Book Review: Tom Clark’s BASEBALL

I got a late start on everything, I think. I didn’t kiss a girl till I was 20; by the time I actually listened to an entire Pavement album, they’d broken up; I’d never heard of Bill James until I read Moneyball in the autumn of 2003; and I’d managed to make it through an entire Bachelor’s program in English (concentration in poetry) without even hearing of poets like Charles Olson or Alice Notley. I was introduced to these poets and myriad others only after taking a job at Woodland Pattern Book Center, probably the greatest poetry bookstore in the United States. It was at WPBC that I finally found Tom Clark’s Baseball — over 30 years after it was published.

I’ll cut to the quick: Baseball is a – perhaps the – must-read book for those who appreciate the NotGraphs approach to fanaticism.

Much of Tom Clark’s early poetry was published by Black Sparrow Press, the same publisher that gave authors like Charles Bukowski, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Fante an early perch. Clark’s done a fair amount of sports writing, which includes interviews with players from the World War One era as well as with players active in the 1970s. “I had learned from the great baseball writers of the past, like Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon, that there could be a kind of uniquely American baseball speech,” Clark intimated to me via email. This fixation on a “uniquely American baseball speech” has culminated a great number of poems about baseball scattered across his several collections — mainly in Fan Poems (North Atlantic, 1976), an “as-told-to” [auto]biography of Mark Fidrych entitled No Big Deal (Lippicott, 1977), and Baseball (The Figures, 1976).

Regarding the paintings and the publishing of the book.

Baseball includes 32 prints of portraits painted by Tom Clark; the portraits depict 33 players (Joe Rudi and Reggie Jackson share a portrait). Tom’s wife Angelica told me via email that The Figures publisher Geoff Young “was willing to cover costs only for black and white reproductions. Tom wanted colour, and so we paid for the colour cover reproduction, as well as for 10 interior colour repros” [sic].

What’s more, in order to finance said color reproduction, Clark sold “this Dutch master painting that his wife got out of Austria during the war . . . and it was the biggest mistake of his life.” This tidbit comes from an interview with Stephen Malkmus, former frontman for Pavement, who contacted Clark in the same way that I did for this article — by leaving a comment on his blog — to ask for permission to use the painting that appears on the cover of Baseball for the cover of the album Mirror Traffic.

In the same interview, Malkmus goes on to call the paintings “crude” — though he means it lovingly, without a doubt. I might agree: they seem like innocent predecessors to some of Miguel Calderón’s paintings. But what’s more apparent to me is the joy that Clark put into each portrait. And so by the artist’s joy, each of the subjects is dignified, humanized, lovable, and, finally, loved.

The color reproductions are striking in their bold simplicity — like the one of Vida Blue below. While I’m in no position to say that it was worth the sacrifice on the part of Tom Clark and his family to get them printed, I will say that I appreciate their effect, and having them in my life now. While reading Baseball, I had started to fantasize about owning one (or more) of these paintings, so I asked Tom what had happened to them. “[T]he paintings disappeared, presto, for a song, to a trader who saw a bargain floating on the waters. The whole lot of them, except for the cover, went off to, I think it was Cleveland. I’m sure they’ve travelled on from there in later years. But to where? Nobody ever bothered to tell me” [sic]. So much for rescuing these icons.

The “Vida Blue” spread from Baseball.

The publishing run of Baseball was 2000 copies. There were no reprints. When I bought my first copy of this book from Woodland Pattern in 2003 or 2004 (which I have long since given away), it was for the original price of $6.50. Even now, there are new copies available at SPD for the marked-up-but-still-criminally-low price of $9.

About the text in Baseball

Clark edited and pieced together the text in Baseball from interviews with players and quotes from articles that he obsessively collected from newspapers and sports rags. Thus, the text of each piece in Baseball are words “spoken” by the titular player, then repositioned and edited by Clark as he searched for “hints of the human, or even the poetic.” It’s entirely accurate, I believe, to say that Tom Clark does just that: the author represents his subjects as men who long to be seen as more than just ballplayers — or as men who see themselves as nothing but, for better or worse.

Sal Bando, for instance, appears as a working class hero. He dismisses some fans’ criticism of players as spoiled, saying that players stood up for better working conditions, that before free agency they were basically indentured servants. “I honestly think we’re an important part of society,” Clark’s Bando says matter-of-factly. Bando intelligently cites the shorter working careers of ballplayers, and the fact that their salaries are public, as is their every professional move, unlike other entertainers of the time like Johnny Carson.

