42: Life, the Universe and Jackie Robinson

The film version of my favorite moment in baseball history.
The film version of my favorite moment in baseball history.

The addled mind needed rejuvenation last night at the end of an all-to-real surreal and senseless day. Innocent people in Boston were bleeding and dying from a devastating act of cowardice, a good and kind friend was robbed in Atlanta (and lost some irreplaceable personal items), and a dependable and beloved Athens soup kitchen was destroyed by fire. We won’t bother adding the details of my income tax situation. Suffice to say, a wretched Monday storm for the books.

But it was also Jackie Robinson Day, and that’s the day I woke up to, the day I anticipated, as I do most years. It’s the day when everyone wearing a Major League Baseball uniform dons Robinson’s No. 42, which is also the answer to life, the universe and everything, according to Douglas Adams.

In a way, April 15 is the only religious holiday in baseball, commemorating the day Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first black man to play in the major leagues since they adopted Jim Crow laws in the 19th century, banning generations of dark-hued ballplayers. But thanks to Branch Rickey’s enlightened self-interest (and sense of fair play), Robinson was invited to break the color barrier, and the game became the Game, finally living up to its label as the National Pastime.

By late Monday night, my brain and heart were reeling and almost empty of spiritual nutrition – there were some lingering transcendental fumes, because the wife took me to yoga class with her early in the evening, and it helped. Still, I needed the kind of octane boost that baseball has often given me; a silly game, but my safe haven, a pacifying salve. I know exactly what James Thurber meant when he wrote, “The majority of American males put themselves to sleep by striking out the batting order of the New York Yankees.”

So, I went by myself to see the late showing of 42 at the local cinema. I’m not equipped to take this film apart and offer a cogent review. I’ll leave that kind of heavy lifting to my friend Erik Lundegaard, a great baseball fan, wonderful writer and insightful movie reviewer. I’m looking forward to reading Erik’s review because I always learn something, and this is a movie we both have been waiting for. Anyway, my untrained, two-bits’ worth:

I love this movie. It’s beautiful to watch, it’s emotional, and it’s a great story about baseball.

Sure, it falls into some of the typical baseball mythological film routines and there were times when I thought to myself,  “Ah, The Blacktural.” It has some of the hero-worship elements of movies you’ve seen about Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. In 42, in scene after scene, we are told exactly how we are supposed to feel: Jackie was the Jesus of baseball, especially when Harrison Ford, as Branch Rickey, gets going on a Biblical-tinged spiel — but then, Rickey was a proud Methodist. “You’re medicine,” he tells Robinson in the movie. “We need you.” It’s the kind of thing you say to a savior.

Of course, we easily sympathize with Robinson, played well by Chadwick Boseman (who even looks the part). Knowing the kind of opposition the rookie and the Dodgers will face, Rickey tells Robinson, “I want a player with the guts not to fight back.” So, we see pitchers throwing at Robinson repeatedly, and we see baserunners spiking him. He almost crumbles under a withering barrage of insults from the opposition. His wife and infant son are threatened. Imagine turning the other cheek, holding all of that rage inside, forcing to keep your hands at your hips instead of striking back when you have every right and instinct to do so. Imagine the internal, physiological stress of that, and what it can do to a man’s health. Robinson was only 53 when he died. In the movie, Boseman personifies fury held in check.

One of my complaints about the movie is, it never lets on that Rickey made Robinson promise to keep his temper in check for three years, so we never get to see the gloves come off. We never see Jackie fully armed and loaded because we’re not supposed to, because the movie only covers a couple of years, 1945-1947, and while we don’t see enough of the inner combustion that drove Robinson, we do get a glimpse of some of the ridiculous and nasty challenges thrown in his way. It is almost excruciating to watch Ben Chapman, the virulently racist redneck manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, played by Alan Tudyk (“Wash” from the sci-fi TV series Firefly) — not because of the performance, which is outstanding, but because this kind of shit really happened. There is some needed emotional satisfaction when Robinson’s teammates finally stand up for him.

The baseball scenes are fabulous, the story is moving, the acting is solid. I’m a sucker for baseball movies, even the bad ones. I actually sat through The Slugger’s Wife when it was in theaters, the whole damn stinking mess. It hurt like hell, but I sat through it, just as I’ve sat through plenty of 8-1 Braves’ losses (especially when they really sucked, in the 70s and 80s).

I’ll see 42 again in the theater, and hopefully very soon. But nothing can match the first time, and here’s why. The 9:45 showing was almost empty – me, four teenaged boys, and an older African-American couple who had, between them, read every biography of Robinson and gave the film a thumbs up for sticking closely with the source material (and they also said they liked the emotional wallop).

But, what really interested me was the crowd from the 7:10 showing – a busload of kids from Bulloch Academy down in Statesboro, on a field trip to Northeast Georgia. Bulloch is one of the remaining “segregation academies” in Georgia – the all-white private schools that were founded in the late 60s, early 70s, immediately after county school boards voted to finally acquiesce to federal law.

Times change, slowly. There now are a tiny percentage of students of color in Bulloch Academy, but I found the school’s presence at our local theater historically satisfying. Here was a school founded on principles of segregation (42 years earlier, it turns out) sending students to see a movie about a black man who broke the baseball color barrier and was a pioneer of the Civil Rights movement (though it wasn’t really called that at the time).

It was, for me, the a perfect kind of historical symmetry, because these white kids are from Statesboro, where 50 years ago, a 12-year-old African-American (read about it here) became the youngest player to appear in a professional game (Class D minor leagues), and the first black person to play in an all-white league.

They haven’t made that movie yet.

It Takes a Thief – Seven Times

The Chicago White Stockings were the most powerful team in the early National League, winning six pennants in the circuit’s first 11 seasons (1876, 1880-82, 1885-86).

They did it under the shrewd front-office guidance of Albert Spalding, and with a Stone Age version of Murderers’ Row that included Hall of Famers Adrian “Cap” Anson and Mike “King” Kelly, and one of the 19th century’s great sluggers, Abner Dalrymple. Dalrymple was considered so dangerous at the plate in his prime that he became the first player to be intentionally walked with the bases loaded.

Then there was center fielder George “Piano Legs” Gore, one of the era’s most valuable players, who was on seven pennant winners, all in the 1880s. On June 25, 1881, he did something truly extraordinary, running into the record book as the first player to steal seven bases in a game. (Only Billy Hamilton, in 1894, has matched the feat.)

Gore was a complete ballplayer. He hit for average, sometimes for power (second person to smack five extra-base hits in a game), he could field and he could throw.

