The essay is like the bunt single in baseball – a lost art. That’s too bad because both are things of beauty when well executed.
Bunts is a collection of essays, mostly about baseball. Some of them were published by the Society of American Baseball Research. Most will never appear anywhere except this blog. These essays are meant to be enjoyed like a Rod Carew bunt single.
Carew had 3,053 hits in his Hall of Fame career – 649 of them for extra bases. But it was his bat control and the ability to lay down a perfectly-placed bunt for a single that set him apart from others. Andre Dubus is to essay writing what Carew was to bunting. His book of autobiographical essays, Broken Vessels is a classic introduced to me by Billy Joe Barrett, a baseball player turned oilman.
Barrett never made it to the big leagues. But he was as big as any major leaguer in Lafayette and other small Louisiana towns he played in during the early 1950s.
Barrett was 22 in 1950 when he played first base for the Lafayette Bulls in the Class C Evangeline League. The 13-year-old Dubus was a Bulls ball boy. Barrett became a hero to Dubus that season and 39 years later he wrote about it in an essay titled Under the Lights.
“I believed Billy Joe Barrett’s name would be part of baseball for years,” Dubus begins. “In the field he was what we called then a Fancy Dan. He was right-handed and tall, fast and graceful and lithe.
“I have never seen a first baseman whose grace thrilled me as Barrett’s did; and one night in Lafayette he hit a baseball in a way that I have never seen again.”
The ball shot off Barrett’s bat like a bullet, barely cleared the glove of a leaping second baseman before climbing sharply. The right fielder stopped “and simply stood and watched while the ball rose higher and higher and was still rising and tiny as it went over the lights in right field.”
Dubus writes: “I see Billy Joe Barrett on the night when his whole body and his whole mind and his whole heart were for one moment in absolute harmony with a speeding baseball and he hit it harder and farther than he could at any other instant in his life. We never saw the ball start its descent, its downward arc to earth. For me, it never has. It is rising white over the lights high above the right field fence, a bright and vanishing sphere of human possibility soaring into the darkness beyond our vision.”
Barrett moved from first base to centerfield, married a Lafayette girl in a wedding ceremony at home plate and played four more seasons in the Evangeline League for Thibodaux and New Iberia before quitting baseball in 1955, settling in Lafayette and getting into the oil business. In seven minor-league seasons, he hit a modest 63 home runs. One of them made a lasting impression on a young boy who grew up to tell the world about it in an essay as wonderful as a Carew bunt.