Some seven years ago now, in the pitchers-and-catchers spirit of late February, my friend Scott Eric Kaufman posted to his blog a concept I’d never thought of before: a baseball lineup made up of writers, specifically modernist writers like Joyce and Woolf. Modernist literature was my scholarly specialty at the time, and I was fascinated by the way the form made intuitive sense applied to such an incongruous subject, to the point that I knew when I agreed and when I disagreed with Scott’s lineup (I’d trade Beckett to the Postmodernists and fill his spot with the speedy, slap-hitting William Carlos Williams).
Following the links on Scott’s post brought me to this, which presented another lineup (of philosophers—Kant batting cleanup, Plato pitching) by the man who’d come up with the whole form: a poet, Charles North, who wrote a whole book of them. Like a lot of poetry books, this one is ludicrously overpriced (about a dollar for every four pages), yet I’ve never regretted my purchase.
Before I get to the work of the master, a few words about the form itself. (I’ll use some of my own lineups to start, since I don’t mind killing the joke with those, plus they’re a lot more blunt and easy to explain than North’s.) What I like about the lineup form is its ability to compare items in a category in nonlinear ways, rather than along a single worst-to-best continuum. Rankings are big right now; everyone’s ranked their favorite Coen Brothers movies or Pixar movies or Beatles albums or whatever. But ranking No Country for Old Men against The Big Lebowski, while fun, doesn’t tell you that much about either work, because it’s such an apples-to-oranges comparison: they’re two excellent films in completely different genres, made almost a decade apart. But a Coen Brothers lineup would conceptualize the ways the two films do different things well. Here’s my own stab:
The Big Lebowski ss
Blood Simple 3b
Miller’s Crossing 1b
No Country for Old Men cf
True Grit rf
O Brother, Where Art Thou? lf
Raising Arizona 2b
Barton Fink c
(The lesser films would be on the bench or in the bullpen; apologies that I haven’t seen Inside Llewyn Davis.)
I like to think that putting Lebowski at shortstop and No Country in center gets at their similarities and differences in at least one area: range. A shortstop needs quick, spontaneous range; a center fielder needs extensive, purposeful range. (North’s lineup “Novels” has Ulysses at short and Middlemarch in center.) My assessment is that Lebowski, with its sudden plot reversals and dream sequences, fits the former; No Country, with its journeys to the extremes of morality, the latter.
Some of the other defensive positions, for the uninitiated: A second baseman needs a shortstop’s quickness, but not as much deftness. First basemen need very little range; catchers need almost none—but then a catcher needs other qualities, chiefly toughness and a strong throwing arm. Those respectively capture (I hope) Raising Arizona‘s quickness and fun slightness (The Hudsucker Proxy is the backup middle infielder, I’d say), Miller’s Crossing‘s dogged circularity, Barton Fink‘s claustrophobia.
The batting order matters too, of course. Here’s the first lineup I made (though I was tinkering with it again as I posted this), “Authors’ Consorts”:
Zelda Fitzgerald lf
Leonard Woolf 3b
Maude Gonne rf
Anne Shakespeare (née Hathaway) 1b
Percy Shelley/Mary Shelley (platoon combination) cf
Ted Hughes ss
Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas 2b
Alice B. Toklas c
Nora Barnacle p
Consider Fitzgerald and Douglas: left field and second base are both speed positions, but the leadoff spot, the first in the order, is a crucial offensive role whereas someone hitting seventh is being somewhat buried offensively. Zelda and Bosie were both mercurial partners in tempestuous relationships, but Zelda was an author in her own right while Bosie was a hack and a poseur. (It shouldn’t be concluded that I mean to express even more withering contempt for Toklas; it’s uncommon for catchers, whose defensive skills are so rare, to be great hitters as well.) Meanwhile, the third spot in the order is generally for the best “pure” hitter; the fourth spot, the cleanup spot, is for the best power hitter. Gonne and Yeats had the archetypal muse-artist relationship (a little too on the nose, really); Hathaway and Shakespeare did not, but the influence and fascination she holds, as an individual, for our literary culture possibly exceeds that of anyone else in the lineup.
You can even express puns in this form. A while back, on Twitter, some baseball writers (influenced by North or not, I don’t know) were trying to determine what the Wu-Tang Clan lineup would be. My contribution:
Ghostface Killah ss
Inspectah Deck cf
Method Man 1b
Ol’ Dirty Bastard lf
Masta Killa rf
Ghostface and Raekwon are in middle infield, not just because of their quick delivery, but because, as frequent collaborators, they make a good double play combination. The battery is RZA and GZA, for, as GZA raps in “Clan in da Front,”
I’m on the mound G, and it’s a no-hitter
And my DJ the catcher, he’s my man
Anyway he’s the one who devised the plan
He throws the signs, I hook up the beats with clout
I throw the rhymes to the mic and I strike em out
So it really doesn’t matter on how you intrigue
You can’t fuck with those in the major leagues
Extended metaphors like that make you realize this form has legs. Oh, and I originally had ODB in right for some reason, but as a friend pointed out, he’s the one who always comes out of left field.
As is probably too obvious, I’m reasonably proud of these. But they’re not poetry like North’s are. They’re diligently reasoned, but they don’t capture anything ineffable. North’s best lineups aren’t just in the head; they’re in the senses, and you grasp them on a preconscious level. Here’s one of my favorites, “Herbs and Spices”:
Dry mustard cf
Or here’s an even purer one, “Colors”:
The stolidness of tan, the dynamism of orange…it’s almost synesthetic. One of the things I like best about reading North’s lineups is that he understands baseball’s element of expectation: the way one element inevitably follows another is a central element of baseball (as I talked about in a less high-minded post here), but also of poetry. Here’s the first lineup in North’s book, “Cities”:
San Francisco ss
New York p
The batting order is often somewhat frontloaded, and so after spot #4, reading lineups often means a slow receding away from the heavy hitters. Yet just as you reach the end of the lineup and are thinking of the one that North seems to have forgotten—”where the hell is New York on here?”—you get to the pitcher, the single most important player on the diamond, the one credited with winning or losing the game. It’s like the turn at the end of a Shakespeare sonnet; it takes your breath away with what you knew was coming all along.
There have been only two geniuses in the world: Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare. But, darling, I think you’d better put Shakespeare first.
Image Credit: “New York Giants Opening Day line-up at the Polo Grounds, New York” via the Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons.