Kerouac's game -- comments, Isaacs, McGrath

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9:03 PM - Sep 14, 2015 #1

© 2002 by Stan Isaacs.

An item in a newspaper caught my attention. The story was about a literary exhibit
in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library that featured, among others,
artifacts of the beat writer Jack Kerouac.

The exhibit, winding up next week, includes some of the home-made cards
fashioned by Kerouac as a kid into a baseball game which he played even as an adult.
The Newsday story by Aileen Jacobson quoted Kerouac's brother-in-law John Sampas
saying "It was a very complicated game" and that "he didn't think Kerouac ever
played the game with another person."

Well, it so happens that I played Kerouac's home-made baseball game with him.

This was on a frosty afternoon in the winter of 1961 when Kerouac, who coined
the term, "Beat Generation," was living with his mother in a Cape Cod house on a
nondescript street in Huntington, deep in the heart of Suffolk County suburbia on
Long Island. I had read about the game and Kerouac living on Long Island. I
contacted him, and, recognizing a kindred spirit, he invited me out to his house
to play the game.

I quote from the Feb. 17, 1961 column I wrote in Newsday about our get-together:

"The snow was a few feet deep outside, but the cry of the hot dog vendor and
the crack of the warm-up ball against the catcher's mitt sounded inside writer Jack
Kerouac's home in Northport recently as the Pittsburgh Browns prepared to take the
field against the visiting Chicago Blues in a battle for fifth place.

"Chicago manager Cracker Jack Kerouac chose the Blues' curve-balling righty,
Larry Hooker, to protect the Blues’ one-game lead over the Browns. Pants Isaacs,
sometime reporter filling in for ailing Pittsburgh manager Pie Tibbs, countered
with his young ace, hard-luck Ron Melaney.

"Melaney has a blazing fast ball," Kerouac said. "I created him the same night
I unveiled Bob Gold of the league-leading Cincinnati Blacks. Gold is the fastest
pitcher in the league with an 11-4 record, with a 2.36 earned-run average."

Kerouac manipulated the game with the home-made cards, some 100 in all. A
player/manager might turn over such cards as "infield tap," "miss," "off i.f.'s glove,"
"way up out of park," and "pop foul."

Many a youth made up such baseball cards. The charm of Kerouac's cards was the
imagination he brought to them, creating wondrous personalities, keeping records,
writing stories about the action.

Kerouac brought to life such players as El Negro of the St. Louis Whites, the
leading home run hitter ("He's a big Negro from Latin America," Kerouac said. "El
Negro means 'The Negro'"). There’s Wino Love of the Detroit Reds, the league's
leading hitter with a .344 average. ("He's called Wino because he drinks, but he's
still a great hitter.") Big Bill Louis is everybody's favorite. ("I patterned him
after Babe Ruth; one day I had him coming to bat chewing on a frankfurter.") Pic
Jackson, the league's best hitting pitcher, "likes to read the Sunday supplements;
his name 'Pic' is short for 'Pictorial Review.'"

I was fascinated by the name Burlingame Japes. "Where did you ever come up
with the name 'Burlingame,'" I asked. He said, "It's the name of a town just outside
of San Francisco." (Some 20 years later I became friends with a man I met in San
Francisco; he lived in... Burlingame).

Kerouac grew up in Lowell, Mass. There is a picture of him as a high school
football star at Lowell High in the library exhibit. He went to Columbia on a
football scholarship, broke his leg as a sophomore and didn't play again. He is a
cult figure today whose books are expensive collectors' items.

The archives include a grade-school notebook for April 16, 1936 when Kerouac
was 14. It reads, "Pop says he may bring me to a baseball game, Bees-Giants, Sunday.
Hotcha. Home run leader is now [Mike] Kreevich of the White Sox with two today.
Today it's $10 each, Don Doll and Naval Cadet at Ol' Grow."

"Ol' Grow" was his way of referring to the old Maryland race course, Havre
De Grâce. The entry was for a "mind" or fantasy bet he was making for the day.

