Baseball’s Sad Lexicon for National Poetry Month with Tim Wiles

by on April 8, 2010

We are thrilled to present this exclusive conversation with our first repeat guest on Cover the Bases!  It is a privilege and an honor that Tim Wiles, Director of Research at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, provides what we’ll call an extra base hit.  Tim has joined us in the past to discuss his beautiful treatment of Baseball’s Greatest Hit: The Story of Take Me Out to the Ball Game.

In this episode we are honoring the fact that the month of April is designated as National Poetry Month.  Tim is co-editor of a fine collection of baseball poems called Line Drives: 100 Contemporary Baseball Poems along with Brooke Horvath.

The book is also graced with a forward by Elinor Nauen who perfectly sets the emotion of what can be found inside the covers. We begin our discussion quoting Elinor’s fondness for the short poem.

However, our exclusive topic on this episode is Baseball’s Sad Lexicon, the second most famous baseball poem this side of Casey At the Bat. Many will know it as, Tinker to Evers to Chance and it is celebrating it’s 100th anniversary, written in June or July in 191o.

The poem was written by Franklin Piece Adams (F.P.A.), who at the time was a columnist for the New York Evening Mail. He went on to pen a long running column called The Conning Tower and was a regular panelist on radio shows in the day.

As the story goes, F.P.A. was attempting to get out of the newsroom to catch a ballgame at the Polo Grounds one summer day, when his editor requested an additional 8 lines to fill space in the paper.  His editor understood the lasting legacy of those 8 lines as soon as they were published.

Baseball’s Sad Lexicon revolves around the great rivalry of the day, which was the New York Giants and the Chicago Cubs. It is the Cubs’ splendid infield of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance which is immortalized as a forlorn Giants fan rues the double play that spoils his team’s chances.

Tim was asked by the editor of Memories and Dreams, the Hall of Fame’s official magazine, to put together an article about the 100th anniversary of Baseball’s Sad Lexicon.   Tim points out that there have been some subtle changes to the poem over time, and he wanted to view the original as it appeared, in order to maintain accuracy.  It was during this process of tracking down the original that some astonishing developments arose!

There are only two locations in the country that contain the archives of the New York Evening Mail, one is the New York Public Library, and the other appropriately enough is in Chicago, a library consortium called The Center for Research Libraries.  Due to restriction of access to prevent further degradation of the microfilm in one case, and a membership scenario in the other, Tim was challenged to get his eyes on the original.

Enter Cubs fan Jack Bales from the University of Mary Washington, who has a friend named Martin Gallas, a member of the consortium.  Martin was able to go through the microfilm from July 18, 1910 and discovered the poem … along with three other poems written in the same exact meter!!

The other writer’s signatures were from Chicago, and it was clear to Tim that these were responses to Baseball’s Sad Lexicon.  The poem must have been published prior to this July 18th date. He directed Gallas to search for the poem’s publication on an earlier date.  It turns out that it had not only appeared in the Evening Mail on July 18th, but that it had been published in the Chicago Tribune on July 15th, as well as published on July 12th prior in the New York Evening Mail.

Since he was now viewing four related poems, Tim decided to search the entire season to see if there were more poems occurring around the times of each of the six Giants and Cubs series that season.

Lo and behold, there had been an exchange of poems between the two city newspapers, featuring at least four writers including Grantland Rice along with Franklin Pierce Adams.   They have now uncovered 29 poems, 15 of which detail a specific play or game that had occurred in the season, with Baseball’s Sad Lexicon having been the first poem published.

This astonishing discovery has to raise the question as to why these other poems have not seen the light of day for a century. Part of it, Tim believes, is that F.P.A. was not a sports writer so these poems were just a part of his overall portfolio, but Tim also questions why there are only two libraries in the entire country that archive the New York Evening Mail .. and simply overcoming the significant challenge of collecting and archiving any cultural reference throughout history.

The intention is to continue reading the New York Evening Mail and the Chicago Tribune from 1910 to discover just how many poems were published!  We should be able to get an eloquent perspective on the season and rivalry as it unfolds towards the Cubs winning the National League pennant to face the Philadelphia A’s in the World Series.

With the precision execution of a Tinker to Evers to Chance double play, Tim and his team will uncover each episode in this linguistic battle and finally capture the complete cultural artifact that almost eluded us.  He should be extremely proud of this accomplishment and we can only aspire to contribute a small fraction of what he has done for the game of baseball, and our cultural heritage in general.

You can look for articles about this discovery in Memories and Dreams magazine from the Hall of Fame, MLB Insiders Club magazine, a Cubs magazine and then hopefully a more scholarly examination in a publication such as via SABRh or in Nine: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture.

Tim takes us home with readings of two of his favorite discoveries from this collection.

We extend our sincerest thanks to Tim for appearing on Cover the Bases to talk about Baseball’s Sad Lexicon.  If you have any questions or comments for Tim, you can reach him via email at TWiles@BaseballHallofFame<dot>org.

Please let us know in the comment section what you think about this extraordinary discovery, as well as any other suggestions you might have for future editions of the podcast.

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  • http://www.perrybarber.com/ Perry

    This is one of the most interesting baseball “cold cases” I've heard about in a long time. What's always fascinated me about the legend of the Tinker-Evers-Chance double play trio is that were it not for Franklin Adams' poem, their fielding exploits would qualify as merely mythic rather than prolific. In their busiest season together, 1907, they turned only 58 double plays. By contrast, other player combos generally regarded as truly great double play turners (Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker of the Tigers; Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox of the White Sox; Joe Cronin and Buddy Myer of the Senators) have averaged about 100 double plays per season.

    A collection of all the poems written in response to and as parody of “Baseball's Sad Lexicon” would be a marvelous addition to the great and growing archive of baseball literature, and I can't wait for the results of Tim Wiles' meticulous research to emerge! Thanks, Joe, for spotlighting the continuing great work Tim and his fellow Hall of Fame researchers, including my fellow “Jeopardy!” champion Gabriel Schechter, are doing.

  • Pingback: Tinker to Evers to Chance | chimesfreedom

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