Jack Kerouac, Fantasy Sportsman
Ever wonder what Jack Kerouac was doing at ages fourteen, fifteen and sixteen? Competing, for one. The author played on a neighborhood baseball team and was skilled enough in high school football that he was offered scholarships to play at both Boston University and at Columbia (he later accepted the New York school’s offer, a choice that ensured his path crossed with William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady, among others here).
As a teenager, Kerouac was also at work inventing his own fantasy field of dreams. In his free time, the young writer founded a complicated fantasy baseball league, as well as a Thoroughbred horseracing circuit. Kerouac recorded the rules, results, and player stats of both games in an extensive collection of broadsheets, cards, newsletters, and scorecards in the Jack Kerouac Papers, housed in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building’s Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature. These documents are the subject of a new book, Kerouac At Bat: Fantasy Sports and the King of the Beats, by Isaac Gewirtz, Curator of the Berg Collection.
The gelding Repulsion, owned by stable manager Jack Lewis (Kerouac’s alter-ego), dominated the young Kerouac’s high-stakes fantasy races. Kerouac tries his hand at sports journalism in lively newsletters like Turf Authority and Stake Special that chart the story of Repulsion’s rise and ultimate victory over his rival, the dangerously strong Gunwale. The horseracing material is populated with sketches of Repulsion, Gunwale, and their jockeys, as well as actual photographs of real horses clipped from newspapers. According to Kerouac’s unpublished scroll Memory Babe, Repulsion’s races were routinely simulated using a ball bearing and marbles as proxies for the horses, which the teenage Kerouac rolled from the top of an inclined Parcheesi board. Repulsion was the ball bearing. Since he was the heaviest, he always finished first.
Later, this same ball bearing doubled as a baseball in the young Kerouac’s virtual rendering of that sport. In early versions of this game, beginning around 1933, Kerouac simulated play using nails, ball bearings and rocks in his backyard. Later iterations, developed over the course of the next thirty years were much more sophisticated, and relied on a combination of a diagrammed board and two different types of playing cards. In regular season games and post-season play-offs, the New York Chevvies competed against the Pittsburgh Plymouths and the Washington Chryslers (later, Kerouac replaced the car names with colors). The outcome of a pitch (home run, foul, strike, ball, etc.) was determined when different fantasy pitchers and batters of four predetermined skill levels were matched.
In addition to fielders like Lefty Parmashuer and ‘Sugar Ray’ Sims, Kerouac’s batting line-up features the players Rob Roy and Pancho Villa (the latter, naturally the league’s best base-stealer), and players lifted by Kerouac both from his life as an author (as with the improbable bench player, Robert Giroux, Kerouac’s editor), and from his fictional canon (New York Greens’ pitcher Pic Jackson, who turns up decades later as the protagonist of his posthumously published novel, Pic).
Kerouac at Bat reproduces a selection of the fantasy sports material from the Jack Kerouac Papers in the Berg Collection in color facsimile. Baseball and horse-racing enthusiasts as well as Kerouac fans will get a kick out of examining the texts reproduced here in Kerouac’s own hand, along with attendant sketches, clippings and charts. Essays and explanatory notes by Isaac Gewirtz offer insight and go a long way in elucidating the intricate systems that govern Kerouac’s tracks and fields.
What is especially intriguing to this reader about these documents given their complexity and life span is that Kerouac created them both at leisure and in private. Here is the writer unedited and at play, focused not on the craft of writing, but on the great American diversion of athletics. As with Henry Darger’s painting or the diary sketches of Leonardo, there is also a kind of intangible thrill that comes with access to this material, a feeling that we’ve happened upon something private that has fortuitously become visible that communicates innovation, obsession and even genius. Kerouac at Bat provides another window through which to view Kerouac’s singular and inventive mind, at work even in the off hours.
Kerouac at Bat is the subject of a recent New York Times article by Charles McGrath. The book is for sale in the library shop in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at 42nd and 5th Avenue. It is also available for purchase here.