What an amazing playoff run the San Francisco Giants are having! First of all, they win a record six elimination post-season games (that’s “win or go home” games) to make it to the World Series. Then “Kung Fu Panda” Pablo Sandoval hits three homeruns in the first World Series game against baseball’s best pitcher (Detroit’s Justin Verlander) to join an exclusive club of now four players: “Sultan of Swat” Babe Ruth, “Mr. October” Reggie Jackson, and “The Machine” Albert Pujols. In the same game, Hunter Pence has a broken-bat hit that defies description, a should-be doubleplay ball crazily eluding infielders for a bases-clearing double after the shattered bat gives it a corkscrew twist by hitting it two more times. Then, in a scoreless second-game pitchers duel, a bunt intended as a sacrifice settles on the line and refuses to roll foul, thereby loading the bases with no outs so that the next batter, even though he hits into a double play, still drives in the winning run.
The Homeric Greeks would understand this better than we do: obviously the Giants sacrificed to the gods whereas the Tigers forgot to. By rejecting such metaphysical explanations, we in the modern world deprive ourselves of wonderful narratives and are left instead with random chance. “That’s the way the ball bounces,” we say, even though we sense that there is something more at work. We might feel more confident if we thought that, by slaughtering a cow in honor of Zeus, we had improved the odds in our favor.
To celebrate the Giants and their venerable history, here’s an old Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem about them in the 1960’s when they had Willie Mays (maybe the greatest all-around player in the history of the game), pitcher Juan Marichal, and infielder Tito Fuentes. Ferlinghetti is struck by something that we have come to take for granted: that America’s national pastime, once considered an all-whites club, is now dominated by dark faces and non-Americans.
I don’t know why Ferlinghetti is reading Ezra Pound’s Cantos at a baseball game, but it is Pound’s racist and anti-Semitic views that seem to set his observations in motion. Pound became a raving fascist in his later life and feared that Anglo-Saxon western civilization was being taken over by “barbarian invaders.” As he watches the game, Ferlinghetti confirms Pound’s fears: an Irish-American sings the National Anthem and then, instead of “the Great White Hope” riding in to save the day, there are three players of color—an African American, a Cuban, and a Dominican—hitting the stuffing out of the ball (they sound like the harpooners in Moby Dick). Meanwhile, in the melting pot bleachers, the “grungy populace” is made up of “Chicanos and blacks and Brooklyn beer-drinkers.” They act as though they have a right to be there.
Incidentally, I used to love watching Marichal’s great leg kick, but I don’t understand why Ferlinghetti has a pitcher hitting homeruns. In any event, Marichal takes his “revolution” around the “white bases,” which was indeed a revolution. In the poem, Ferlinghetti imagines panic backstage as the participants become darker. White Americans, used to exploiting Latin America through the United Fruit Company, feel invaded in return. Someone considers replaying the National Anthem to “save the situation.”
All of which brings to mind the voter suppression efforts underway in battleground states at the moment. To keep non-white voters from determining the next president of the United States, some members of a GOP that is increasingly dependent on the white vote have been devising ingenious ways to keep minority voters from the polls.
But back to baseball. Ferlinghetti says that the National Anthem “don’t stop nobody this time . . . in this last of the great Anglo-Saxon epics.” Baseball has become territorio libro, and currently, in San Franciso, Venzuelan Sandoval is taking advantage of that fact and hitting the ball like Babe Ruth.
By Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Watching baseball, sitting in the sun, eating popcorn,
reading Ezra Pound,
and wishing that Juan Marichal would hit a hole right through the
Anglo-Saxon tradition in the first Canto
and demolish the barbarian invaders.
When the San Francisco Giants take the field
and everybody stands up for the National Anthem,
with some Irish tenor’s voice piped over the loudspeakers,
with all the players struck dead in their places
and the white umpires like Irish cops in their black suits and little
black caps pressed over their hearts,
Standing straight and still like at some funeral of a blarney bartender,
and all facing east,
as if expecting some Great White Hope or the Founding Fathers to
appear on the horizon like 1066 or 1776.
But Willie Mays appears instead,
in the bottom of the first,
and a roar goes up as he clouts the first one into the sun and takes
off, like a footrunner from Thebes.
The ball is lost in the sun and maidens wail after him
as he keeps running through the Anglo-Saxon epic.
And Tito Fuentes comes up looking like a bullfighter
in his tight pants and small pointy shoes.
And the right field bleachers go mad with Chicanos and blacks
and Brooklyn beer-drinkers,
“Tito! Sock it to him, sweet Tito!”
And sweet Tito puts his foot in the bucket
and smacks one that don’t come back at all,
and flees around the bases
like he’s escaping from the United Fruit Company.
As the gringo dollar beats out the pound.
And sweet Tito beats it out like he’s beating out usury,
not to mention fascism and anti-semitism.
And Juan Marichal comes up, and the Chicano bleechers go loco again,
as Juan belts the first ball out of sight,
and rounds first and keeps going
and rounds second and rounds third,
and keeps going and hits paydirt
to the roars of the grungy populace.
As some nut presses the backstage panic button
for the tape-recorded National Anthem again,
to save the situation.
But it don’t stop nobody this time,
in their revolution round the loaded white bases,
in this last of the great Anglo-Saxon epics,
in the territorio libre of Baseball.
Added note: Two years ago, when writing on the Giants in the 2010 playoffs, I invoked the most famous baseball poem ever written, “Casey at the Bat.” At the time, the Giants, who have won more games than any other team in baseball history (more even than the Yankees) were suffering the second longest current drought of baseball futility. (First place goes to my beloved Cubs.)
If I’d been thinking clearly, I could have invoked the Beowulf passage (it’s less relevant now) about the sword which Beowulf finds and uses to kill Grendel’s Mother. It harkens back to a day when “giants” ruled the earth (say, San Francisco’s old glory days). Beowulf, like Edgar Rentería at the time (he was the most valuable player for the series), picks up the ancient weapon and restores honor to the nation:
Hrothgar spoke; he examined the hilt,
that relic of old times. It was engraved all over
and showed how war first came into the world
and the flood destroyed the tribe of giants.
They suffered a terrible severance from the Lord;
the Almighty made the waters rise,
drowned them in the deluge for retribution.
We’ll see if Sandoval is this year’s Beowulf.