Tom Clark’s “Sal Bando”

On the other side of the coin, you have Reggie Jackson, who didn’t care if Richard Nixon jumped off a bridge — that’s how immersed he felt in every game he played. “When I’m playing, baseball is beautiful” (62). There’s ample confidence present in that statement, maybe to the point of arrogance, as if Jackson himself makes the game beautiful; but there’s also a sense of awe and innocence — something vulnerable, too.

Clark continually walks that line in the way that he portrays the players. Clark’s Mike Marshall, for another example, is simultaneously the consummate team player — “I don’t give a damn about the All-Star Game. At this point, all I’m interested in is doing the best I can for the Dodgers” — and contemplating leaving baseball for “a post which gave [him] a free hand in setting up a curriculum” (42). Given what Marshall has done since retiring, it’s clear now what he meant, but that statement probably seemed quite enigmatic at the time he said it.

Clark’s Ken Holtzman could “take the 9-to-5 life” if baseball wasn’t an option — he was a “broker in a firm” before he played baseball professionally. He also claimed to be reading Proust in French, thus representing literarily-inclined ballplayers (37).

In Baseball, ballplayers love to be silly, too: Clark’s Rollie Fingers holds court on mustache maintenance; Luis Tiant jokes that he would scream on airplanes because he was afraid of the mountains rising up to the sky.

And there’s the downright enigmatic: the entire Mike Cuellar entry reads “I wear blue on planes all my life” (29). Or consider this gemmy excerpt from Willie Stargell: “The purpose of this game is to be your natural self” (70).

“Jesús Alou”

What I learned from Baseball

At first, I got caught up in thinking about how different the players of the ‘70s (or Clark’s portrayal of them) seem from players today, as the latter seem to recycle the same five phrases when talking about their profession. But Clark indicated that in the process of putting together the text for Baseball, he had to get through “a million stock ballplayer-speak clichés” and the “murky clouds of the expectable” in order to find something that showed these men as humans, poets, thinkers — at least as much as the rest of us are.

And so I got over seeing the difference between the players in Baseball and current MLB personalities. After all, we have our own contemporary characters to love. I need look no further than my own beloved Milwaukee Brewers to find a colorful group of HR-celebration-choreographing, kite-flying, moustache-waxing weirdos. Yes, perhaps there’s a different bent to the silliness and color of players today, but they are a product of different times. There’s a lot to enjoy and admire all the same.

So I’ve begun to think about how we portray these quirks of our beloved sport here at NotGraphs and beyond, and I think I’ve found a pretty good mentor in Tom Clark. Bill James published his first Baseball Abstract in 1977. He and Clark are of the same generation. If James wanted to collect, examine, and present statistics in such a way that they acquired the power of language, break through the fog of ignorance, then perhaps Clark (and others) have sought to do the same with actual words, mining them to find the fun, sad, precocious creatures behind the clichés and sometimes robotic demeanors seen in post-game interviews.

Call me earnest: I like to think that’s the tradition that NotGraphs is carrying on, too.

Infinite thanks to Tom & Angelica Clark: their correspondance was essential.

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10 Responses to “Book Review: Tom Clark’s BASEBALL”

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  1. reillocity says:

    I sure feel sorry for that poor fellow who happened to be zipping up his pants at the exact moment when Clark painted the cover portrait.

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  2. Nathan says:

    Great album. Robert, do you post on the message boards?

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  3. Kyle says:

    I’d never heard of Charles Olson, Alice Notley or Tom Clark until just now. Thanks for the heads up. I’ll be ordering Baseball and looking those other fools up shortly.

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  4. brocean says:

    Way cool. I thought the cover for Mirror Traffic was original art provided by Malkmus and his label. I’ve been listening to the album since release. I knew Malkmus was a baseball fan but this is on another level, again.

    Good stuff.

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  5. Fantastic, Baumann.

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  6. Thanks a lot, guys.

    Kyle, you won’t regret the purchase, believe me!

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  7. Dayn Perry says:

    Excellent stuff. Tom Clark also wrote a history of the A’s dynasty of the 1970s called “Champagne and Baloney.” It’s a great book.

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    • Oh SNAP. And that also came out in 1976. It’s like he just wrote nothing but baseball stuff for years and then just had it all drop at once. But that’s not even true, because he was publishing poems and lots of other stuff then, too, as can be seen in the bibliography here.

      Btw, At Malibu contains a three-page Eddie Gaedel poem.

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  8. mightyflynn says:

    I missed this last year, but I’m glad I got a second chance after hearing you discuss the book on the Stealing Home podcast. Great stuff. Just ordered the book. Thanks!

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