The Base Stealer
The Base Stealer
Robert Francis 1948
Robert Francis’ “The Base Stealer,” a poem about baseball which was published in Francis’ 1976 volume Robert Francis: Collected Poems, captures a moment poised between two states—an instant of developing action, of leaving one condition and entering another. By describing a base runner, Francis might be describing any experience in which a person is “pulled both ways”; he describes the sense of past and future that enter into such a moment and the heightened sense of life that is felt in the flux of “becoming.” The poem’s situation is made clear by the title. In baseball, a runner on base is entitled to advance to the next base at his own discretion. This may happen even if the batter does not hit the ball—when the runner tries to “steal” the base. The art of base stealing depends on the runner’s ability to perfectly time the pitcher’s delivery to the plate. If the runner breaks too soon, the pitcher may catch him, throwing to a fielder instead of to the plate. If the runner breaks too late, the catcher may throw him out at the next base. Thus, the base-stealer’s success is determined less by his speed than by his perception, confidence, and cunning. To shorten his route to the next base, the runner takes a “lead” off of the base he currently occupies—that is, he steps away from the base, cheating up the baseline. This is a dangerous place to be: if the pitcher is quick enough, he can “pick off” the runner by throwing to the base the runner is cheating away from. In short, the moment just before base stealing is a tense one, a battle of nerves between the runner and the pitcher. Like many of life’s experiences, it is also a battle between the runner and himself, a test of his poise and daring. It is this moment that the poem examines.
Francis was born in Upland, Pennsylvania, on August 12, 1901, to Ebenezer and Ida May Allen Francis. He graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in 1923 and a master’s degree in education in 1926. Shortly thereafter he moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, where he taught high school for a year before devoting himself full-time to writing poetry. Francis received his doctorate from the University of Massachusetts in 1970. Among the awards and recognition he received for his work were the Shelley Memorial Award in 1938 and the Brandeis University Creative Arts Award in poetry in 1974. He was a Phi Beta Kappa poet at Tufts University in 1955 and at Harvard University in 1960. He was a Rome Fellow of the Academy of Arts and Letters, 1957–58, and he received a fellowship award from the Academy of American Poets in 1984. Francis died at age 85 on July 13, 1987, in Northampton, Massachusetts. The University of Massachusetts Press established the Juniper Prize for Poetry in Francis’ honor in the late 1980s.
Poised between going on and back, pulled
Both ways taut like a tightrope-walker,
Fingertips pointing the opposites,
Now bouncing tiptoe like a dropped ball 5
Or a kid skipping rope, come on, come on,
Running a scattering of steps sidewise,
How he teeters, skitters, tingles, teases,
Taunts them, hovers like an ecstatic bird,
He’s only flirting, crowd him, crowd him,
Delicate, delicate, delicate, delicate—now! 10
Both the language and images of the first three lines convey the sense of balance, of being “poised between” two contrary states. When a runner takes his lead away from the base, he enters a dangerous region, a no-man’s land between the security of one base and the promise of the next. If the pitcher tries to “pick off” the runner—if he throws to the base
- Short stories about baseball are featured on two audiocassettes in the package Selected Shorts Celebrates Baseball, recorded live at Symphony Space Center in New York City in 1991. Included on the recording are Robert Francis’ “Pitcher” and “The Base Stealer.”
- “The Base Stealer” is included on the three-album set from 1973 titled Readings and Dramatizations for Communicating, released by D. C. Heath and Co. of Lexington Massachusetts.
- “The Base Stealer” is also included with “Mom’s Revenge” on a short audiocassette from Educational Sensory Programming in Jones-boro, Arkansas.
- In 1994, documentary film maker Ken Burns produced a series for the Public Broadcasting System about the history of the sport. Titled simply Baseball, it is available as a nine-tape video package from PBS Home Video. It has also been adapted to a four-tape audiocassette package from Random House Audio.
- Robert Francis Reads His Poems is available on a record by Folkways, released in 1975.
from which the runner has taken his lead—then the runner must dive back to safety. If the pitcher decides to throw to the plate, then the runner may dash for the next base. In the present state, however, the runner is neither “on base” nor a “base stealer”: he is “poised between going on and back.” This state is akin to being “pulled both ways taut”—the four consecutive stressed syllables conveying the heightened tension—“like a tightrope walker.” The simile implies not only balance and danger but also the runner’s physical appearance: his arms stretched at his side, his body in a state of rigid intensity. Similarly, the description of the way he holds his hands offers symbolic meaning as well as a pictorial image: his fingertips point “the opposites,” one toward the base he is leaving, one toward the base he is trying to steal.
The poet’s use of meter here enhances the comparison between the runner and a bouncing ball. Like the ball, he springs on his toes, and the alternating stressed and unstressed syllables in the phrase “bouncing tiptoe” are a sonic imitation of such motion. The second half of the simile—“or like a kid skipping rope”—adjusts the sense of the first. While a bouncing ball unconsciously submits to the forces of nature, each succeeding rebound smaller than the last, the rope-skipper must infuse energy into each jump: a test of will similar to the athlete’s. Thus, Francis adds the invocation at the end of Line 5: “come on, come on.” Its repetition conveys the internal voice of the runner, his attempt to urge himself (as well as the action of the game) to the climactic moment. Its unstressed-stressed rhythm also echoes the bouncing sound of the previous line.
