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The Family Language
By Elizabeth Bales Frank

When people become lyrical about baseball, they like to speak of a game handed down through generations, of fathers playing catch with sons. But fathers also have daughters. I am a daughter, and baseball was something I shared with my father. If, that is, you apply the broadest possible definition to the word "share." It is more accurate to say that baseball was the language my father spoke and in order to communicate with him, I had to learn to speak baseball or else to settle for the broken English that comprised the rest of his discourse. He was like an immigrant who never quite assimilates while I, who tried to shrug off the dialect, found it pursuing me into every language I learned thereafter, most especially poetry, for baseball is the language both of families and of poets.

Of course, I had my rebellion. For God's sake, couldn't he talk about anything else? There were, after all, real topics at hand—my mother's death, my sister's difficulties, my father's completely unwarranted censure of my brother for the most minor of lapses, my stepmother's fatal illness, my stepsiblings(!), and, of course, the endlessly fascinating puzzle of my lyrical adolescent self—couldn't we talk about something else just once? No? Well, perhaps sports would not be a topic if there were no sports, and for that reason I transferred in my college freshman year from Indiana University to New York University, a sportsless university.

Oh, there is a rumor that NYU has a basketball team called the Violets, but—the Violets? I didn't even mention them to my father, who I believe went to his grave without forgiving me for snubbing the economical in-state choice (and his and my brother's alma mater), the University of Missouri. But I had already been overshadowed by the St. Louis Cardinals, who at least seemed mighty and worthy, like having Greek gods for older brothers. I would not take a back seat in the eyes of my own father to the motley roundup of Midwestern teenagers who might become the Fighting Tigers of Mizzou.

Before this sowing of wild oats period in which for two years I eschewed both broadcasts and box scores, and for the rest of his life afterwards, I spoke to my father in his language—the language of baseball—with the local accent of the St. Louis Cardinals.

However, just as the second generation of an immigrant family is not officially schooled in the language and can exhibit odd gaps in fluency (as an adult I live in a polyglot neighborhood and have observed this often), I received no formal instruction. I was simply expected to learn the words and nuances on my own. For example:

It is a typical summer day at the brand-new Busch Stadium, a sweat-soaking sunshine. Bob Gibson is on the mound, oblivious to heat, pain, or batters. My brother tidily marks a "K" in his scorecard. I peer over, three years old and proud of my reading skills; he is seven years my senior, sarcastic, sick of sisters.

Me: Why are you writing "K"?

Him: Because he struck out.

Me: So why don't you put "S"?

Him (with great scorn): Because "S" is for sacrifice.

I didn't ask what a sacrifice was; it sounded scary. But eventually I picked it up, through Harry Caray and then Jack Buck on the radio, from my grandparents, from the chatter of the neighborhood boys. I learned to speak baseball and throughout grade school I loved certain phrases of baseball the way I loved certain phrases of nursery rhymes or "A Child's Garden of Verses" or "Hush, hush, whisper who dares/Christopher Robin is saying his prayers." Some of my prayers were: perfect game, no-hitter, Bob Gibson, shut out, 6-4-3, around the horn, Tim McCarver, unassisted triple play, Orlando Cepeda, top of the order, out at the plate but also, conversely, because of the comfort it implied, safe at home. These were phrases that made me feel safe at home.

My father told a story, which may even have been true, about how he learned of the World Series of 1926, the year he was born. Gathered on the stoop in South St. Louis, his father and his uncles and his cousins would send him to the corner tavern to fill the bucket with beer. He would return and hand the bucket to his grandfather, Joe Frank, who came to America to avoid the Franco-Prussian War and perhaps substituted for it the faux-rivalry between the Cardinals and the Cubs.

"Have a sip, kid, but don't spit," Joe Frank would say when it was my father's turn at the beer bucket, and then the uncles and the cousins would recreate, play by play, the final game which brought about the defeat of the Yankees at the hands of the Cardinals. The game ended when Babe Ruth was thrown out attempting to steal second. (I was expected to know this, and was berated, years later, for saying in casual conversation that the Babe was "picked off" second.) I enjoy this image of these men, adding a play, passing the communal bucket, genially scolding and correcting each other, raising the status of this sporting event beyond history into folklore, something handed down through generations. It wouldn't happen this way nowadays, of course; there would be video of the game, there would be a DVD officially sanctioned by Major League Baseball (and therefore sold at tuition-level prices), and the game would be broadcast on the ESPN nostalgia channel. The preservation of the game, in other words, would be multimedia, but not multigenerational.

And it is this telling, I think, that we miss. I know that I miss it. It made me lonely when I had it, and the lack of it makes me lonely now. I used to bury in poetry my grief that my father loved his surrogate sons more than he loved me, and now it's poetry that brings him back to me.

"Poets are like baseball pitchers," the poet Robert Frost wrote. "Both have their moments. The intervals are the tough things." The radio baseball crackle that formed the soundtrack of my childhood was full of intervals, the silence of no spoken words, just ambient sound, mike hiss, crowd noise, the occasional syncopated holler of the vendors: "Cold beer (beat) here!"

My grandfather told a story of listening to France Laux, "The Voice of the Cardinals," calling the game by reading from the telegraph ticket in the days when the play-by-play was transmitted by telegraph from the ballpark to the radio station. While my newlywed grandmother caught up on rural gossip with her sisters, my grandfather sat in some sleepy town coffee shop in Montgomery County, Missouri with the local farmers and a friend of his who was a Teletype operator. Helped by his friend who could interpret the beeps before France Laux translated them into sports prose, my grandfather placed meager bets on the next immediate action. "Betcha this guy hits it out," my grandfather might say. "Nickel says he won't," a farmer would respond, moments before France Laux recreated the drama of the ball's flight from the park.