He could also run really, really well.

Gore finished his 14-year career with more runs (1,327) than games played (1,310), reflecting the sturdy legwork of a player who earned his nickname because of superhero-shaped calf muscles.

In 1880 Gore led the National League in batting (.360). His average took a nosedive in 1881 (he finished at .298), but he was an artist at getting on and around the bases and that Saturday game in June, a 12-8 win over the visiting Providence Grays, was probably his masterpiece.

According to the Chicago Daily Tribune, about 2,000 fans saw an offensive outbreak that “was full of action and at all times interesting. … Chicago won by virtue of superiority in every point of play, but notably so in base-running. Gore’s performances in this respect were something phenomenal.”

Gore reached base five times in five plate appearances, had three solid singles and a walk, scored five runs, and generally made life really stressful for the Providence battery, pitcher Bobby Mathews and catcher Emil Gross. Gore stole second base five times – or every time he reached base – and stole third twice.

At the time, stolen bases were not part of the official statistical records in the National League, but the Tribune nonetheless noted that Gore had set “a record which as a whole has probably never been equaled in a League game.”

The game itself wasn’t a thing of beauty – “… the contest was characterized by numerous errors in fielding,” the Tribune reported. The teams combined to make 14 errors (10 by the Providence club). There were three passed balls (all by Gross), and only one of Chicago’s dozen runs was earned.

At the time the White Stockings were in the midst of their longest winning streak of the season (eight games) and hottest stretch (they went 18-3 from June 4 though July 13). Gore’s record-setting performance came in the second of a three-game set at home against Providence, during which Chicago outscored the Grays 39-20.

As the two teams took the field for Saturday’s game, Chicago was in first place with a three-game lead over the second-place Buffalo Bisons, and Providence was in last place, one win behind Cleveland.

Chicago took a 3-0 lead in the first. Batting second, the left-handed-swinging Gore reached on either an error or a fielder’s choice, stole second, and scored on Anson’s double. He had base hits in the second, fourth, and sixth innings – subsequently stealing bases and scoring each time. Those helped Chicago build a 10-4 lead through six innings.

Gore walked in the eighth and scored on Ned Williamson’s two-run triple to give Chicago a 12-4 lead. Providence scored its last four runs in the top of the ninth on four hits and a wild pitch.

National League rules banned Sunday baseball at the time, so the two teams finished their three-game set on Monday – a 19-12 Chicago victory.

After the series the Grays turned their fortunes around, posting the best record in the league for the stretch run (35-17-1). That included a change in field managers, outfielder Tom York replacing second baseman Jack Farrell. It was Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn’s rookie season, and he led Providence with a 25-11 record.

Chicago went 33-18 after the Providence series to finish 56-28, winning the pennant by nine games over the second-place Grays. It was a familiar pattern – Chicago won three straight pennants, 1880-1882, and Providence finished second each time.

And Gore? He kept on running wild, and not just on the basepaths. Anson considered Gore one of the best players of the era, even included him on his list of all-time greats, but claimed, “Women and wine brought about his downfall.” Gore was suspended from the 1885 World Series for drunkenness, and a year later Chicago sold him to the New York Giants because of all the drinking and cavorting. He helped New York win two pennants.

In his 14 major-league seasons, Gore led the league in runs scored in 1881 (86) and 1882 (99), then scored 100 or more runs a season for seven of the next nine years and is one of the most prolific run scorers of all time (1.02 runs per game). He batted .301 for his career with a .386 on-base percentage, and led the league in walks three times in an era when pitchers stood only 45 (then 55 1/2) feet away.

Ironically, Gore never “led” the league in stolen bases – the National League didn’t start keeping official records on the statistic until 1886. He stole 23 bases that year, a career-high 39 the next, and is credited with 170 stolen bases for his career. But Gore always will be remembered for the day he swiped seven in one game.

Going Both Ways

You have to wonder what kind of mind-altering substance could have inspired the Baltimore Sun to claim in July 1882 that its city’s ballclub was “now the equal of some of the best nines” in the American Association. Those prehistoric Orioles had gone 0-for-June and had a 6-30 record as the Eclipse team of Louisville pulled into town for a four-game series.

But when Baltimore built a 7-1 lead after three innings in the July 18 series opener, the Sun’s psychedelic hubris seemed like sobering common sense. For the fans at Newington Park that Tuesday afternoon, this kind of bravura performance by the home club was indeed a rare sight. But in a few moments they would witness something stranger than a Baltimore lead.

Louisville’s dashing young pitcher, Tony Mullane, playing his first full major-league season (and the first of five consecutive 30-victory seasons) wasn’t used to being bullied this way, and certainly not against the likes of the lowly Baltimores. The right-hander was getting frustrated, so he did something no one had ever seen in a big-league game before. He switched pitching hands.

“Mullane, of the Eclipse club, changed hands in the fourth inning and pitched with his left,” the Sun reported, retiring the Baltimores, “in good style.” Mullane had just become the first ambidextrous pitcher in major-league baseball history.

The 23-year-old, Irish-born Mullane was just beginning an incomparable career as one of the 19th century’s dominant pitchers and great characters, a handsome, free-spirited rogue and one of the game’s most versatile athletes. A strong-armed pitcher who completed 468 of the 504 games he started, Mullane had injured his right arm in a distance-throwing contest a few years earlier, so he’d taught himself to throw left-handed. That’s why on July 18, 1882, he was capable of giving his sinistrality a test run against a Baltimore team that ranked among the worst in the American Association.

The weakling Baltimores were halfway through a season that would end with a miserable 19-54 record and a team batting average of .207. Oddly, they were good in close games, finishing 8-5 in one-run contests, and they had a solid rookie outfielder, Tom Brown, who would bat .304 in ’82.

Louisville was 20-18 coming into the game en route to a third-place finish (42-38-1) in the six-team league. The Eclipse had a superstar rookie outfielder, Pete Browning, who would lead the American Association with a .378 batting average that year (the first of three batting titles for the original “Louisville Slugger”). And they had a soon-to-be-30-game-winner in Mullane. But Louisville had lost four straight before arriving in Baltimore and seemed ready to roll over again as the home team took a 3-0 lead in the first, highlighted by Brown’s two-run triple.

They made it 7-0 after two, with Charlie Householder, Doc Landis, Henry Myers and Charlie Waitt crossing the plate. Mullane’s ambidextrous turn in the fourth may have sparked the Eclipse, who scored four runs in the fifth, “by heavy batting, aided by wild throwing,” the Sun reported. And Mullane mostly kept Baltimore off balance, switching back and forth, throwing right-handed to left-handed hitters and lefty to righties.