The sideways steps of Line 6 suggest perhaps the movements of a crab. In Line 8, however, the runner is described as hovering “like an ecstatic bird.” In either image, the comparison suggests the quick, instinctive motions of an animal. Again, the meter reverts to the stressed-unstressed rhythm of bouncing: “teeters, skitters, tingles, teases, / taunts them, hovers.” Now, however, the building momentum is “ecstatic,” an embodiment of the surging excitement just before the moment of decision. While the tightrope and rope-skipping metaphors of lines 2 and 5 convey the feeling that danger possesses the upper hand, now it is the runner who has gained control of the situation, taunting and teasing the pitcher. This teasing is part of the base-runner’s technique: he hopes that by “flirting” with the pitcher’s mind he will force the pitcher into making a mistake. One such mistake would be to “crowd” the batter—that is, to pitch the ball so close to the batter that the catcher’s throw to the base would be obstructed. In the final line-and-a-half, the poem descends entirely into the runner’s mind. The outer world has dissolved; the runner is merely waiting for the proper moment to make his dash. That wait is conveyed in four consecutive dactyls—“delicate, delicate, delicate, delicate”— followed by a pause, represented by the dash, and the final monosyllabic moment of action: “Now!” Though the reader never learns whether the runner is safe or out, the internal experience is over; the rest is purely a matter of speed. The runner has gone from potential to action, from a would-be base stealer to the actual base stealer of the title.
Limitations and Opportunity
“The Base Stealer” presents a baseball player who is held suspended by limitations, ready to be thrown out by the pitcher if he wanders the slightest bit too far in either direction. Still, he recognizes the fact that his opportunity to steal the next base will come up at any moment, as it, in fact, does in the last line of the poem. As it is in many of life’s circumstances, his limitations pull him in two opposite directions, bringing him to a dead halt in terms of backward or forward motion. He is “poised” almost like an inanimate object. The player knows that his opportunity is coming soon, and this fact is expressed in his up-and-down motion, in the way that he bounces “like a dropped ball, / Or a kid skipping rope,” to keep his energy level up so that he will be ready to move fast, as soon as he gets his chance.
The repetition of the word delicate in the last line serves to define just how limited the base stealer is and how narrow is his window of opportunity. Each time that the word is used, readers are reminded that he is ready to go, which in turn serves as a reminder of the forces that are stopping him. A base runner waiting for the single right opportunity can be seen as a metaphor for life. People act and react all of the time; but if each decision were weighed with a poet’s careful sense of precision, then one could determine that only one opportunity for action is the right one. The base runner in this poem shows a sense of humor and a spirit of fun about what he is doing, but, even so, the choice of when to move holds his complete concentration.
There is nothing in “The Base Stealer” that would give readers a sense of permanence. The poem is a meditation on the transitory nature of things and on how life’s basic, impermanent nature is captured by the rules of the game of baseball. The base runner in this poem has no option to stay where he is but is instead “poised between going on and back” for the brief segment of time that Francis has captured here. The musical words used in line 7—“teeters, shutters, tingles, teases”—have a lively tone to them, implying the runner’s kinetic energy. Even though the runner does not take any positive action until the last line of the poem, his action is anticipated in the middle with the impatient “come on, come on” that ends line 5. The whole poem gives readers a sense of anticipation,
Topics for Further Study
- Write a short poem that gives a concentrated description of an athlete or artist performing his or her specific craft.
- This poem repeats the word delicate three times at the end to draw out the tension. What other techniques does it use to heighten tension? How successful do you think they are?
- Citing sports experts, explain the statistical odds for or against successful base stealing and why some runners are better at it than others.
- Compile a collection of base stealing anecdotes from various baseball memoirs.
- Robert Francis was a protégé of the great American poet Robert Frost. Choose one of Frost’s poems, and find techniques that resemble those Francis used here, developing your own theory about Frost’s influence on Francis.
of waiting for the runner to change a situation that cannot be sustained for one second longer.
The pitcher, who is trying to keep the situation stable by keeping the runner motionless, is working for permanence. “Crowd him” is baseball slang for throwing the ball to the base that the runner is supposed to be on, forcing him to stay close to the base so that he will not be able to steal the next one. While baseball is usually thought of as a duel between the pitcher and the batter, this poem reminds readers that, in addition to pitching, pitchers must keep an eye on the base runners to keep them in a stable position. The runners are bound to move eventually, but for the short time that he is in control of the ball the pitcher works to keep the base runners solidly fixed in place.
This poem’s success stems from the fact that it not only brings time to a standstill but also makes readers impatient for this standstill to break. From the very start, the base runner is poised, frozen. In some poems, the author will stop action to examine one isolated moment in time to study and savor what is going on. Here, though, the runner’s zeal to get time running once more is passed on to the reader.
It is clear from the very first line that the runner is anxious for time to start. He is described as “pulled / Both ways taut,” implying that inaction is agony to him. Furthermore, the other nervous motions that he makes clearly indicate that he wants things to move along. In the last line, each use of the word delicate serves to pause the action a little longer, letting the poem’s static energy build up an almost unbearable pressure before time starts again with a burst of energy, after the dash, with the word now.
Success and Failure
Any sporting competition is about success and failure, but, as an old adage explains, winning and losing are less important than how the game is played. In the example given in this poem, the base runner shows a sense of light-hearted playfulness, even while at some level he is taking his task seriously. Francis describes him as a bird, then, from the point of view of the opposing team, dismisses his abundant energy as “only flirting.” In a strictly competitive sense, his action is not at all like flirting but is meant to distract the players on the other team and to assure his confidence in his success and their failure. To see it as flirting is to look at the base stealer’s constant motion in a broader scope, as a strategy to get members of the other team to forget the competition involved and to think of the broader entertainment. Even though he seems focused on winning, the base runner does not seem too anxious about the outcome of the game: his flashy, bouncy demonstration seems to have more to do with childish fun than success. The calculated abruptness that he moves with in the end is a clear indication that he has indeed been focused on a successful steal all along, even when his attention seemed to wander.
