May 6, 2011
Barry Gifford is a novelist with an infielder’s glove. A widely respected author, he once swung a mean bat — mean enough to have received a baseball scholarship to the University of Missouri.
“I had really good hands,” he said of his baseball days. “I was a line-drive hitter with occasional power.”
One of Gifford’s novels became a movie, “Wild At Heart.” Plus he’s written or cowritten such films as “Lost Highway,” “City of Ghosts” and “Perdita Durango.” He wrote two librettos for operas, but baseball remains in his blood.
He also likes to draw ballplayers. And so Gifford the artist has merged with Gifford the playwright, and all because of his undying love for baseball.
Gifford’s newest work is a one-act play, “Spring Training at the Finca Vigia,” that’s based on a 1941 friendship between author Ernest Hemingway and two Brooklyn Dodgers pitchers, Hugh Casey and Kirby Higbe.
Gifford, who lives in the Bay Area, learned of this largely forgotten relationship by reading Higbe’s obscure autobiography, “The High Hard One.”
The Dodgers held spring training in Cuba in ’41. Casey and Higbe became drinking buddies, and sparring partners, with Hemingway at the Finca Vigia, his home outside Havana.
Gifford, 64, has contributed two sketches — Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente — to the 14th-annual baseball art exhibit that runs until May 28 at the George Krevsky Gallery, 77 Geary St., in San Francisco.
Gifford has a third piece in the exhibit: a Mark McGwire Oakland A’s baseball jersey. Gifford has written a romantic baseball poem on the front of the jersey, and printed Webster’s Dictionary’s definition of steroids on the back.
If you’d like to meet Gifford, he’ll participate in a reading of his one-act play at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Krevsky gallery. Gifford will be Hemingway, George Krevsky will be Casey and — Holy Pacino! — I’ll be Higbe.
But perhaps not even Picasso would think of McGwire and steroids as an art form.
“George brought me the jersey and asked me to decorate it anyway I wanted to,” Gifford said. “I didn’t think it was appropriate to illustrate it. So I took a literal definition of steroids as it’s written out “… that relates in a sense to the more achievement-oriented business side of baseball.”
What achievements? McGwire and Barry Bonds set tainted home-run records, though Gifford noted that baseball had a “juiced” history even before steroids.
“Looking back,” he said, “you’d walk into a clubhouse and there were ‘greenies’ and ‘reds.’ So don’t tell me that they didn’t influence statistics.”
True enough, but greenies and reds didn’t fatten statistics quite like steroids.
“Back in the 1930s,” Gifford continued, “you had this tremendous change in offenses. What occasioned this? The ball was wrapped tighter. Before that, it was thought that Babe Ruth’s bat was corked. I think there’s something to that.”
Not when Ruth was hitting more home runs than teams. And didn’t his supposedly corked bats ever break? C’mon now.
Gifford is right in one sense: Baseball can’t hide its cheaters. From Pete Rose to the Black Sox, to pitchers throwing spitballs — legally — before Gaylord Perry, the national pastime has its unsavory side.
“All you can do,” Gifford shrugged, “is watch the game.”
As a kid, baseball was his “escape.” His father was a gangster, his mother a multi-married former college beauty queen. A perfect, or imperfect, beginning for a novelist.
Gifford didn’t complete his freshman year at Missouri. He lost interest in school as well as baseball, and headed for Europe. He later played semipro ball and had two sons who played baseball at Berkeley High School.
Baseball brings out the poet.
” “… I muff it, I lose the fly ball in the sun,” Gifford wrote on the McGwire jersey. “There is music here, there is romance “…”
But, alas, there is nothing poetic about steroids.