The Eclipse knotted the score, 8-8, in the eighth on a home run by Guy Hecker. But in the bottom of the ninth, the Baltimore crowd saw something that was almost as rare as an ambidextrous pitching performance – a home run by first baseman Householder, his only one of the season (he hit four in his career). It was “a tremendous hit over centre-field, nearly to the fence,” according to the Sun. “He was surrounded by the crowd and received an ovation.” Baltimore had beaten Louisville and its double-dealing pitcher, 9-8.

Less than two months later, on September 11, Mullane pitched a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Red Stockings — the first no-hitter in the American Association. But he is still remembered most for switching hands in a game he lost. He was not the last to pitch with both hands, nor was that game in Baltimore the last time he tried. He actually did it twice while pitching for Baltimore later in his career: On July 5, 1892, and again on July 14, 1893, throwing left-handed in the final inning of a 10-2 loss to the Chicago Colts.

Mullane wasn’t even the last Louisville pitcher to go both ways. On May 9, 1888, Elton “Icebox” Chamberlain, a right-hander, threw shutout ball with his left hand for the final two innings in an 18-6 win over the Kansas City Cowboys. (Chamberlain would pitch ambidextrously one more time, for Philadelphia’s American Association team in 1891.)

Two years after Mullane’s two-handed trick, on June 16, 1884, right-hander Larry Corcoran, pitching for the Chicago White Stockings, became the first ambidextrous hurler in the National League, alternating arms in a 20-9 loss to the Buffalo Bisons. Only one other player in major-league history is known to have tried since then. On September 28, 1995, Greg Harris, a natural right-hander, pitched lefty to two batters in a 9-7 loss to the Cincinnati Reds. And George Wheeler may or may not have pitched ambidextrously for Philadelphia in the late 1890s.

Mullane won 284 games in his 13-year career, second all-time in wins among pitchers not in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He won fame and earned infamy away from the playing field, challenging the reserve clause, jumping from team to team (he played for eight different clubs) and earning a suspension in the prime of his career (1885), which almost certainly cost him the victories he needed to reach 300. He also sat out part of another season to protest a pay cut.

Nicknamed the Count, and the Apollo of the Box, Mullane was considered so handsome that teams would schedule Ladies Day when he was pitching. In other ways, he was a much less attractive figure. In 1884 he pitched for the Toledo Blue Stockings, where his catcher was an African-American player, Moses Fleetwood Walker. Mullane, who called Walker the best catcher he ever worked with, nonetheless said he disliked blacks and refused to take signals from Walker. So, Mullane threw whatever he wanted, without warning, crossing up (and occasionally injuring) Walker and hurting the team in the process.

Mullane played every position except catcher at one time or another. He was also a fine ice skater and boxer, known for putting his pugilistic skills to the test on a ballfield.

There is no record of whether his right cross was better than his left hook.

No No Debut

Bumpus Jones was the talk of the baseball world at 22, a pitcher whose major-league debut foretold ridiculous potential. For one day on the cusp of two eras Jones was the best there was in the game. Then he was a big-league bust by the time he turned 24.

Jones began – and for all practical purposes, ended – his major-league career by pitching a no-hitter for the Cincinnati Reds against the Pittsburgh Pirates on October 15, 1892. It was the final day of the season, making it the last time (other than that year’s Boston-Cleveland postseason series) that pitchers would throw with their back foot positioned 55 feet 6 inches from the plate. The distance was pushed to 60 feet 6 inches the next season.

Cincinnati had signed Jones off the local sandlots a few days before. “This makes his feat against the hard-hitting Pittsburgs at this season of the year the more remarkable,” Sporting Life said in its October 22, 1892, edition.

Jones grew up in Cedarville, about 65 miles from Cincinnati in southwest Ohio and became a semipro pitching phenom, then went off to play pro ball in the Illinois-Iowa (Two Eyed) League. So he was sort of known commodity in the region. He spent most of the 1892 season pitching spectacularly for the Joliet Convicts, winning 24 and losing only three before the team folded in early August.

He signed with the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern League, making his debut on September 1, but that arrangement lasted less than a month because the Atlanta team folded on September 20. Jones was tapped by the Wilmington Clintons, a semipro club in Ohio, to play for them in an exhibition game against the visiting Reds on October 12. He started in the outfield, but with the Reds winning easily, came in to pitch the final three innings, shutting the big leaguers down.

Reds manager/first baseman Charlie Comiskey was so impressed that he hired Jones to pitch his team’s National League season finale against Pittsburgh, and Jones made history. It was the second game of a two-game set for two evenly matched teams.

Cincinnati would finish the year in fifth place at 82-68-5, and the Pirates would finish sixth (80-73-2). The Reds won, 8-6, on Thursday. On Saturday (Oct. 14), the jittery Jones took the mound against a veteran Pittsburgh club that featured star players like Jake Beckley, Patsy Donovan, and Connie Mack. Fortunately for Jones, he had a good defensive club backing him up.

He walked the first two batters he faced, Donovan and Duke Farrell, but escaped trouble on an unusual double play. Arlie Latham fielded George Van Haltren’s bunt and threw to first for one out, then Comiskey fired home to catcher Farmer Vaughn, who tagged out the ambitious Donovan trying to score from second. Jones got another swashbuckling defensive boost in the second after walking Elmer Smith. Second baseman Bid McPhee made a great running catch in shallow right field near foul territory, then threw to Comiskey to double up Smith, who was running on the play.

The Reds took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second on Comiskey’s double, driving in Vaughn, who had reached on a throwing error by Pittsburgh pitcher Mark Baldwin. Pittsburgh tied it in the third when Donovan walked (Jones’s final free pass of the afternoon), stole second, and hustled home after Jones slipped trying to field Farrell’s soft tap, then made a bad throw to Comiskey. Farrell was the last batter to reach base for the Pirates that day. Jones retired the last 19 men he faced, deceiving the Pirates with his odd pitching motion — Jones would contort his body into a knot before each pitch.

Meanwhile, the Reds pulled away with two runs in the fifth on Germany Smith’s home run, adding four more in the eighth against the beleaguered Baldwin. According to the Pittsburgh Dispatch, “Farrell and Van Haltren tried hard for safe bunts in the ninth, but failed and when Smith shot the last ball over to Comiskey which led Pittsburg down without a hit, the crowd spread into the field with cheers for a newborn favorite.”