“The Base Stealer” is written in ten lines of varying length, meter, and sound. While its form might seem erratic and even messy, a close examination reveals the tight control the poet exerts over both the sense and structure of the poem. One measure of this control is Francis’ frequent use of lines written in dactylic meter—that is, lines in which the predominant rhythmic unit consists of one stressed followed by two unstressed syllables. For an example of dactylic meter, consider the poem’s third line. If we divide the dactyls from one another and mark the unstressed and stressed syllables, the line appears like this:
Finger tips / pointing the / opposites
Reading the line naturally, notice the emphasis on the stressed syllables. Dactylic meter gives the poem an energetic, nervous rhythm—the rhythm of an “ecstatic bird” (Line 8)—suggested in the descriptions of the base stealer. This nervousness, however, is balanced by other rhythms that suggest that the runner’s energy is also carefully controlled. To see how the poet balances different types of meter, look at the line that follows the one above: “Now bouncing tiptoe like a dropped ball.” The first two syllables of it are stressed—a heavier, more controlled meter—but the second, third, and fourth syllables alternate in stress, conveying the bouncing action of a ball.
In 1948, America was just starting to regain its composure and to settle into a routine of life that it had not known for almost two decades. The country had been distracted since the 1920s, first by hard economic times and then by its role in the single greatest global military conflict of the twentieth century. In 1929 there was a stock market crash, with stocks losing more than $50 billion in value in the following two years, causing the worst and longest economic depression in the nation’s history. The prolonged period of business failures and high unemployment lasted throughout the 1930s and was only controlled when American production was stepped up to help European allies fight in World War II, which began in 1939. In 1941, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States was drawn into the war; and the war effort consumed the nation’s attention and resources until its end in 1945. The Depression had cost most Americans a sense of economic stability they may have once taken for granted, as they faced levels of poverty that most people would find unthinkable today. The war had depleted the population with its 407,316 deaths and another 607,846 wounded soldiers returning home to their families.
Postwar America was marked by prosperity and leisure. The factories and distribution chains that had been running at full capacity for the war effort switched almost immediately to consumer goods, and, with the spell of the depression broken, Americans had the money to buy the products that were available. Electrical conveniences that became common for the first time in the years after the war included refrigerators, toasters, dishwashers, washing machines, dryers, and televisions. Many of these had existed in the twenties and thirties, but only the wealthiest households could afford them. After the war, however, methods of mass production made them available to members of the growing American middle class. Millions of Americans were suddenly in a position not only to buy more merchandise but also to buy homes where they could keep their new possessions. In the years after World War II, the suburbanization of the United States flourished, with relatively inexpensive houses being built within developments surrounding major cities to accommodate the young men and women who were returning from the war and preparing to start families. This new prosperity gave young families the confidence that they would be able to support large families; and in the years from 1946 to 1960 America experienced one of the greatest increases in population it had ever known, producing the generation that has been dubbed the “Baby Boom.”
Baseball and Integration
Because most able-bodied males were pulled into the war effort, major league baseball lagged from 1941 to 1945, getting by with players who had been excluded from military duty because of age or disabilities that left them just barely able to function on the field. The players were in no way equal to the feats of the giants of the game that fans could remember from the 1930s, such as Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Hank Greenberg, but the sport was still the national pastime. The news of the league standings served to raise the patriotic spirits of servicemen overseas who needed reminders of their simple lives back home.
After the war, the quick rise of television ownership helped a new generation of fans to follow games that they were unable to attend. Major league baseball reached new heights, as a slew of seasoned professionals, who had been introduced to fans during their rookie years in the 1930s, all reentered the league at once, giving the pennant races a sudden jolt of excitement. The thrill of seeing old heroes again, such as Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio, was heightened by the fact that the quality of ball playing suddenly became much better.
Compare & Contrast
- 1948: Baseball is the national pastime. Businesses slow down when the World Series is being played, as workers and customers are glued to television and radio broadcasts of the games.
Today: The Super Bowl of football, played on one Sunday in January, draws more millions of television viewers than the World Series, which is spread out across four to seven games.
- 1948: Baseball great Babe Ruth, retired since 1935, dies. An estimated 75,000 to 100,000 mourners file past his casket at Yankee Stadium to pay their respects.
Today: Ruth’s accomplishments on the field are remembered less than his scandalous personal life.
- 1948: There are one million U.S. homes with televisions, having increased from five thousand just three years earlier.
Today: Ninety-eight percent of U.S. homes (96 million total) have at least one color television.
- 1948: The country is at the start of anti-communist hysteria. In the following years, the fear that communist spies would forward important defense secrets to Russia leads to congressional investigations that cost many public figures in sports and entertainment their jobs, as old associations make fans doubt their patriotism.
Today: The Soviet Union no longer exists, but there is some worry about military secrets making their way into the hands of communists in China.
- 1948: Racial segregation is common, especially in the south. President Truman goes before Congress to ask for new laws that will outlaw lynchings and discriminatory practices.
Today: Discrimination on grounds of race is a crime. Violent acts motivated by race are prosecuted under hate crime laws.
Pitchers were throwing faster, batters were slugging harder, and base runners were more nimble; and they were able to bring youthful energy and cockiness back into the competition.
If baseball seemed renewed, though, there was still one area in which it was mired in the past, and that was in the invisible lines that barred players of color from participating in the all-white major leagues. There had been a Negro league in America since the late nineteenth century, but white audiences knew little of the players who played for them and seldom went out to see them play.
World War II had prepared the way for an integrated league. There were several factors involved that made integration seem inevitable. Though the army had been segregated, black soldiers had been enlisted to serve in black brigades. As a result, more whites had come to know blacks, during the war, better than ever before. They had seen that African Americans did not fit the negative stereotypes that had been circulated about them and had, in many cases, learned to trust their professionalism. The reverse perspective was also relevant. Black soldiers who had served in Europe had seen societies, such as in France, where race was treated as being hardly important, and that made it hard for them to return to America and accept second-class citizen status. During the war, many blacks who were not in the service had migrated to large cities, where industries needed as many workers as they could get, relaxing the rigid social boundaries that had once prevailed. America was still a segregated country, especially in the south, but the basic fear and distrust that fuelled segregation had been weakened during an era of mutual cooperation. While major league baseball was filled with men excused from military service during the war, it was hard for anyone to deny that the country’s most talented players were found in the Negro league.
