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Outlaw Baseball Poems

About The Author: Tim Peeler

Tim Peeler is the Director of the Learning Assistance Program at Catawba Valley Community College.
Other Books By Tim Peeler: Touching All the Bases: Poems from Baseball Waiting for Godot's First Pitch: More Poems from Baseball Writers on the Storm (with Robert Canipe and Carter Monroe) Baseball in Catawba County (with Brian McLawhorn) Blood River: New and Selected Poems Outlaw Ballplayers with R. G. Utley and Aaron Peeler)

Part One

Outlaws

The Batboy Remembers Rebel Days

He is seventy-seven,
holds five bats across his shoulder,

thirty-six inches, thirty-six ounces;
he stands on the solid balance

of his memory, and when he speaks
about the game, his watery

gray eyes spark to flame, names
called to scratch images to light.

He shows me his stance, his swing,
torso turning on a fifty-year old pitch;

in his front yard, end of a dead end street;
if he remembers them, they will come.

Hall Of Fame

On that bright field
and in between the bases where
man raises himself inches
above the beasts,
no swooping fat-tailed owl
to shoot the needle´s eye,
to snag a naked liner
swiveling away from the sun,

on that bright field
beyond the cannon´s aim,
where boys lay claim to rules
and spit like guns gone off,
men rise that couple inches
that they call heaven above.

The Ballad Of Alabama Pitts

the gospel of no forgiveness

Forgiveness begins somewhere, maybe when
the sun that pierces Sing Sing trims its heat
on the Umbrellaed avenues of Our
Country 'tis of thee--great land of freedom.
Beginning at one shore, forgiveness slides
like the sun that offers no restraint.

But fate works overtime under the skin
and some of us never feel that star stir
the first shadows of morning, the last flick
of dusk and its hard curtain, the cosmic
curtain of no forgiveness is all.
. . . . . . . .
Edwin Pitts, come from Alabama to Navy then New York,
then robbery, Sing Sing--no more than a farm
boy, found sports could scratch his itch
to catch the light beyond the bars, outside
the nation sprang from windows, then chopped roads
through woods over mountains, working from camps
like some kind of new soldiers, though fresh war
reckoned from the future, today was bread
and milk, the simple joy of sugar
or Sunday chicken--the importance that
poverty makes of food--Alabama,
The pride of Sing Sing, of open field runs
and running catches, of track star glory,
Alabama waited, for a pitch, for
parole, and a horsehide contract promised

by Evers, yes, second base Chicago Cub
Evers who fought like he fought in his day
of play for Pitts and his Albany club,
International League rehabilitation.
But a cloud swept across the sky, as Judge
Branham who ruled the circuit of the minors
pledged his denial to the convict; then
papers conscripted this "hero," hatched their spins--
and a nation, starved for diversion
chose quick sides, buzzed and rang with headstrong
versions and reasons--Pitts now, not Pitts ball-
player, but Pitts, cause celebre,
Pitts, poster-boy for society's hopes,
Sing Sing prison's greatest athlete felt
like a knight unarmored--yet enamored.

That coast to coast cry rang for justice,
for a second chance that America claimed
back to the full boat of its pilgrim roots--
and the pages dripped with give-the-boy
a-chance ink, when sports writers wrought art from
the occasion of their stories, broad-stroked
descriptions and heart string arguments made--
while Negroes played on in cold shadows, the
papers raised Pitts to their shoulders.

Football teams made gridiron proposals,
Dizzy Dean wrote, Pepper Martin sent word--
Warden Lawes of Sing Sing worked endlessly
till finally the mountain moved, Judge Landis
of major league commission, overruled,
canceling the lesser Branham, president
of mere minor leagues, and Pitts, ball player-
pawn regained a spot at Albany with "Restrictions."

Irony it seemed would rule the bright day
when Pitts, who five years 'fore held a gun
in a grocery store, now held the eyes
of seven thousand happy fans and moved them
when he moved, but the waters of Albany
were deep, and the hero faltered in the
field and at the plate--over his head, the
newsmen said. Football and another year
were the same, no Sing Sing success outside
the walls, his, the fate of almost greatness.

The money running low, attention spent,
Pitts, the ex-con became Pitts the outlaw,
a star player in the Carolina League,
he tore it up for Charlotte, for Gastonia--
became a regular guy as well
working as a textile knitter, marrying,
starting a family while the games played on,
the money not bad, he settled in
Valdese, the Waldensian haven in tough
Burke County, North Carolina.