Sporting Life reported that Jones’s performance, while “certainly wonderful … may have the effect … of making the Cincinnatians next season expect too much of him. The Pittsburgh players claim his wildness made him effective, they being afraid of being injured or maimed.”

The Stark County Democrat (Canton, Ohio) added to that sobering tone in its November 17 edition, “Two or three days next spring may be enough to send Jones into the pit of oblivion. It takes more than one swallow to make a spring and more than one game to make a great pitcher. Cincinnati should bide a bit with Jones.”

Sure enough, Jones was never that good again at the major-league level. Maybe the change in the pitching distance threw him off. He posted a 1-4 record with an ERA of 10.19 for the Reds and Giants in 1893, and didn’t pitch in the majors again.

Two other pitchers have thrown no-hitters recognized by Major League Baseball in their first major-league start: Ted Breitenstein (who actually preceded Jones by a year) and Bobo Holloman (1953). But both had pulled relief duty earlier, which means Bumpus Jones is the only player in the 150 year (or thereabouts)  history of pro ball to throw a no-hitter in his first major-league game – so far.

Not Your Eyes, Mize, Not Your Eyes

In 1947, Johnny Mize did something unmatched in baseball history. He became the first and, so far, only player to hit 50 or more home runs while striking out less than 50 times, one of the game’s extraordinary records.

Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, etc., etc. – none of baseball’s best all-around hitters ever combined meticulous bat control with brute power the way Mize did in ’47, back when the New York Giants carried two trunks of bats on the road.

“One trunk was for Johnny Mize,” said Buddy Blattner, Mize’s roommate on the Giants. “The other was for the rest of the team.”

Mize finished with 51 homers to tie the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Ralph Kiner for the National League and Major League lead. The Giants’ big first baseman also hit .302 – the lowest mark of his big-league career to that point. He struck out just 42 times.

So yes, Mize had plenty of bats, and he knew how to use every one of them. This was his arsenal, his black bag, and throughout a 15-year Hall of Fame baseball career the Georgian used his tools with the precision of a surgeon and the stylistic beauty of an artist.

“Nobody had a better, smoother, easier swing than John,” said Don Gutteridge, who roomed with Mize on the Cardinals. “It was picture perfect.”

Splitting his career among the St. Louis Cardinals (1936-1941), Giants (1942, 1946-49) and New York Yankees (1949-1953), Mize was a 10-time All-Star who led his league in most major offensive categories at one time or another.

A first baseman through most of his career, injuries ultimately took their toll on the ‘Big Cat,’ so Mize’s inconsistent defensive skills became something of an afterthought (and sometimes a joke). But he spent the end of his playing days as one of the game’s premier pinch hitters on a Yankee club that won five straight World Series titles.

“Your arm is gone, your legs likewise, but not your eyes, Mize, not your eyes,” wrote New York sportswriter Dan Parker, inspired by the aging slugger’s ability to drag his bulk and his bat to the plate and deposit baseballs anywhere on the field, and often beyond it.

Built like a slugger (6-2, 215 in his prime), Mize was a line drive hitter who could hit for distance, to all fields and generally for high average, especially earlier in his career.

“I was working in Boston in 1941 for the Associated Press, when Casey Stengel was managing the Braves, and he told me that Mize was a slugger who hit like a leadoff man,” said Bob Broeg, who later became a long-time sportswriting legend in St. Louis.

Normally a quiet giant, Mize was nonetheless happy to offer his opinion on hitting (he even wrote about it: How to Hit, by Johnny Mize as told to Murray Kaufman, published in 1953).

“He’s the one guy I’d tell the other guys to imitate at the plate,” said Gutteridge. “He was absolutely one of the great students and teachers of hitting.”

Sometimes, though, Mize’s unsolicited advice backfired.

During the 1953 World Series – Mize’s last hurrah – Brooklyn pitcher Carl Erskine was throwing a masterpiece in Game 3 at Ebbets Field, striking out a horde of Yankees with his sharp-breaking off-speed pitches. As teammate after teammate went down on strikes, and Erskine got closer to a World Series strikeout record, Mize kept grumbling that the Yankees should lay off pitches in the dirt.

“A lot of our players were getting pretty annoyed, they looked at him like he was crazy,” said Whitey Ford, the Yankees’ Hall of Fame pitcher. “Then Casey (Stengel) sent him up to pinch hit in the ninth. He ends up swinging at a curveball in the dirt, and Erskine set the World Series strikeout record.”

Mize was Erskine’s record 14th victim, swinging three times at pitches that were down around his ankles. When he returned to the dugout, tight-lipped and none too happy, the Yankees’ aggressive infielder Billy Martin managed to rip Mize’s whiff and bad defense in one quip: “What happened, John, that low curve take a bad hop?”

But then, when Stengel brought Mize across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds to Yankee Stadium, he wasn’t really looking for another glove.

“He didn’t run very well and he’d injured his arm so he couldn’t throw very well, either, but Mize was an extremely valuable guy on our team, because he was such a dangerous hitter, especially in the clutch,” said former Yankee third-baseman (and American League president) Bobby Brown.

Or, as former Yankees star and teammate Hank Bauer noted, Mize had “an abnormal ability to respond to the most urgent demands.”

And, trusting in his tools, he had unfailing confidence in his ability to hit any pitcher.

“He had bats of different sizes and weights, 34 ounces, 37, 40. The harder the thrower, the lighter the bat,” said Gutteridge, who remembers an incident when the left-handed-hitting Mize was about to face a tough, hard-throwing left-handed pitcher (Gutteridge could not accurately recall who) who’d been giving him fits.

“We were at home in St. Louis, and John says, ‘Next time I get up there, I’m gonna get one of those light bats and I’ll get around on that high fastball, you watch.’ So, next time up he hits the first pitch out onto Grand Avenue outside of old Sportsman’s Park. He comes back and says to me, ‘See, I told you.’”

It seems that Mize may have been a hitter on some molecular level, like it was in his DNA somehow – his distant cousin was another Georgian of note, Tyrus Raymond Cobb. Mize also was related to the game’s greatest hitting star, though not by blood – his second cousin, Clara Mae Merritt, who became better known as Mrs. Babe Ruth.

• • •

John Robert Mize was born on January 7, 1913, in Demorest, Georgia, a small college town in the rural Appalachian foothills of Northeast Georgia. He was the second son of Edward Mize, a local merchant and salesman, and Emma Loudermilk, a homemaker who had to go to work in an Atlanta department store after the couple separated.