In 1947, Brooklyn Dodgers’ executive Branch Rickey broke the color line by promoting Jackie Robinson from the minor league to play for his team. It was more than a step in advancing the game; it was a step for human rights across the country. As J. Ronald Oakley explains it in Base-ball’s Last Golden Age: 1946-1960, Rickey prepared Robinson for the task before promoting him, explaining that “good ballplaying would not, in itself, be enough. It would take courage, drive, guts, tolerance, and almost superhuman self-control. He would be the target of beanballs, raised spikes on the base path, curses and racial slurs from opposing players and fans, and other physical and verbal assaults.” Robinson was a rare individual in that he could keep his composure even when faced with death threats and insults. He was an outstanding ballplayer, which was necessary of such a ground-breaker: any weakness in his playing ability would have been seized by bigots as proof that blacks were inferior players. He finished his rookie season with a .297 average, 125 runs batted in, and a respectable 12 home runs. He was an aggressive and cunning base runner, leading the league with 29 stolen bases.
While the reputation of Robert Francis has been overshadowed by that of Robert Frost, the poet with whom he has most often been compared, those critics who have looked closely into Francis’ work note the formal care and craftsmanship that often borders on the experimental. Thematically, they observe that Francis’ poems often explore extreme internal states such as the one captured in “The Base Stealer.” Michael True writes that the core of Francis’ poems contain the “inevitability of fate,” of “events or lives working themselves out and revealing what has to be.” He argues that “Francis is fascinated with human beings … caught at the moment of peak performance, at the height of their powers,” a quality found in “the athletes he often writes about and whose superior form he imitates.” Howard Nelson comments on Francis’ ability to experiment with form without sacrificing more refined elements found in his characteristic “short, clear, meditative, lyrical poem.” In Francis’ verse, Nelson writes, the reader cannot help notice “the clarity, the subtle lustre of the language. The poems have certainly been polished, but toward a greater transparence and directness rather than glittering effects.” While Francis’ language is fresh and exact, Nelson argues, “it rarely stops the reader in his tracks, not for over-cleverness, nor obscurity, nor even a sudden stab of power.” Rather, the strength of the poems lies in Francis’ unwillingness to “sacrifice the moment of clarity . . . for complicated phrases or images.”
Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and scriptwriting at Oakton Community College and College of Lake County in Illinois. In the following essay, he examines how Robert Francis uses poetic technique sparingly, so that readers of “The Base Stealer” do not concentrate on style.
Baseball and poetry appear to be made for one another—they both are more entertaining for audiences that have a sly, hypersensitive appreciation of what is going on. Unfortunately, this makes both seem a little boring when compared to other, fast-paced entertainments that are available. The best baseball poetry, like the best pitching, fielding, and baserunning, finesses its audience so calmly that they leave it knowing the facts of what has transpired and experiencing a feeling, but with no real sense of how that feeling came over them.
Usually, poets writing about baseball can rely heavily on the game’s natural tension when they want to create an interesting dynamic. The simplest and most obvious example of this is in the most famous baseball poem of all, “Casey at the Bat,” which raises the reader’s emotional involvement with each pitch thrown, proclaiming the batter’s in-vulnerability right up to the moment that mighty Casey is struck out. “Casey” holds its readers with a good story, but poetry needs more than just a good story.
One of the best baseball poets ever was Robert Francis, who produced his most memorable works on the subject from the 1940s through the 1960s, a time span when the game reached its height of popularity. Francis was a skillful but little-noticed New England writer and teacher. His poetry was often meticulous, the sort of careful, studious work that one expects of a longtime academic. It would be too simple to think it strange to mix poetry and baseball. Only the most snobbish of intellectuals would claim that baseball, being a popular sport, is a surprising choice of subject for educated word-play. Wrestling and NASCAR racing might be too coarse and obvious to bother writing about carefully,
“Poets have no more business drawing attention to themselves than individual players do.
Writing about poetry is like being part of the team.”
but baseball, like poetry, becomes more mystifying to people as they mature, and at some point in life the two subjects tend to converge.
Francis’ reputation as a fine baseball writer rests firmly on two poems. The one with the most obvious style is “Pitcher,” which looks like a poem when it is printed on the page. It is constructed of five couplets, several of them nearly rhyming, and the last one having a solid, definite rhyme. It has an iambic pentameter meter, which is the simplest and most common meter a poet could use. “Pitcher” shows terrific control on the part of the poet and an almost incidental sense of fun. These are, not coincidentally, qualities that befit a good pitcher, making the poem’s style appropriate to its subject. Francis’ other great baseball poem is “The Base Stealer.” This one is less obvious about the craft involved, leading casual readers to think that its appeal might be rooted solely in its subject matter.
“The Base Stealer,” in fact, uses techniques so subtle that they are not readily noticed. Its text tells the story of an on-base runner, trying to decide just how much he can lead off the base he is supposed to be on. If he goes far enough, he might be able to steal the next base during the course of the next pitch, especially if the catcher has any trouble controlling the ball. If he leads off too far, though, he can be caught vulnerable between the bases. Like “Casey at the Bat,” there is inherent drama that comes from the rules of the game, a situation that could tilt in either direction, toward victory or defeat, within a moment’s time.
This life on the edge, with an uncertain result, is the stuff drama is made of; and a mediocre writer could keep readers enthralled with just the facts of the case. Francis imbued the poem with enough style to squeeze more out of the story.
