The Son Also Rises
When he was eight years old, Ernest Hemingway wrote a poem about the Chicago Cubs. Growing up in Oak Park, IL, he wasn’t far from Wrigley Field. But after that ode to the team, he rarely wrote about baseball, even though he was a big fan of the sport.
Hemingway is famous for writing about bullfighting, boxing, big game hunting, skiing, fishing, and horse racing in his fiction and non-fiction. But only three times did he briefly mention baseball.
In the short story, The Three Day Blow, a teenaged Nick Adams, Hemingway’s alter ego, sits in a cabin drinking whisky and discussing who will play in the World Series.
In another short story, The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio, hospital patients in Washington State listen to the World Series (probably in 1929 or 1930) on a radio. In The Old Man and the Sea, the fisherman and a young boy discuss major league players such as batting champion Dick Sisler and “the great (Joe) Di Maggio.”
And that’s it as far as baseball goes.
(While Hemingway didn’t write much about baseball, scholars have produced many books, articles and papers on the author and baseball, including one titled, Hemingway’s Debt to Baseball in The Old Man and the Sea.)
“He was a fan,” said Patrick Hemingway, the author’s 92-year old son who lives in Montana.
Safe to say no umpires argued with Papa.
Patrick Hemingway, along with this brother Gregory and half-brother John, would spend summers with their father at his home in Cuba, where Havana hosted minor-league and pro-am teams.
Did he take his boys to see Cuban baseball teams play?
“He took my brother Gregory,” says Patrick. “Gregory was a good pitcher. I wasn’t very good at baseball. In high school, I was the team manager.”
Billy Herman, who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers and who went to Cuba for spring training in 1942 recalled, “Hemingway was a baseball fan. He used to come out to the park every day to watch us train”. One night, Hemingway invited several Dodgers to have dinner at his home. He got drunk, said Herman, and challenged anyone to a fight. First baseman Hugh Casey accepted the challenge, but, according to Herman, Hemingway threw several dirty punches – so Casey sent him flying into a bookcase, and the Dodgers left. Herman said, “We didn’t go back after that, but we kept seeing him at the ballpark.”
In his memoir Papa Hemingway, A. E. Hotchner wrote the author “loved baseball and would go to any game (in Cuba) and occasionally he came to New York just to see a World Series.”
The baseball field Hemingway built at his home in Cuba.
Also in the book, Hotchner quoted Hemingway about how he responded to professors and academics when discussing symbolism and meanings:
“… then they ask me serious symbol-oriented, death-wish-oriented questions for their serious works which they afterwards read aloud to their classes in Serious Lit IV, three credits; but because I answer them in baseball terminology, which is a much more exact science than literature, they feel I do not take them seriously. Mr. Hemingway, please expostulate on your sublimated death-wish as expressed in The Sun Also Rises. Answer: As sublimated as Whitey Ford’s death-wish when he throws to Ted Williams. Mr. Hemingway, do you give credence to the theory of a recurring hero in all of your works? Answer: Does Yogi Berra have a grooved swing? Mr. Hemingway, what is the symbolism of Harry Morgan’s maimed arm and Colonel Cantwell’s maimed hand and Jake Barnes’ maimed genital?. Answer: Put ’em in with Mickey Mantle’s maimed legs, stir well, and if they don’t bat four hundred send ’em all to the Decatur Minotaurs.”
I have a theory about why Hemingway didn’t write about baseball too much: it wasn’t dangerous.
In two short stories about bullfighting, a boy is killed while mimicking the sport with knives, and a matador lies in an operating room as surgeons try to save him after being gored. Boxers are disfigured and suffer dementia (see The Battler, another story with Nick Adams), and in The Killers, also featuring Adams, assassins are seeking a boxer who didn’t throw a fight. In My Old Man, the young son of a steeplechase jockey learns his father has died from an accident on the track. The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber ends when while he’s lion hunting in Africa he’s killed “accidentally” by his wife when she fires at a charging lion and hits Macomber instead. Hemingway intended Santiago to die battling the sharks in The Old Man and the Sea until his fourth wife Mary, who was typing the manuscript, said, “Please don’t kill him”.
Cayuco Blas played basaeball on Hemingway's diamond in Cuba as a child. (Photo: Jose Goitia / NYT)
“It can be dangerous when a pitcher is trying to get a batter away from the plate,” Hemingway told me, from his home in Montana. “It can if you’re hit by a 100 mile per hour [fastball]. I’d say that’s dangerous.
“I think one of the reasons that (he didn’t write about baseball) was there were very good specialized baseball writers,” Hemingway said.
“He had me read those writers when he was teaching me to write,” noted Hemingway, who has written two memoirs and edited his father’s True at First Light, a mixture of fact and fiction.
One of the best specialized baseball writers was Ring Lardner, who after covering the sport began writing fiction, published in several short story collections.
Incredibly, not only did Hemingway and Lardner share the same publishers, Charles Scribner’s Sons, but the same editor, Maxwell Perkins. Perhaps Hemingway didn’t write about baseball because he didn’t want to put Perkins in the middle – he most certainly would have been asked who was the better baseball story teller.
Hemingway started a baseball team for Patrick and Gregory that included 13 local Cuban boys. The team was called “Gigi’s All-Stars” – Gigi being his nickname for Gregory. One of the locals, Oscar Mesa, wrote a memoir about the team. Hemingway bought uniforms for the club, and Mesa wrote he and other Cuban boys slept in them. The author chose the number 5 for his uniform, the same as his hero, Joe Di Maggio.
Mesa says at the end of the book, “To paraphrase a certain writer, if you are lucky enough to have played baseball with Ernest Hemingway, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for baseball is a moveable game.”