Baseball and poetry appear to be made for one another—they both are more entertaining for audiences that have a sly, hypersensitive appreciation of what is going on. Unfortunately, this makes both seem a little boring when compared to other, fast-paced entertainments that are available. The best baseball poetry, like the best pitching, fielding, and baserunning, finesses its audience so calmly that they leave it knowing the facts of what has transpired and experiencing a feeling, but with no real sense of how that feeling came over them.
Usually, poets writing about baseball can rely heavily on the game’s natural tension when they want to create an interesting dynamic. The simplest and most obvious example of this is in the most famous baseball poem of all, “Casey at the Bat,” which raises the reader’s emotional involvement with each pitch thrown, proclaiming the batter’s invulnerability right up to the moment that mighty Casey is struck out. “Casey” holds its readers with a good story, but poetry needs more than just a good story.
One of the best baseball poets ever was Robert Francis, who produced his most memorable works on the subject from the 1940s through the 1960s, a time span when the game reached its height of popularity. Francis was a skillful but little-noticed New England writer and teacher. His poetry was often meticulous, the sort of careful, studious work that one expects of a longtime academic. It would be too simple to think it strange to mix poetry and baseball. Only the most snobbish of intellectuals would claim that baseball, being a popular sport, is a surprising choice of subject for educated wordplay. Wrestling and NASCAR racing might be too coarse and obvious to bother writing about carefully, but baseball, like poetry, becomes more mystifying to people as they mature, and at some point in life the two subjects tend to converge.
Francis’ reputation as a fine baseball writer rests firmly on two poems. The one with the most obvious style is “Pitcher,” which looks like a poem when it is printed on the page. It is constructed of five couplets, several of them nearly rhyming, and the last one having a solid, definite rhyme. It has an iambic pentameter meter, which is the simplest and most common meter a poet could use. “Pitcher” shows terrific control on the part of the poet and an almost incidental sense of fun. These are, not coincidentally, qualities that befit a good pitcher, making the poem’s style appropriate to its subject. Francis’ other great baseball poem is “The Base Stealer.” This one is less obvious about the craft involved, leading casual readers to think that its appeal might be rooted solely in its subject matter.
“The Base Stealer,” in fact, uses techniques so subtle that they are not readily noticed. Its text tells the story of an on-base runner, trying to decide just how much he can lead off the base he is supposed to be on. If he goes far enough, he might be able to steal the next base during the course of the next pitch, especially if the catcher has any trouble controlling the ball. If he leads off too far, though, he can be caught vulnerable between the bases. Like “Casey at the Bat,” there is inherent drama that comes from the rules of the game, a situation that could tilt in either direction, toward victory or defeat, within a moment’s time.
This life on the edge, with an uncertain result, is the stuff drama is made of; and a mediocre writer could keep readers enthralled with just the facts of the case. Francis imbued the poem with enough style to squeeze more out of the story.
There is no particular poetic meter to “The Base Stealer.” The lines are not tightly bound to one particular length but are varied—not wildly, but still they are not standardized enough for easy analysis. The majority of lines are nine syllables, and the dominant meter is the three-syllable dactyl, which has a rhythm of stressed-unstressed-unstressed. Three and nine are significant numbers in baseball: three strikes per out, three outs per inning, nine innings per game, etc. To draw a connection out of this coincidence, though, would be a stretch. Even if the poem had been rigidly, mathematically structured in all threes and nines, readers would still not come away from it with any greater feel for what baseball is all about. The subconscious mind does not process such abstract relationships as numbers; and it is unlikely that the rules of baseball would translate to meaning in a poem in such an obscure way.
What is significant about the dactyl rhythm is not that it happens to occur in groups of three, but that it has the rolling rhythm of tribal drums. The stressed-unstressed-unstressed pattern has a rousing, foot-stamping motion that crowds in huge stadiums sometimes use to stir up excitement and anticipation. In “The Base Stealer,” the predominance of dactyls keeps the poem rolling along, while the fact that this rhythm is not absolute, but breaks often, keeps the piece from feeling like a formal presentation where the outcome is predetermined. For instance, the start of the first line follows the dactyl pattern so clearly that its rhythm could be accompanied on a tom-tom drum: “Poised between going on. . . .” After those first two dactyls, though, the rhythm falls apart, allowing for chance and random occurrence in the poem.
Even without a set, recognizable pattern, rhythm is important to this poem. Rhythm is repetition, usually but not always sustained over a long period of time. Even readers who know almost nothing about poetry can see the repetitions that Francis uses here. Most obvious are the repeated phrases, which take readers, with no prior explanation, into the mind of the base runner. “Delicate,” at the end of the poem, draws out the tension, fading as the runner becomes lost in thought, obsessed with just a single idea. Rhythmically, the poem’s last line is interesting because it has “delicate” four times instead of three, making it thirteen syllables, significantly longer than the others; the reader’s patience is taken to the point of exhaustion and then beyond. The other example of repeated words takes place at the middle of the poem, in line 5: “come on, come on.” It, of course, works to stir up the reader’s anticipation, to point out the fact that nothing has really yet happened at this point, and to remind readers that they wish something would. With boring poems, readers might notice themselves thinking, “come on, come on,” when they reach the middle, but in this case Francis is actually trying to provoke an impatience that is almost similar to boredom.
Those are the cases of repetition that are obvious, because they use the same words over and again. It is in the use of less obvious types of repetition that a poet earns praise or derision. For instance, the list of words in line 7—“teeters, skitters, tingles, teases”—certainly has its own rhythm. The words all share the t sound and have either a hard e or a soft i. Perhaps more important, though, is the sense of the words. They sound silly, made-up. These are not words one uses to describe something with scientific precision; they are words that remind readers of the playfulness of the game.
Throughout the entire poem, Francis uses sound repetition to establish that the poet is in control. It is less obvious than using a rhythmic pattern, which beginning poets are trained to look for. Working with individual sounds puts him on par with scientists who work at the microscopic level. The most obvious sound throughout the piece is the t sound. Since this is one of the most frequently occurring letters in the language, a skeptical reader might think that all of the ts that show up in the poem just happen to be in words that Francis wanted to use. The test is in the words that could easily have been left out, such as “tiptoe,” and the conspicuous bunchings, such as “taut like a tightrope-walker.” The next most frequent sound is the letter s, as in the phrase “a scattering of steps sideways.” These two sounds have opposite effects—t is sharp, s is soft—and neither sound in itself changes readers’ sense of what is going on in “The Base Stealer.” The overall effect of these repetitions is not what any one technique does, though, but the fact that they exist at all. They serve to remind readers that there is more to this poem than just the story of the base runner; there is also the way in which the story is being told.
A baseball poem should not be very flamboyant. It should be interesting and convey to readers the delicate action of the game. Poets have no more business drawing attention to themselves than individual players do. Writing about poetry is like being part of the team. Robert Francis’ “The Base Stealer” is subdued and careful, with no need to insist that readers pay attention to its control of the situation. In telling its story so carefully and well, the poem takes readers into the situation it is describing, giving them a trip to the ballpark in the course of ten short lines.
Jennifer Smith and Elizabeth Thomason, Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 12, Robert Francis, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
David Kelly, Critical Essay on “The Base Stealer,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.