“Little Beauty” : Rupert Brooke On Baseball

Another of the tourist attractions of Rugby, vaguely topical as Remembrance Day approaches, is this statue of Rupert Brooke, located close to the (very ordinary) house in which he was born.  It is the creation of Ivor Robert-Jones (also responsible for the statue of Churchill in Westminster Square).  I’m in two minds about its worth as a memorial – something about its barefootedness suggests the Style Editor of GQ Magazine wondering which socks to wear that day.

Rupert Brooke 2

Was Brooke a cricketer?  Only an active one at school, apparently (like many, he seems to have given up playing when he went to University) but, in searching for a connection, I came across this passage from a letter he wrote while visiting the USA in 1913, describing a visit to a baseball game between Harvard and Yale:

“One of the great events of Commencement, and of the year, is the Harvard-Yale baseball match. To this I went, excited at the prospect of my first sight of a ‘ball game,’ and my mind vaguely reminiscent of the indolent, decorous, upper-class crowd, the sunlit spaces, the dignified ritual, and white-flannelled grace of Lord’s at the ‘Varsity cricket match. The crowd was gay, and not very large.

… I had time to observe the players, who were practising about the ground, and I was shocked. They wear dust-coloured shirts and dingy knickerbockers, fastened under the knee, and heavy boots. They strike the English eye as being attired for football, or a gladiatorial combat, rather than a summer game. The very close-fitting caps, with large peaks, give them picturesquely the appearance of hooligans. Baseball is a good game to watch, and in outline easy to understand, as it is merely glorified rounders. A cricketer is fascinated by their rapidity and skill in catching and throwing. There is excitement in the game, but little beauty except in the long-limbed ‘pitcher,’ whose duty it is to hurl the ball rather further than the length of a cricket-pitch, as bewilderingly as possible. In his efforts to combine speed, mystery, and curve, he gets into attitudes of a very novel and fantastic, but quite obvious, beauty. M. Nijinsky would find they repay study.

One queer feature of this sport is that unoccupied members of the batting side, fielders, and even spectators, are accustomed to join in vocally. You have the spectacle of the representatives of the universities endeavouring to frustrate or unnerve their opponents, at moments of excitement, by cries of derision and mockery, or heartening their own supporters and performers with exclamations of ‘Now, Joe!’ or ‘He’s got them!’ or ‘He’s the boy!’

This interested me partly because I’ve recently been reading Ed Smith’s earliest (and, I think, best, least Gladwellian) book “Playing Hard Ball” (about baseball and its relationship to cricket).  Smith too was surprised by the way in which “unoccupied members of the batting side” get involved in the game, particularly the way that “the dugouts empty” (i.e. the coaches and spare players leap out and square up to each other at moments on dispute on the pitch), but I doubt whether he or any contemporary English observer would be surprised to hear the fieldsmen, let alone the spectators “joining in vocally”.  Brooke, too, might have been less surprised if he had watched his cricket at – say – Bramall Lane.

What divides Brooke from Smith (and most modern writers about cricket) is that he expects to find beauty in the game : Brooke is an aesthete, Smith an intellectual.  Cricket still attracts any number of  intellectuals (often with a political, philosophical, economic or especially statistical bent) but I’d say aesthetes (if there are any left) have shifted their attention elsewhere.  The strain of aestheticism (not always of the purest greenery-yallery kind) that runs through earlier writers about the game such as E. V. Lucas, Edmund Blunden, Cardus (in his earliest Paterian phase) and Dudley Carew (none of them primarily writers about cricket, not even, in his own mind, Cardus) has been extinguished, with Arlott (by no means purely an aesthete, of course) perhaps the last of the breed.  The occasional white-clad figure stills flits to and fro o’er the greensward in the twilight, but to general derision.

As a footnote, it is interesting that Brooke pays so much attention to the baseball players’ outfits (“The very close-fitting caps, with large peaks, give them picturesquely the appearance of hooligans” is prescient).  Brooke’s own choice of leisurewear was described thus by Margaret Lavington in a 1915 memoir:

In those days he always dressed in the same way: cricket shirt and trousers and no stockings; in fact “Rupert’s mobile toes” were a subject for the admiration of his friends.”

This appears to be his costume in the Rugby statue and presumably, in the best-known depictions of him, that loose-fitting, soft collared poetical shirt is actually his cricket shirt.  Would a modern Brooke care to be seen in public in, say, the current England one-day strip, let alone some of the monstrous creations in polyester that have been foisted on our County sides in recent years (socks or no socks)?  I think not.  Not that I’m suggesting that this is why our latter-day aesthetes have fled the cricket field, but clearly it can’t help matters.

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