Monday, December 14, 2020

Notes on Delmore Schwartz (Part 1)

The young Delmore Schwartz, probably sometime in the late 1930s. 

A couple years ago I became interested in the American poet Delmore Schwartz (December 8, 1913 - July 11, 1966) when I learned that two of his greatest passions in life were Finnegans Wake and major league baseball which struck me since those are probably my two favorite things in the universe. At the time I was working on my big compendium of notable figures who loved Finnegans Wake. The Brooklyn-born poet Delmore Schwartz was a Wake-head as devoted as anyone on that list---he was known to always keep a battered, heavily annotated copy of Finnegans Wake with him and he'd often pull it out and recite pages. His copies of the book would fall apart from overuse, he went through several. Peter Chrisp wrote a wonderful blog post going into detail about Delmore Schwartz's surviving copy of Finnegans Wake which is archived online by the Beinecke Library at Yale. There I discovered this historical nugget which blew my mind---biographer James Atlas notes that Delmore Schwartz would annotate his copy of Finnegans Wake while sitting in the stands at the Polo Grounds watching his beloved New York Giants play baseball.

    That one anecdote really captivates me. Envisioning Delmore Schwartz, the self-proclaimed poet laureate of the Atlantic, sitting in the Polo Grounds, that legendary old ballpark in upper Manhattan, watching the Giants of the 1940s and 50s while jotting notes in his tattered copy of Finnegans Wake, conjuring that image brings me immense joy. It's a potent conjunction of really interesting and important things in my universe. Part of why I am writing this series of posts about Delmore Schwartz is as a way to process why this is so meaningful to me. 

    Delmore Schwartz is most well-known for his short story "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" which was published in 1937 when he was 24 years old. Vladimir Nabokov considered it among his half dozen favorite stories. The story first appeared in the Partisan Review and then was published as part of a collection of Delmore's work (entitled In Dreams Begin Responsibilities) that included poems, short stories, and a verse drama. That first book made him famous at a young age and while he never quite matched those heights again, he had a productive career as a poet, short story writer, literary critic, film critic, poetry editor, and literature professor. In 1959 he became the youngest person ever to be awarded the Bollingen Prize for Poetry for his collection of poems Summer Knowledge (which included poems from his entire career, thus the award was a sort of lifetime achievement recognition). 

    While I had some fascination with Delmore and his work, it wasn't until I read his biography Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet by James Atlas that I got really drawn in. I found his story to be very inspiring, fascinating, and sad. I was really moved by that book. He had a shitty childhood, at a young age he was often dragged into the middle of ugly quarrels between his parents. His father was having affairs and then ditched the family and died young. Delmore (and you'll notice it's the habit of anyone who writes about him to refer to him by his first name) was brought up by his mother who had her own set of issues. Once you learn these stories from his life then his writing takes on new significance because so much of what he wrote was autobiographical. The story "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" is all about a dream where the main character watches a film of his parents' courtship in Coney Island and hollers at the screen trying to stop it. "New Year's Eve" was another story I enjoyed and it helps to know that the partygoers described were all real people in the Partisan Review crowd of NY intellectuals in the 1940s.  Another example, the verse drama "Shenandoah" is about a bris where a child was to be given the bizarre name Shenandoah and the child's uncle tries to intervene to protect the kid from a lifetime of abuse for his ridiculous name. Delmore wrote with a great sense of humor and this story plays out a little bit like the bris in Seinfeld---but it's based on his own life and the shock of family members when his mother bestowed on him the unusual name Delmore, which his uncle really did try to prevent. 

    Reading in the Atlas biography about how the older Delmore eventually descended into paranoid psychosis, lashed out at his friends, ended up in a straitjacket in Bellevue, and eventually suffered an untimely death in 1966 at age 52 alone in a seedy Times Square hotel, it was depressing and sad not least because it brought to mind a writer friend of mine who just recently died at a young age after lashing out at friends and spiraling downward. One thing that really struck me was how, even during the worst periods of his manic psychosis and alcoholism, Delmore still managed to hold down a job as a professor, was still surrounded by adoring young women competing for his affections, and he still made an enormous impact on those who met him. His friend Saul Bellow went on to write Humboldt's Gift in 1975 (which won him the Nobel Prize for literature) which was all about how much his beloved buddy Delmore had inspired him. Lou Reed, who studied under Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse University in the early 1960s, knew the man during his crazy years yet was so deeply inspired by him that he wrote a poem "O Delmore how I miss you" and wrote a song about Delmore's ghost visiting him on his 1981 album Blue Mask.