Johnny stayed with his grandmother in Demorest, and was actually more interested in tennis than baseball as a youngster, winning a county championship with a racquet in his hand. But between the ages of 13 and 15, Mize grew rapidly and his sweet swing caught the attention of the Piedmont College baseball (and football and basketball) coach Harry Forester, who convinced the muscular teen to try out for the team.

“The fact is, when I was 15 and a sophomore at high school, I played on the varsity baseball team for the college,” Mize admitted in How to Hit. “I could do this because Piedmont College didn’t belong to any athletic conference and therefore there were no rules governing eligible players.”

Mize hit over .400 for Piedmont in his two seasons on the college team while attending the local high school, Piedmont Academy. There are stories that have been passed down in Demorest of long home runs, baseballs sailing over the college administration building, onto or beyond U.S. Route 441. Mize, as a low-key old man living back in his hometown, said most of it was a myth. But tales of his actual prowess – which probably came from Forester, a former minor league pitcher – reached Branch Rickey, general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, and he sent his brother Frank to scout the young slugger.

The college season was over and Mize was playing semipro ball in nearby Toccoa, Georgia. That’s where Frank Rickey saw a young outfielder, slow of foot, but quick minded, playing like a veteran – never swinging at bad pitches or making mistakes on the base paths or throwing to the wrong base. He signed the 17-year-old Mize after seeing him play one time.

It was 1930, middle of the baseball season. Mize was sent to the Class C Greensboro (North Carolina) Patriots, deep within the Cardinals’ famous and vast farm system, got into 12 games and batted .194. The next season, though, began a string of 15 consecutive seasons of pro ball during which Mize hit over .300.

The 18-year-old returned to Greensboro in 1931, batting .337. He was promoted to Elmira in the New York-Penn League in 1932. That year, after consulting with Elmira manager Clay Hopper, Branch Rickey decided the slow-footed Mize should switch to first base.

It was evident early on that Mize, with his ambling pace and limited range, would never be a defensive star. And yet, he always claimed that he earned his famous nickname, The Big Cat, because of his fielding. The man supposedly responsible was Cardinals infielder Joe Orengo.

“One day the infielders were having a pretty bad time and were making some bad throws to me at first base,” Mize said late in his career. “After digging a few out of the dirt, Joe Orengo called over to me, ‘Atta boy, John, you look like a big cat.’ Some of the writers overheard the remark and asked Joe about it later. The nickname has stuck with me ever since.”

Other observers, like Broeg and Blattner, maintained that it was sort of a derisive nickname that described the way Mize stalked around the bag.

Either way, once Rickey moved the 19-year-old Mize to first base, that would remain his regular post in the field for the rest of his career. And nobody was complaining about his glove or his range in 1932, when he batted .326 and drove in 78 runs in 106 games for Class B Elmira.

In spite of that showing, he was inexplicably sent back to Greensboro for 1933, and he responded by hitting .360, with 22 home runs and 104 runs batted in in just 98 games. He finished the year at Rochester in Class AA, batting .352 with eight homers and 32 RBI in 42 games.

In St. Louis, the Cardinals already had a hard-hitting first baseman with a better glove, Ripper Collins, so Mize’s eye-popping offensive numbers didn’t seem to be moving him any closer to the big leagues, though he was becoming a known commodity around the majors.

But something happened in 1934 that almost ended his career. Sometime during the season, Mize felt a painful snap in his groin when he was legging out a double. The injury limited him to 90 games, but he batted .339, drove in 66 runs and hit 17 homers. It was good enough for the Cincinnati Reds to buy him from the Cardinals in the spring of 1935 for $55,000 (a sum that qualified as a bona fide star investment in the midst of the Great Depression). But it was a conditional deal – Mize had to prove he was healthy enough to play. He couldn’t.

Spurs had developed on his pelvic bone, a result of the groin strain months earlier, and he couldn’t swing a bat without wincing, couldn’t properly field low throws, ran slower than usual. So the Reds sent him back to the Cardinals, whose club surgeon, Dr. Robert Hyland, said he was fit enough to play the 1935 season in Rochester.

Mize didn’t last three months. He was hitting .317 after 65 games, but the pain and immobility forced him out of action and he went on the voluntarily retired list, and thought his playing days were over.

Hyland performed a daring bit of surgery that winter, and by the time spring training began, Mize had made an amazing recovery. He made the Cardinals big league roster and by midsummer had moved Collins off first base. His rookie campaign was nothing short of brilliant – in 126 games he batted .329, with 93 RBI and 19 homers. And he led the National League first basemen in fielding percentage.

Mize actually led his league in fielding percentage four times, and led in assists and putouts twice each. Then again, he also led in errors twice and finished second in that dubious category three times.

“He was a big, lumbering guy, and some ground balls got by him, sure, but if he could reach it, if he ever got his hand on the ball, he held it,” Gutteridge said.

Proving his rookie season was no fluke, Mize batted a career-high .364 in 1937, second in the league to his teammate and rival, Joe Medwick (who wore a Triple Crown that year). Mize also was second in on-base percentage, total bases, slugging percentage and doubles, belted 25 homers, drove in 113 runs and made the All-Star team for the first time in his career.

Mize and Medwick played five and a half seasons together in St. Louis (Medwick was dealt to the Brooklyn Dodgers in June 1940), forming one of baseball’s most terrifying tandems. But they didn’t get along – hardly anyone on the club got along with Medwick, and there may have been some mutual jealousy between the two sluggers.

“John wanted to drive in runs, and so did Medwick,” Gutteridge recalled. “And there was some times when John was on base and Medwick got a hit, and he thought John should have scored. Then, Medwick would get on him. But Joe was kind of arrogant. We called him the ‘Mad Hungarian’ because he was mad all the time.”

Mize was outwardly a low-key person, never a rah-rah kind of guy or emotional team leader, and at times something of a clubhouse lawyer and salary holdout. But he usually got along well with his teammates and the press.

“He is a quiet, pleasant, easy-going giant,” wrote Dick Farrington in The Sporting News in 1937.

According to Hal Epps, Mize’s teammate in St. Louis for two seasons (1938, 1940), and a fellow native of Northeast Georgia (Epps is from Athens), “Johnny was always smiling, and if he had a bad moment, I didn’t know about it. He had a good attitude. Easy going. Nothing seemed to bother him much.”

Instead, Mize bothered National League pitchers.

