From Nabokov to Jazz to Baseball

Published:May 8, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

Look, I know this has no connection to Virginia—although, for the record, I used the full power of Google to try create one. But we’re going to go ahead and mourn the loss of Alfred Appel Jr. anyway. After all, we are not only about the Civil War here, or history; we are about Nabokov sometimes, and jazz. Appel—pronounced a-PELL—was a scholar of both, and when I purchased his book Jazz Modernism: From Ellington and Armstrong to Matisse and Joyce (2002) in a Chicago bookstore a few years ago, I was goofy happy and excited about any book that contained a full-page photograph of Van Lingle Mungo (he pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants) with the following caption:

The High Hard One—Van Lingle Mungo, pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, 1936, shot from the worm’s-eye angle introduced in Europe circa 1925 by avant-garde photographers such as Alexander Rodchenko. Mungo’s phallocentric posture passes muster because he led the National League in strikeouts that year, the only way he could win eighteen games—while absorbing nineteen losses!—in the face of his terrible team’s seventh-place finish (out of eight). “Van Lingle Mungo” is the title of the best baseball song, by the jazz pianist and singer Dave Frishberg (1969), a multicultural threnody consisting of the recited names of some forty baseball players from the 1935–50 period. “Heenie Majeski, Johnny Gee, / Eddie Joost, Johnny Pesky, Thornton Lee, / Danny Gardella, / Van Lin-gle Mun-go-oh,” it begins (for the whole, see Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball’s Reading Lyrics, 2000). The name of Mungo, who represents the elan vital rather than team play or high finance, is sounded five times with an elegiac gravity. The song’s catalog of names almost scans, as does the lyric “Van Lingle Mungo”—the basic alternating measures of English (weak, strong / weak, strong). Mungo defies gravity in the photo.

If such an entry, paired with such a photograph (here’s a similar image), also makes you goofy happy, then we have something in common. I’m not convinced our numbers are legion, though.

Mungo was a notoriously prickly character, by the way. Find out here what happened when Dave Frishberg ran into him on the set of a television show.