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The Second-Most Famous Poem About Baseball

About midday on July 12, 1910, in the midst of yet another fevered pennant race between the Chicago Cubs and New York Giants, a young scribbler named Franklin Pierce Adams had just wrapped up his column, "All in Good Humor," for the New York Evening Mail, and was about to head uptown for ballgame at the Polo Grounds.

A phone call from the composing room stopped him short. His copy for that afternoon’s edition, a pressman barked out, was eight lines short! Not to worry, the ever-ready Adams assured his typesetters. Eight lines coming right up.

A man of “biting, brilliant wit,” F.P.'s daily handiwork regularly mixed in stray bits of gossip, wisecracks, and clever poems, including many submitted by his readers. He would one day claim a charter seat at the Algonquin Round Table, matching bon mots daily with the likes of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Harpo Marx, and other quick-thinking aphorists of that era. Adams was also a rabid baseball fan—and, as a transplant from Chicago, remained ever-faithful to his hometown Cubs. His deadline looming down, F.P. looked around for a quick hook to fill the hole in his column. He had seen the morning papers and wire reports on a game played way across the country the day before, between his Cubs and Giants at Chicago West Side Grounds, their home before Wrigley Field. The two teams were fierce rivals and had been for many years. But the Cubs, on their way to another National League pennant—the fourth in five years—had frustrated the New Yorkers once again, this time by a score of 4-2. A key point in the grudge match turned out to be a nifty defensive play by the Cubs in the top half of the eighth inning—a rally-killing double play, as you might now guess, from shortstop to second to first. Buried in the box score, next to the agate notation for Double Plays, jumped out the providential words: Tinker to Evers to Chance. Adams quickly turned out a snatch of improvised doggerel worthy of the Algonquin crowd, mocking the despair that his New York cronies felt whenever a ground ball landed within range of Chicago’s slick infield combo: shortstop Joe Tinker, second baseman Johnny Evers, and first baseman Frank Chance. “That Double Play Again,” which Adams later retitled, “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon,” was an immediate, nationwide sensation. Adam’s good friend and poetic protégé, Grantland Rice, reprinted it in the Nashville Tennessean, as did many other sports editors around the country. Would-be rhymesters among them followed Rice’s lead and attached their own hasty stanzas in Adams’ meter and cadence. They sent the rebuttals back to F.P. via their newspaper telegraph exchange, and he dutifully reprinted them in the Mail and added his own variations on the theme. This summertime merry-go-round kept up for weeks, a 1910 version of “viral” social media.

The Algonquin Roundtable by Al Hirschfeld (1962). F.P. Adams is on the far right.

A century later, “Lexicon” remains the second most famous poem about baseball, after “Casey at the Bat.” But unlike “Casey,” a nineteenth-century shaggy dog story about a fictional slugger’s inglorious strikeout, Adams’ ditty uses a different kind of irony to celebrate three living ballplayers and their sport’s newfound claim as the “national pastime.” From 1906 through 1910, the Cubs of Tinker, Evers, and Chance established an assembly line of victories, a veritable baseball machine, and as Adams’s poem suggests, the singsong sequence of their names became synonymous with the twentieth-century notion of “smooth and ruthless efficiency.”

The phrase "Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance" eventually became an American idiom as expressive—and as ubiquitous—as “slam dunk” is today, conveying much the same meaning. And F.P.'s bizarre use of the obscure “gonfalon” — medieval Italian for banner, or flag, with pointed streamers — neatly anchors his allusion to “pennant fever.”

The story of Tinker and Evers and Chance is a tale of how the Chicago Cubs came to capture their followers and then hold them in such undying allegiance through a century of frustration and repeated failures.

In eight quick lines and one unforgettable refrain, F.P. Adams managed to capture a piece of the American psyche and hand down a manifesto for an epic American saga. As the Evening Mail’s managing editor, Theophilus England Niles, said to Grantland Rice at the time, “Frank may write a better piece of verse, but this is the one he’ll be remembered for.”

Note: The poem's image above is a reproduction of the original as it appeared in the Evening Mail of July 12, 1910 (courtesy of my friend and fellow Cubs fan Jack Bales). Read all about F.P. Adams's favorite team in Tinker to Evers to Chance: The Chicago Cubs and the Dawn of Modern America, to be released in April by the University of Chicago Press.

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