Sunday, April 16, 2006

George Bowering's Baseball Love

Anyone who knows anything about me already knows that I'm a pretty big fan of the Vancouver writer George Bowering (look here and here and here and here), so it comes as no surprise that I loved (appropriately enough) his new memoir on baseball, Baseball Love (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2006), enough that it made me laugh out loud on numerous occasions (and often multiple times on the same page). After years of books in almost every other genre, including poetry, fiction, history, young adult fiction, literary criticism and personal memoirs, Bowering is writing fully and finally on the game he has played and loved for years, and written about as either newspaper journalist, literary critic, poet and fiction writer for the length and breadth of his writing life (Bowering started out as a baseball journalist while still in school). Filled with the usual Bowering-isms ("In his A Trip Around Lake Erie, David McFadden called Cleveland the most beautiful city in the U.S.; but then he is also on record as calling Hamilton the most beautiful city in Canada." or "After a few innings of my witticisms in Municipal Stadium, I had a clear view in front of me." p 185), Baseball Love follows Bowering and his companion Jean Baird throughout Canada, the United States and a few other places (including games in other countries, memoirs and movies on baseball over the years, and other anecdotes stretching throughout Bowering's long past with the game) starting soon after he was named the first ever Parliamentary Poet Laureate (2002-4) as they traveled on various baseball trips, seeing as many games in North America as possible.

When she was here to do a reading of her own poetry, Vancouver writer and publisher Meredith Quartermain suggested that George Bowering is making a killing of this new memoir to all the folk across North America who have a stake in the game, whether journalist, player or simple enthusiast, based, I would presume, on not just the humourous aspects of the memoir, but on the fact that he knows and loves the game so well, writing on why he preferred Ted Williams to Joe DiMaggio, the few female umpires in the game, baseball games in Kamloops in the late 1880s, mascots and the number of variant uniforms per team getting out of hand (suggesting that someday your kid will be asking you for a particular team's television interview hats…). He has a whole chapter simply writing about books on the game, written by players and enthusiasts both, all the time while sprinkling names, stats, trivia and a wide range of knowledge throughout. After a week of baseball in the United States, for example, Bowering and Baird headed north, writing:

"We crossed into Canada just below Val Marie, no place at all, and drove on a very bad skinny dangerous highway out of 1943, between fields of canola, heading towards Swift Current, where I proposed staying the night, thus giving us a nice leisurely drive to Moose Jaw the next day, registration day for the seventh annual Saskatchewan Festival of Words.

But Jean was driving, and when she saw Swift Current, she just got onto the Trans-Canada and booted it the rest of the way to Moose Jaw, 755 kilometres for the day. For the second July in a row I got to stay a few days at the famous Temple Gardens Mineral Spa Resort Hotel in the middle of Moose Jaw. The whole fourth floor is a hotsprings pool (99 degrees), and you can even swim or wade outdoors (101 degrees), where there is a hotsprings balcony, people sitting around the pool out there, sipping on healthful drinks. Last year I didn't bother, which is usually my way, but this year I had Jean Baird with me. She got us into our river-rafting outfits and plain white bathrobes, and we headed straight for the mineral springs in the middle of Canada.

If you get a chance, do it.

Especially if you have a bit of a hangover. The mineral-smelling, body-embracing hot water has no other desire than to make you well. When we went for our second visit to the waters, we encountered the cause of said hangover. Shelagh Rogers and Alison Gzowski, the CBC ladies, were there too. The night before they had added tequila carousing to our late night vodka carousing with some poets, including the soon-to-be Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick, M. Herménégilde Chiasson.

The organizers in Moose Jaw always put on a good writers' festival. I didn't go to as many events this year as I had last year, partly because I was not as excited by the lineup of writers, partly because I had my inamorata with me, and partly because I chose to watch the season-ending Canadian Baseball League all-star game on television. As it turned out, the teams were tied after ten innings, so they decided to decide it with a home-run derby such as the one held the day before the major leagues all-star game. Five hitters from either side, the western division and the eastern division, were given ten outs each. The west won 1-0. It was pitiful.

