All literary men are Red Sox fans.-John Cheever
By George Mitrovich – Chairman, The Great Fenway Park Writers Series
The Great Fenway Park Writers Series is the only literary series sponsored by a professional sports team – ever. That the Boston Red Sox are the team behind such a sponsorship should come as no surprise.
Because the civic ethic of the Red Sox organization is among the highest of any pro team – MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL. Even more remarkably the Red Sox’s civic involvement is independent of ticket sales. Absent any civic ethic the Sox would still sell out, so successful has the team become, so great the demand for tickets under the ownership team of John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino.
No less an authority than former Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis has often remarked how extraordinary he finds the civic ethic of the new Red Sox organization, of their commitment to Boston and to the whole of Red Sox Nation. “This isn’t about the selling of tickets,” he’s said, “it’s about doing good deeds; deeds that enrich the life of the community. What a great thing.”
But of the opportunity to do good deeds there is no end, so why a literary series?
Boston has long prided itself as the “Athens of America.” That is no spurious claim. The intellectual history of Boston and New England is unrivaled in America. When it comes to literature, no other region in America may lay claim to the rich literary history that is Boston’s and New England’s.
The names that established this great intellectual and literary foundation dominate the history of arts and letters in our land – John Harvard, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, William Ellery Channing, Wendell Phillips, Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Eliot, and Robert Lowell, to name but a few. In such a place, so seeped in literary history, a place of intellectual engagement, the appropriate question isn’t why the Red Sox would undertake such a writers series, but rather why no other team had done it before?
I will leave it to you to answer, but for me the answer is clear – the concerns and commitments of the Red Sox organization extend beyond the baseball field. Obviously, the team’s success is paramount, as it must be, but isn’t it splendid the organization is committed to being more than a baseball team; by which I mean, holding to a civic ethic, one that is beneficial to Boston, beneficial to the Commonwealth, and beneficial to Red Sox Nation.
To some a writers series and baseball may seem an oxymoron, but such a view reveals, if not an ignorance, a certain bias about sports in American life. It ignores the fact that some of our finest writers have written about sports – especially baseball.
John Updike, one of our greatest contemporary novelists, whose books have won the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Howells Medal, is famous for his works of fiction, essays and poetry, but his 1960 New Yorker essay on Ted Williams, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”, may well be the most remembered thing he ever wrote (an inscription from which may be found in a place of honor on a wall in the Red Sox’s front office).
Donald Hall, born in Connecticut and acclaimed by many as America’s finest poet, has written more than 30 books of poetry. In his most recent, “White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946-2006”, he writes of baseball in “The Fifth Inning”:
Kurt, last night Dwight Evans put it all
together, the way you made collage,
with an exemplary catch followed
by an assist at first base, a hit
in the seventh inning for a tie,
and another in the last of the
ninth, to pull it out at Fenway
and win the game. The madness method
of :Baseball” gathers bits and pieces.
But arguably the book that will live on in people’s memory, long after his other works have receded in memory is “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons: Essays on Sport (Mostly Baseball).”
George Plimpton, a Harvard man and Red Sox zealot (is there any other kind?), in addition to editing The Paris Review, considered by many the best literary quarterly in the world, wrote many books and essays, but his most famous was his April 1, 1985, Sports Illustrated article on “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch,” a fictional account of a young pitching phenom out of the Himalayas. That one story resulted in the greatest number of letters ever written to the magazine. Many of those who wrote believed – may still – there was a real Sidd Finch.
Here’s something to ponder: There have been many, many truly wonderful American poets. Isn’t it interesting, therefore, that arguably the best remembered of all works of American poetry is Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat.”
My friendship with George Plimpton was one of the defining relationships of my life. He was an extraordinary person, who following in the footsteps of another great writer, Paul Gallico, became a “participatory journalist”, someone who attempted the play the sports he wrote about. His first attempt in that regard was pitching to a lineup of major league all-stars at Yankee Stadium. The book that emerged from that experience, “Out of My League”, became a best seller and helped establish Mr. Plimpton’s literary fame.
To put it mildly, I’m no George Plimpton, but two years ago when the Sox finally claimed a World Championship after 86 years, I wrote an essay for Elysian Fields Quarterly (EFQ), a small but wonderful baseball literary magazine out of Minnesota.
I was at the fourth game of the ALCS playoffs the Sunday night it appeared to virtually everyone the Sox were about to be swept from the series by the Yankees. That didn’t happened, of course, the Sox came back to win – and they won seven more and accomplished the improbable. Of that defining moment, the 7th inning when the game and Sox’s fortunes turned around, I wrote the following for EFQ:
“To have been there, to have witnessed the raising of the dead, for the Sox were surely dead in that fourth game, was for me a moment like few others I’ve experienced. It was a moment, as precise as one can ever define when life and sports intersect in what becomes an evolving mystery of transcendence; when you both know the moment but also know that the moment’s ultimate mystery is beyond your ability to understand in any rational context. In your intellectual hubris you may take pride in your cold analytical skills, but there comes a time when the force of an event exceeds your comprehension and its truth shatters your smugness. You can say you were there, you saw it happen, but being there and witnessing it and understanding it are not the same thing. It is one of life’s great enigmas, how something can be both mythic and real at the same time. But it is.
“It’s true, as we are often reminded by cynics that baseball is a business, but if that’s the beginning and end of one’s understanding of the world’s greatest game, it reveals an elementary ignorance of something so uniquely American that our national experience cannot be understood independent of it (as the literary critic Jacques Barzun reminded us many years ago). But what we cherish about the game, its beauty, its symmetry, and nuances, what awakens our literary longings and quest for poetical integrity, is, in the end, what separates the business of baseball from the game of baseball. We may be indifferent to the first reality, but we hold to the second as surely as we cling to any fundamental essential in the American character; for it defines us and elevates us to a level higher than what is otherwise the commonplace of our existence.”
From the inception of The Great Fenway Park Writers Series, Red Sox President & CEO Larry Lucchino, Executive Vice President for Public Affairs Dr. Charles Steinberg, and I resolved that in time the writers series would feature writers who had written on subjects beyond the realm of baseball and sports. The appearances of New York Times chief military correspondent Michael Gordon and General Bernard Trainor, United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, former United States Senator Bill Bradley, and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, underscore that commitment; one that has its origins in a firmly held belief – the playing of baseball is about more than a game, but one that intersects with the whole of life.
Finally, in the literary world sports writers are often viewed as belonging to a second tier within the writing profession, outranked by poets, essayists, historians, and novelists. It’s an arrogance divorced from fact. The ability to write at game’s end, to write under the intense pressure of deadline, and to write well, is a very special gift. (When you’re writing under deadline they don’t give you a 117 chances to revise one sentence, as Ernest Hemingway did when he wrote, “For Whom the Bells Toll.”)
In the history of The Hub, there have been many gifted sports writers, never more so than now – as Dan Shaughnessy, Steve Buckley, Bob Ryan, Jackie MacMullin, Gordon Edes, Amalie Benjamin, Nick Cafardo, Tony Massarotti, and others, prove every day.
The Great Fenway Park Writers Series celebrates their works – and the long literary and intellectual history that preceded them.