Plum at the Polo Grounds
In his admirable life of Wodehouse Robert McCrum observes that: “In old age, he had become a devoted baseball fan…” While loath to contradict, or even slightly amend, the words of The Master’s definitive biographer – especially as he was kind enough to include my name among his acknowledgements – I suggest the evidence indicates that Wodehouse’s devotion to the American National Pastime developed much earlier, very probably during his initial 1904 and 1909 visits to New York.
I was set to think again on the subject by the appearance in the December 2010 By The Way newsletter of The Old Cricketer’s Story. It was apparent to me that this jeu d’esprit of the young Wodehouse was almost certainly influenced by his acquaintance with Ernest L. Thayer’s light-hearted verse opus Casey At The Bat. Wodehouse was, of course, throughout his life a sportsman, engaged by any and all games and athletic pursuits. He was also addicted to most forms of theatrical entertainment – the plays of Chekhov, Ibsen and Strindberg perhaps excepted. He once said that his own mentality was perfectly attuned to Music Hall. Thayer’s epic was first performed as a recitation by DeWolf Hopper in 1889 at New York’s Wallack’s Theater. Hopper, a leading vaudevillian and comic actor of the period, went on (by his own account) to perform this popular piece over 10,000 times. Considering his sporting and theatrical interests, Wodehouse must have been familiar with it. Comparing the two pieces it is apparent that Wodehouse was – unsurprisingly for so nimble a song lyricist – the more accomplished light versifier, although both contain one or two bits of scansion walking a tightrope between the daring and the dodgy.
“There is that about baseball which arouses enthusiasm and the partisan spirit in the unlikeliest bosoms. It is almost impossible for a man to live in America and not be gripped by the game…” Like Archie Moffam, whose indiscretions inform the loosely connected stories of the 1921 book, Wodehouse, by the time he had settled in New York, had become not only a baseball fan but also an ardent supporter of the city’s National League stalwarts, the New York Giants. From the late 19th century and into the 1920s the Giants, under their feisty and combative manager, John McGraw, were the team to beat in the National League, competing in nine of 20 World Series between 1905 and 1924. The Giants’ home field, which Wodehouse certainly knew well, was the Polo Grounds, first used for baseball in 1880 and long since demolished but then located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side at 155th Street and Eighth Avenue. The book that offers most evidence of Wodehouse’s enthusiasm for baseball is Piccadilly Jim. In its opening chapter Peter Pett is described as “…a baseball fan of no lukewarm order [who] had an admiration for the Napoleonic gifts of Mr. McGraw which would have gratified that gentleman had he known of it.” In the same book Mr. Pett’s brother-in-law, Bingley Crocker – unwillingly resident in London – is found suffering pangs of homesickness exacerbated by his longings for the Polo Grounds, combined with his bewilderment when exposed to cricket. His reaction to the English summer game is similar to that of Groucho Marx, who, after an hour’s play at Lord’s, remarked, “Great game. When does it start?” Both men would have concurred with Bernard Shaw’s observation that “The English, not being a spiritual people, invented cricket in order to give themselves some conception of Eternity.”
Rather dazed by the butler Bayliss’s jargon-filled explication of the cricket match both had witnessed the previous day, Mr. Crocker is further appalled when, following his own spirited demonstration of the diamond game – using a bread roll and various bits of tableware for illustration – Bayliss, explains that the game is known in England as rounders and is played by children with a soft ball and a racket.
Throughout Piccadilly Jim the Polo Grounds is evoked as a kind of Garden of Eden to which – like the Peri outside the gates of Paradise – Mr. Pett, Mr. Crocker and even Jimmy Crocker himself – long to return.
Three real life major league players of the era are named in Piccadilly Jim. One is Frank “Home Run” Baker who at that time did not play for the Giants but rather for the New York American League team, initially known as the Highlanders and later as the Yankees. The Yankees of the period before the arrival of Babe Ruth in 1920 were notably mediocre and it is unsurprising that Wodehouse found the Giants the more attractive team to root for. Another is the Giant’s star pitcher, Christy Mathewson, referred to as Matty when the brothers-in-law meet. Mr. Pett, under the impression that Mr. Crocker is a butler, is surprised when the supposed major-domo eagerly asks for news of the Giants’ progress in the National League pennant race. A third player mentioned is Giant second baseman, Larry Doyle, said to have made [sic] home runs on two consecutive days. The long-serving (1905-’41) National League umpire Bill Klem is referred to as “…one swell robber.”
Two chapters of Indiscretions of Archie describe the hero’s farcical encounter with a supposed Giant’s left-handed pitcher, Looney Biddle. Looney Biddle is a made-up character but I suspect that the inspiration for him was an actual star hurler of the early 20th century, Rube Waddell. Waddell did not play for the Giants but rather for the American League Philadelphia Athletics. He was a dominant pitcher for the team during the first decade of the 20th century, recording five consecutive 20-win seasons and leading the American League in strikeouts for six years from 1902 thru 1907. Crucially, as a model for Looney Biddle, Waddell was as renowned for his wild eccentricities as he was for his pitching prowess.
Robert McCrum notes that in later life Wodehouse “…enjoyed following the inept exploits of the newly formed New York Mets.” Him and me both: although in my case I’m not sure “enjoyed” is the right word. Having been a fanatical supporter of the Giants’ arch rival Brooklyn Dodgers, I’d had no New York National League team to support since the departure in 1957 of both the Giants and Dodgers to California. (I always despised the American League in general and the Yankees in particular.) Like Wodehouse I rooted for the Mets from their inception in 1962 and still bear the psychic scars to prove it. Also according to Robert McCrum Wodehouse wrote about American sports. I still have a letter from Wodehouse written to my father when he was an editor at Sports Illustrated magazine. My father had become professionally acquainted with Wodehouse – whom he usually referred to as “PeeGee” – in the late 1940s when he was a fiction editor at Collier’s Magazine. The letter was in reply to one from my father asking if Wodehouse might do a piece for the magazine. Wodehouse said he would happily consider it and that the next time he was in the city he would touch my old man for lunch. I don’t know what, if anything, came of this correspondence, although it has always struck me that, unlike the half-dozen or so letters that he wrote to my mother (also a life-long Wodehouse fan), which were always addressed Dear Mrs. Carroll and signed P.G. Wodehouse, the one to my father was addressed Dear Joe and signed Plum. Whatever the game or occasion Wodehouse always knew the rules and played by them.
Note: The above first appeared in the December 2011 edition of Wooster Sauce, the quarterly newsletter of the P.G. Wodehouse Society. My thanks to its editor, Elin Murphy, for using the piece in the first place and offering no objection to my reprinting it here. I would also note that P.G.W.’s and my beloved New York Mets have this year (2015) won the National League East Division Championship and are thus in the post-season play-offs for the first time in nine years. (Later Note: They reached the World Series but lost to the American League Kansas City Royals four games to one. As us old Brooklyn Dodger fans used to say, “Wait ’til next year.)