved in nearly everything Hall writes about. The one mention of his daughter is dismissive, even, belittling her chances at becoming a flautist for the Boston Symphony (though Hall does admit he has hurt her feelings: “She has daydreams too”).
Despite Hall’s myopia, blessedly, as Richard C. Crepeau notes: “The title of the collection has become a cliché in the language of baseball, and it is a line that has been spoken over and over again . . . Over the years, under the influence of Title IX, it has been transformed to cover fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, mothers and daughters.”
Society’s progression toward a more equal, aware, and inclusive sports world has caught up to Hall, thankfully, and with this in the mind, given the variety of pieces and distinctively intimate entrance points Hall provides as a poet, sportswriter, avid fan, athlete, parent and son, Fathers Playing Catch with Sons maintains a unique place in the annals of baseball literature.
It is interesting that given the passion, and mythology, with which Americans enjoy their sports, that there aren’t more sporting poems. Aside from a brilliant series of sonnets connected to the Oakland Athletics I read some years ago, I can’t call any such writing to mind. I’m glad to know of Hall’s work, and glad to have read this excellent examination, and important critique, of it. Thanks!
Thanks Mr. Winfield! You have a wonderful baseball name 🙂 I appreciate it your kind comments very much.
My column will run every two weeks so be on the lookout for more book reviews. And I’d love to read the Oakland Athletics sonnets you speak of!
Thanks Mr. Winfield! What a baseball name you have. I appreciate your kind words.
Look for my column every couple weeks! And I would love to see that Oakland A’s sonnet book you speak of.