Kerouac and I played his baseball card game through the late afternoon hours.
I grew heady from the Petri wine we sipped through the innings. His white-haired
mother would pop into the living room chastising him not to make a mess. He was 39
at the time and would die eight years later in 1969.

He conducted a running-commentary about the players as the game proceeded.
His Blues scored a run in the first inning, my Browns took a 3-1 lead in the third,
matched his run in the sixth with a pair of runs and we wrapped things up with a
four-run rally in the seventh inning.

This rally started when his shortstop Francis X. Cudley ("an Irishman from
Boston who stood up at the plate very erect, like a Jesuit") fumbled a grounder by
Johnny Keggs. ("Keggs is an old guy; his neck is seared from the Arkansas sun.
He has a brother named Earl who used to be a ball player, but who now is back in
Texarkana selling hardware.")

The rally continued with Ron Melaney’s second hit and a two-run double by
Lefty Murphree that knocked out Larry Hooker and brought on Hugh Nesbitt, a
6-foot-7 relief specialist. An error by his first baseman, Sugar Ray Simms ("he
looks like Sugar Ray Robinson"), "trying to showboat a grounder" and a third hit
by slugger Herb Jangraw upped the Browns' lead to its final margin of 9-2.

My pitcher, Ron Melaney, ended the game striking out three of the last five
Blues. When I visited the library and was shown some of Kerouac's papers by
archivist Isaac Gewirtz, I learned that Jack had written a story centering on his
baseball game that was published in the May, 1958, Esquire. In the story, called
"Ronnie on the Mound," he free associated the action much as he had when playing
with me. And I noted, too, that the Ronnie of the story was the same Ron Melaney
who beat Kerouac's Blues for me that 1961 afternoon in Northport, Long Island.

Footnote: Kerouac was disillusioned by Columbia football coach Lou Little
because Little lost interest in him once he didn’t play football any more. Years
later, after Kerouac's novel, On The Road, became a best-seller and established
his reputation as the most celebrated of the Beat Generation writers, I ran into
Little at a pro football game at Yankee Stadium. I mentioned to him that I had
seen Jack Kerouac recently.

Little said, "Oh, yes, he was a good boy. What's he doing now?"

© 2002 by Stan Isaacs.

Kerouac's game Description: article 2002, Stan Isaacs
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Another Side of Kerouac: The Dharma Bum as Sports Nut
By CHARLES McGRATH Published: May 15, 2009

Almost all his life Jack Kerouac had a hobby that even close friends and fellow Beats like Allen Ginsberg
and William S. Burroughs never knew about. He obsessively played a fantasy baseball game of his own invention,
charting the exploits of made-up players like Wino Love, Warby Pepper, Heinie Twiett, Phegus Cody and Zagg Parker,
who toiled on imaginary teams named either for cars (the Pittsburgh Plymouths and New York Chevvies, for example)
or for colors (the Boston Grays and Cincinnati Blacks).

He collected their stats, analyzed their performances and, as a teenager, when he played most ardently, wrote
about them in homemade newsletters and broadsides. He even covered financial news and imaginary contract disputes.
During those same teenage years, he also ran a fantasy horse-racing circuit, complete with illustrated tout sheets and
racing reports. He created imaginary owners, imaginary jockeys, imaginary track conditions.

All these “publications,” some typed, some handwritten and often pasted into old-fashioned composition notebooks,
are now part of the Jack Kerouac Archive at the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. The curator,
Isaac Gewirtz, has just written a 75-page book about them, “Kerouac at Bat: Fantasy Sports and the King of the Beats,”
to be published next week by the library and available, at least for now, only in its gift shop.

Mr. Gewirtz said recently that he had included much of the fantasy material in a 2007 Kerouac exhibition he
mounted at the library, and had planned to add a chapter about the fantasy sports in the catalogue but ran out of space.
“I’m glad I waited,” he said, “because it forced me to go into it all in much more depth.”

