What the Manager Who Verbally Abused Jackie Robinson Has to Do With Vladimir Nabokov


If you’ve seen 42, no doubt one of the more memorable scenes is when Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman heaps verbal slurs on Jackie Robinson in a 1947 game. The incident actually happened, and it shortened Chapman’s career even though the two posed for photographers shortly afterwards to show that there was no bad blood. (Yeah, right).

Chapman was released by the Phillies the following season and had just one more stint in the majors, as a coach for Cincinnati in 1952.

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I knew Chapman while I was growing up in Birmingham, Alabama; he was a local legend, the “Alabama Flash,” who had led the American League in stolen bases four times. He was happy to offer his rationale to anyone who would listen that his abuse of Robinson was no different than what he and many others had handed out to Joe DiMaggio (“Heck, we called him ‘Dago’ and ‘Wop’.”) and Hank Greenberg (“Kike,” was the most popular insult.)

Everyone did it, he insisted; the point was just to get an edge on your opponent. (Yeah, right.) It may be to some interest to baseball historians that Chapman, in his later years, was said by many who were involved in Birmingham baseball to have made a sharp turnaround–he stopped using racial slurs, became friendly with some of the legends of the Negro Leagues (most notably longtime Birmingham Black Barons player and manager Piper Davis), and even enjoyed being around young black kids and talking to them about baseball.

But Chapman, to my knowledge, never knew that he had been immortalized in literature by a most unlikely admirer. John Shade, the poet in Vladimir Nabokov’s perhaps greatest novel, Pale Fire, lists some mementos left behind in a character’s bedroom, including:

The forlorn guitar,
The human skull;
And from the local Star
A curio: Red Sox
Beat Yanks 5-4
On Chapman’s Homer
Thumb tacked to the door.

Charles Kinbote, the self-appointed scholar of Shade’s poetry, writing in the poem’s commentary, calls this “A reference to the title of Keats’s famous sonnet [“On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”] … which, owing to a printer’s absent-mindedness, has been drolly transposed, from some other article into the account of a sports event.”

The drollness, of course, is all Nabokov’s. But check there was only one game in Ben Chapman’s two seasons with Boston in which he hit a home run against the Yankees: opening day, April 18, 1938, and the Red Sox won the game 8-4. Somewhere in the files of Boston or New York area papers there must be some headline for April 19, 1938, with the phrase “On Chapman’s Homer” which Nabokov saw. It would, after all, have been too much to ask Nabokov to remember years later (Pale Fire was published in 1962) the exact score to a game played in 1938.

I saw Chapman for the last time in 1985 when he managed a team of all-stars against a team managed by Davis. I thought about telling Chapman about the mention in Pale Fire, but after a quarter of a second’s reflection, it occurred to me that trying to explain the literary reference (“See, Nabokov was a parodist of the highest order, and the poem and the subsequent commentary are in one sense a parody of Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ and its lengthy series of footnotes, and Keats, who I’m sure you remember from high school, wrote this poem …”)

I shook his hand and wished his team luck, My guess is that he went to his grave in 1993 never knowing about his brush with literary greatness.