Baseball Heroes

field-of-dreams-movie-review-1

Baseball Heroes.

It’s either a very good or a very bad week to be an Indians fan. Tonight’s game will vindicate, even as it crushes, longtime and lifelong hopes; I confess I’m not a World Series watcher, or even someone who’s into sports, so I have no stake in whether the Cubs or the Indians wins the thing. I’ll be happy for people I know from Cleveland if Game Seven goes the Indians’ way, but I also know Chicagoans who are fanatics for the Cubs, and I’m happy to be happy for them too. Please don’t be offended that I can’t pretend it matters too much to me.

I am, however, a big booster of the Bidston Indians. What, you’ve never heard of them? Obviously you’re not an aficionado of amateur sporting leagues from Liverpool in the late 1940s. The east-of-the-pond Indians were a ragtag group of ex-RAF soldiers, back from duty abroad, who decided they loved American culture and embraced it in dress and behavior. One of their players was a trumpeter named Ronald; he and his buddies Americanized their names: Ronald became known, and would be known thereafter, as “Ross” – I suppose you can only Americanize so much. Ross McManus (the “a” after the first “M” came later) and company wore yellow socks and secondhand American sports jackets – why their socks were yellow, I have no idea, but so goes the story – and they yearned to be Yankees. Ross’s son tells us, in a book he wrote almost seven decades later, that

…they even started playing baseball in Birkenhead Park in a team called the Bidston Indians and took to standing around in wire-rimmed sunglasses and old USAAF flying jackets with a cartoon Indian painted on the back.

Baseball didn’t exactly take off as a popular sport in England; Merseyside kids don’t seem to have thrilled to the athletic exploits of the Indians; it’s hard to imagine Ross and his pals being seen as celebrities in any sense. It’s not even clear that the games they played were organized enough that the team’s record was kept – at any rate, it’s impossible to say whether they were a good baseball team or a bad one, though it’s probably a safe bet that more time was spent chewing the fat and smoking cigarettes than was ever devoted to formal play on the diamond. One imagines it was more of a social club, a gathering in the sunshine of early-twenties flyboys accustomed to the excitement and camaraderie of military life, looking for a little fun and the frisson of United-States-ness that baseball embodies. Heck, it was probably a lot like being in a rock band a generation later.

We might not even know the Bidston Indians ever existed, if it weren’t for Declan MacManus’s having written about them. He did so twice, once in song and once in prose. The above passage, from his 2015 memoir Unfaithful Music & Invisible Ink, constitutes the entirety of the latter example, and if it seems a little terse and offhand, well, maybe the song will illuminate you further on the subject – though, to be sure, it was never released, and moreover it’s so obscure that it wasn’t until an eagle-eyed fan on an online forum put two-and-two together that some of us even understood what the mishmash of syllables just barely decipherable as “Bidston Indian” was referring to. But “Baseball Heroes,” recorded with his band Flip City in the summer of 1974 – it’s one of their least shaggy and most satisfying recordings – was MacManus’s tribute to the team his father played on in the years before he was born, a Ring Lardner-esque short story in song that does us the favor of putting us on the sidelines in Birkenhead Park, maybe in yellow socks of our own, lazily puffing a cig and watching the team and thinking about life. The emphasis may well be on the second word in its title: it turns these guys, who as I say were probably goofballs or layabouts, into heroes. It’s a song about success, and it’s a song about America, and it’s a song about fathers. Mostly, though, it’s a song about baseball, by a guy who doesn’t seem to know much about baseball.*

6a5f3b09fb599e84e45626799fe8c95e.jpg

Indeed, MacManus seems more interested in team dynamics than in the subtleties of play. His first verse assesses the team clinically, and it’s possible the narrator of the piece, at least at this point in the song, is the Indians’ manager – which makes some sense, given that according to Graeme Thomson’s Costello biography, the song’s genesis was Flip City manager Ken Smith suggesting a title for MacManus to build upon. “Declan took it,” Thomson cracks, “and ran all the way to home base” – which included allowing a Smith-like manager figure to poke his head into the narrative:

Let’s take a look at the situation
Size it up right from the start
The team’s been together just a little too long
They’re a little bit loose and they’ll tear them apart
They were keepin’ the score
When the stake hit the ball
And you might think there’s nothing to gain
For a Bidston Indian, nobody cares if you are losing again…
**

