E. Ethelbert Miller: How I Found Love Behind the Catcher's Mask (City Point Press, 2022)

Now you have been blue, yes but you ain’t been blue till you’ve had that mood indigo – Duke Ellington

How I Found Love Behind the Catcher’s Mask is the third volume in E. Ethelbert Miller’s trilogy of baseball poetry, following If God Invented Baseball (2018) and When Your Wife Has Tommy John Surgery and Other Baseball Stories (2021), all three published by David Wilk (“who keeps my poems on the field and not sitting on the bench” – Miller), editor and publisher of City Point Press, all 150 poems testimony to Miller’s love of baseball and the world of baseball.

Baseball’s ‘artful language’. These mostly short, often haiku-like poems are for the most part not about baseball in and of itself. In his introduction to How I Found Love … Merrill Leffler, poet and publisher of Dryad Press, writes: “Elements of the game are throughout the trilogy – pitching, hitting, baserunning, baseball’s artful language, but baseball is more often the springboard for getting poems into play. These improvisational poems may start with baseball, but they move into explorations of subjects ranging widely and randomly from one to another: childhood, youth, love, desire, marriage, divorce, art, music, politics, hatred, racism. The stuff of American culture!”  

In my own country, Denmark, we don’t play baseball – well, not much, anyway – which makes Leffler’s introduction to the game helpful to my reading of Miller’s poems: “For those who know the game and its artful “grammar,” the allusions add dimensions of poetic richness and meaning.”

And elsewhere in his introduction Merrill Leffler adds fastball, curve, change-up, catcher, signs, runner, home plate, slider to baseball’s ‘artful language’. Mostly terms I have had to ‘google’.

History and history makers. In an interview in PW/Publishers Weekly, 01 September 2021, on the occasion of the publication of the second book of the trilogy, When Your Wife Has Tommy John Surgery, Miller has this to say about the forthcoming third book of his baseball poetry: “I want to make sure that the next book really draws on the history of baseball and certain of its key figures.”

And among the baseball players mentioned in the title of a poem are Emmett Ashford, Glenn Burke, Carl Mays, Jimmy Piersall, Ken Griffey Sr., Joe DiMaggio, and Querido Clemente. Leffler notes: “These poems all have to do with admiration and homage for the kind of men they were.”          

Emmett Ashford (1914-1980) in the late 1960s was the first African American umpire in Major League Baseball: “I call balls and strikes the way/ John Coltrane plays “My Favorite Things.”/ Folks come to the game to hear the sound/ of my music./ …”//. Ken Griffey Sr. (b. 1950) and Ken Griffey Jr. (b. 1969) was one of the first father-son tandems to play on the same Major League Baseball team: “I loved watching my son play/…/ Before the love for the game there was family.”

Joy and love. And then tragedy: Carl Mays (August 16th 1920). On that day Mays threw a ball at short stop Ray Chapman, “a fast, sweet player,” hitting his head, not his bat, killing him: “The ball knocked Chapman down and he fell/ below his knees.” // “Sadness left the polo grounds that day./ Sadness climbed down from the stands shocked/ by what it saw and what one should never see.”//.   

That ‘mood indigo’. In the title poem How I Found Love … Miller writes: “All my life I’ve caught hell./ I never wanted to be a catcher./ When meeting a woman I never know what signs to put down./ … / I live a life of blueness./ Behind my mask a Buddha smile of suffering./ …”//.

And what are we to make of the four lines of Wild Pitch: “Your family slips under your glove/ Your son rolls past a police car/ The ball bounces off the wall behind you/ There is nothing you can do”//.

Poems Miller could be said to expand upon in the poem Losing the Lead and One’s Children: “Somewhere between first and second/ the first bad argument begins like a failed /pickoff throw. The marriage fails and then/ the children have to dust their clothes off./ The dirt and mud of accusations cover them/ like a tarp before a rain delay. // … / Another woman starts to steal the signs.// … // When your children cry all night/ you know you’re losing the lead./ Things are out of control and there’s/ nowhere to go. You’re out at home/ watching it all disappear”//.    

Poems like these reveal that at seventy-one (he was born in 1950) Miller is familiar with that ‘mood indigo’ described by composer, band-leader, and jazz pianist Duke Ellington in the epigraph above.

Baseball and American democracy. Miller will use baseball’s ‘artful language’ to write about American politics too, like what happened on Capitol Hill on January 6th 2021, a day of infamy, “a mob attacking Congress, the electoral process and democracy itself” as we have written elsewhere.

The Changeup is Miller’s poetic response: “What is the difference between a changeup and a coup?/ Democracy can depart from a hand very fast.// …// The changeup is dress rehearsal for fascism./ Citizens soon find themselves trapped in the hitter’s box/ Wrapping a baseball bat with a flag./ Running from the field into the stands./ Smashing the scoreboard and chancing the score.”

And there are baseball ‘Hall of Famers’ Satchel Page (1906-1982) and Jackie Robinson (1919-1972), mentioned in passing in this volume, for years denied access to Major League Baseball and forced to play in the Negro League(s), 1920-1948, in the American version of apartheid.

OTHER POEMS deal with gender discrimination (Her) and nostalgia for a sport no longer as popular as when Ethelbert Miller grew up in the South Bronx rooting for the New York Yankees.

UFI// 6 October 2022  

Notes: In his Acknowledgments E. Ethelbert Miller writes: “This third book of my baseball trilogy is possible because of my literary assistant Kirsten Porter. She continues to bless my life by making sure my work is properly dressed before going outside.” Porter is the editor of The Collected Poems of E. Ethelbert Miller (Willow Books, 2016).

Miller is the author of two memoirs: Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer (St. Martin’s Press, 2000) and The 5th Inning ( PM Press, 2009). A self-described literary activist, for more than forty years (1974-2015) Bronx born Ethelbert Miller was director of Howard University’s African American Resource Center in Washington, D.C. He is the editor of In Search of Color Everywhere: A Collection of African-American Poetry (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1994), a beautifully designed and balanced book of black poetry past and present.