"Writing is exciting, and baseball is like writing," the poet Marianne Moore wrote. "You can never tell with either how it will go, or what you will do." Marianne Moore was the muse of the Brooklyn Dodgers, although in one famous anecdote she is reported to have admired opposing pitcher Christy Mathewson because he had written "a most instructional book on the art of pitching"—Pitching in the Pinch. Many teams have had their muses—mostly the Red Sox, the New York Giants, and of course, the Yankees—and most of the muses have been East Coast white men of a certain generation that favored the verbal over the visual (John Updike on Ted Williams, "he radiated, from afar, the hard blue glow of high purpose," being the one most easily called to mind). Yet it is not just Robert Frost's nagging "intervals," the slow unfolding ritual, the soothing rituals, that inspires poets, but also the cadence of the phrases. In the ballpark. Out of my league. Go to bat for. Heavy hitter. Talk a good game. The poet Donald Hall called baseball "the preferred sport of American poets," and Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among others, agreed. In Gregory Corso's "Dream of a Baseball Star," Ted Williams is not merely the subject of the poem, but a poet himself:


I dreamed Ted Williams
leaning at night
against the Eiffel Tower, weeping.


He was in uniform
and his bat lay at his feet
—knotted and twiggy.


"Randall Jarrell says you're a poet!" I cried.
"So do I! I say you're a poet!"


Even the late commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti is famous less for his contribution to the ongoing contractual war of the roses between the players and the owners than his famous paean to the pain of the game:


It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.


For me, literature about baseball came to fill the season without baseball, the "off" season, the season during which, as Rogers Hornsby said, "I stare out the window and wait for spring." The off-season began, during the long years of my adolescence when Cardinal victories were lean and I was trying to find my own voice, with the click! of the television being snapped off after the last play of the World Series, when my father stumbled past the sleeping house cats to the kitchen calendar and announced how many weeks stood between us and spring training. He and my brother consoled themselves with intelligence gathering, the "hot stove league," hockey, football, and even European soccer, which was hard to come by in those pre-cable days. But any sport in a storm. My sister and I disappeared into books. Reading a poem about baseball, I could almost taste the syrupy heat of the slow-coming summer.

I came back into the fold for the "Beer Series" of 1982 between the Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers, which I watched over beers in indifferent New York bars surrounded by the bemused. By then the family had dispersed, and we were as likely to meet in St. Petersburg, Florida for the Cardinals spring training as at Christmastime. And the time apart had affected my baseball dialect. I was more apt to wax rhapsodic on the carriage, stance, grace, and potential of the young players than to crunch their numbers. My brother, impatient with my lyricism, once turned from me at a Pirates spring training game and asked the stranger on his other side, "So, who do you like this year?" The man took a thoughtful inhale and gave his answer in crisp, metaphor-free sports talk. "Really, why?" my brother continued, and together they happily spoke statistics, leaving me alone with my bardic musings in the brackish air of Bradenton.

"Phil," the minister said at my grandfather's funeral, with the pause that ministers use to turn from duty and family to talk of grander things, "was a great lover of baseball." This was my stepmother's contribution to the eulogy, offered when the minister asked us if there was anything "special" we would like mentioned about my grandfather and we stared at him numbly, unable to produce any nice phrase that could possibly convey him. My stepmother, who had known him the least amount of time, leaned forward and suggested, "Perhaps you could mention how great a Cardinals fan he was." How stupid, I thought, because I was thirteen and my stepmother could do nothing right. But her suggestion was ideal, of course, and it took a newcomer to recognize as unique what we regarded as part of his very fabric, part of ours. "A great lover of baseball," intoned the minister, and my until-then stoic father coughed a sob, and the rest of us went down in order, inconsolable.

It was a lesson I took to heart when writing my father's obituary. Amidst the roles we knew to list—father, grandfather, stepfather—I added "lifelong Cardinals fan." I had always said that baseball was the family religion; I had said it when confronted by puzzled, often angry, Mets and Yankees fans who didn't understand how such a seemingly thorough New Yorker could cling to an allegiance for a team so far away. I added "lifelong Cardinals fan" to his obituary as other families, with their own devotions, put "received in the hope of Christ's resurrection."

But it was not religion, really; it was language. It was the talk we reverted to when the silences on the phone grew too awkward, when we realized the hopelessness of meeting the need we invoked in one another; it was a patois, a lingua franca. "So what the hell's happened to the pitching? When are they gonna bring that kid up from Triple A?"

My father was born in the year that the Cardinals first won the World Series. In 1994, there was no World Series—and my father died. I would like to apply to this bald fact E. M. Forster's definition of the difference between a story and a plot: "'The king died and then the queen died' is a story. ėThe king died and then the queen died of grief' is a plot." In August 1994 the players went on strike. On September 14, 1994, the World Series was cancelled. Three weeks later my father died of heart failure. After the funeral, I stared out the window and waited for spring.


ELIZABETH BALES FRANK lives in New York City and roots for the St. Louis Cardinals. She has written screenplays, novels, and essays on a variety of topics but keeps coming back to baseball.

© 2006 Elizabeth Bles Frank


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