We kick things off with a frank statement, in simple American lingo – the language is reminiscent of Ernest Thayer, perhaps – whose plainspokenness is decidedly foreign to a prolix lyricist like MacManus. He’s offering us someone else’s voice here, full of the flat cadences that America-philes romanticize. Note that once the speaker has cleared his throat with the opening couplet, the description of the game itself that follows is about as precise as it would be if, say, a know-nothing like myself were to try to narrate a ballgame: sure, it may be accurate to say it’s what happens when baseball is played that “they were keeping the score when the stake hit the ball,” but without knowing much about it, I can’t help feeling those phrases are inexactly attuned to the sport’s finer workings.*** What’s intriguing is the language this bit of detail has been couched within, where the speaker assesses the team from a critical standpoint, identifying a problem and engaging in a kind of tough-coach pep talk. “They’ve gotten sloppy,” you can imagine him musing, “because they’ve been playing together too long, and they need something to shake them up…” You can also imagine a certain brand of motivational speech that goes something like: “Nobody cares if you’re losing – they’ll care when you start winning!” But what’s the manager’s proposed solution for the problem? He seems to propose opening up the roster to a new recruit, so he asks the chorus’s central question:

Who wants to be a baseball hero?
Out in the centerfield sun
Sitting on the edge of a hometown ledge
Always waiting for that final run…

He casts his eye over the people assembled to watch the Indians play; he asks them if they’d like to join the team. They’ve been spectators – would they like to be players? Haven’t they had enough of sitting and waiting, expecting something to happen that, proverbially in baseball, takes an awful long time to happen?

The next verse shifts perspective, and it’s one of the folks milling about and watching who takes up the narrative. This guy watches the Indians hit a wild foul ball and muses a little cynically on the entire endeavor:

The ball went up and it didn’t come down
They were sitting by the side of the track
Somebody said, “Did you see that?”
As he pulled a Lucy from a Lucky Strike pack
All of the pitchers and all of the hitters
From listening to the AFN radio
But you don’t snatch the catch
When the glove don’t fit you
If you don’t know Uncle Sam from Uncle Joe…

A ball goes wide, and winds up on a roof perhaps, or somehow embedded in the crook of a tree branch – whatever happens, it’s lost. The other players watch, nonplussed, smoking their American cigarettes, and we get more of that lovely, laconic Yankified voice in “as he pulled a Lucy from a Lucky Strike pack.” And then we’re given a sense of exactly what these Britishers playacting at being Americans really know about baseball: they’ve memorized the names of players from hours spent listening to American Forces Network broadcasts, but everything else, the actual practice of the sport, the entire thing – the yellow socks, the bomber jackets with the Indians on the back, even the baseball gloves themselves – are a costume, not a way of life. They’re fakes. They can’t succeed, or so this speaker says, because they’re not cut out for this. For the record, this is the second opinion the song has offered on why the team isn’t succeeding: it’s not that they’ve “been together a little too long,” as the manager suggested, but that “you don’t snatch the catch when the glove don’t fit.” Of course there are lots of negative and confidence-eroding opinions swirling around the Bidston Indians. Sports, I’m guessing, are a lot like music: everybody’s a critic, perhaps most especially the people out in the stands who couldn’t participate in the event if they wanted to, but who watch avidly and are always coming up with things the players/artists could be doing better. When the chorus comes along this time, you sense that this second speaker is asking the central question with a shrug: “Who wants to be a baseball hero?” he says, rhetorically, and the unspoken answer is something like “nobody in his right mind.”

Then there’s a guitar solo – it’s pretty good, but we’ll talk about the music in a minute – after which we’re given a third verse, with a third speaker. This is MacManus himself, and I have to say, while I’m usually leery of identifying Costello with his speakers, in this case it really does feel like the songwriter has stepped directly into the song: maybe, in a song where MacManus has let his real-life manager play the manager, he feels comfortable allowing his real-life self to play the team’s biggest fan. Because that’s who’s talking here – a Bidston Indians superfan:

Well, I had a dream, it was just the other night
That the Indians were stateside bound
There wasn’t another team who could stay in sight
Or stand a chance of holding them down
Well, they’re all back home and they drifted away
And these days they got too much to lose
But maybe they remember when they said, “I’d like to play,
But I can’t afford no red-and-white shoes…”

