Another Side of Kerouac: The Dharma Bum as Sports Nut

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Jack Kerouac’s fantasy baseball team cards, circa 1953-56

Almost all his life Jack Kerouac had a hobby that even close friends and fellow Beats like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs never knew about. He obsessively played a fantasy baseball game of his own invention, charting the exploits of made-up players like Wino Love, Warby Pepper, Heinie Twiett, Phegus Cody and Zagg Parker, who toiled on imaginary teams named either for cars (the Pittsburgh Plymouths and New York Chevvies, for example) or for colors (the Boston Grays and Cincinnati Blacks).

He collected their stats, analyzed their performances and, as a teenager, when he played most ardently, wrote about them in homemade newsletters and broadsides. He even covered financial news and imaginary contract disputes.

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A fictional letter from Tom Yawkey (the actual owner of the Boston Red Sox) and Jack Dudworth (the fictional manager of the New York Yankees) to Jack Kerouac, and from Kerouac to Dudworth, 1940.

During those same teenage years, he also ran a fantasy horse-racing circuit, complete with illustrated tout sheets and racing reports. He created imaginary owners, imaginary jockeys, imaginary track conditions.

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All these “publications,” some typed, some handwritten and often pasted into old-fashioned composition notebooks, are now part of the Jack Kerouac Archive at the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. The curator, Isaac Gewirtz, has just written a 75-page book about them, “Kerouac at Bat: Fantasy Sports and the King of the Beats,” to be published next week by the library and available, at least for now, only in its gift shop.

Mr. Gewirtz said recently that he had included much of the fantasy material in a 2007 Kerouac exhibition he mounted at the library, and had planned to add a chapter about the fantasy sports in the catalogue but ran out of space. “I’m glad I waited,” he said, “because it forced me to go into it all in much more depth.”

Among other things, Mr. Gewirtz has learned that Kerouac played an early version of the baseball game in his backyard in Lowell, Mass., hitting a marble with a nail, or possibly a toothpick, and noting where it landed. By 1946, when Kerouac was 24, he had devised a set of cards with precise verbal descriptions of various outcomes (“slow roller to ss,” for example), depending on the skill levels of the pitcher and batter. The game could be played using cards alone, but Mr. Gewirtz thinks that more often Kerouac determined the result of a pitch by tossing some sort of projectile at a diagramed chart on the wall. In 1956 he switched to a new set of cards, which used hieroglyphic symbols instead of descriptions. Carefully preserved inside plastic folders at the library, they now look as mysterious as runes.

The horse-racing game was played by rolling marbles and a silver ball bearing down a tilted Parcheesi board, using a starting gate made of toothpicks. Apparently, the ball bearing traveled faster than the marbles, some of which were intentionally nicked to indicate equine fragility and mortality. So the ball bearing became the nearly invincible horse Repulsion, “King of the Turf,” whose legendary speed and stamina are celebrated in Kerouac’s racing sheets.

A byline that frequently appears in the racing sheets and the baseball newsletters is “Jack Lewis,” an Anglicization of Kerouac’s French first name, Jean-Louis. Jack Lewis, you learn from a careful reading of the sheets, is also a “noted turf luminary,” an owner and trainer who happens to be married to a wealthy breeder and whose 15-year-old son, Tad, is “expected to become a greater jockey than his immortal dad.” In baseball, Jack Lewis is a scribe and the publisher of Jack Lewis’s Baseball Chatter, and he appears occasionally both as a player and a manager.

That Kerouac, growing up in Lowell in the 1920s and ’30s, would turn out to be sports-obsessed is not much of a surprise. His father was a serious racing fan who for a while supplemented his income by printing racing forms for local tracks. Kerouac himself was a good enough athlete to be recruited by Frank Leahy, then the football coach at Boston College. He picked Columbia instead, because he was already dreaming of becoming a writer and thought New York was the place to start.

And that Kerouac had an active fantasy life hardly distinguishes him from other teenage boys. What’s remarkable about his fantasy games, however, is their elaborateness and detail. The players all have distinct histories and personalities. A single season could last 40 or 50 games, with an All-Star game and a World Series, all painstakingly documented.

In an introduction to “Kerouac at Bat,” Mr. Gewirtz suggests that Kerouac was trying, in part, to escape the pain and confusion he suffered from the death of his older brother, Gerard, when Gerard was 9 and Kerouac just 4. But whether he knew it or not, the creation and documentation of fantasy worlds were ideal training for a would-be author.

The prose in Kerouac’s various publications mostly imitates the overheated, epithet-studded sportswriting of the day. “It was partly homage,” Mr. Gewirtz said, “and perhaps partly parody, but every now and then an original phrase leaps out.” For example, the description of a hitter who “almost drove Charley Fiskell, Boston’s hot corner man, into a shambled heap in the last game with his sizzling drives through the grass.”

Mr. Gewirtz said, “I really like that ‘shambled heap.’ ” Another description he enjoys is one of an overpowering pitcher who after defeating the opposition by a lopsided score “smiled wanly.”

