Friday, November 27, 2015

Where have you gone, Billy Joe Barrett? Andre Dubus Can't Forget

Fiction writer Andre Dubus (1936-1999) was a lifelong baseball fan. In "Under The Lights," which first appeared in the Village Voice in 1989 and was included in Broken Vessels in 1991, he writes with grace and economy about memories of minor league baseball, and his own, nascent attempts at playing the game. He sees in low-rent ball fields among low-league baseball lifers the kinds of humane character-making and grace that he dramatizes in his best fiction.

In the late 1940s Dubus was on the cusp of his teen years. In Lafayette, Louisiana, where he grew up, the Lafayette Bulls played in the Evangeline League, as a Class C minor league team. Dubus and friends and family attended many Bulls games, and his father became friendly with Harry Strohom, the team's manager. In school Dubus played ball, practicing diligently, but he'd ultimately surrender, as the vast majority of us must, to the limits of his mediocre skills. Recalling the tortures of adolescent shyness and self-consciousness that rendered him stiff and ugly at the plate and on the field, Dubus writes, "Decades later I realized I was a poor athlete at school because I was shy, and every public act—like standing at the plate, waiting to swing at a softball—became disproportionate. Proportion is all; and, in sports at school, I lost it by surrendering to the awful significance of my self-consciousness. Shyness has a strange element of narcissism, a belief that how we look, how we perform, is truly important to other people." This is classic Dubus: an ordinary moment that resonates through an infinite number of other like moments, some trivial, some profound.

But Dubus surrendered to more than just insecurity in his adolescence. At age eleven he read in a book written by Joe DiMaggio that if a baseball player spent more than a year at a low-level minor league team, he should quit the sport. Dubus can't recall the exact passage; I found it, on pages 34 and 35 in Chapter 3, "The Minors," in DiMaggio's Baseball For Everyone, published in 1948. Here's Joey D's sage advice, and I quote:

Oh, how this burned up Dubus! He's still singed four decades later. The problem was cognitive dissonance: Dubus couldn't bridge the gap between his beloved DiMaggio's stern advice and the obvious pleasures displayed by the low-league players Dubus loved to watch. Angry at himself for having so long internalized DiMaggio's unquestioned authority, Dubus in his essay repudiates it—recognizing that doing what you love to do despite diminishing returns is its own reward and pleasure. He remembers watching a spectacular home run by Bulls' player Billy Joe Barrett, struck into the sky "in a way I have never seen again." Faced with the resonance of such simple pleasures against DiMaggio's severe warning, Dubus ends his essay by asking, repeatedly, How could I forget DiMaggio's sentence? He writes:

Our first baseman, in the Bulls’ first season, was a young hard-hitting lefthander whose last name was Glenn. We were in the Detroit Tiger system, and after Glenn's season with us, he went up to Flint, Michigan, to a Class A league. I subscribed to The Sporting News; and read the weekly statistics and box scores, and I followed Glenn’s performance, and I shared his hope, and waited for the season when he would stand finally in the garden. At Flint he batted in the middle of the order, as he had for us, and he did well; but he did not hit .300, or thirty home runs. In the next season I looked every week at the names in The Sporting News, searched for Glenn in double A and triple A, and did not find him there, or in Class A or B, and I never saw his name again. It was as though he had come into my life, then left me and died, but I did not have the words then for what I felt in my heart I could only say to my friends: I can't find Glenn's name anymore.
These final paragraphs explore loss, adulthood, and memory in beautiful, haunted ways, characteristically Dubusian in their power and clarity. Again, he asks: "How could I forget DiMaggio's sentence?" (And: why does a simple sentence in a simple book linger for decades?)
Before I got out of high school, the Bulls’ park was vacant, its playing field growing weeds. The Strohms had moved on, looking for another ball club; and Norm Litzinger and Billy Joe Barrett and their wives had gone to whatever places they found, after Lafayette, and after baseball. I was driving my family's old Chevrolet and smoking Lucky Strikes and falling in love with girls whose red lips marked their cigarettes and who, with painted fingernails, removed bits of tobacco from their tongues; and, with that immortal vision of mortality that youth holds in its heart, I waited for manhood.

DiMaggio was wrong. I know that now, over forty years after I read his sentence. Or, because I was a boy whose hope was to be a different boy with a new body growing tall and fast and graceful and strong, a boy who one morning would wake, by some miracle of desire, in motion on the path to the garden, I gave to DiMaggio too much credence; and his sentence lost, for me, all proportion, and insidiously became a heresy. Which I am renouncing now, as I see Billy ]oe Barrett on the night when his whole body and his whole mind and his whole heart were for one moment in absolute harmony with a speeding baseball and he hit it harder and farther than he could at any other instant in his life. We never saw the ball start its descent, its downward arc to earth. For me, it never has. It is rising white over the lights high above the right field fence, a bright and vanishing sphere of human possibility soaring into the darkness beyond our vision.
Where have you gone, Billy Joe Barrett?


At The Bilko Athletic Club author Gaylon H. White has also written about "Under The Lights," and he includes a terrific photograph of Billy Joe Barrett and his wife Neta at their ballpark wedding in Thibodaux, Louisiana in 1951:

DiMaggio book cover via Legendary Auctions; text via amazon.

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