This is an extraordinary verse – densely-packed, and rhythmically and structurally complex. Once again, we’re given no sense that MacManus understands baseball at all – “there wasn’t another team who could stay in sight” doesn’t feel the least bit like the way sports fans talk about comparative strength between teams – but nevermind that. What we’re presented with, instead, is a rather lovely portrait of success, or anyway of longing for it. The speaker concedes it’s a dream, but in recounting it he refutes the assessments of both the speakers who preceded him: the Indians, simply by getting out of what in another song MacManus might call “this dead-horse town” and lighting out for America, attain success beyond their wildest imagination. They return – a shift in grammatical mood suggests that the dream has come true, and now they’ve returned in real life from actual success abroad – and their success has estranged them from the fans who loved them from the get-go. Probably they don’t play in Birkenhead Park anymore; probably they play in some other, hypothetical British big-league stadium to roaring crowds filled with johnny-come-latelies. But though they’re on the other side of the yawning gulf of professional triumph, the speaker admires them still: fortune has smiled on them so much that they’ve “got too much to lose.” They’re in the catbird seat, sitting pretty. And yet the speaker, himself at the beginning of his career, likes to think his beloved Bidston Indians haven’t forgotten what it was like before all that adulation came their way, back when they were just like he is now: when they wanted desperately, hungrily, to play ball, but couldn’t even afford the most fundamental part of their uniforms. “Who wants to be a baseball hero?” indeed. The final two iterations of that chorus aren’t a recruitment spiel or a wry eyeroll, as they were before – now they’re MacManus himself, saying that he does. He’s pledging allegiance, to use yet another Americanism. He wants to be a baseball hero. He wants to be a success.

still-of-robert-redford-in-the-natural-(1984)-large-picture.jpg

Which brings us back to something I alluded to a minute ago: the underlying theme of “Baseball Heroes,” which is Flip City’s on-the-bubble status in the music scene. MacManus and his friends in 1974 weren’t playing baseball – as I say, it’s arguable whether Elvis Costello, then or now, had or has any idea how baseball is played – but they were still on a team. Like father Ross, Declan was dressing up in American clothes: early Flip City photo shoots had them wearing outfits designed to make them look like Nashville country-rock outfit Barefoot Jerry; their entire musical agenda was to sound as much as possible like The Band, which is to say they were following in the footsteps of Brinsley Schwarz, who’d been doing much the same thing at least since Silver Pistol; the pub-rock scene they were piggybacking upon emerged from a weekly London residency by San Francisco outcasts Eggs Over Easy, playing American-style music, countrified and bluesy and cosmic, in loose and meandering and marvelous shows that, unlike Flip City’s, invariably packed in crowds. MacManus et al. weren’t getting anywhere, which had to be frustrating, and surely there were plenty of voices giving them misguided or tin-eared or withering advice on their dressing-up-as-Americans adventures: it’s easy to imagine a prospective manager, even if it wasn’t Ken Smith himself, saying that Flip City had been “together a little too long” to make it, or a fan at a show who couldn’t play a note grousing nevertheless that the instrumentation and style fit MacManus’s band as poorly as a loose glove. We can imagine MacManus hearing all this and shaking his head, saying – as he would in a later song, built on the foundation of “Baseball Heroes” – “Why d’you have to say that there’s always someone who can do it better than I can?” And – this was the terrible part – maybe these people had a point: nobody did care, after all, if Flip City was a failure; American music really was just something they had just learned from listening to the radio; it’s possible these twentysomethings trying to sound like they’d holed up in Big Pink and breathed in the deep sustenance of roots Americana really didn’t “know Uncle Sam from Uncle Joe.” The only response, really, was to buckle down and play well – which, let’s be honest, they didn’t always manage to do, but in this case they did. The recording of “Baseball Heroes” is a delight, a lovely little boogie with Mich Kent propelling things beautifully on bass, and either Malcolm Dennis or Dickie Faulkner – as always, whether the shift in percussionists occurred before or after this track was laid down remains a mystery – keeping solid time. Aside from the occasional mushmouthed lyric, the unfortunate result of a typically rushed recording session, MacManus sings exquisitely, and the yelping “Yeah”s that end the choruses feel faintly like a rough draft for the “hey”s that’ll punctuate “Less Than Zero” or the “whoa-oh”s that will give punch to “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes.” Now for the big news: flabbergastingly enough, MVP status may well go to Steve Hazlehurst, who often comes in for criticism from me, but here he plays some nice swaggering lines and turns in a completely creditable solo, twangy and fun and bordering-on-shitkicking. Clearly he’d been listening to his Clover records when this session came around. All this is to say, Flip City took a good hard swing, and the ball went up – and if it never came down, it wasn’t for their lack of trying. They never did hit the big times, in America or anywhere else, and probably in the end the only memories they had were of not being able to afford no red-and-white shoes.**** But some people never get to do anything besides just wait for that final run.