Kerouac wrote his last baseball account, two mock United Press International reports, in 1958, but he continued to play the game and to tinker with its formulas, making them more realistic, until just a year or two before his death in 1969. His friend the poet Philip Whalen was probably the only one of the Beats who was familiar with this side of Kerouac.

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Jack Kerouac in 1938.

“I don’t think the others knew,” Mr. Gewirtz said. “Or if they did, they didn’t learn it from Kerouac. I think he was worried they might think it childish.” But in Mr. Gewirtz’s view Kerouac’s interest in playing and writing about this self-contained imaginary world goes a long way toward dispelling the familiar criticism of him as less a writer than a sort of inspired typist.

“I think Kerouac had a photographic memory — a visual photographic memory,” he said. “These games were real to him: he saw them in his head, where he was able to store everything. To me it’s another indication of the kind of mind that allowed him to be the writer he was.”


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New York Public Library Buys Kerouac Archive

The literary and personal archive of Jack Kerouac, whose 1957 quasi-autobiographical novel “On the Road” helped to define the Beat generation, has been acquired by the New York Public Library’s Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, the library announced yesterday.

The archive, the largest Kerouac holding in any institution, contains manuscripts, notebooks, letters, journals and personal items saved from the time he was 11 until his death at 47 in 1969.

The “On the Road” scroll, a draft of the novel typed on a 120-foot-long taped sheet of thin paper, is not part of the archive. The scroll was on deposit at the library for 10 years until its sale for $2.4 million at Christie’s in May. The buyer was James Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts.

Kerouac’s third wife, Stella Sampas, who died in 1990, bequeathed the archive to her siblings, who arranged for the materials to be acquired by the Berg Collection under the guidance of John Sampas, her brother and the executor of the Kerouac estate. The Sampases were childhood friends of Kerouac in Lowell, Mass.; Kerouac is thought to have been influenced in his early writing by Stella Sampas’s brother Sebastian, a poet.

“I am ecstatic that Jack Kerouac now resides in the Library’s Berg Collection,” John Sampas said in a statement. “Jack would love living in the New York Public Library.” Last month the archive was transferred to the library from a bank vault in Lowell, where it had been held since 1990.

The library’s acquisition of the Kerouac archive began more than a decade ago when Rodney Phillips, the director of the Humanities and Social Sciences Library and a former curator of the Berg Collection, began buying items sold by the estate through George Minkoff, a dealer in Great Barrington, Mass.

Spurred by the efforts of his predecessors, who Mr. Phillips said had acquired “many wonderful Kerouac letters,” he bought 8 manuscripts, 36 notebooks and numerous letters around 1991, when the Kerouac estate was roundly criticized for selling his belongings to what was thought to be the public. “My strategy, frankly, was to get as much as I could so that we would be the natural place for it,” he said.

About two years ago the Kerouac estate decided to sell the archive as a whole to the library. Although the whole estate, of which the archive is a part, has been valued at around $10 million, under the terms of the contract the archive’s purchase price cannot be revealed.

Meticulously organized by Kerouac himself, the archive comprises more than 1,050 manuscripts and typescripts, including novels, short stories, prose pieces, poems and fragments, a handful of them in scroll form; 130 notebooks for almost all of his works, published and unpublished; and 52 journals, from 1934 to 1960, which include material used in “The Town and the City,” “On the Road” and “Big Sur.”

Also included are 55 diaries created by Kerouac between 1956 and his death; about 1,800 pieces of correspondence, including letters from Allen Ginsberg, William F. Buckley and Timothy Leary; and 72 publishing contracts. An assortment of papers feature a handwritten Valentine’s Day card Kerouac made for his mother when he was 11, a list of the women he later slept with and two sets of more than 100 handwritten cards that he devised, at about 7, to play a fantasy baseball game of his own invention. Between 1936 and 1965 Kerouac methodically documented the hundreds of games he played ? as well as fictional football games and horse races ? in notebooks and imaginary newspapers.

“People have this stereotype that he was this bop guy, but he was really this self-conscious artist,” Mr. Phillips said. “Here you can see him working and revising constantly. He was much more organized than people would have thought.”

“On the Road,” which Kerouac reputedly typed in a three-week frenzy, is represented by three notebooks and six drafts, including one of the earliest, with the working title “Ray Smith Novel of Fall 1948.”

“These versions give the lie to the myth that Kerouac wrote in a stream of consciousness,” said Isaac Gewirtz, the curator of the Berg Collection. “His initial outpouring may have been spontaneous, but he went back and thoroughly edited every page.”

The library expects to catalog the collection over the next two years, Mr. Gewirtz said. Access is further restricted, under terms of the agreement with the Kerouac estate, until 2005 or the publication of an official Kerouac biography by the historian Douglas Brinkley. A selection from the archive will be displayed at the library in an exhibition, “New in the Berg,” from March 22 through July 27.


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