Jack Kerouac invented a fantasy baseball game with homemade cards that he played well into adulthood. After he played the games, he wrote them up using the fevered prose he found on the sports pages. At least one critic wrote the Jack Kerouac fantasy baseball game was ideal training for a budding novelist.
The leading writer of the Beat generation took his fantasy game with him when he worked as a fire lookout. He played it when he lived in Mexico City and later in his home on Long Island in the early 1960s.
And when he drove to California in one of the epic journeys that he wrote up in On the Road, he brought his fantasy baseball game with him.
Jack Kerouac, Sports Fan
Kerouac, born in 1922 in Lowell, Mass., loved to watch sports and to play them. A high school football star, he made a diving touchdown that saved the game for the Lowell Red and Grays in 1938. That won him a football scholarship to Columbia College in New York, where he made friends with Beat writers like Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. He later said football stardom gave him more of a thrill than publishing his first novel.
A notebook now in the New York Public Library archives reveals his early and obsessive interest in sports: When he was 14, he wrote, “Pop says he may bring me to a baseball game, Bees-Giants, Sunday. Hotcha. Home run leader is now Kreevich of the White Sox with two today.”
Kerouac Fantasy Baseball
The Kerouac fantasy baseball game evolved into an alternative universe into which he could immerse himself completely. Some think he started the game to get over the death of his brother Gerard when Jack was only four.
Unlike rotisserie baseball, the Kerouac game involved imaginary players and teams named after cars or colors: Pittsburgh Plymouths, St. Louis Cadillacs, Boston Grays and Cincinnati Blacks.
A Kerouac season lasted 40 games, with an All-Star game in the middle and a World Series played at the end.
Each team had a full roster of players, each with his own personality. He patterned Big Bill Louis after Babe Ruth and once had him come to bat eating a hot dog. He gave Earl Morrison eyeglasses and Joe Boston a broken leg. Burlingame Japes, a little left handed hitter, now 40, was once the base-stealing champ.
Kerouac continued to develop the game through the 1950s and into the 1960s. He even moved two teams to the West Coast a year before the real baseball Giants and Dodgers moved to California.
He handwrote or typed up the game stories and pasted them in a composition book. He even described contract disputes and team finances. He gave himself a byline, Jack Lewis, a version of his real first name, Jean-Louis. Once he said he always wanted to work as a sportswriter.
Novelist in Training
His best friends, Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, never knew about the Kerouac fantasy baseball game. He nearly always played it alone.
But one day in the winter of 1961, Newsday sportswriter Stan Isaacs played Kerouac fantasy baseball with him at his home. Kerouac, then 39, lived with his mother on Long Island. Isaacs described the game in a story reprinted in Empty Phantoms: Interviews and Encounters with Jack Kerouac.
The charm of Kerouac fantasy baseball, wrote Isaacs, ‘was the imagination he brought to them, creating wondrous personalities, keeping records, writing stories about the action.’
He had a set of 100 homemade cards, each describing a play such as a line drive to third base or popup to the shortstop. He advanced the game by throwing a projectile against a chart on the wall.
The two writers drank Petri wine while Isaacs’ Blues beat Kerouac’s Browns. From time to time Kerouac’s mother came in to the living room and chastised Kerouac not to make a mess.
“The rally started,” wrote Isaacs, “when his shortstop, Francis X. Cudley (“an Irishman from Boston who stood up at the plate very erect, like a Jesuit”), fumbled a grounder by Johnny Keggs. (“Keggs is an old guy; his neck is seared from the Arkansas sun. He has a brother named Earl who used to be a ballplayer but who now is back in Texarkana selling hardware.”)
The rally then continued when the Blues’ pitcher, Ron Melany, got his second hit.
Kerouac Fantasy Baseball in Esquire
Isaacs later learned that Kerouac had written a story about a baseball game called “Ronnie on the Mound,” similar to the game they’d played. Esquire magazine published it in 1958. “The Ronnie of the story was the same Ron Melaney who beat Kerouac’s Blues for me,” Isaacs wrote.
Fittingly, in 2017, the Lowell Spinners, a minor league baseball team, gave out Jack Kerouac double bobblehead balls. They were double because both his head and his arm moved, the arm to indicate his hitchhiking on the road. Or perhaps his throwing arm in the Jack Kerouac fantasy baseball game.
The Kerouac fantasy baseball collection can be found in the Jack Kerouac Archive at the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library.