There is no particular poetic meter to “The Base Stealer.” The lines are not tightly bound to one particular length but are varied—not wildly, but still they are not standardized enough for easy analysis. The majority of lines are nine syllables, and the dominant meter is the three-syllable dactyl, which has a rhythm of stressed-unstressed-un-stressed. Three and nine are significant numbers in baseball: three strikes per out, three outs per inning, nine innings per game, etc. To draw a connection out of this coincidence, though, would be a stretch. Even if the poem had been rigidly, mathematically structured in all threes and nines, readers would still not come away from it with any greater feel for what baseball is all about. The subconscious mind does not process such abstract relationships as numbers; and it is unlikely that the rules of baseball would translate to meaning in a poem in such an obscure way.
What is significant about the dactyl rhythm is not that it happens to occur in groups of three, but that it has the rolling rhythm of tribal drums. The stressed-unstressed-unstressed pattern has a rousing, foot-stamping motion that crowds in huge stadiums sometimes use to stir up excitement and anticipation. In “The Base Stealer,” the predominance of dactyls keeps the poem rolling along, while the fact that this rhythm is not absolute, but breaks often, keeps the piece from feeling like a formal presentation where the outcome is predetermined. For instance, the start of the first line follows the dactyl pattern so clearly that its rhythm could be accompanied on a tom-tom drum: “Poised be-tween going on. . . .” After those first two dactyls, though, the rhythm falls apart, allowing for chance and random occurrence in the poem.
Even without a set, recognizable pattern, rhythm is important to this poem. Rhythm is repetition, usually but not always sustained over a long period of time. Even readers who know almost nothing about poetry can see the repetitions that Francis uses here. Most obvious are the repeated phrases, which take readers, with no prior explanation, into the mind of the base runner. “Delicate,” at the end of the poem, draws out the tension, fading as the runner becomes lost in thought, obsessed with just a single idea. Rhythmically, the poem’s last line is interesting because it has “delicate” four times instead of three, making it thirteen syllables, significantly longer than the others; the reader’s patience is taken to the point of exhaustion and then beyond. The other example of repeated words takes place at the middle of the poem, in line 5: “come on, come on.” It, of course, works to stir up the reader’s anticipation, to point out the fact that nothing has really yet happened at this point, and to remind readers that they wish something would. With boring poems, readers might notice themselves thinking, “come on, come on,” when they reach the middle, but in this case Francis is actually trying to provoke an impatience that is almost similar to boredom.
Those are the cases of repetition that are obvious, because they use the same words over and again. It is in the use of less obvious types of repetition that a poet earns praise or derision. For instance, the list of words in line 7—“teeters, skitters, tingles, teases”—certainly has its own rhythm. The words all share the t sound and have either a hard e or a soft i. Perhaps more important, though, is the sense of the words. They sound silly, made-up. These are not words one uses to describe something with scientific precision; they are words that remind readers of the playfulness of the game.
Throughout the entire poem, Francis uses sound repetition to establish that the poet is in control. It is less obvious than using a rhythmic pattern, which beginning poets are trained to look for. Working with individual sounds puts him on par with scientists who work at the microscopic level. The most obvious sound throughout the piece is the t sound. Since this is one of the most frequently occurring letters in the language, a skeptical reader might think that all of the ts that show up in the poem just happen to be in words that Francis wanted to use. The test is in the words that could easily have been left out, such as “tiptoe,” and the conspicuous bunchings, such as “taut like a tightrope-walker.” The next most frequent sound is the letter s, as in the phrase “a scattering of steps sideways.” These two sounds have opposite effects—t is sharp, s is soft—and neither sound in itself changes readers’ sense of what is going on in “The Base Stealer.” The overall effect of these repetitions is not what any one technique does, though, but the fact that they exist at all. They serve to remind readers that there is more to this poem than just the story of the base runner; there is also the way in which the story is being told.
A baseball poem should not be very flamboyant. It should be interesting and convey to readers the delicate action of the game. Poets have no more business drawing attention to themselves than individual players do. Writing about poetry is like being part of the team. Robert Francis’ “The Base Stealer” is subdued and careful, with no need to insist that readers pay attention to its control of the situation. In telling its story so carefully and well, the poem takes readers into the situation it is describing, giving them a trip to the ballpark in the course of ten short lines.
What Do I Read Next?
- Perhaps one of the most famous baseball poems is Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s 1888 piece “Casey at the Bat.” It has been published with illustrations by Barry Moser in a deluxe 1999 edition by David R. Godine publishers.
- The Collected Poems of Robert Francis, 1936–1976 is available in a reprint edition from the University of Massachusetts Press, 1986.
- Red Smith was one of the greatest sports writers of all time, with a career that spanned from 1941 to 1981. No less than 167 of his columns about the national pastime, written with insight and grace, are collected in Red Smith on Baseball.
- Francis was a great friend of the poet Robert Frost. A series of interviews between the two men was published in 1972 under the title Frost: A Time to Talk; Conversations and Indiscretions Recorded by Robert Francis, by the University of Massachusetts Press.
- One of the best recent anthologies of baseball poetry is Hummers, Knucklers, and Slow Curves: Contemporary Baseball Poetry, edited by Don Johnson, with an introduction by W. P. Kinsella, who writes frequently about baseball.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on “The Base Stealer,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Walker teaches courses in poetry and fiction at the University of Washington. In the following essay, he considers the feet of “The Base Stealer.”
When baseball enthusiasts talk about a “great at-bat,” they usually mean that the batter has fought off a number of tough pitches. He may have been jammed on a fastball, fooled on a slider, but he’s managed to foul each away, extending his stay at the plate. Finally he finds a pitch he likes—a breaking ball, say, that does not quite break—and he lines it into the left-field seats. The length of the
“So the poet is able to give readers the slight sense that time is being extended, without breaking the poem’s rhythm or throwing off its balance. And balance is everything, whether someone is a poet, a base stealer, a tightrope walker, or a kid skipping rope. It allows a person to stay on his feet, to stay alert to the untowardness of things.”
at-bat has depended on the batter’s resourcefulness. As it is with baseball, so it may be with poetry. In “The Base Stealer,” Francis keeps the reader in a state of anticipation—pushing the poem to the right, to the left—before allowing the work (a single sentence, containing sixty-four words and nineteen commas) to blast forward.