He hit .337 in 1938, led the league in triples, hit 27 homers, and led in slugging percentage, something he would do the next two seasons (he would actually win four slugging titles in five seasons). The home runs came in clusters – Mize twice hit three in a game in 1938 (the first player to do this; he did it again in 1940, twice hitting three homers in game).

In 1939 he finished second in Most Valuable Player voting after leading the National League in batting (.349), home runs (28), total bases and slugging, hitting a career-high 44 doubles and posting a career high OPS (1.070 – the sum of his on base percentage and slugging percentage).

Mize recalled arriving for spring training in 1940 at the Cardinals camp in St. Petersburg, Florida. When he walked into the clubhouse he saw 43 bats lined up along the clubhouse wall – his bats, some left over from the year before, and new ones ordered by the team at his request.

The clubhouse man, “was most vigorously complaining that they occupied an entire bat trunk. I asked him how he expected me to work without my tools – for which he had no answer,” Mize said.

Or, as his teammate Gutteridge said, “when you hit .350, they buy you all the bats you want.”

So Mize started the 1940 season with 43 bats, and when it was over he’d hit a club record 43 home runs, leading the league in that category and RBIs (137).

“To this day I wonder what would have happened if I had started the season with sixty-one bats,” he mused in How to Hit.

He eventually would take his shot at Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a season, or Mize called it, “Cousin George’s mark.” But it would have to wait until a blockbuster deal sent him to New York City. And then, of course, there was World War II.

He broke in with a St. Louis team known as the Gas House Gang, the Cardinals of Dizzy Dean and Pepper Martin and Leo Durocher, World Series champions in 1934, two years before Mize’s rookie season. The team was still strong, finishing second in 1936 and 1939. In 1941, with most of the Gas House Gang gone, the Cardinals made a serious run at the National League pennant, winning 97 games, but finishing two and a half games behind Brooklyn, winning its first flag since 1920.

As it turned out, Stan Musial joined the Cardinals for the final two weeks of the season, batting .426 in 12 games. Mize, who missed the end of the season with a bum leg, complained, “We might have gone ahead and won the pennant,” if Rickey had brought Musial up sooner.

And that was the end of Mize’s stint in St. Louis. Over in New York, new manager Mel Ott had his eyes on the Big Cat. Ott, who held the National League record for lifetime home runs at the time with 511, insisted that the Giants make a deal for the 28-year-old slugger. That’s exactly what they did, sending $50,000 and three players to the Cardinals for Mize.

It was big news in baseball, but not particularly earth shattering considering the times – four days before that deal, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the U.S. was at war. Mize had one season in a Giants uniform (.305 average, 26 homers and a league-leading 110 RBIs) before putting on a Navy uniform, which he wore for three years – three prime years, and it’s been said over and over again, but there’s no telling how gaudy his career numbers would have been.

Like so many other ballplayers who served during World War II, Mize carried a bat in lieu of a gun. His combat was limited to the baseball diamond, against other professional ballplayers who provided a welcome and entertaining respite for U.S. troops.

Mize returned to the Polo Grounds in 1946 and picked up where he left off, batting .337 with 22 homers in 101 games. He was only setting the stage.

In 1947, the talk was over who would catch the Babe – Mize or Pirates slugger Kiner.

After Mize hit his 44th home run on August 28th, he said, “it dawned on me that I might give that record a scare.”

He finished well shy of Ruth with the 51, his career high, leading the fourth-place Giants as they set what was, at the time, the record for home runs by a team in one year (221). Mize also had career highs in RBIs (138) and runs (137), leading the Majors in both categories in 1947.

Mize tied Kiner for the National League home run title again in 1948 with 40 blasts (striking out only 37 times). It would be his last full-season with the Giants, his last great statistical season as a full-time player. But some of his biggest thrills were ahead.

In 1949, Mize was 36 and unhappy playing for Giants manager Leo Durocher. He was about to get a lot happier. In August, Mize was sent to the Yankees for $40,000. The move was criticized in the press, but ultimately helped make Casey Stengel a genius as the aging slugger became an important cog in baseball’s greatest dynasty, helping the Yankees win a record five straight World Series championships.

Nursing an injured shoulder, Mize was performed admirably as a pinch hitter down the stretch as the Yankees nudged the Red Sox in a blistering 1949 pennant race. His two-out, ninth-inning, bases-loaded single broke a tie score and brought the Yankees a critical win over the Dodgers in Game 4 of the World Series.

Playing a part-time role in 1950, he put up full-time numbers, with 72 RBIs and 25 homers in only 274 at bats. He led the American League in pinch hits each of the next three seasons and earned the Most Valuable Player Award in the 1952 World Series, when he hit three home runs (and just missed a fourth), batted .400 and led the Yankees in a seven-game classic against Brooklyn.

“I will never forget Mize in the 1952 World Series,” Hank Bauer told Baseball Digest’s George Vass in 2004.

When he left the game following the 1953 season (during which he hit .311 as a pinch hitter), Mize had 359 home runs (6th all-time when he retired, and he’d hit one in all 15 of the ballparks in use at the time), 1,337 RBIs and a .312 batting average, plus a .397 on-base percentage and a .562 slugging average (higher than Hank Aaron or Willie Mays). He was the first player to hit three homers in a game six times – a record since matched by Sammy Sosa. His 43 home runs in 1940 remained a Cardinal club record until Mark McGwire broke it in 1998.

After retiring as a player, Mize bounced around between businesses in Florida (real estate development, orange groves, liquor store) and the occasional foray into coaching (New York Giants, Richmond in the minors, and Mexico City, among others).

His wife of 20 years, Jene, died tragically in 1957 – she fell asleep while smoking and later died from the burns suffered in the fire at their Deland, Florida, home. Three months later, however, Mize married Marjorie Pope in Deland, and eventually adopted her children, Jim and Judi. In his later years, Mize played a lot of golf, attended old-timers games and baseball card shows, where he signed a lot of autographs – donating his fee to local Boy Scout troops.

In 1974, the Mizes moved to his boyhood home in Demorest, across the street from Piedmont College, where he died on June 2, 1993. Mize went to bed after watching the Atlanta Braves on TV and never woke up.

The greatest moment of Mize’s post-playing career finally came on August 2, 1981, when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame after waiting nearly 30 years. Broeg and others have indicated that Mize’s defensive liabilities probably cost him, but many fans, journalists and baseball people wondered why it took so long.

Mize wondered himself, but took it in stride and announced with his typical wry humor on the day of his induction, “Years ago the writers were telling me that I’d make the Hall of Fame, so I kind of prepared a speech. But somewhere along in the 28 years it got lost.”

