Play began with a carpenter nail striking a ball bearing, but not just any ball bearing. "Repulsion," of the Jack Kerouac Stables of balls and marbles, had once been undisputed King of the Turf. When a toothpick starting gate let go the "horses" down their Parcheesi board raceway, there was simply no spheroid slicker or quicker.
"I named him Repulsion," Kerouac recalled, "because I knew he would repulse all other horses forever."
"Which he did."
It was on the horse-racing beat that the twelve-year old jockey-trainer-owner-newspaperman Jack Kerouac-Lewis began a life-long experiment in fantasy sports and journalism.
In 1936 the future Beat was fourteen and his alter-ego Jack Lewis was old enough to pitch in the majors, own a ball club or several, and analyze up, down, and sideways the game of baseball. That year the "automobile" era of the game commenced, featuring (in most seasons) the Boston Fords, Chicago Chryslers, Philadelphia Pontiacs, Pittsburgh Plymouths, New York Chevvies, and St. Louis La Salles.
The era lasted from 1936 through the Second World War and until 1959, when Jack was thirty-seven. The Sportsman, The Daily Ball, and Jack Lewis’s Baseball Chatter worked various angles on the fledgling league.
The club, on the whole, is a well-balanced, slugging, and flashy assortment of baseball players, and there can be no doubt but that the Pittsburgh Plymouths are a very definite threat for the flag, even though it is yet one-third early.
"It’s too bad," [said manager Bob Chase], "that Simmy had to get hit on the neck by Minoock, but I reckon that’s the game."
Owner Bill Mahaffey put thumbs down on any salary higher, as the Fords will start Season VI with a $3500 cash debit on hand, compared to Pittsburgh's $278,000.
The Fords bought a 20% share of the Crandall team of the Central League... The ballots drawn netted the Fords a first baseman and second baseman. At present, they are Jack Rumbur on the initial hassock, and Harry Mahoney on second. Both are highly regarded, and are tied to the Fords with chains, as the rule goes.
Six teams with an (eventual) forty game schedule asked no ordinary commitment to the league. Kerouac saw the importance of having the proper marriage of chance dynamics and oppressive detail that favors the game of baseball.
In time, ball bearings and stone fielders were out, a 66-card deck and three-dimensional strike zone were in.
A batter came up, a card was drawn. A grid of possible outcomes presented themselves, varied for four classes of hitter strength and three classes of twirler acuity. A projectile thrown or hit at a screen contributed swing quality and contact, and somehow, I'm not sure how, fielding figured.
"Infielder shoestrings it."
"Off plate bounding front."
"Scratch single to shortstop."
And so on, until an out or a hit was recorded. Scorecards were kept in bound editions, stats were crunched, and news was made for tomorrow's paper.
In the late 1950s the "color" era began between fresh-minted ballclubs, among them the Chicago Blues and the Boston Grays, though not a few heroes like Warby Pepper, Pancho Villa, Wino Love, and Burlington Japes made the jump across leagues.
The deck grew to 247 cards and the outcomes morphed into dense hieroglyphics unreadable today.
In the second half of the 1957 season (a 51 game year) Kerouac began to scrawl comments on each scorecard.
Sid Gavin fights back into regular lineup.
Orizaba wavers but wins.
RALPH KOASK! Pitches no-hit no-run game, walking two, as Roses win on one scraggly unearned run off overshadowed magnificent Listless Cincinnati’s John Googe! - Koask first B-pitcher in history to make it!
Koask, a second-rate pitcher, had begun the season with the Boston Grays but was bought by the Roses after the season's thirteenth game. What a pickup.
Newspaper editions ran less frequently as Kerouac aged, until a final issuing in 1958.
But the game stopped only with Kerouac's premature death at age forty-seven. In his late years, the mid-to-late sixties, the now acclaimed writer of On the Road stretched out the game to require a forty-foot toss of a foam ball.
Bob Dylan and George Harrison were incanting his name.
Kerouac was at home with his ailing mother, collecting data points to calibrate his favorite hobby just so.
Only occasionally, and very early, did a bit of the real intrude on Kerouac's stitch-head fantasia. As when a high school senior cooked up this telegram to the manager of the Yankees.
Dear Mr. Dudworth, Mgr. N.Y. Yankees:
I would like to acquire Joe DiMaggio. My terms are $500,000 and Hank Greenberg, Charley Gehringer, Fred Hutchingson, Paul Trout, Mark Christman, and Fred Secory. Also will throw in Del Baker.
- Jack K. Mgr. Detroit
I would not let go of DiMaggio for those sumblebums if you threw in the city hall, library, B&M carship, and the Ford M.C. of Dt.
Forgetting himself, Kerouac signed both the attack and the parry with his own name, "Jack."
And doesn't that tell the whole story. The great loaded dice-roll of a baseball season, real or imagined, needs to be batted back and forth by the conversant human mind before it means anything at all.
Why else are you here reading this? Isn't there a game on somewhere?
The whole of this post was culled from the fantastic book Kerouac at Bat by Isaac Gewirtz, introducing the sports-related material in the The New York Public Library's Jack Kerouac Archive. The book, outrageously priced on Amazon, is usually available in the Library's bookshop.