When you combine a national treasure with the national pastime, you can’t lose. E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist and award-winning poet whose honors and prizes could paper a dugout. Now, with his third book of baseball poetry, “How I Found Love Behind the Catcher’s Mask,” he once again justifies his many accolades.
As author Merrill Leffler writes in the book’s introduction, Miller’s poems are “not about baseball in and of itself… These improvisational poems may start with baseball, but they move into explorations of subjects ranging widely and randomly from one to another.”
“Baseball Cards,” for example, a nostalgic look at a boyhood hobby, becomes a plangent reflection on racism: “Black history was years ahead of us / so when we gathered in the play-ground / we traded away our baseball cards / with the black faces.” A poem for Glenn Burke, the first openly gay major league baseball player, becomes a poignant plea for understanding and toler-ance. And an homage to Emmett Ashford pays moving tribute to the first African American umpire in the major leagues.
Using baseball as metaphor, Miller instills his own meaning into the language of the game. In “The Changeup,” he asks, “What is the difference between a changeup and a coup?”
“The changeup is dress rehearsal for fascism. / Citizens soon find themselves trapped in the hitter’s box / Wrapping a baseball bat with a flag. / Running from the field into the stands. / Smashing the score-board and changing the score.” And in another powerfully political poem, he likens a current gubernatorial candidate to the major league record holder for career stolen bases:
Poem for Stacey Abrams
You’re Rickey Henderson today.
You’re leading off.
You have power and speed.
You have flex and flair.
You’re brash. You’re Black.
If they accuse you of being a thief
Steal first, second, and then third.
You’re Rickey Henderson today
Sliding head first past Ty Cobb
And voting restrictions in Georgia.
Whether he’s addressing the political or the personal—as in the title poem, in which the narrator rues the fact that he never knows “what signs to put down” when meeting a woman—Miller never loses touch with the reader, striking a resonant chord that will echo long after the final poem is read.
E. Ethelbert Miller is the author of two memoirs and several poetry collections, including “If God Invented Baseball” and “When Your Wife Has Tommy John Surgery.”