In the Introduction to his Collected Poems, Francis calls some of his later works “positively frisky.” A glance at The Orb Weaver, Francis’ fifth volume of poetry (published in 1960, just before the poet’s sixtieth birthday), bears out this judgment. In this book, “The Base Stealer” is bracketed by two poems, “Pitcher” and “Catch.” In each poem, the game of baseball serves as a stand-in for the game of poetry. The pitcher’s “art is eccentricity”; his passion, like the poet’s, is “how to avoid the obvious.” Two boys playing catch represent the poet and the reader; the poet keeps the reader off-balance by tossing the poem “overhand, underhand, backhand, sleight of hand, every hand.” (And if the phrase “every hand” sounds odd, consider the following passage from Francis’ autobiography, The Trouble with Francis. Railing against those who see life as a series of black-and-white choices, the poet asks, “Which hand do I choose? I choose both.
Or, I choose neither. I choose a third hand whose very existence you are ignorant of and would deny were possible.” These poems are frisky because language, at its best, is frisky. It moves like a base stealer; it “teeters, skitters, tingles, teases.”
“The Base Stealer” is a free verse poem; it follows no fixed metrical pattern. But Francis is playing a different game. He uses tumbling rhythms and quick cuts, rather than rhyme and meter, to give his poem tension and momentum. Consider the third line: “Fingertips pointing the opposites.” The line can be broken into three rhythmic units (Fingertips / pointing the / opposites), with the first syllable of each unit, or foot, emphasized. In metric verse, these feet are called dactyls. The dactyls in line three cause the poem to lunge forward; but the base stealer is not yet ready to take off, so Francis reins him in with a word that delays forward movement: “opposites.” The dactyls reappear in line six (“Running a / scattering”) and, most strikingly, in the final line (“Delicate, / delicate, / delicate, / delicate”), where the surge of energy, the rush of fleet feet, finally causes the poem to pop.
In “Juniper,” a poem from an earlier volume, Francis writes, “Poets / Are rich in points of view if they are rich / In anything.” Twice in “The Base Stealer,” Francis shifts the point of view mid-line: first in line five (“come on, come on”), and again in line nine (“crowd him, crowd him”). These interruptions increase the reader’s sense of anticipation: something is about to happen, is even being urged to happen, but the reader must hang on a bit longer. After the poem has been read several times, the second interruption begins to appear inevitable; those whip-crack hard c sounds link the phrases together. “The Base Stealer” is full of sonic echoes: “poised” leads to “pointing”; “kid” leads to “skipping”; “teeters” leads to “teases”; “bird” leads to “flirting.” The lines may not rhyme, but they’re intensely musical. Consider lines six and seven: “Running a scattering of steps sidewise, / How he teeters, skitters, tingles, teases.” In these lines, slithering s sounds meet staccato t sounds—the s sounds urge the action forward, the t sounds counter with stops and starts. The passage vibrates with controlled energy. Francis earned his living, for fifteen years, as a violin teacher; he understands how to draw out a note.
In her essay collection Broken English, poet Heather McHugh writes, “A poem is untoward.” Literally, she’s saying that a poem is difficult to manage, which is true enough. But she’s also claiming something for poetry that Francis would agree with: that it looks in two directions, thinks with two minds. For Francis, a poem is always “going on and back,” as meanings and directions multiply and reverse. “The Base Stealer” pulls its readers in two directions from the start. In fact, the word “pulled,” by its position at the end of the first line, is almost isolated, given special status: a comma frames one side of it, and white space frames the other. The entire poem, until the final word, pulses with potential energy, as the base runner (not yet a base “stealer”) hovers between two possible poles. In the phrase “crowd him, crowd him,” the word “crowd” performs a bit of linguistic hovering. It appears at first to be a verb—part of a player’s exhortation, similar to “come on, come on.” But blink, and it becomes a noun; suddenly the flirting is taking place not only between the pitcher and the base runner but also between the base runner and the crowd. The crowd wants to see some action; the base runner is going to stretch the moment out just a bit longer. Substitute the poet for the base runner, and the readers for the crowd, and part of Francis’ game becomes clear: It is the poet as much as the base runner who holds his spectators in suspense.
It’s often said that baseball is a game of inches. A line drive past first base lands just inside of the foul line; an inning-ending third strike catches the edge of the plate. A great base stealer—a Lou Brock, a Rickey Henderson—knows how large a lead he can take: too much, and he’s picked off; too little, and he’s forced to stay put. The poet’s predicament is similar. He wants to compress language when possible (for opposite directions, Francis writes “opposites”); he wants, at other times, to push language’s boundaries. At the end of “The Base Stealer,” Francis repeats delicate four times. It’s a spree of sorts, but one that’s perfectly controlled. The poem’s first nine lines are all nine or ten syllables long; suddenly, in the final line, Francis stretches the syllable count to thirteen. But the last line is visually no longer than the others, and, like the majority of the poem’s lines, it has only five accented syllables (called “beats”). So the poet is able to give readers the slight sense that time is being extended, without breaking the poem’s rhythm or throwing off its balance. And balance is everything, whether someone is a poet, a base stealer, a tightrope walker, or a kid skipping rope. It allows a person to stay on his feet, to stay alert to the untowardness of things.