Among other things, Mr. Gewirtz has learned that Kerouac played an early version of the baseball game in his
backyard in Lowell, Mass., hitting a marble with a nail, or possibly a toothpick, and noting where it landed. By 1946,
when Kerouac was 24, he had devised a set of cards with precise verbal descriptions of various outcomes (“slow roller
to ss,” for example), depending on the skill levels of the pitcher and batter. The game could be played using cards alone,
but Mr. Gewirtz thinks that more often Kerouac determined the result of a pitch by tossing some sort of projectile at
a diagramed chart on the wall. In 1956 he switched to a new set of cards, which used hieroglyphic symbols instead of
descriptions. Carefully preserved inside plastic folders at the library, they now look as mysterious as runes.

The horse-racing game was played by rolling marbles and a silver ball bearing down a tilted Parcheesi board,
using a starting gate made of toothpicks. Apparently, the ball bearing traveled faster than the marbles, some of which
were intentionally nicked to indicate equine fragility and mortality. So the ball bearing became the nearly invincible
horse Repulsion, “King of the Turf,” whose legendary speed and stamina are celebrated in Kerouac’s racing sheets.

A byline that frequently appears in the racing sheets and the baseball newsletters is “Jack Lewis,” an Anglicization
of Kerouac’s French first name, Jean-Louis. Jack Lewis, you learn from a careful reading of the sheets, is also a
“noted turf luminary,” an owner and trainer who happens to be married to a wealthy breeder and whose 15-year-old son,
Tad, is “expected to become a greater jockey than his immortal dad.” In baseball, Jack Lewis is a scribe and the publisher
of Jack Lewis’s Baseball Chatter, and he appears occasionally both as a player and a manager.

That Kerouac, growing up in Lowell in the 1920s and ’30s, would turn out to be sports-obsessed is not much of a
surprise. His father was a serious racing fan who for a while supplemented his income by printing racing forms for
local tracks. Kerouac himself was a good enough athlete to be recruited by Frank Leahy, then the football coach at
Boston College. He picked Columbia instead, because he was already dreaming of becoming a writer and thought
New York was the place to start.

And that Kerouac had an active fantasy life hardly distinguishes him from other teenage boys. What’s remarkable
about his fantasy games, however, is their elaborateness and detail. The players all have distinct histories and personalities.
A single season could last 40 or 50 games, with an All-Star game and a World Series, all painstakingly documented.

In an introduction to “Kerouac at Bat,” Mr. Gewirtz suggests that Kerouac was trying, in part, to escape the pain
and confusion he suffered from the death of his older brother, Gerard, when Gerard was 9 and Kerouac just 4. But
whether he knew it or not, the creation and documentation of fantasy worlds were ideal training for a would-be author.

The prose in Kerouac’s various publications mostly imitates the overheated, epithet-studded sportswriting of the day.
“It was partly homage,” Mr. Gewirtz said, “and perhaps partly parody, but every now and then an original phrase leaps out.”
For example, the description of a hitter who “almost drove Charley Fiskell, Boston’s hot corner man, into a shambled heap
in the last game with his sizzling drives through the grass.”

Mr. Gewirtz said, “I really like that ‘shambled heap.’” Another description he enjoys is one of an overpowering pitcher
who after defeating the opposition by a lopsided score “smiled wanly.”

Kerouac wrote his last baseball account, two mock United Press International reports, in 1958, but he continued to
play the game and to tinker with its formulas, making them more realistic, until just a year or two before his death in 1969.
His friend the poet Philip Whalen was probably the only one of the Beats who was familiar with this side of Kerouac.

“I don’t think the others knew,” Mr. Gewirtz said. “Or if they did, they didn’t learn it from Kerouac. I think he was
worried they might think it childish.” But in Mr. Gewirtz’s view Kerouac’s interest in playing and writing about this
self-contained imaginary world goes a long way toward dispelling the familiar criticism of him as less a writer than a
sort of inspired typist.

“I think Kerouac had a photographic memory — a visual photographic memory,” he said. “These games were
real to him: he saw them in his head, where he was able to store everything. To me it’s another indication of the
kind of mind that allowed him to be the writer he was.”