    Since finishing the James Atlas biography I have been reading all of Delmore's published writings, plus his letters, journals, and the aforementioned fictionalized account by Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift. Again, this research has all taken place in the aftermath of me losing a friend who died in late October. That friend of mine actually published several novels, and as I've been reading about and contemplating Delmore Schwartz I've been dwelling on the fact that, even though we can read things written by the dead and hear recollections from their friends, there's no way to really experience what that person was truly like to be around. So while I'm grateful that there's so much extant material I can dig through to learn more about Delmore Schwartz, what will always be lacking is the ability to hear the man in conversation, his specialty, the forum in which he was always such a huge inspiration to everyone who encountered him. 

To illustrate my point, here is how Saul Bellow described his old friend in Humboldt's Gift:

Orpheus, the son of Greenhorn, turned up in Greenwich Village with his ballads. He loved literature and intellectual conversation and argument, loved the history of thought. A big gentle handsome boy he put together his own combination of symbolism and street language. Into this mixture went Yeats, Apollinaire, Lenin, Freud, Morris R. Cohen, Gertrude Stein, baseball statistics, and Hollywood gossip. He brought Coney Island into the Aegean and united Buffalo Bill with Rasputin. He was going to join together the Art Sacrament and the Industrial USA as equal powers. Born (as he insisted) on a subway platform at Columbus Circle, his mother going into labor on the IRT, he intended to be a divine artist, a man of visionary states and enchantments, Platonic possession. He got a Rationalistic, Naturalistic education at CCNY. This was not easily reconciled with the Orphic. But all his desires were contradictory. He wanted to be magically and cosmically expressive and articulate, able to say anything; he wanted also to be wise, philosophical, to find the common ground of poetry and science, to prove that the imagination was just as potent as machinery, to free and bless humankind. (p. 120)

*   *   *

Reading about Delmore Schwartz and reading his journals, it quickly becomes apparent that no matter what was going on in his life, no matter how manically depressed he may have been at times, he would reliably return to two distinct lifelong passions to provide relief: major league baseball and Finnegans Wake. These two things are what I want to focus on in this series of posts because they serve the same role in my own life. 

    This passage from Delmore Schwartz: The Life of An American Poet by James Atlas perfectly encapsulates Delmore Schwartz the baseball nut:

Delmore's eager accumulation of knowledge was by no means confined to literature. He had a mania for baseball, that "drama in which the national life performed itself," and acquired over the years a compendious store of statistics on the New York Giants, who rewarded his attentions by winning the pennant every year from 1921 ("My first year as a fan," he once noted) through 1924. The memory of that triumphant era never faded from his mind, and toward the end of his life he was still capable of dazzling an audience by recalling the Giants' lineup and batting averages of some forty years before. In a late notebook, he remembered the excitement that had overwhelmed him in 1927, when "suddenly, in the depths of melancholy, electrifying news transformed my entire attitude toward existence. The Giants had acquired Rogers Hornsby, the greatest hitter by far in the National League, from the St. Louis Cardinals." As a child, he would race to the newsstand on 181st Street for a glance at the standings, and he used to spend hours loitering in a radio store on Broadway to listen to some crucial game. Twenty years later, when Delmore was living at Yaddo, the writers' colony in Saratoga Springs, he stood in a field admiring "the immense winter sky, crowded with the stars in constellations, but desiring all the while to get to the World-Telegram and read of the winter baseball news."  (p. 17)

That last line is especially relatable right now because I've spent many nights lately looking at the stars in the winter sky while also pining for some Hot Stove baseball news. 

    While reading through the book Portrait of Delmore: Journals and Notes of Delmore Schwartz: 1939-1959 (edited by Elizabeth Pollet) there was a passage that stood out to me for its beautiful and vivid description of him attending a baseball game in the spring of 1942. It's short and compact but there's so much to take from it so I want to try to unpack it here.

April 19, 1942:

The calculated disarray of the garage region, the railroad yards, and the used-car lots. The painted lines of the bridge, the murals of the fences. 

