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Sports canceled: Poetry to the rescue

It is early May of 2020, and the world of sports is at a standstill. So what is a bereft sports fan to do? Why, turn to poetry, of course.

Editor’s note: The is the second installment of a new series called “Anyone for Tennyson.”  To see the Introductory installment, click here.

It is early May of 2020, and the world of sports is at a standstill. Arenas and stadiums are empty. The Olympics have been postponed for a year. There’ll be no Wimbledon or British Open. No spring baseball. No Little League World Series.

So what is a bereft sports fan like me to do? Why, turn to poetry, of course, and revisit some of my favorite sports poems, in this case from baseball, football, swimming and golf.

To start, the two best-known sports poems both belong to baseball: “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” words by vaudevillian Jack Norworth, and that favorite recitation poem, “Casey at the Bat”, written in 1888 by Ernest Thayer. Who among us does not know the familiar final verse?:

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.

But for this baseball-crazy kid (I once actually saw Babe Ruth play), my favorite poem celebrated the double-play combination of the Chicago Cubs from 1902-1912: Joe Tinker at shortstop, Johnny Evers at second base and Frank Chance at first. No question, they were a remarkable trio, but they became legendary and were jointly inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame thanks in large part to a poem by Franklin Pierce Adams (1881-1960), a journalist and charter member of the Algonquin Round Table. Also a Giants fan.

From left to right: Tinker, Evers and Chance.

These are the saddest of possible words:

“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”
Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds,
Tinker and Evers and Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double –
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”

I wonder how many infielders realized that a gonfalon was a pennant?

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) was a writer famed for his historical novels (“Ivanhoe”, “Rob Roy”). He was valued as a poet, perhaps best-known for the lines:

Oh! What a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive.

He also wrote one of the first football fight songs, which has quite a catchy title: “On the Lifting of the Banner of the House of Buccleuch, at a Great Football Match on Carterhaugh.”  I feel like adding “Baby Blues.” The football described is a Scottish version, very rowdy, and it was played in 1815 on an open field by neighboring villages.

Print of an 1816 etching by James Stephanoff depicting the Carterhaugh Football Game. © FIFA Museum

From the brown crest of Newark its summon extending,
Our signal is waving in smoke and in flame;
And each forester blithe from his mountain descending,
Bounds light o’er the heather to join in the game.

Then strip, lads, and to it, though sharp be the weather,
And if, by mischance, you should happen to fall,
There are worse things in life than a tumble on heather,
And life is itself but a game at football.

And when it is over, we’ll drink a blithe measure
To each laird and each lady that witness’d our fun,
And to every blithe heart that took part in our pleasure,
To the lads who have lost and the lads who have won. Rah!

Well, the “Rah!” is mine.

England’s most popular living poet Roger McGough,

England’s most popular poet of today, Roger McGough (1937 –     ), once said, “Whenever I feel in need of exercise, I put on a track suit and write poems about athletics.” He was particularly proud of his aunt’s swimming skills.

Aunt Ermintrude
was determined to
swim across the Channel.
Each week she’d
practice in the bath
encostumèd in flannel.

The tap end
was Cap Gris Nez
the slippy slopes
were Dover. She’d
doggypaddle up and down
vaselined all over.

After 18 months, Aunt Erm was in peak condition.
So, one cold grey morning in March
she boarded the Channel steamer at Dover
went straight to her cabin
climbed into the bath
and urged on by a few well-wishers,
Aunt Ermintrude, completely nude
swam all the way to France.
Vive la tante!

And Vive to our two guest artists who can be reached at the link below. First, Henry Fonda salutes the pitcher Satchell Paige, a major star in the early days of integrated baseball. The poem is called “To Satch,” and it’s by Samuel W. Allen (1917-2015).

Then author George Plimpton (“The Bogey Man”) tells us about a round of golf at Mullion Golf Club in Cornwall (see video link below). It’s the southernmost course in mainland Britain, and an errant shot will really take you out to sea. The poet is Sir A.P. Herbert (1890-1971), Member of Parliament, humorist and mediocre golfer.




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