But here’s the thing, really: “Baseball Heroes,” in a way that nobody could have understood at the time because they had never heard of the Bidston Indians, and indeed in a way that was more or less un-understandable until Costello spoke publicly of the team in 2002 or even 2015, was written about Ross MacManus. It’s a song a son sings about his father. We’ve looked at Declan MacManus’s fascination with his grandfather Pat, and with Pat’s shipboard American sallies as an “exile” in the 1920s and ’30s, and we’ll see plenty more of Pat in later songs – Costello, even as he’s grown older and become successful and traveled the world on his own, seems not to have forgotten, just as he hoped the Indians wouldn’t forget, his own youthful period spent dreaming of adventure and fixating on Pat as the emblem thereof. But Pat wasn’t the only model for adulthood available to the young Declan MacManus. We’ve also looked, in passing, at Ross’s career as a dance-band singer and professional musician as a source for inspiration for his son, the father’s voice emerging from the radio to sing his son’s favorite songs. By the twenty-first century, Costello would be devoting large stretches of his live show – as anyone who’s heard him introduce “Ghost Train” a time or two can attest – to detailed contemplations of the ways he did and did not follow in his father’s footsteps. But this is one of the earliest places where we find Elvis Costello thinking in song about where his father was at his age, and how the two of them compare – what’s similar about what two related men did with their twenties, and what’s different. It seems curious that the overlay, twentysomething Declan MacManus singing about his band by talking about twentysomething Ross McManus, came in a song about a pastime that, in America at least, seems to have at its beating heart the innately masculine bond that links fathers and sons. Elvis Costello’s first great song about his father was also about baseball – isn’t that nice?  We’ll be looking at plenty more songs about the elder MacManus – “Suit of Lights” comes to mind – but here we stand at the beginning of a line, toeing home plate, crouching down in the spot from which EC will swing hard so many times, connecting with astonishing frequency, sending drives soaring out into the field relentlessly throughout his life.

Recorded: Maida Vale Studios, summer 1974. DM: vocals, guitar; Hazlehurst, guitar, backing vocals; Kent: bass, backing vocals; Dennis?, drums; Faulkner?, percussion. Producer/engineer: unknown. Unreleased, save on bootleg. Presumably played live in Flip City shows, 1974-75, though it isn’t found on the sole live recording we have of the band. Never played since.

* In 2002, as part of a short-lived question-and-answer feature on his website, Elvis Costello admitted that he had never been to a baseball game. Perhaps to divert attention from his lack of experience in American ballparks, and also to pad out his answer, he referred in passing to his father’s baseball history in the forties – which, come to think, may constitute a third time EC wrote about the Bidston Indians. I claimed a moment ago that he only wrote about them twice; I stand corrected.

** My transcription of the lyrics doesn’t quite match the one on the Elvis Costello Wiki, the standard online source for this sort of thing. In my defense, most of what differs comes from the sections denoted there as “unclear portions.” There are no official lyrics to this unreleased song, and moreover it feels as though the young MacManus garbled a few of his lines in singing them – as a result, it’s peppered with minor spots where all we can do is guess at the words, and others where even though MacManus articulates fairly clearly, the words don’t quite make sense. I’ve done my best to iron things out, but I’m happy to be told I need to listen even more closely.

*** I am, I should concede, deeply uncertain that “stake” is the right word there. The Wiki has “state,” though that doesn’t make sense either. It’s faintly possible “the stake/state” is our mishearing the name of a player who’s at bat: Costello tells us in the memoir, for instance, that another of his father’s friends went by “Zeke,” so it’s possible MacManus is simply hiccupping or stumbling over that nickname: “…when Zuh-Zeke hit the ball…”

**** I feel obliged to mention, in hopes somebody can offer enlightening perspective, that I am baffled by the odd obsession in early Costello lyrics with shoes. “Please Mister, Don’t Stop The Band” features “shoes with broken laces”; here and in “Red Shoes” we find colorful footwear cropping up; in “Cheap Reward” and its reworking “Lip Service,” Costello sneers “Don’t act like you’re above me, just look at your shoes.” As recurring images go, it seems like a strange one. I hope to have a better understanding of it someday.

Top to bottom: Kevin Costner in 1989’s Field of Dreams, the best movie ever about fathers and sons and baseball; Babe Ruth and Gary Cooper in 1942’s Pride of the Yankees, just because who doesn’t love that movie?; and one last baseball movie image, for good measure: Robert Redford in 1982’s The Natural.

2 comments

  1. Trey · November 2, 2016

    Elvis is everywhere.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s