Kerouac, baseball and Denver
Beat Generation icon spoke of love of game during visit
DENVER -- As the World Series moves from Red Sox Nation to the Rocky Mountains, it's hard not to rekindle another westward migration simultaneously celebrated and mourned a half century ago this fall.Fifty years ago, the national consciousness was taking to the road, lighting out on new superhighways, following baseball's expanding consciousness to the Pacific, a collective coming of age pushing past the East Coast-centric state of mind and catching the fever for discovery captured in the writing of Jack Kerouac, a literary adventurer who fell in love with baseball in the shadow of Fenway Park. Kerouac's origins lie in Lowell, Mass., a Beantown suburb where the writer was weaned on the artistry of Joe Cronin and Lefty Grove before hitchhiking to Denver to visit his Beat buddy, Neal Cassady, a trip, a friendship and an era immortalized in Kerouac's "On the Road." His journals tell tales of wandering the streets of downtown Denver, finding inspiration in a neighborhood ballgame played a few blocks from modern-day Coors Field.
"In the 1950s Americans were on the move," George Will wrote in "Baseball," the companion book to Ken Burns' documentary. "The first Holiday Inn opened. One of the decade's most famous literary works, supposedly a work of alienation and protest, was in fact an almost ecstatic travel book -- Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," published in 1957. Baseball franchises, too, were on the road."
Known as a founding father of the Beat generation, Kerouac's passion for the national pastime is less known, even by the game's greatest historians and celebrants.
Though not a beat writer in the traditional, sports-related sense, Kerouac's beat was in the mind, the beatific, unsatisfied imagination that was jump started by baseball, his mad passion since his earliest childhood playing in the vacant lots of Lowell, idolizing his Red Sox and creating his own fantasy baseball game -- a complex universe that began in knee-high days, took a quantum leap after he witnessed his first game at Fenway, and evolved throughout his life, all the way to the end, complete with reams of statistics, his own newspapers accounting the turns of each season, the finances and front office moves, and the chatter of a fictional manager on a rain-soaked afternoon, entertaining the scribes with his feet on his desk and a stogie bouncing across his lip.
As a teenager Kerouac wrote a baseball novella, finding a clarity in his baseball writing that he rarely replicated in his fiction.
"Like a bolt out of the blue, Freddy watched Lefty's first pitch come bouncing back to him, hissing sibilantly as it cut towards him in wild capers. A real 'grass-cutter,' he wrote in "Raw Rookie Nerves."
The novella ends with the rookie second baseman turning a triple play, knocking himself out in the process of winning the pennant.
"I think that was going a little too far," Kerouac later wrote of his romantic tale. "But in all seriousness, heroism is still my goal, and I don't care how childish that may be, it's it."
How he would have loved the underdog Rockies' heroic storming through the National League in a dizzying fury over four weeks in September and October, paced by their own rookie shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki, who turned the 13th unassisted triple play in baseball history earlier in the season. It may even have matched his recollection of that other great pennant chase when the '51 Giants walked off into the World Series with Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World."
"When Bobby Thomson hit that home run in 1951, I trembled with joy and couldn't get over it for days and [I] wrote poems about how it is possible for the human spirit to win after all!" Kerouac wrote in a 1959 magazine piece.
Though his literary voice is often characterized as hitting the page without precedent in American letters, the voices he heard off the radio calling his beloved baseball games were an undeniable antecedent to his stream-of-consciousness prose, making play-by-play out the pitches life threw him. His long friendship with Denver's Cassady -- the model for "On the Road's" Dean Moriarty and a fellow athlete and sports enthusiast -- gave him ample opportunity to explore his theories of the ultimate importance of a writer's voice.
"I have been digging the World Series and the tones of the various announcers," Kerouac wrote Cassady in Denver back on October 6, 1950. "Gene Kelly [has a] way of being proud of his verbs, like when a ground ball is hit, he'll say ... 'a slow, twisting, weak roller' as if baseball was the significance of life in itself, the things that happen in it representing in symbols of action, the symbols of [twisting] despair in the 'modern world.' I must say, it's mighty cool.
"Then quickly I turn to old reliable southern-accent Mel Allen, who has that simple back-country mind, just pointing out things like, 'Well, there's Johnny Mize mopping his face with a handkerchief' or 'there's Del Ennis picking up a bat at the bat rack.' You can tell, Neal, how I dig all this, my mind, wrapped in wild observation of everything, is drawn, by the back-country announcer, back to the regular, brakeman things of life."
In August 1947, Kerouac landed in Denver on his way to San Francisco, scribbling in the journal that would evolve into "On the Road," his mile-high epiphany surviving mostly intact.
"Down at 23rd and Welton the great softball game was going on under floodlights which also partially illuminated the gas tank," Kerouac wrote on August 30. "What a cruel touch! -- now it was the nostalgia of the Gas House Kids. And a great eager crowd roared at every play. The strange young heroes, of all kinds, white, colored, Mexican, Indian, were on the field performing with utter seriousness. Most awful of all: They were just sandlot kids in uniform, while I had to go and be a professional-type athlete of the highest variety, in my college days.
"Never in my life had I ever been innocent enough to play ball this way before all the families and girls of the neighborhoods, at night under lights, near the gas tank all the kids know," he continued, scribbling for pages. "It was the Denver night here in the streets of the real Denver, and all I did was die. What had I gone and done with my life, shutting off all the doors to real, boyish, human joy like this?"
Kerouac had gone to Columbia on a football scholarship, but it was the baseball at its essence, beside the Denver gas tank, that rekindled the ecstatic state the game had long kept him in.
He played his constantly evolving imaginary game everywhere from his backyard in Lowell to his fire lookout post on Desolation Ridge in northwest Washington state, from a flea-ridden flat in Mexico City to the dining room table at his mother's house in Long Island, N.Y., where he once played a game with Newsday writer Stan Isaacs, a rare instance when someone else was allowed into his baseball universe.
Kerouac epitomized America on the move, taking his game with him just as the country took its pastime from one coast to the other. He measured his life by the accomplishments he could check off from one World Series to the next, but he could never have imagined that the Denver neighborhood offering a ballgame beneath the gas light and rekindling the joy of childhood sandlots would one day host a Fall Classic featuring his beloved Red Sox up against Neal Cassady's Colorado Rockies.
"I played games like that endlessly as a kid," said Dan Okrent, founder of Rotisserie League baseball and a pioneer of the modern fantasy era, putting his finger on the endless appeal of Kerouac's lifelong love affair with a childhood invention. "I've always maintained that I love to play baseball. Even more I like to watch baseball. And even more than that I like to think about baseball. I think that's what this is a reflection of. A lot of people have that same connection, that the game in your head is every bit as appealing as the game on the field."
For Kerouac, it was all of a piece, the field and the mind welcoming him along the road, offering a haven in the rhythm of innings, the meter, the cadence, the grain of the game etched into his ever-unsatisfied imagination.
Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.