Baseball is not for Vegans

Around the middle of the fifth inning it occurs to me that animals had to die for this game to be played. The pace of a baseball game makes these kinds of thoughts inevitable when you’re not tending a scorecard.

When we arrived in the top of the second, the Piedmont College Lions were already leading DePauw University, 4-0, at Loudermilk Field on the same Demorest campus where Johnny Mize used to hit baseballs obscene distances. The game got out of hand in the seventh when Piedmont put four more on the board, en route to a rude 9-1 blasting of the visiting Tigers. The ballgame was marked by some fabulous defense by both sides, terrific hustling catches in the outfield and diving plays by infielders, and a fine ensemble performance by several Piedmont pitchers.

Piedmont’s hitters also swung their bats with authority, sending line drives all over the place, even when they weren’t landing on grass. Bat striking ball is one of the most recognizable soundtracks of American life, like a sonic glandular function of our civilization. It’s the sound of aluminum striking an animal hide wrapped tightly around hundreds of yards of wool yarn, machine-wound around a rubber or cork core. Taken together, this is a baseball, the proverbial “old horsehide.”

Except … those young men on the grass diamond glistening green under the slanting rays of the worship worthy March sun are tossing the alum-tanned remains of a Midwest Holstein, not a horse, not usually.

So it was sometime in the fifth, in the middle of a string of scoreless innings, when a couple of cute dogs in the bleachers were getting to know each other which made me start thinking, “dogs in the bleachers at a baseball game is pretty cool,” which led to, “animals and baseball go well together,” which led to, “well, you really can’t play baseball without some animal involvement,” and finally, “baseball needs dead animals,” and on some peripheral sub level, “I wonder if these dogs know that baseballs are wrapped in beef jerky.” And we haven’t even mentioned the gloves fielders use to catch the baseballs with, meat that slips over and protects a man’s hand, or the sheep’s wool that makes the yarn inside the ball.

They’ve tried synthetic materials for balls and gloves, but that leads to an inferior product eschewed by the boys in the show. So, meat is at the heart of the game (hotdogs are basically made at the same choice cuts that become balls and gloves, among other things), which makes me wonder about PETA’s annual ranking vegetarian friendly ballparks. I mean, just because you can get veggie tacos at San Francisco’s AT&T Park and black bean burgers at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, it hasn’t stopped the guys on the field from hitting animal-covered baseballs that they catch with slabs of animals wrapped around their hands.

Until they figure out how to make a better ball with something that didn’t have a mother, baseball will be a flesh and red-blooded American game.

Literary Triple Crown (revisited)

The death of the great journalist Claude Sitton, who covered the hell out of the Civil Rights Movement, got me thinking about this story I wrote for a magazine that used to pay my salary. In 2007 there were three Pulitzer Prize winners in three different categories from Georgia, all of them based in Atlanta. So, I found this article (in which Claude is mentioned) about the lauded trio and it turns out that I liked it enough to share it here on what must surely qualify as a dirt road off a side street off the information superhighway.

It is 1941 in the segregated South, and a young African-American journalist hops off a bus one town before his destination. He is pursuing the inside skinny for a story about a recent lynching. It is dangerous undercover work. So he ditches his city duds and assumes a local persona, hitches a ride to the lynching site, blends in with the local black population, gathers information and bolts the scene with his story and his life.

The tale of Vincent Tubbs is told early in The Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, which earned a Pulitzer Prize in history in 2007 for Hank Klibanoff (who was managing editor Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time), who co-wrote the book with veteran journalist Gene Roberts.

The Race Beat looks at the civil rights struggle from a fresh angle, highlighting the heroic efforts of black journalists, progressive Southern editors and the national press in their coverage of the defining domestic news story of the 20th century.

“The book takes a story with which we thought we were familiar and adds a mountain of new material and new ways of looking at it,” says former Pulitzer winner David Oshinsky, professor of history at the University of Texas in Austin, and one of three jurors on the Pulitzer history panel.

Oshinsky might as well be describing the work of all three Georgians who won Pulitzers in 2007 – Klibanoff, his former AJC colleague Cynthia Tucker, and poet Natasha Trethewey – because their writing manages, in separate but equal ways, to bridge the gap between what we think we know and unfamiliar or forgotten realities.

They are a diverse trio, natives of the South, a white man, a black woman and a biracial woman, following in the bold pen strokes of Georgia’s previous Pulitzer winners, a Who’s Who list that includes Margaret Mitchell, Ralph McGill, Eugene Patterson, Jack Nelson, Alice Walker and Mike Luckovich.

The common bond among this Pulitzer class is a stream of racial consciousness that flows thickly through the works of all three writers, who combined to earn a rare literary triple crown for Georgia.

In The Know

Hank Klibanoff is juiced by the news. Always has been.

“In high school, and probably before that, I wanted to be a newspaper reporter,” Klibanoff says. “I stay up late now and stayed up late as a kid, because I always wanted to know what was going on. My mother would ask, ‘Why don’t you go to bed?’ I told her it was because I was afraid I’d miss something.”

He grew up in the era his book profiles, in Florence, Ala., the northwest corner of the state – close to the sparks, but not close enough to feel the heat; an industrialized region where organized labor and Northern influences thrived, and the Tennessee Valley Authority gave the federal government a strong foothold.

“It was more open minded than much of the rest of Alabama, politically and socially,” says Klibanoff. “But I was a hardcore newspaper reader and there were a lot of Alabama datelines because of the Civil Rights stories. I was intrigued by the unfolding drama and couldn’t quite understand how we could be living in the same state and not see all of what was happening.”

Klibanoff and Roberts offer an eye-popping tour of the Civil Rights landscape – Birmingham, Little Rock, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Brown vs. the Board of Education, the blood trail of the Mississippi Delta, relating the experiences of reporters who shed light on the brutal, drawn-out death throes of sanctioned Southern segregation. That body was still twitching when Klibanoff began his newspaper career in Mississippi in the early 1970s, “covering everything, in a lot of towns that don’t exist anymore.

“I can’t tell you how happy I am for that experience, though,” he says. “A lot of the giants were still roaming the land.”

The Race Beat focuses on giants who were virtually unnoticed by white America, black journalists such as Simeon Booker, L. Alex Wilson, Moses Newson and a husband-and-wife team, L.C. and Daisy Bates, as well as progressive white journalists, including Claude Sitton, Hodding Carter, Jr., Harry Ashmore and McGill.

