Although the American writer Jack Kerouac was a high school football star
and went to Columbia
University on a football scholarship the great game of the
quadrature had a more significant and creative influence on him than
In thinking about Kerouac and baseball it is easy to divide the study into two basic parts: Kerouac's mind-centered mostly solitary fantasy baseball game, the so-called "Summer League" which he created when he was 11 and his adolescent experience at actually playing the real game of baseball in a Lowell (Massachusetts) youth league. In this sense Kerouac's involvement with baseball spanned two universes of his life, that is, his inner imaginative world and the more outer-directed world of social relations. Of course the relationship and tension between these two worlds accounts for a lot of the fascination with Kerouac and his work.
In his biography, Subterranean Kerouac, Ellis Amburn writes that, "In a profound sense, it was sports, more than anything else, that galvanized Kerouac as a writer."
Kerouac was 11 in 1933. That was the year he entered Bartlett Junior High School, his first non-parochial educational experience. 1933 was also apparently the first time Kerouac saw a major league baseball game. His father Leo took him to see the Boston Red Sox play in Fenway Park. (Boston had two major league baseball teams, the American League Red Sox and the National League Braves. There is no doubt in my mind that Kerouac was a Red Sox fan.) Leo also introduced his son to the world of horse racing which, just like baseball, would stimulate Kerouac's young imagination.
An almost immediate result of these excursions with his father to see baseball and horse racing was that Kerouac created imaginary games based on these experiences. Kerouac's "Summer League" was a fantasy baseball league that made use of two decks of cards (not regular playing cards.) The cards were designed from scratch by Kerouac. Consider this description from Kerouac's post-modern epic Visions of Cody: the cards were "crayoned in orange position by position on an ordinary card, slightly glossy." (Kerouac is describing the card for his imaginary Philadelphia Pontiacs team.) The card material itself came from his father's printing shop. It would be interesting to know if each player had a card or were the cards only team-based. What statistics did the cards track? What were the dimensions of the cards? According to Gerald Nicosia's biography of Kerouac, Memory Babe, the cards were lost in 1961 when Kerouac's suitcase was stolen in Mexico. I have also seen a photocollage of some of the cards (they appear team-based) from the Kerouac Romnibus CD (thanks to Dave Moore.) Are there Kerouac baseball cards still out there? [*] In any case, Kerouac generated entire baseball seasons for the "Summer League" while sitting alone in his Phebe Avenue bedroom.
An important supplement to the imaginary baseball league was the detailed records that Kerouac kept about the games and the players. Kerouac's life-long use of notebooks can be traced to this period. Entering the data with red ink he filled up notebooks with information about the operations of the so-called "Summer League." Amburn makes a smart observation when he points out that the solitary baseball fantasy and the detailed "cosmology" that Kerouac created to go along with it called on skills that he would later use fruitfully as a novelist. The "Summer League" was peopled with attractive and exciting imaginary players such as Art Rodrigue, a star firstbaseman who off the field was apparently a great lover and Pictorial Review Jackson who was the league's most outstanding pitcher.
In 1935 the Kerouacs moved from their Phebe Avenue home to a house on Sarah Avenue. This move coincided with an expansion of the fantasy baseball league to include an outdoor variation. This outdoor-based game used a steel ballbearing for a baseball and a nail for a baseball bat. Kerouac designed a baseball field in the muddy backyard of the Sarah Avenue house. He marked off circular zones that indicated an "out" if the ballbearing landed within the zone.
It was in 1936 while playing the outdoor game one afternoon that the "sinister end-of-the world-homerun" occurred. The ballbearing was hit with such force that it cleared the entire Sarah Avenue playing field and got lost in the bushes near his old house on Phebe Avenue. This homerun and the loss of the "baseball", according to Kerouac, marked the end of the league. It also meant something more profound. Fifteen years later Kerouac would write in Doctor Sax, "I always thought there was something mysterious and shrouded and foreboding about this event which put an end to childish play-- it made my eyes tired-- 'Wake up now Jack--face the awful world of black without your aeroplane balloons in your hand.'" Kerouac would of course go on to chart and send reports about his excursions into "the awful world of black."
After the "sinister home run" Kerouac augmented his poetic use of baseball by actually playing the sport. During the summer of 1936 Kerouac and his friend Joseph Henry "Scotty" Beaulieu were co-managers of the Dracut Tigers, a civic team of friends that competed in a league administered by the Lowell Recreation Department. Both Scotty and Jack were able athletes. Scotty was a masterful pitcher and Jack played outfield and the catcher's position. Alas, the Dracut Tigers amassed a dismal record losing 10 of 11 games. However, Jack's personal statistics were impressive: he led the team in batting average, and homeruns. He also led the team in strikeouts. This statistical profile is descriptive of a power hitter with little patience in the batter's box.
The 1937 season turned out to be much better for the Dracut Tigers. In fact Kerouac's team might have won the championship title but for some clever, albeit illegal, maneuvering by the rival team from South Common. There were two outs in the ninth inning and South Common had the lead, 4-3. The Tigers were up at bat. Kerouac was on thirdbase when Ernie Noval, a poor hitter, came to bat for the Tigers. Sensing the odds were against Noval getting a hit, Kerouac decided to steal home. Jack took a large lead off the base and the catcher threw the ball down the line. But the ball flew over the head of the thirdbaseman. Seeing the overthrow, Jack took off for home. When the catcher at homeplate tagged out Kerouac the ruse was disclosed: the catcher had thrown a potato down the line; the game ball remained in the catcher's mitt. Jack was out, the game was over.
Jack played one more season of baseball in Lowell. For the summer of 1938 he and Scotty organized both a junior and senior team. The junior squad won their division's championship. Kerouac batted a phenomenal .385. The senior group lost the championship by one game. As a consolation Jack and the team went to Fenway Park and watched the Red Sox beat the St. Louis Browns, 9-5. Incidentally, Jack's friend Joseph "Skippy" Roberge who played on the senior version of the Dracut Tigers in 1938 would later play three war-interrupted seasons with the Boston Braves (1941-42, 1946.)
Most of Jack's last two years in high school were devoted to football. En route to Columbia with his football scholarship he spent a preparatory year at the Horace Mann school and there are several photographs of Kerouac in a Horace Mann baseball uniform.
Like many creative people, Kerouac was attracted to the mysteries of the game of baseball. In Kerouac's case, his elaborate "Summer League" fantasy baseball game helped him as a child to escape from the traumas of life . Baseball also stimulated and enchanted his imagination. The game provided him with some very profound training in the field to which he dedicated his life.
I don't know if baseball, real or imagined can teach us anything. It can, as
Kerouac's experience suggests, provide a rich number of metaphors that
artists can mine while trying to find out the relationship between the inner
of the mind's imagination and the outer life that is awash with real people
and events. Such a relationship can be confounding. It's in the nature of
artists like Kerouac to try and find some meaning between the two worlds. The "Summer League" represents an early inquisitive approach to the discovery and understanding of these disparate universes.
Jack Kerouac is an outfielder for the Dharma Beats.
Post Publication Note
[*] In August 2001 the executors of the Kerouac estate sold Jack Kerouac's personal and literary archive to the New York Public Library's Berg Colllection. Among the items listed in the archival matter were 2 sets of more than 100 handwritten cards and hundreds of pages documenting games played between 1936 and 1965. This means that scholars and fans will eventually have a better picture of the Summer League than we have at present. [Return to Text]
Copyright © 2000 by Andrew Lampert
|ANDREW LAMPERT is the Assistant Executive Director of the Cosmic Baseball Association.|