Wednesday, August 22, 2001
New York It sounds as surreal as an old Bob Dylan song: Pancho Villa playing center field for a 1930s team called the Boston Fords, taking on such rivals as the Pittsburgh Plymouths and the St. Louis Cadillacs.
But the history books and the record books will lead you nowhere. Villa never bothered with the big leagues and the Fords and their fellow franchises were only legends, roaming the mythic ballparks of a young Jack Kerouac.
The New York Public Library announced Tuesday that it has acquired the literary and personal archives of Kerouac, who died in 1969. The archives, which will be available to scholars within the next few years, contain thousands of items, including diaries, letters, stories, notebooks and manuscripts for "On the Road" and other novels.
Most unusual is a labyrinthine fantasy baseball game Kerouac created as a child growing up in Lowell, Mass., and referred to in his private papers and the novel "Dr. Sax." Kerouac fans have long wanted to know more about the author's so-called "Summer League."
"This should give you an idea of the breadth, and the richness, of his imaginary life," said Isaac Gewirtz, curator of the library's Berg Collection of English and American Literature, which includes manuscripts by Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot and many others.
A league of his own
If "On the Road" wasn't the Great American Novel, then Kerouac can make a fair claim to the Great American Fantasy Baseball League. Using blue, orange and plain-colored paper, index cards and the backs of business cards, Kerouac invented a six-team league more complicated than Strat-O-Matic and other popular games.
He recruited historic figures such as Villa and Lou Gehrig, and imaginary heroes such as Homer Landry, Charley Custer and Luis Tercerero. Kerouac hired himself as manager of the Plymouths.
There are few specific instructions, but the game apparently called for marbles, toothpicks and white-rubber erasers to be thrown against a target some 40 feet away. So detailed was Kerouac's league that he played each game in virtual real time, not just batter by batter, but pitch by pitch, down to a foul tip off home plate.
He also published the newsletter "Jack Lewis's Baseball Chatter," and produced a broadsheet called the "The Daily Ball," in which he compiled standings and league leaders and offered summaries of the day's games.
"Writers create vast kingdoms for themselves to control and to let their imagination run loose," said Ann Douglas, a professor of American studies at Columbia University who has written often about the Beats.
"Think of William Faulkner and his Yoknapatawpha County. Think of Thomas De Quincey and his brother making up whole worlds of imaginary inhabitants who were at war with each other. Writers like to be gods of worlds where great dramas are played out."
First an athlete
The son of French Canadians, Kerouac was born in Lowell in 1922. He played baseball and football as a child and was a star athlete in high school. In the 1940s, he helped found the "Beat" movement with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, whom he met in New York City.
The Berg collection includes a tombstone-shaped Valentine that Kerouac gave his mother in 1933 and a journal from 1939 in which the self-pitying teen announces: "My name is John L. Kerouac, regardless of how little that may matter to the casual reader."
His fantasy league dates back at least to the mid-1930s. Kerouac not only kept records of each player's performance, but compiled scorecards and box scores and even individual salaries and team fiscal data.
"Only the Pontiacs, Nashes and cellar-dwelling La Salles are in financial condition to buy any minor league players to improve their clubs at this time," Kerouac reports midway through one season.
Douglas said that Kerouac didn't speak English fluently until his teens and considers his fantasy league a classic immigrant experience, using baseball to access American culture.
But Kerouac kept the games going long after he had mastered the language. In one entry, written during his 30s, Kerouac refers in pencil to a season that was to be continued in the next notebook.
Alas, in a parenthetical aside recorded later in blue ink, he relates that the sequel is no more. It was lost on a trip to Mexico City, with the Cincinnati Blacks in first and Villa leading the league in stolen bases.