When the league went under, Pitts scrambled
to play, a shot here, a shot there,
never the glare of that spotlight again
till fate found him at a Valdese tavern
in '41, tapping the shoulder of a dancer
to cut in, a certain Lefevres who
took offense and a blade to Pitts,
the artery in his strong shoulder
spewing life out at thirty-one,
Sing Sing's greatest athlete gone.

JOE

A wolf ain´t nothing but a dog gone bad,
gone bad and can´t go back.

A mere boy who left the hard labor
of cotton mills and green southern fields, reluctantly,
uneducated and intuitive,
always suspicious of the letters laid
in black inky rows, everywhere.

He figured the pictures and reactions in faces
and hit the ball farther than anybody before,
a swing like the wolf´s whole howl,
a heavy bat lifted to the sky, to the moon.

Never fit in Mack´s Philly,
outfield or locker room, where the bumpkin jokes
ran like knives, hard into him.

Then Cleveland, by Eerie,
where his caring wife read him
the new tide of praise;
was a sweet tune, a melody of triples and running catches,
smiling kids, endorsements, adulation,

but a wolf ain´t nothing but a dog gone bad,
and Joe, off season
flew to the stage,
a flask in pocket, a beauty by each side,
memorizing the jokes, the smoke
and the lights of New Orleans
till the wife filed papers.

Another trade, another city by a lake,
the star of Charley´s all-stars,
more glory, fast days, fierce throws
from the fence, towering drives
beyond it.

Then whispers, like the wind slipping
through wheat, a series blown,
while the lost generation
slid toward Paris, Jackson got drunk
and went to a hearing,
damned from the fields
he patrolled like a lion;
eleven seconds of death
hung from him as he walked
from the building to the car
past the say it ain´t so´s.

Blame Mr. Comiskey for squeezing his dollar,
blame that mere boy who left the hard labor
of cotton mills and green southern fields
if you will.
A wolf ain´t nothing but a dog gone bad.

Alabama Pitts, Who

who played without underwear
and slid hard on packed Piedmont dirt,
soaked strawberries with toilet paper
and spoiled the home team´s rally
with a running catch;

who preferred Ed over his
celebrity convict nickname
but answered to anything
and took it from the wolves
like the Negroes would in ten years;

who tried it in the northeast but
landed in the south when he
couldn´t hit the curve,
couldn´t throw from the fence,
couldn´t be the next Speaker;

who couldn´t shake his mother,
even when he settled in Valdese,
married, coached the high school;
she was always lurking, scaring
his wife, his baby daughter;

who liked to party, liked the women;
nice, they said, though dark and brooding
when the big time never happened,
and outlaws and mill ball were
the Depression´s solution.

who fought with management and fought with destiny,
lived in the fish bowl
and worked in the hosiery mill--
and still ball playered the evenings.
Who robbed and was stabbed,
was put away in Sing-Sing
and put his mother away in Broughton,
who drew the great crowds
and drove them away.

In Another Country

The "paupers cemetery" at
Broughton State Mental Hospital,
I´m looking for a depression-era
ball player´s mother´s grave.

Most of them are unmarked or marked
by weather-worn granite posts,
washed clean of names or numbers.
Some graves are fixed with metal plaques,

a project that stops in the 20´s
occasionally there´s a regular stone;
one declares its occupant was
a fine artist and musician.

I move slowly over thick trimmed grass,
looking for the right camera angle
through unbearable August heat
and thoughts of Erma Pitts Rudd

who stepped through Sing-Sing´s iron gate
with her celebrity convict son
into a New York Times flash so that
the world knew he was her boy

then somehow ended up here
with the demon-haunted and broken,
the utterly forgotten, where shadows
mark a little more earth each day.

Another Night When I Know

that I can stand on my flat dark driveway
and if I look hard across the valley
I will see Tracey Hitchner stepping
off the train at the Hickory station,
holding one suitcase, staring at the
deserted town, ready to head back
to New York on anything leaving,
instead staying, playing outlaw ball,
marrying, working, living sixty years
on the "ugly" Piedmont red dirt,
and I can see big Vince Barton,
arriving half-drunk and late for a game,
showering, just making it to the start,
then slamming five home runs,
a record, illegal as the whole damned league,
and Vince, gone back to Canada and,
for good or bad, never heard from again.
I can see crowds of men in hats and overalls,
women in Sunday dresses, fans sitting
in trees beyond the left field fence,
the hard dirt infield, the cement football
bleachers in right. Looking hard across
the valley, I can see through seventy
years of time, and it´s the greatest movie,
the insane miracle of imagination
this drive-in theatre of history.