    "Our country is now at war..." said the announcer over the public-address system. Directions for going away, and hiding under the grandstand or bleachers.

    Much feeling against Stengel and Paul Waner. The Giants scored three in the first. Mize hit the wall twice with doubles, thinking the first time that he had hit a homer. Melton argued with the umpire in the first, Witek looked pathetic, Tobin disgusted. Werber had a rooting section loudly against him.

    A purple-black curtain of cloud, like a quilt or like a great Assyrian army with chariots, was over the sky. The crowd was pleased that the Red Sox had defeated the Yankees.

    A strong wind blowing, much smoke, much soot from the railroad yards, the fragrancy of Pittsburgh. I admired the strength of the locomotive, the instruments (what are the names?), pistons, which drew up and down, and moved the wheels. So, too, a child might be given a toy railroad train, Industrialismus. (p. 56)

Now, when I first read this I thought it must be a description of him attending a game at the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan to see his beloved Giants. Delmore was born in Brooklyn but he grew up in Washington Heights very close to Coogan's Bluff and the Polo Grounds. He attended many games at the Polo Grounds and he used to invite his fellow writers to come watch games with him. He once told his publisher James Laughlin, "It has been observed that anyone who has not seen me at the Polo Grounds has not seen me." (from Letters of Delmore Schwartz, p. 272)

    But when I looked up this game on Baseball-reference it turns out this actually took place in Boston (at a different defunct historical ballpark, the home of the old Boston Braves), which makes sense because Delmore was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts and teaching at Harvard during this time. Here's the game he attended, the NY Giants visiting the Boston Braves:

 has the full play-by-play where you can see that Delmore indeed had the details correct. Let's go through it line by line:

The calculated disarray of the garage region, the railroad yards, and the used-car lots. The painted lines of the bridge, the murals of the fences. You can easily envision from this description what the surrounding area of the ballpark looked like. The murals on the fences were the big advertisements all over the outfield walls at Boston Braves Field as seen here

"Our country is now at war..." said the announcer over the public-address system. Directions for going away, and hiding under the grandstand or bleachers. This game took place just four months after the United States officially entered into World War II in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Pretty crazy to imagine they were already warning fans about being prepared for possible attacks and hiding under the grandstand. Big league baseball would soon be impacted when several players across the sport were drafted into military service, including the Giants' #4 and 5 hitters from this game, Johnny Mize and Willard Marshall.

Much feeling against Stengel and Paul Waner. I love this note. The kind of thing you don't see in a box score---the home crowd was really getting on Braves manager Casey Stengel and Paul Waner. Looking at the context it's easy to see why. Mind you, this was the early phase of Casey Stengel's career before he became an icon as manager of the championship dynasty Yankees in the 1950s. When Delmore was at Braves Field for this game, Stengel's stewardship of the Braves had led to three consecutive seasons of 7th-place finishes and they were on their way to a fourth consecutive 7th place finish. The hometown fans were also probably angry that the Braves had blown the previous day's game against the Giants when they gave up 3 runs in the 9th to lose 8-5. The other guy who the fans were apparently giving a hard time was future Hall of Fame outfielder Paul Waner, the team's best player who had taken an 0-for-4 in that previous day's loss and came into this game batting .188 (he fared no better in this game, going 0-for-4). 

The Giants scored three in the first. Mize hit the wall twice with doubles, thinking the first time that he had hit a homer.  Johnny Mize, another future Hall of Famer, had been traded to the Giants the previous December so this was one of his first games in a Giants uniform and he made a good impression. Mize mashed for the Giants in that 1942 season, finished fifth in MVP voting, and then got pulled into military service and went off to fight in World War II, missing the next three full seasons. 

Melton argued with the umpire in the first, Witek looked pathetic, Tobin disgusted. Werber had a rooting section loudly against him. Interesting that he notes Cliff Melton, the starting pitcher for the Giants that day, was arguing with the umpire in the first inning---maybe because he walked the first batter?---he didn't get into trouble in the 1st and ended up pitching a complete game for the win. The comment about Mickey Witek, the Giants second baseman, seems pretty harsh! Then you notice Witek went 0-for-4 and grounded into two double plays. The keen-eyed baseball evaluator Delmore was clearly picking up on something because Witek would go on to lead the major leagues in grounding into double plays that season. "Tobin disgusted"---that would be the Braves starting pitcher Jim Tobin who failed to make it out of the 1st inning. "Werber had a rooting section loudly against him"---this one is interesting to try to figure out. Werber was playing third base and leading off for the Giants, but he wasn't an impactful player and while he had a couple hits in the game he didn't do much else. My guess is these well-informed and cranky Boston fans remembered Werber when he played for the Boston Red Sox for four seasons during the 1930s.