Still, every great at-bat, every pitching masterpiece, every base-stealing battle must come to an end. Francis releases the poem’s power at the very last moment—potential energy becomes kinetic, the spring is sprung. “Delicate, delicate, delicate, delicate—now!” Francis writes; and the dash as punctuation mark precedes the dash to the base. Baseball fans know that a game can end that quickly—in a dash or a flash—and the losing players are left cursing beneath their caps. But “The Base Stealer,” in one sense, does not come to an end; Francis stops the action before the runner is called “safe” or “out.” The poem ultimately is not about success or failure on the base paths. It’s about playfulness, improvisation, the act of shifting forward, and the act of shifting back. After Frost died, Francis wrote an elegy for his friend that ends, “He worshipped the Great God of Flow / By holding on and letting go.” It’s in the simultaneity of those expressions, the holding on and the letting go, that poetry lives.
Source: Cody Walker, Critical Essay on “The Base Stealer,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Johnson received her Ph.D. in English from Yale University and currently teaches at Harvard. In the following essay, she examines the ways in which the actions of Francis’ poem and those of the poet are alike.
Robert Francis’ poems often depict figures that are at once still and in motion. As a result, there is a palpable and usually positive tension in many of them. In “The Base Stealer,” first published in book form in the 1960 collection The Orb Weaver, Francis portrays the multiple, intricate actions of a baseball player as he takes a lead from one base and prepares to steal the next. Though the title implies action, the poem itself is almost exclusively concerned with the instants before the central event, when the base stealer prepares himself to execute his duty but does not yet act. With the exception of the final word “now!” the entire work is dedicated to reproducing the increasing sense of expectancy associated with this episode in a ball game. The poem consists of a single sentence contained in one block stanza, and as this sentence lengthens and winds its way through the piece, the poet builds expectation and then thwarts it, only to build it again. The poet starts and stops his poem in tandem with his descriptions of the base runner’s starts and stops, suggesting a meaningful kinship between these two performers.
Mirroring the motions of its subject, “The Base Stealer” advances and retreats with deliberate movements. The first word of the poem is “Poised,” a term whose sound and meaning check the poem’s momentum just as it is getting started. As a verb,
“The rhythm and sound of these lines imitates those of the ballplayer as he constantly adjusts the length of his lead from the base. The multiple syllables in ‘running,’ ‘scattering,’ and ‘sidewise’ appropriately accelerate the pace of the line that is describing sudden movements.”
poised signals action, and yet the man who is poised does not, in fact, move. With this single word, Francis introduces the delicate tension that will characterize the entire piece: even its sound is full and unhurried, further slowing the progress of the line.
The poem then begins to proceed smoothly, only to be interrupted again just before the end of the line and again at its close:
Poised between going on and back, pulled. . . .
The comma after “back” delays the poetic line and represents a pause in the player’s movement. However, the comma does not mark a final stop but a momentary rest, and thus it simultaneously retards the poem and prepares it to continue. After the comma, the base stealer is then “pulled” slowly into the next line. This last word echoes the first, and this similarity draws the ear and the eye back to the beginning of the poem, once more impeding its flow. In addition, the action is suspended by the enjambment in the first line: the end of the poetic line does not coincide with a natural grammatical pause, as it does, for instance, in the second line. This discord between the sense of the words and their arrangement causes a brief lull before the first line tumbles into the second.
As the poem continues, Francis finds other ways to mimic in his verse the actions of the base runner. For instance, the poet writes, “Running a scattering of steps sidewise, / How he teeters, skitters, tingles, teases, / Taunts them. . . .” The rhythm and sound of these lines imitates those of the ballplayer as he constantly adjusts the length of his lead from the base. The multiple syllables in “running,” “scattering,” and “sidewise” appropriately accelerate the pace of the line that is describing sudden movements. However, the pace is more regular and predictable in the next line in which the runner “teeters, skitters, tingles, teases. . . .” In this string of two-syllable words, the strong stress is on the first syllable, and the recurrent t sounds and the commas punctuate the emphasized beats of the line as they alternate with the weak syllables. This rocking rhythm parallels the rocking motion of the base stealer as he leans one way and then the next, trying to distract the pitcher. Francis also uses alliteration to capture the noises of the scene. The s and t sounds are repeated to produce the sound of the base stealer’s feet shuffling along and scraping the infield dirt, as they would when he “steps sidewise.”
Even the number of syllables in each line is significant and contributes to Francis’ goal of mimicking in his verse the actions of the runner. There are nine syllables in each of the first four lines of the poem, ten in lines 5–8, nine in line 9, and thirteen in line 10. This pattern is important because the line length reflects the action that is being described. The poem opens with a nine-beat line, one syllable short of the most common poetic line in formal English verse. As a result, the number of beats in these nine-syllable lines seems curtailed, perhaps symbolizing the careful, clipped motions of the base stealer. In the fifth line of the poem, the line length is extended slightly to the more traditional ten beats to accommodate the growing intensity of the situation. The runner grows impatient, thinking “come on, come on” and silently urging the pitcher to throw toward home plate. In the next few lines, the base stealer gathers confidence and moves further away from the base. Here, the poetic line remains at the longer ten syllables to represent the greater distance between the player and the safe base. However, the line shrinks slightly to nine syllables in line 9 as the runner gathers himself in one more time before exploding toward the next base in the extended final line of thirteen syllables.
While the base stealer and the poet may be largely in control of their respective performances, their movements mean nothing without the presence and interaction of others. The base runner with his arms outstretched “hovers like an ecstatic bird,” but he does not actually leave the ground or abandon the field of play. Likewise, the poet and his ideas may momentarily float over the heads of his readers, but in the end he does not want to lose touch with his audience. Francis characterizes the experience of poetry, in his Pot Shots at Poetry, this way:
Poetry at its best is a highly skilled game a poet plays with life and language, a game that the reader can follow play by play, able to distinguish the brilliant shots from the merely good ones, and the good ones from the poor ones, if any.