I am Haunted by Old Ball Parks

I have gone to Lenoir-Rhyne College to stand
out by the brick athletic buildings.
I have turned this way, then that,
trying to see how the base lines ran,
where the wooden slatted fence kept
gray flannel games hidden, how the
grand stand hovered against the tree line.

I have wondered where umpires parked,
to conceal their cars from rabid fans,
how Pud Miller and Norman Small
waited on deck to slam rockets into darkness,
where Stumpy Culbreth stopped his pacing
to tell Vince Barton Yore in right tonight,
as if he´d come like Ruth in a black Packard
with a babe on his arm for any other reason.

The grass behind the football stadium
has grown tough through the losing seasons,
haunted as an Indian mound.
It is the grass that grows over graves,
and the ghosts are the wind that blows through it.

Jim Poole and the Baseball Life

41 in ´36, you were still
sticking it in that outlaw league,
.399, 54 rib eyes with half a season to go,
then all those years playing and coaching
the Class D teams:
Mooresville, Statesville, Forest City,
having been there,
having felt the hot glow
of the big time, three years in Philly,
then those 50 homers in Nashville,
and too old for another crack.
A college star at sixteen,
born in the tobacco apple foothills,
in the bulls eye of Alexander,
how did you take it,
the year after year scraping by,
waiting for Connie Mack to call again,
for Branch Rickey to ring your bell
then there were the clinics,
players, umpires, off season cash,
a family to feed through hard times,
and we can only guess
who you really were,
what kind of captain,
and what crazy engine
kept you in the game
on first base, on the bench,
that dark faced teen who once
sat with his teammates
under pine trees in 1911,
looking at 64 more years of life,
49 more years of the greatest game.

Razz Miller

A preacher who loved his hounds
so much he ran them Sundays
after church tailing a fox
like the Holy Ghost through fields
into forests, arriving home
for supper and evening prayers.

Once a farm boy himself,
tobacco, cotton, barley,
once a thief on the base paths,
a solid arm in deep right,
a dangerous leadoff man,
a three sport college player.

Lutheran seminary,
then Depression ministry,
switched to teaching, playing
mill ball in the long summers,
and there were those outlaw league
days, the fist fights, the fast play.

Finally a man settled
with school teacher wife, to a
country life of animals
and parishioners: shepherd,
husband, father, hunter, his
own son, taken the cloth, too.

Retired, Rowan County, NC,
on a summer evening,
after praying with his wife
for the Pope who had been shot,
he went to feed his beloved
hounds; was found dead in their lot.

Another Game Begins

On a night when
you realize you owe
your own story a read,
the horns are honking
at the stoplight
stuck behind Friday´s
anchored traffic.

Your team has lost again
near the fold
in the local newspaper
as time shows itself
finally, a declared enemy
who will drive the ball deep
to the baseline over and over.

And you can only move
with the same ropy will
that saves a crazy point
or sets a burger on the grill.
In this hallucinated night,
on a cool sweep of moonlight
another game begins.

Harold Lail´s Permission

I stop by to get him to sign
a permission for the new book,
outlaw players, interviews and profiles.

We talk about some players, Pitts, Barton,
Stumpy Culbreth,then he grabs a baseball and says
let me show you how Shaney did it.

Harold presses the ball against his hip, rubs
the edge of his left thumbnail hard into the seams;
the scraping is surprisingly loud.

It takes him thirty seconds, tops.
Then he holds the ball in his big right palm
and says,"Feel the difference now."

I run my fingers along the left seam,
the loose, risen red threads, then the right one,
still packed down in its machine groove.

Harold is smiling. For the first time
I notice he´s lost weight since I´ve seen him,
more like his 1940s mill team pictures.

He tells me about his no-hitter;
he tells me about the bus breaking down
on an overpass in 1938.

He tells me about phonograph needles;
he says last weekend he helped
put siding on a church in West Virginia.