This is the first book for both Klibanoff and Roberts, who were colleagues at The Philadelphia Inquirer, where Klibanoff worked for 20 years before joining the AJC in 2002. In 1994 Roberts, who had been working on the book for several years, enlisted Klibanoff, deputy city editor at the Inquirer at the time.

“I was thrilled with the idea without really knowing yet how justified that excitement would turn out to be,” Klibanoff says. “I really threw myself into the research, body and soul. In fact, I probably overdid it.”

They researched collections all over the country, studied published and unpublished work, diaries, personal letters and notes.

“The stories just jumped out at us,” says Klibanoff, who was already working long days as an editor, first at the Inquirer, then at the AJC, while Roberts juggled responsibilities at The New York Times and the University of Maryland.

They shared the writing (and the $10,000 Pulitzer cash prize), editing each others work, trying to maintain a consistent tone, then sending chapters back and forth via overnight mail because Roberts didn’t use email. He wrote his chapters in longhand.

Oshinsky and his fellow jurors – all prominent historians – were impressed with the tandem effort.

“This book was not only lucidly and beautifully written, but extraordinarily nuanced and wonderfully documented,” Oshinsky says. “Sometimes, collaborations don’t work, but this one couldn’t have worked better. It was seamless.”

The book became mandatory reading for at least one college professor, which made an impression on Klibanoff, “because it puts students where I was,” says Klibanoff. “This book was a real learning experience for me.

“I grew up in the South, and I knew these stories to some small extent, but every day was like going back to school. Every day I wanted to learn more, wanted to see how the different story lines ended, wondered whatever happened to that guy, or how did that situation turn out, or what price did that person pay. I never woke up hating the book. The fact is, I loved it. Every day felt hopeful.”

Voice Of Reason

She’s too liberal, but not liberal enough; too critical of white people, but doesn’t defend black people enough; an independent thinker, but she’s joined to the Cox corporate hip. It depends on who is doing the labeling, but they all think they have Cynthia Tucker pegged.

“I am absolutely pigeonholed, for a couple of reasons,” says Tucker, the former AJC columnist and editorial page editor who won her Pulitzer for commentary. “First, we live in politically polarized times. Talk radio has exacerbated that trend and bloggers have enthusiastically taken up the cause, so that many news consumers are only prepared to see issues and pundits in terms of liberal or conservative. They’re not prepared to think that some pundits might be a little more complex.

“The other thing is, I think, black Americans have been easily stereotyped, and that’s a human tendency. I think we all are unfairly programmed by something in our primitive instincts to see the other differently.”

It’s the reptilian brain, the fight-or-flight instinct, and it bothers Tucker, a self-confessed Star Trek kid who grew up with the civil rights movement in Alabama, and remembers being sent to the back of the bus with her mother. But Star Trek, that weekly televised social commentary disguised as science fiction, gave her hope.

“It wasn’t about aliens or other worlds, it was about what was happening in the U.S. at the time, and how people in the future conquered all of that [prejudice],” Tucker says. “People of different races – different species – working together on the ship. I loved the show, loved it. I’ve seen every episode, know the dialogue, and I honestly believed that’s what I’d see in my lifetime.

“Then I watched other countries, watched Bosnia, where Muslims and Christians had lived side by side for years, and one day something happened. The lizard brain kicked in and they started killing each other over something that happened hundreds of years ago. I watched Northern Ireland, the Middle East. Now, I don’t expect a Star Trek ending.”

Race – along with the meaning of life – is the most complex topic this complex woman ever considers, and she considers it often. Race is central in all 10 of the columns she submitted for Pulitzer consideration, columns that the Pulitzer jurors said “evince a strong sense of morality and persuasive knowledge of the community.”

Tucker’s column about racial stereotyping chastises civil rights hero Andrew Young. A column about Cynthia McKinney (a regular subject) criticizes the former Congresswoman for race baiting. She attacks draconian voter ID laws, writes about a white candidate using racial epithets, and discusses immigration in pieces that appeared in more than 70 papers across the country.

This was Tucker’s third time as a Pulitzer finalist.

“My first reaction was relief – I felt the pressure intensely, probably self-imposed,” says Tucker, now a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. “My next reaction was, wow, what a nice thing, to be recognized as one of the best journalists in America.

“It’s a great thing to win the Pulitzer. I don’t wish to confuse that with having had any great influence. Newspapers just aren’t what they once were – they don’t have the standing in the community that they had 40 or 50 years ago. Having said all that, I still believe that what we do matters.”

Personal History

Natasha Trethewey’s Pulitzer-winning book of poetry, Native Guard, her third collection, is a requiem for forgotten lives. The fact that one of those lives belonged to her slain mother intensifies the work’s heartbreak and mesmerizing beauty.

The title refers to the Louisiana Native Guards, one of the Union’s first black units during the Civil War, who manned a fort that housed Confederate prisoners on Ship Island, off the Mississippi coast near Trethewey’s hometown of Gulfport (another common bond among Georgia’s Pulitzer winners – Hank Klibanoff’s first newspaper job was in Gulfport).

Some of her work recalls a childhood laced with societal tensions – her parents’ interracial marriage was illegal in Mississippi when Trethewey was born, 1966. But the book is ultimately a lyrical dedication to Trethewey’s mother, murdered in 1985 by her second husband.

“Neither my mother, nor the Native Guard, has a monument to mark their memory,” says Trethewey, who became the nation’s Poet Laureate in 2012 and is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University. “That is the link between them, and I didn’t realize it when I set out to write the book. There is little mention of the Native Guard on Ship Island, as if they’ve been erased from historical memory.

“At the same time, the 20th anniversary of my mother’s death was approaching. It was a long time before I realized that this project of elegizing the Native Guard and elegizing my mother were intertwined by history and memory and forgetting.”

Trethewey was born with poetry in her blood. Her father, the late poet Eric Trethewey, was professor of literature at Hollins University in Virginia, where Natasha earned her MA in English and Creative Writing. But she never thought of literature as a genetic birthright.

“I always felt this sense of being out of place, a feeling that was rooted in being born in a region that would rather me not have been born,” she says. “So I think that sense of being an outsider, a psychological exile, is probably a main reason I turned to language and poetry, to make a world I might feel at home in.”

She started writing poems about her mother 20 years ago, but says they were horrible. As the 20th anniversary of her mother’s murder drew nearer and Trethewey moved back to Atlanta, the site of the tragedy, she found the voice, “a seamless blend of content and form that make the poems something beyond the narration of my experience. They had to be more than simply the articulation of my grief. They had to stand up as art.”