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Robert Cantwell
February 15, 1960
Marianne Moore's poetic exhortation to the Brooklyn Dodgers astonished her admirers. They did not know that in the past she guided even more redoubtable heroes—among them, Jim Thorpe
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February 15, 1960

The Poet, The Bums And The Legendary Red Men

Marianne Moore's poetic exhortation to the Brooklyn Dodgers astonished her admirers. They did not know that in the past she guided even more redoubtable heroes—among them, Jim Thorpe

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Not long before the Brooklyn Dodgers left for Los Angeles, the poet Marianne Moore, a Brooklyn resident for 30 years, composed an inspirational poem in their honor. Called Hometown Piece for Messrs. Alston and Reese, it was filled with unabashed praise for the feats of the Dodgers, with quaint rhymes, odd quotations and a knowledge of baseball which, in view of the fact that Miss Moore is a frail and elderly lady and one of the finest living American poets, was, to say the least, remarkable.

To Miss Moore's literary admirers, however, accustomed as they were to the delicacy and highly individualized nature of her work, Hometown Piece was a distinct and rather unpleasant surprise. It was surely not the sort of thing T. S. Eliot had in mind when he called Marianne Moore one of the few living writers to have made an enduring contribution to poetry in the English language. And it was even more of a jolt to see her, during the World Series last fall, on Jack Paar's television show, calmly answering questions on this sport, which some highbrows, after all, consider rather lowbrow. "Who's going to win it?" she was asked, and she replied, as confidently as though she had a private wire to the Muses, "The Dodgers"—this despite the fact that her favorites had just squeaked through a 4-3 victory after that 11-0 disaster.

Miss Moore, of course, was perfectly right (though she confessed to me later that she had had a momentary qualm, considering the strength the White Sox had been showing), and remembering her uncanny powers of prophecy, I went out to her Brooklyn home not long ago to see what she thought about the coming season. I also wanted to ask her, if the occasion arose, how she got to be a baseball fan in the first place. I found her somewhat disconsolate about the Dodgers' prospects: she reluctantly admitted that she was interested in the White Sox and (with a faint trace of a frown, as if her thoughts were misquoting her) that she rather liked the Cardinals. As for her background in sports, which I had thought was probably of literary derivation, she told me, no, indeed; she had read very little on the subject, but she had, as a young girl, been a teacher for five years at the famous Carlisle Indian School, when Jim Thorpe, Gus Welch and other great Indian athletes were there.

If Miss Moore had said she learned about baseball as a catcher on the original All-Girls team, she could scarcely have astonished me more. She is a small person, neat and gentle in appearance, with her white hair braided around her head and, in her usual costume of white blouse and pleated skirt, as innocent-looking as she must have been in those far-off days when Indians just off the reservations were her charges. It seemed incongruous, and I asked her if she had not been afraid of them.

"It never occurred to me to be afraid," she said in her pleasant, slightly twangy voice—a voice which has a rhythm and an intonation all its own, like the reverse of a Boston or British accent. "You know, before I began teaching there was a good deal of uneasiness because it was feared that I wouldn't be able to control the Indian boys. But the athletes helped me. The only trouble came from some neurotic Sioux and Ojibway boys who were a long way from home and lonely and unhappy—there were a few sadists, too—but there was really no difficulty. The Indians had great behavior and ceremony"—Miss Moore uses words in conversation with the same individuality found in her poems—"and were exceedingly chivalrous and decent and cooperative and...idealistic. There are likely to be a few recalcitrants in every school, who won't work and won't accept discipline, and an Indian recalcitrant, a Sioux, perhaps, tends to be more recalcitrant than the average. A boy like Joseph Loud Bear, who was the worst...."

"Was he a Sioux?"

"Oh, he was certainly a Sioux—very much a Sioux! But I had so little trouble it was hardly worth mentioning. My biggest bugbears were mending typewriters and minding the evening study hours. James Thorpe was always helpful, always chivalrous and kindly. He was an exceedingly generous boy. James was a little slow—he was a little slow mentally." Miss Moore paused after these words, and this was the only adverse comment that I could manage to glean from her about her students, and she seemed to mean by it only that Thorpe—she always spoke of him as James, as she had addressed him in the classroom—wasn't much at book learning. "I was fond of him, and I liked his wife, Iva Miller, who was in my typing class. And I was friendly with Gus Welch and his wife also. Gus didn't seem at all an Indian, and had none of the appearance of one, but he was, oh, so tenacious. And then Joel Wheelock! And Alex Arcasa! James Baker was one of the chief students. He was older than the others, and an extremely artistic boy. There was very little of the Indian evident in him. And Charles Bender! Charles was intellectually impressive."

"Was Charles Bender the pitcher with the Philadelphia Athletics-Chief Bender?"

"Yes...Charles was there before I taught at the Indian School. I was still a schoolgirl in Carlisle then. He was older than we were; but we all knew who he was. He was impassive, inexpressive, very tall and handsome. Last summer, when my brother was driving through Cooperstown, he stopped at the Baseball Hall of Fame, and sent me Charles's official record as it is kept there."


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