According to Francis, poetry is a sport in which at least two people have an impact on the outcome: the poet, who athletically manipulates language and ideas, and the reader, who observes his agility and power. The reader’s role is critical since it is the reader who admires the poet’s talent and who confirms the poet’s ability to place his words efficiently and well.
Few people may think of poetry as a spectator sport, but, by associating the reader with a sports fan, Francis reveals that he sees poetry as an active experience. In all poems, including “The Base Stealer,” there are not merely letters clustered on a page but balls that are “bouncing” and “kid[s] skipping rope.” There is much for an outsider to observe and to cheer. As Francis contends in the prose piece “Two Words,” in poetry words are involved in “intensive interplay,” and, when put together, they “strike sparks” and “breed wonders.” While there may be certain rules and bounds within which it plays itself out, poetry, like sport, can produce the unexpected and the awe-inspiring.
Athletes of several kinds appear in many of Francis’ poems, especially those in The Orb Weaver and Come Out into the Sun. In these works, he explores sports as varied as baseball, running, swimming, diving, wrestling, gymnastics, sailing, and boxing. Although Francis is fond of sports metaphors, themes related to nature are even more common in his poetry. He cherishes the outdoors and shows his devotion by writing about the wind, the moon, meadows, birds, trees, flowers, and other inhabitants of the natural world. But whether writing about waxwings or baseball players, Francis is able to compose poems that are contemplative without being abstract. He confirms that this is his intention in an interview: “My poems confront the actual, recognizable world that we share with one another. However imaginative and original my vision and interpretation of that world, I do not want to lose connection with it.” Francis believes that his link to other people through poetry will be stronger if that connection is rooted in the common, real world.
Like nature, sports are part of the “actual, recognizable world” and therefore make a worthy subject for poetry. But even if Francis wants to be certain that his readers find something familiar in his work, he does not promise to make the reader’s task simple. As he puts it in the poem “Pitcher,” which can be found in The Orb Weaver, he and this baseball player share a “passion how to avoid the obvious.” In “The Base Stealer,” too, Francis depicts an athlete who depends in part upon deception, and the poet himself engages in evasions and offers only partial revelations.
One piece of information that the poet declines to provide is the identity of the base this player is attempting to steal. Stealing second is the most common steal in baseball, but, given that the player has so much freedom of movement and seems able to take a walking lead, it is more likely that he is on second or third and less likely that he is on first. Stealing home is certainly more dramatic, and more difficult, than stealing third, and it would make sense if this base stealer were attempting just that, since stealing home might be the sports equivalent of the “sparks” and “wonders” that Francis trusts poetry to make. Also, when the base runner tells himself to “crowd him, crowd him,” he may be indicating that he is moving physically closer to the pitcher and further into his line of sight, both of which would happen were the pitcher right-handed and were the runner moving down the third base line toward home. Ultimately, however, it is not clear which base the player is aiming for, yet this uncertainty is also fitting: though Francis wants to make his poems intelligible, he does not go so far as to strip his poem of all its mystery. Like any good poet, he prefers, as he writes in “Pitcher,” “to be a moment misunderstood” and to allow ambiguities to remain unresolved.
Perhaps the most compelling information that Francis withholds is the outcome of the play: even though the title would suggest that the runner is successful in his attempt to steal a base, the poet offers no description of the end of the play and presents no confirmation that the player is indeed safe. In the last lines of the poem, Francis loads and then releases a powerful spring: “He’s only flirting, crowd him, crowd him, / Delicate, delicate, delicate, delicate—now!” The base stealer takes one last look at the pitcher and decides that he is “only flirting”; in other words, the pitcher is bluffing and does not intend to throw over to the base runner’s bag. Once the runner has made this determination, he edges away from the base for the last time. He tries to quietly encourage himself as he repeats the word delicate four times. The repetition of this three-syllable word creates a drumroll of anticipation that increases in intensity until it culminates in the runner’s burst toward the next base on the cue, “now!” This final exclamation marks the first moment of a new episode in which the base stealer runs down the line and slides into the base; but Francis has reserved the description of this incident for another time and perhaps for another poem.
Source: Jeannine Johnson, Critical Essay on “The Base Stealer,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Francis, Robert, Collected Poems 1936–1976, University of Massachusetts Press, 1976.
———,Frost: A Time to Talk, University of Massachusetts Press, 1972.
———,The Orb Weaver, Wesleyan University Press, 1960.
———,Pot Shots at Poetry, University of Michigan Press, 1980.
———,The Trouble with Francis, University of Massachusetts Press, 1971.
McHugh, Heather, Broken English, Wesleyan University Press, 1993.
Nelson, Howard, “Moving Unnoticed: Notes on Robert Francis’ Poetry,” in The Hollins Critic, Vol. XIV, No. 4, October 1977, pp. 1–12.
Oakley, J. Ronald, Baseball’s Last Golden Age: 1946–1960, McFarland & Co., 1994, p. 27.
True, Michael, “Books: Collected Poems,” in Commonweal, Vol. CIV, No. 14, July 8, 1977, pp. 441–442.
Conlon, Charles M., Baseball’s Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles M. Conlon, Neil McCabe and Constance McCabe, contributors, Abradale Press, 1997.
Conlon’s photographs make it easy for modern readers to envision what the sport was like when Francis was writing.
Francis, Robert, The Trouble With Francis, University of Massachusetts Press, 1971.
The author’s autobiography highlights his teaching career and his associations with famous writers.
Meyers, Jeffrey, Robert Frost: A Biography, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996.
Francis’ writing is often linked with Frost, his friend and mentor. This is one of the most recent and most comprehensive biographies of Frost.
Wallace, Joseph E., et al., Baseball: 100 Classic Moments in the History of the Game, D. K. Publishing, 2000.
Printed under the supervision of the Baseball Hall of Fame, this book gives readers background information about baseball’s history, in an interesting format.