Several years ago, during a visit to the Detroit Institute of the Arts, I was surprised to discover a painting by Robert Moskowitz, “Hard Ball III.” This painting reminded me of my own love of baseball. From childhood stickball games in the street, where fire hydrants, telephone poles, and man-hole covers served as the bases, and on to later years when we played in a summer league on real fields along the Mall and the Elipse just across the street from the White House in Washington, DC.
The Washington Senators were of course our home town team. One had to root, root, root for the home team even when they didn’t win, which was often, and a shame. But it was always great, whether we were sitting right there on the first base line or out in left field waiting for hits from Mantle and Berra, or Runnels and Busby and Yost.
Over the years my Dad and I both worked for a printing and photography company located at 19th and K Streets, NW: he much earlier in his career, and I during the summers right after high school and on through art school. The company was called Cooper/Trent after its two owners, and we were all baseball fans. Mr. Cooper and Mr. Trent had season tickets at Griffith Stadium and would usually bring back souvenirs for us, a photograph signed by Stan “The Man” Musial of the Cardinals, and a baseball, signed by the entire Senators team. I still have both of these, to this day.
But this is about something larger than these pieces of nostalgia. It is about a history that is both athletic and aesthetic: perfect for bridging the gap between painting and poetry, and as it turns out, two women have played an important part in this process.
During the 1930’s and 40’s the artist Marjorie Acker Phillips accompanied her husband Duncan to hundreds of local baseball games. Duncan Phillips of course, was the founder of the Phillips Collection of Washington, DC. During these outings, Marjorie often carried a sketchbook and drawing materials with her and drew the field, the players, and the general atmosphere of that great old ballpark, Griffith Stadium.
Later in the 1950’s and 60’s in New York, the poet Marianne Moore also became a baseball fan, especially of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella were some of her favorite subjects. She was well aware of the contribution that Jackie Robinson was making to our history at that time, and I think that the sound of Branch Rickey’s name may have brought a smile to her face.
“Baseball and Writing”
“Fanaticism? No. Writing is exciting
and baseball is like writing.
You can never tell with either
how it will go
or what you will do;
a fever in the victim—
pitcher, catcher, fielder, batter.
Victim in what category?
Owlman watching from the press box?
To whom does it apply?
Who is excited? Might it be I?[i]
As the Phillips Collection developed and grew, Marjorie and Duncan Phillips moved out of their original home near DuPont Circle in Washington, and gave over the entire space to the museum. The Phillips Collection became the first museum in the country dedicated to modern art. It also provided an educational component in support of the works contained therein, and soon became known as a museum of modern art and its sources. Works of art were grouped as they played off of each other: from Ingres, Goya and Delacroix to Degas, Renoir and Cezanne, from Monticelli to van Gogh, with Henri Matisse, Francis Bacon and Georges Braque included in the mix.
Over the years Marjorie Phillips’ work became more known and she continued to enjoy the games of the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium. Her painting “Night Baseball” depicts a moment during a Yankees/Senators game when Joe DiMaggio comes up to bat. It is 1951, his last playing season. Everything is still, and rather than depict an action, she chose instead the tension of waiting on the delivery of that pitch to home plate.
I have recently discovered, from an old article in the Washington Post, that Marianne Moore had actually seen this painting and wrote to Marjorie Phillips about it.[ii] “Night Baseball” could have ended up in the collection of Miss Moore, unfortunately Marjorie Phillips had already given it as a gift to her husband Duncan, who placed it in his collection. Supposedly, even the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown was interested in this painting, however it has remained in the Phillips Collection to this day.
It has been years since the Senators and Calvin Griffith left Washington, DC. They are only memories nowadays. However, newer painters and poets often remind us of those days. As mentioned above, Robert Moskowitz has always chosen simple, iconic images for his work, transforming them into monumental statements. Now, the poet Joseph Stanton, in the series “Painting the Corners” from his recent collection Things Seen, has taken a similar look at familiar icons, and this includes Marjorie Phillips’ painting “Night Baseball.”
MARJORIE PHILLIPS’ Night Baseball
“It’s the 1st of September 1951
and Joe Dimaggio
is about to take his last swing
in our nation’s capital.
He’s up against the great,
but largely forgotten,
El Guajiro de Labertinto,
El Premier of the Cuban stars,
four years older than Joltin’ Joe,
but still floating them up there,
one damned knuckle ball after another,
pitching with canny discernment
and elderly grace,
losing game after game,
for the hapless Senators,
despite his stellar ERA.
The electrified white of his home togs
makes him seem a bright X,
marking the spot of green field
that waits under the glowering bruise
of the night sky
suspended above Griffith stadium
in this brief instant before the fateful pitch.
Duncan Phillips has taken his wife
to witness the great Dimaggio,
another masterpiece for their gallery,
but Marjorie can see this night
as all about the weary pitcher,
spread-limbed as if on a cross,
arrayed against the base path
the too much celebrated Joe
will too soon circle.
Oh, where have you gone,
[i] Schulman, Grace, ed; The Poems of Marianne Moore; Viking Penguin; New York, New York; 2002; p. 329.
[ii] Gildea, William; “Griffith Stadium Still Green and Alive;” The Washington Post; Washington, DC; 6 April 1985.
[iii] Stanton, Joseph; Things Seen; Brick Road Poetry Press; Columbus, Georgia; 2016; pp. 106-107.