I was feeling bad for Canadian baseball. What I saw next made me feel worse.

According to the Moose Jaw Times-Herald, there were baseball tournaments of all sorts going on in Moose Jaw, this writers' festival weekend. There were the Intermediate "B" Women's Championships and the Intermediate "C" Men's Championships. And there was the Junior "AAA" Provincial Baseball Championships.

Well, Jean and I reasoned, this is a baseball trip, not a literature trip, so we walked kitty-corner across Moose Jaw's very nice downtown Crescent Park and found two ballparks across the street from one another. We chose Ross Wells Field, and sure enough, that was where we would witness the Junior "AAA" contest between the Moose Jaw Eagles and the sadly undisciplined Regina Rebels. The score was 12-2 Eagles. Ross Wells Field is a little primitive, but there were good loyal baseball organizers there, though not a lot of other people. Despite the arguments I have always made, I felt doubt rising in me. I began to doubt that Canadians dig baseball the way that USAmericans do. There are some, such as I, who will know more about baseball than 99 percent of the people in any Tulsa ballpark, but I am beginning to suspect that my fellow Canadians will let themselves settle for hockey. Or as my good friend Victor Coleman put it in one of his poems:

There's no precision ion hockey
all the tension is in losing the puck
I have talked to people
people who find baseball boring
They deserve hockey

I'd always thought that there were a lot of stout people in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, but after being in ballparks and hotels in the U.S. for a week, I found these people at Ross Wells Field to be just plain normal in size.

That's perhaps a little surprising. I was impressed by the number of folks opting for the "special" at the lineup concession booth—chicken strips with macaroni and french fries.

The quality of the baseball was not high, but these were young amateurs, after all, and we cut them some slack. Probably they could all skate like the devil." (pp 115-7)

Baseball has been in a pile of Bowering books over the years, including poetry collections, snuck into novels, and even as a collection he edited of short stories on sports; if you need proof, be sure to check out the recently reissued Baseball: A Poem in the Magic Number 9 (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1967; Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2004), his poetry collections Poem and Other Baseballs (Coatsworth ON: Black Moss Press, 1976), The Catch (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1976) or his novel Caprice (Toronto ON: Viking, 1987, 1988; 2nd ed., 1994). You can see baseball mentioned as a thread throughout his entire career as a poet and fiction writer, like bread crumbs for the reader to follow, as in this poem from In The Flesh (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1974):


There comes a Time when you must Act
they told me & I went into my role,
tripping, really, across the stage till
they said you idiot you know
what we mean.

Sure, do you, I replied, I the player
in the first Act, the first half
of the double header, the beginning
of Thought.

Will-full man they said & I
was reading Will, rounding the base,
playing it too, picking it up & acting
on all their opposing intentions, what they
mean, poor visiting team at the dis-
advantage. (p 85)

Despite all that, somehow it has almost always been that other Vancouver baseball fan and writer, W.P. Kinsella (who wrote the story that became Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner), who got asked anything on the CBC when it came to the game. As Bowering, in Baseball Love, writes (one of a few times) of fellow Vancouver-scribe Kinsella:

"On the same weekend I was walking down East Sixth Street in Cleveland, with W.P. Kinsella. Bill was at the time in his full Richard Brautigan mode—hair dyed yellow and pretty long, mustache dyed yellow and waxed into a Buffalo Bill configuration. Walking beside him, I just looked like some faithful poet companion. It was nice and hot in that Lake Erie way, and a dump truck pulled to a stop for the red light at Superior. The driver stuck his head out the window and shouted:

"Hey, Shoeless Joe!"

Bill didn't know, but several years earlier I had been the judge responsible for his winning the Alberta Best First Book Award. The other two novels weren't bad, but they weren't about baseball, eh?

Now, it so happens that Kinsella and I are the only two novelists in western Canada who write about baseball and about Indians.

One time I was in Ottawa for some conference or festival, staying at a Swiss bed and breakfast with Bob Kroetsch and others. In my spare time I went to see the people at Oberon Press, publisher of Kinsella and me. Oberon was in the Delta Hotel building, and after my visit I was on my way to the National Library. This involved crossing the lobby of the Delta Hotel. In the middle of the lobby, in front of the fireplace, were two guys in chairs. One was W.P. Kinsella and the other was the guy who wrote about books for the Ottawa Citizen. I hadn't known that Kinsella was in town. He wasn't there for our conference or festival. I guess he was touring his new book from Oberon Press.

In any case, I did not slow my pace on my way across the lobby of the Delta. As I strode by this interview in front of the fireplace, I spoke a few words to the Citizen.

"This guy may know a little about baseball, but he doesn't know anything about Indians."

An enigmatic strider.

It was one of my greatest days in hotel lobbies." (pp 186-7)

Recently a friend of mine admitted that she couldn't get through his collection of essays, Left Hook: A Sideways Look at Canadian Writing (Vancouver BC: Raincoast, 2005), as she said, because it was all about him. On the other hand, even as I disagree with the absoluteness of her complaint, I have no problem with the suggestion of it; still, this isn’t a book about Bowering, it's a book about baseball, with George and Jean simply along for the ride. This is a book about the sheer joy of the game, learning stats on the players on his fantasy team, why he hates hockey, what baseball hats he refuses to collect, and his favourites (most and least) about the game, including players, stadiums, foods and teams (although I find it strange that Bowering's favourite Ottawa eatery, according to the memoir, is The Glue Pot). It even comes complete with a George Bowering baseball card, with stats on his (mostly literary) awards, and what team he was on at the time, from the York Street Tigers in Montreal in 1969 (GG Poetry) to the Granville Grange Zephyrs in Vancouver in 1973 (All-Star Team, Kosmic League), Mark's Team in 1980 (GG Fiction), Paperbacks in 1993 (bpNichol Chapbook Award and CAA Poetry Award) and Friendly People in 2002 (Canadian Poet Laureate). (Apparently Fredericton poet matt robinson, when he had his collection of hockey poems published last year with ECW Press, it was issued with a card as well, but I haven't yet been given one.) Writing of his baseball days in Montreal, when he taught at Sir George Williams (what later became Concordia University), Bowering writes:

"I remember Hanford Woods, of course, but I don't remember any nickname. Maybe it was too obvious. He himself did name his daughter Georgia Woods, and I saw her years later, a terrific roller skater in the student ghetto.

Young Dwight Gardiner, a poetry student who would become a lifetime friend, was there, but I didn't give him his nickname "Expressway" until the first season of the Kosmic League. My other poetry student Artie Gold would sometimes ride out to Domtar with us, but Artie didn't presume to be an athlete. He could not catch a softball if you rolled it to him across the kitchen table. But he could recite the poems of Jack Spicer, one of the great baseball fans of all time.

Clark Blaise, who also taught at Sir George Williams University, was a couple of books into his terrific fiction career. Of all the fellow writers I have known, Clark Blaise and Hugh Hood were the most fun to do trivia with, especially sports trivia, and especially in Clark's case, baseball trivia. He has a prodigious memory. But during his few appearances as a first baseman for the York Street Tigers, he proved not to be a well-tuned machine made out of coordinated parts. As for Hugh Hood, you could check out Robert Kroetsch's description of him as a would-be ballplayer at a writer's retreat by reading Kroetsch's Crow Journals. I saw W.P. Kinsella trying to throw out the first ball at a game somewhere. These successful fiction writers who love the Great Game were really what I was afraid I might be when I was younger. It took me till the York Street Tigers to find out that given a clean slate, I could do it. I had my father's DNA. My body knew what to look like." (pp 107-8)

[For anyone interested, Bowering will be again in Ottawa for the conference on late Canadian poet Al Purdy in early May, 2006, both presenting a paper on Purdy + doing a poetry reading; watch for a new collection of Bowering's poems, too, out this fall, also with Talonbooks]

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