We´re out past interviews; when I leave,
I shake his seventy-nine year-old hand,
unable to take on his power with his knowledge.

Poem for Winnie

Late summer storm,
the ambulance horn blows through
the muffled night,
and I am thinking of Winnie Taylor
who sat with us signing books
two months ago, beautiful ninety-one,
stately in her wheelchair,
smiling, hugging minor league fans,
friends, relatives of men
who played with or batted against
Coddle Creek seventy years ago,
Winnie who stayed for four hours,
gave up her wheel chair for a box seat
in the fifth inning and watched
islanders, single A boys disguised
in the throwback uniforms
her husband wore in outlaw days,
Winnie who died three weeks later
in her sleep,
at peace with the baseball gods,
her own words read from our book
at the funeral.
Late summer storm,
the ambulance horn blows through
another magnificent, ghostly night.

Brookford

Here is this tan river,
this hundred year old dam,
a huge brick building empty.

Gone are the baggy eyed men,
in grubby overalls and felt hats,
their lint-fucked lungs,
their yellow cigarette fingers.

Gone are the tubercular women
that doffed and chased children,
their callused hands and hard frowns
darken museum ramparts,
trucks do not come here now
for socks or stockings or yarn.
The old foot bridge has vanished.

The highway blasted the stores;
long ago, the mill houses were
fixed for people and sold.
This town is a fragment,
its great looms gone missing.
The only ghosts left play baseball,
gray willowy shadows in moonlight.

Alabama Pitts, What Did You Learn

What did you learn in Sing Sing?
the open field run, the stiff arm,
how to break the 220 down?
your dark little mother came up
from Georgia to walk through that
iron door with her famous son,
the world for one moment
at your feet, a young TIMES stringer
flashing the image with caught breath
forward nearly seventy glossy years.

Where did you think you were going?
the next Sisler, the next Wagner,
the second coming of the peach?
smoke, all, when the curves began
to drop in Albany, when the game
was coffin tight with best players
every boy wanted to be somehow,
and Dizzy and Paul were re-talking
the language in St. Louis is that
resolve in your face, or the hardness

of steel bars in gray eyes six years
up the river of missed women and
running catches that stopped
at concertina wire, contracts and
crowds always waiting just
beyond the robbery sentence,
and mother come to get her boy
in her best dress wearing a hat
she could hardly afford. Alabama,
what did you learn in Sing Sing?

The 1912 Brookford Mill Baseball Team

Under dark trees by a field
in fifteen different poses,
work pants jackets, floppy hats,
fifteen cigarettes still half-
burned ninety-three years later,
meek hounds settled at their feet,
the Brookford Mill baseball team.

When the sun rises through dust,
they will come in their wagon,
haughty-faced, sporting enough
fingers for gloves just barely
bigger than hands, homemade bats,
shotguns against shoulders, yet
no tracked up base path could hide
the rough hunger in those eyes.

The Story Goes On

One after one the old guys
tell me, "We sure did have fun,"
came straight from tailing rip saws,
from stacking cartons of beer,
from teaching high school PE,
from driving a linen truck,
straight to the field changing in
the cabs of Ford pickups or
in the cement block ball field johns,
the clack of cleats across the
dugout slab, a coke, an oatmeal
cake, and the adrenaline to
face a forty-something ex- minor league pitcher, bent to
prove the eminent gas of
his game,cigarettes between
the machinery of innings.
Nearing or past eighty, their
eyes glisten as we scan through
dog eared photos, players, lean
and hawk-faced in stadiums
preserved by the bright trance of
camera. Their voices
narrate,this kid was from NY,
this guy always lost his glove,
this one made it to the show.
I listen wistfully,they speak excitedly
of memories plowed deep,
now words rising in these fertile rows.

The Way it All Ends

Let it be like the old days:
a close call at the plate,
a fight in the grandstand
between men in work clothes
and Clark Kent hats,
a forfeit after the road team
refuses to take the field in the eighth,
the umpires sprinting
toward the left field gate,
as the PA announcer tries
to think of something to say.

Let there be rocks thrown
at the escaping bus,
fans from both sides
calling for a God to smite
their mortal enemies,
let it be 1938 with a war
about to suck these folks
across oceans into foxholes,
to save this hardscrabble world.
If it all must end, let the old curses
soar through the black night forever.

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