A purple-black curtain of cloud, like a quilt or like a great Assyrian army with chariots, was over the sky. The crowd was pleased that the Red Sox had defeated the Yankees. This is the type of magnificent description you get when a gifted poet journals his experience at a baseball game. Also funny that he notes the crowd cheering when the out-of-town scoreboard showed the Boston Red Sox had defeated the Yankees in New York that day, 5-2. 

A strong wind blowing, much smoke, much soot from the railroad yards, the fragrancy of Pittsburgh. I admired the strength of the locomotive, the instruments (what are the names?), pistons, which drew up and down, and moved the wheels. So, too, a child might be given a toy railroad train, Industrialismus. Another set of fascinating first-person details. The Society of American Baseball Research website has a very informative article about the old Boston Braves Field (the Braves moved to Milwaukee before the 1953 season then bounced over to Atlanta in 1966) where they note the ballpark's close proximity to the Boston & Albany Railroad which eventually led to deterioration of the ballpark structure. You can see in the below picture (click to expand, see bottom right) how the rail yards were just beyond the left field fence. Delmore describes the experience of being there with such exactitude that you can smell the steel. Not bad for a brief entry in his journal.  

Boston Braves Field (from here)

Couple more notes about this game:

- This game featured no fewer than five future Hall of Famers: Mel Ott, Johnny Mize, Paul Waner, Ernie Lombardi, and Warren Spahn.

- Incredibly, this game actually featured the major league debut of the great lefty Warren Spahn. The 21-year-old entered the game in the 5th inning, retired both batters he faced, then was removed and only appeared in three more games the whole rest of the season (Casey Stengel got mad at him because he refused to throw at batters on purpose). Like Johnny Mize, Spahn enlisted in the military and spent the next three full seasons in military service. He fought at the Battle of the Bulge and was awarded a Purple Heart. Upon his return in 1946 he went on to pitch for 20 full seasons in the major leagues, finishing his career as one of the greatest pitchers of all time. And the poet Delmore Schwartz just so happened to witness his big league debut at Boston Braves field on a random Sunday afternoon in April 1942. 

Read Part 2 here.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

RIP Dick Allen (1942-2020)

Dick Allen batting for the Chicago White Sox.
Playing for Chicago in 1972, he won the AL MVP Award.

One of the most dominant hitters in major league baseball history, Dick Allen, died earlier this week a day after he should have been elected into the Hall of Fame. It's sad and shameful that baseball's Hall of Fame committees didn't manage to vote him in before he died. Although he didn't have that long of a career, Dick Allen was a fearsome offensive force and put up huge numbers during the lowest-scoring years of modern baseball. He also did this while having to withstand the bitter racism and bigotry of 1960s Phillies fans who would pelt him with garbage so often that Allen wore his batting helmet in the field for protection and was even moved off third base into left field to keep him safe from the wrath of his team's home-field fans. 

I became interested in Dick Allen when I was a teenager devouring books about baseball history. He stood out as a fascinating figure, a name I'd never heard of before whose performance ranked him among the best baseball players ever. I wondered why he wasn't a household name like some of his contemporaries. The dude did nothing but mash. He won the Rookie of the Year award in 1964 with one of the best rookie seasons ever, when he led all of baseball in runs scored (125) and triples (13), while topping the National League in Total Bases (352). He kept putting up big numbers for the next decade, eventually winning the AL MVP with the Chicago White Sox in 1972 after he had demanded to be traded out of Philly and bounced around St. Louis and Los Angeles. His career Adjusted OPS+ of 156 ranks him right up there with guys like Willie Mays, Frank Thomas, Hank Aaron, and Joe DiMaggio as the best right-handed hitters ever. From 1964 to 1974 he essentially put up Mike Trout numbers, perennially hitting 30 homers with a .300 batting average and tons of walks---all of this during the worst era for hitters in modern baseball history. In what became known as the Year of the Pitcher in 1968, when the entire league saw scoring sink to Deadball Era levels, Dick Allen crushed 33 homers and put up an .872 OPS (the average OPS in the NL that year was .641---for comparison, the average OPS in the 2020 MLB season was .740). 

As a sensitive black man playing in the 1960s and 70s, nothing was ever made easy for him and sometimes in the midst of conflicts with management he didn't make things easy for himself. Sportswriters almost uniformly turned against him and crafted an image of him as a bad teammate. It would take decades to set the record straight. Former teammates Goose Gossage and Mike Schmidt have been especially vocal in speaking the truth about him. Despite being a popular player with fans, an MVP, a Rookie of the Year, and seven-time All-Star, he was portrayed as a pariah and even Bill James mischaracterized him as a selfish player. All of this contributed to him being left out of the Hall of Fame. Thankfully, the Phillies franchise finally commemorated him this past summer, retiring his number 15.  

To go back and read about why Dick Allen was considered such a controversial player---Bill James once wrote that he did more to keep his teams from winning than any player ever---you would think there must be a distinction in opinion between those who followed his career when he played and those who didn't. The stories of Dick Allen as a malcontent seem no worse than the stories about Manny Ramirez during his career as a controversial player. You would think if the negative affect of their bad behavior was that meaningful it would show up in the stats. How much better could Dick Allen have hit though? He wasn't a good defensive player (like Manny), but just looking at the production at the plate it's hard to see where he could've improved. Manny had more success in the postseason than Dick Allen but the latter would probably have appeared in the playoffs more with the expanded postseason format we've had the last 30 years. And both Manny and Dick Allen did nothing but rake year after year. If not for his steroid suspensions, Manny Ramirez would be a lock for the Hall of Fame. His career was shorter than Manny's, but Dick Allen should be a lock for the Hall of Fame, too.

Allen broke into the league with one of the greatest rookie seasons in baseball history in 1964 and had his best season in 1972 when he won the AL MVP with a monster season (37 homers, 113 RBI, with his .420 OBP and 1.023 OPS both leading the major leagues). He consistently mashed during a low-scoring era while playing in pitcher-friendly home ballparks, competing against some of the greatest players in the history of the game. From 1964 to 1974 he was the most dominant hitter in major league baseball and look at some of the guys he outranked by Adjusted OPS+ (via

Dick Allen   165 OPS+

Willie McCovey 161 OPS+

Hank Aaron 159 OPS+

Frank Robinson 159 OPS+

Mickey Mantle 156 OPS+

By the way, Manny Ramirez has a similar career OPS+ (154) as Dick Allen (156) but while Ramirez had a longer career he never had a 10-year stretch as dominant as Dick Allen was from 1964 to 1974. 

Sadly, the Hall of Fame has screwed him over just like they did with Cubs legend Ron Santo. The third baseman Santo for years had a strong case to be elected to the Hall but they never actually voted him in until shortly after he died. There's a good chance they will do the same now with Dick Allen (he fell one vote short in 2014). Several famous and beloved retired baseball players have passed away in this horrible year of 2020 (among them Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Joe Morgan, and Jimmy Wynn) but losing Dick Allen when he was on the verge of finally getting elected into the Hall of Fame really stings. Baseball's Hall of Fame has gradually sacrificed any legitimacy or respectability it once had, with the stars of the 90s-00s era locked out because of performance enhancing drugs and guys like Dick Allen and Ron Santo seeing their lives end before they could get elected in. Meanwhile, inarguably far inferior players have been voted in recently, watering down the criteria for election to the Hall and just making the whole thing seem pointless and ridiculous.

If you'd like to read more about the life and career of Dick Allen, I direct you to some pieces written by authors with a much better understanding of this complicated saga: Steven Goldman at Baseball Prospectus and Jay Jaffe at Fangraphs wrote especially insightful pieces about the passing of Dick Allen this week. And this piece at Fangraphs by Shakeia Taylor from 2018 "Is Baseball Ready to Love Dick Allen?" was also helpful in learning more about the man Dick Allen was and what he dealt with. Also see Tyler Kepner's piece in the NY Times

During his MVP season with the White Sox in 1972 he appeared on this phenomenal Sports Illustrated cover:

Earlier this year, Brian Kenny on MLB Network broke down the statistical case for why Dick Allen deserved to be in the Hall of Fame: