Monday, August 6, 2018

Baseball in Finnegans Wake?

George Herman Ruth pitching for the Red Sox, circa 1915.


"Holy cow!" 

- Phil Rizzuto

Being that Baseball and Finnegans Wake are two of my favorite things in the universe, naturally I've tried to seek out connections between the two from time to time. Years ago at my other blog I speculated on connections between Joyce and Baseball focusing specifically on Ulysses (which led to a mention on ESPN.com!), but lately I've been contemplating whether there are any significant connections between Finnegans Wake and Baseball. The Wake contains everything and Baseball was certainly very popular during the years (1923-1939) while Joyce was composing his all-encompassing book, therefore Baseball must be in the Wake someplace.

Finnegans Wake features dozens of very specific references to cricket, including many names of star players (see pgs. 583-584), there are also clusters of soccer and rugby references---but what about Baseball? Well, there is at least one verifiable (and very interesting) allusion to Baseball in the Wake and a few other more vague ones.

The most obvious Baseball allusions occur in chapter 5 amid the long, rambling, dream-distorted archeological inquiries into what exactly the text of Finnegans Wake actually is...or is not: "it is not a miseffectual whyacinthinous riot of blots and blurs and bars and balls and hoops and wriggles and juxtaposed jottings linked by spurts of speed: it only looks as like it as damn it." (p. 118) Similar to a Baseball diamond, the Wake is a square around whose four sections one advances until completing a full circle around the square (Joyce: "It's a wheel I tell the world. And it's all square"), ending and beginning again at "riverrun." I've mentioned before how the run in riverrun, the word the Wake starts and ends with, coincides with a run in baseball indicating a cyclical journey around the square completed by returning across home plate.

Here's the most obvious Baseball reference in the Wake, from page 119:

"...after a good ground kiss to Terracussa and for wars luck our leftoff's flung over our home homoplate, cling to it as with drowning hands, hoping against hope all the while that... things will begin to clear up a bit one way or another within the next quarrel of an hour..."
There's a lot of interesting stuff in this little cluster and it also opens the rest of the text up to other Baseball-related readings. It sounds like a left-handed pitcher kissing the ground for luck before flinging a baseball over home plate at someone trying to reach at the ball with their hands clinging to a bat, hoping to come out ahead in this quarrel. The word "homoplate" is a pun on home plate and omoplate, a Greek word from physiology that literally means "shoulder blade." That carries a little extra relevance for Baseball junkies since a pitcher's shoulder is such a regular part of Baseball talk these days with hurler's arms so often injured and surgically repaired. The phrase "a good ground kiss to Terracussa" could be a ground ball that kissed the earth (hit toward the shortstop perhaps? hence the SS in "Terracussa"?). A stat head like me can't help but notice the fascinating synchronicity in the way the Wake describes the efforts of Baseball players "for wars luck." The most authoritative advanced statistic measuring Baseball players is called WAR (or WARP, for Wins Above Replacement Player). A simple and cynical observation of Baseball would be that it's a battle between WAR and luck, i.e. established reliable statistics versus the dice-roll of luck inherent in each pitch. In Baseball, anything can happen.

"juxtaposed jottings linked by spurts of speed"...or a Baseball scorecard.


If we follow the Wake's advice to "Wipe your glosses with what you know" (p. 304) we can begin to read other appearances of Baseball in its pages. A couple lines after "our leftoff's flung over our home homoplate" the phrase "ten to one" could be giving the score of a ballgame. And the aforementioned "riot of blots and blurs and balls and hoops and wriggles and juxtaposed jottings" now sound like inscribings in a Baseball scorecard recording the outcomes of a ballgame. I envision the pitcher versus hitter duel being invoked in this line on the previous page: "the continually more and less intermisunderstanding minds of the anticollaborators." Prior to our lefty delivering the pitch across home plate, the pitcher and catcher are communicating in sign language, deceiving the opponent and deciding on the next pitch using "changeably meaning vocable scriptsigns." (p. 118)

The lefty flinging a pitch over home plate takes on new meaning in the context of a potential Baseball reference two pages prior. Page 117 mentions the Broadway hit No, No, Nanette with "Highho Harry" in the same sentence. Fweet and John Gordon's annotations both suggest this is referring to Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee who, according to legend, sold off his star player Babe Ruth to the Yankees in order to finance his 1919 musical No, No, Nanette. I've long felt there must be a reference to Babe Ruth somewhere in the Wake because he was such a huge global celebrity throughout the 1920s and '30s. The No, No, Nanette stuff is certainly compelling. John Gordon's notes suggest "our leftoff's flung over our home homoplate" might indeed be a reference to Babe Ruth, who was a left-handed pitcher for the Red Sox before "Highho Harry" sold him to the Yanks. Another reference to No, No, Nanette appears on page 567 surrounded by some Baseball-sounding terms like "buntingcap" and "glover's greetings" and "streamer fields." (It's worth noting as well that the song "Tea for Two," which recurs frequently throughout the Wake, is from No, No, Nanette.)

On the topic of left-handed pitchers in Finnegans Wake, I must mention the piece I wrote after Kansas City Royals pitcher Brandon Finnegan made his debut in the major leagues. The lefty donned the number 27 for the Royals and if you open to page 27 of the Wake you'll find mention of "a blue streak over his bourseday shirt" which fit well for the kid whose #27 jersey had "FINNEGAN" written in blue letters. Even better, if you go to page 327 of the Wake it seems to proudly mention the pitcher, "our goodsend Brandonius." As of this writing, Brandon Finnegan has flamed out and is now pitching out of the bullpen in the minor leagues. In Baseball circles he is an afterthought, or what the Wake might call a "bullpen backthought." (FW p. 359) Yes, the annotations suggest that is indeed a "bullpen" reference that Joyce took from Baseball lingo.

And here's one more, a line I don't think has been noted by the scholars as a reference to Baseball but certainly sounds like one to me, from page 213: "number nine in yangsee's hats." The New York Yankees ("new yonks" FW p. 308) launched into the public consciousness during the 20s and 30s, mainly thanks to the exploits of Babe Ruth, so perhaps this is referring to ballplayers in Yankees hats, with "number nine" appropriate for nine players on the field.

Lastly, I must mention another convergence of my two favorite things, Baseball and Finnegans Wake, that comes from Peter Chrisp's fantastic blog post about the poet Delmore Schwartz. Delmore was a devoted Wake head, known to carry along a tattered copy of the book everywhere he went, scribbling annotations on every page. He was also a huge baseball fan. One anecdote mentions Schwartz sitting in the stands at the Polo Grounds, watching a New York Giants ballgame while jotting annotations into his copy of Finnegans Wake (my love for this story is immeasurable). I wonder if he thought to look for Baseball references in the book.

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