NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture 14.1 (2005)
Baseball Symbolism in Ulysses' "Nausicaa"
Had he ever read Homer?
Try as he would he could only think of four bases and not a book.
As every fan of James Joyce is keenly aware, the fourth year of the twentieth century holds a very special significance in his masterwork, Ulysses. The novel, deemed by the Modern Library as the century's most important literary work, focuses on the events and thoughts surrounding Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, and Leopold's wife, Molly. The events all take place in Dublin on June 16, 1904. The year is vastly important as well in the life of another famous Irishman, an individual who, like Joyce, carried on a vibrant and often challenging (some would say bewildering) love affair with the English language. That fellow happens to be the nineteenth-century American baseball player James Henry O'Rourke.
O'Rourke was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1850 and began his twenty-one-year Major League career in 1872. In fact, after the dissolution of the National Association, he got the first hit in the first game of the National League on April 22, 1876. Fast-forward to 1904, a key year for O'Rourke (and, incidentally, for Leopold Bloom) because on September 22 O'Rourke hunkered down behind the plate for his final Major League contest. He was nostalgically summoned back into big-league action (he had retired from the majors in 1893) by New York Giants manager John McGraw to participate in one final game at age fifty-four. That same year the Minor League Bridgeport Orators, which O'Rourke owned, managed, and played for, won the 1904 Connecticut League pennant. In any comparison of James O'Rourke and James Joyce, the often-perplexing language styles of both Jameses must be called to mind. Some say O'Rourke developed his verbal skills upon accomplishing a Yale Law degree (class of 1887—he attended classes during the off-season while playing for the Giants), but the origin of his loquacious tendencies date much earlier.
O'Rourke, already well-known for his remarkable verbal repartee before he wore a Yale mortarboard, once inflicted a Buffalo Bisons teammate who was inquiring about a financial loan with this immediate, head-spinning retort: "The exigencies of the occasion and the condition of the exchequer will not permit anything of the sort." So much for the stereotypical American ballplayer-barbarian of the nineteenth century. O'Rourke appropriately carried with him the nickname "The Orator," a Gilded Age moniker he relished and thoroughly deserved.
My own reverence for Hall of Fame member James O'Rourke (he was inducted in 1945) has led me and other history buffs to take steps to save and restore The Orator's abandoned Bridgeport home. While serving as vice president and secretary of The First Hit Inc., a nonprofit organization determined to rescue O'Rourke's Victorian digs, I began a course of study with Joyce enthusiast Jesse Meyers at the Greenwich (Connecticut) Public Library and embarked on an intensive study of Ulysses. Reading the novel I was struck by the glaring "1904" similarity between O'Rourke and Joyce's Leopold Bloom as well as by the wordplay enjoyed by both author and ballplayer. Soon I began to observe some powerful baseball imagery and symbolism in, of all places, the thirteenth episode of Ulysses, "Nausicaa." Sitting in the Greenwich Library about the exact moment Mike Piazza blasted a Jerome Williams 3-1 pitch off of the right-center field scoreboard at Shea, establishing a new Major League record for home runs by a catcher (352), an entire lineup of baseball motifs tumbled from the pages of Joyce's tome.
Before launching into my discussion I'd like to address those folks whom I realize will grimace incredulously at this point and scoff at the very notion of Bloomsday's impact on baseball. Now I am not saying that Joyce was an avid stand-up-and-bait-the-ump bleacher bum by any stretch of the imagination, although you never know...