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Stephen Crane, baseball, and a Red Badge.

In composing The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane--a fervent sports participant and fan, especially of baseball and football--may have seen parallels between the challenges and fears that young athletes face and the travails of another kind of rookie--an untried young soldier facing the specter of battle. Henry Fleming (frequently called "the youth" or "he") has left the farm and joined a Union regiment before an unnamed battle now identified as Chancellorsville. His named companions are Wilson ("the loud soldier") and Jim Conklin ("the tall soldier"). Like raw recruits or rookies the young men brag about the glory they hope to achieve, but underneath their collective swagger is the question "Will I stand my ground, or will I run?" Thrust into battle and what he is certain is to be his slaughter, Fleming runs away. Ashamed, he wanders until he joins a group of wounded soldiers, but he has no "red badge of courage. He then sees the horrible death of Jim Conklin and rages at himself. Soon after, he runs into a retreating infantryman who in the confusion clubs him in the head with the butt end of his rifle. He runs into the men of his own unit, who assume that his head wound is a combat injury. Maintaining the pretense the second day, Fleming fights heroically and with another soldier saves the regiment's colors from falling. The once-noisy youth and the regiment emerge from the conflict as men--assured, solemn, and courageous.

The fourteenth and last child (only the ninth to survive) of the Reverend Dr. Jonathan Townley Crane and Mary Helen Peck Crane, Stephen Crane was born in Newark, New Jersey, on November 1, 1871, not quite two years to the day after Princeton and Rutgers played the first intercollegiate football game in nearby New Brunswick. Also in 1871, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was founded, making professional sports a reality in the United States. Exploring Crane's connection to sport history--especially baseball and to some extent football--informs our understanding of The Red Badge of Courage (1895).

After the Civil War, baseball was finding its place in American literature. In 1868, William Everett had published Changing Base; Or, What Edward Rice Learnt at School (Boston: Lee and Shepard), considered the first work of American fiction to include baseball. (1) Following it were Everett's Double Play; Or, How Joe Hardy Chose His Friends (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1870) and an anonymous novel The Great Match, and Other Matches (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1877). (2) Baseball fiction and Stephen Crane grew up together.

In Sport and the Spirit of Play in American Fiction: Hawthorne to Faulkner (1981), Christian K. Messenger notes that "young athletes were America's 'kind' of men." (3) For Crane, claiming a place in this brotherhood was not easy because his parents equated sport with sin. His mother was an ardent supporter of the temperance movement, and his pious father had published a book titled Popular Amusements (1869), denouncing such activities as "dancing, tobacco, opium, billiards, chess, and novel-reading." (4) The good reverend also predicted the "demise of the then-new baseball, because 'everyone connected with it seems to be regarded with a degree of suspicion.'" (5) Naturally determined to play out his role as a "preacher's kid," Crane indulged in several of these bugaboos plus a few more. He played most sports, smoked enough from an early age to have nicotine-stained fingers in his late teens, knew where the bars were, hung out with prostitutes in the Bowery of New York, and spent the last years of his life in a common-law marriage with Cora Taylor, madam of a Jacksonville, Florida, house of ill fame. Worst of all, young Crane read and even wrote novels, often drawing from these life experiences.

Crane's interest and participation in sports provided some notable influence toward the novel that made him famous. Although this was the first American novel to portray war from a common soldier's perspective, Crane wrote it with no personal military experience. Instead, he drew his understanding of battle from sports. Despite major differences in the gravity of their outcomes, sports and war share many common attributes: courage, brotherhood, sacrifice, compassion, rescue (salvation as it were), and redemption--plus the opposite qualities. In essence, sports and war bring out the best and worst in humanity. The common positive attributes of sports and war embody Reverend Crane's Christian virtues, but Stephen found those same values in the sports his father so vehemently condemned. That is the supreme irony. Scholars have attached several labels to Crane--naturalist, realist, impressionist, expressionist--but he was also an ironist.

After Crane's father died on February 16, 1880, his mother moved the family to Asbury Park, New Jersey. From there, she enrolled Stephen at the Pennington Seminary in 1885, beginning a five-year odyssey that would eventually take him to three other schools: Claverack College, Lafayette College, and Syracuse University. Never distinguishing himself academically Crane instead devoted his time and energy to baseball.

Pennington Seminary's strong athletics program emphasized baseball and football. While there, Crane wrote a friend about his desire to become a professional ballplayer but lamented his family's resistance to this plan: "Ma says it's not a serious occupation and [brother] Will says I have to go to college first." (6) The next stop in his academic career was Claverack College in Claverack, New York, which Crane scholar Edwin H. Cady describes as "a military prep school with vestiges of a junior college":

[T]he institution ... gave Crane four very important things: military experience, academic training, the collegiate experience, and athletic achievement. Ironically ..., it cheated him on all of its first three gifts. And no doubt he knew it. Its military character was make believe. Its academic training was amateurish even by the feeble standards of the day. In an age when college life first became a glamorous public reality in the United States, Claverack could offer only an impoverished, distantly improvised imitation. Only the athletics were "real." (7)

Crane admitted of his time at Claverack: "I never learned anything there. But heaven was sunny blue and no rain fell on the diamond when I was playing baseball." (8)

Rather than studying for classes, the young student of life developed a fondness for cigarettes and spent significant time in "a pool-room in the rear of McKinstry's drugstore in Hudson, where beer and thick smoke constituted an orgy." (9) He also smoked on long, solitary walks. This is relevant to any study of Crane and sport because during the 1880s "American tobacco companies began issuing celebrity cards with cigarette packs to boost sales." (10) Crane would have certainly encountered this aggressive sports marketing tactic used by "American tobacco companies like Old Judge, Goodwin Champions and Allen and Ginter." (11) From Claverack, Crane moved to Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, but his indifference to coursework and continued interest in baseball generated grades that would not carry him beyond the fall semester. He departed Lafayette in December 1890.

Worried about her youngest child, the widow Crane then sought assistance from her uncle, Reverend Jesse Peck, one of the Methodist-Episcopalian founders of Syracuse University. Crane was admitted and entered Syracuse in January 1891 as a member of the class of 1894. On campus, he moved into the Delta Upsilon fraternity house and set his sights on playing varsity baseball for the university and cricket for his fraternity. From Delta Upsilon, Crane would have enjoyed an unimpeded view of the baseball field and a new 50-seat grandstand built by team manager George Shepherd. (12)

At Syracuse, Crane enrolled in English literature, history, and Latin courses, but acknowledged in an 1895 letter to journalist friend John Northern Hilliard that academia was not his forte: "I did little work in school, but confined my abilities, such as they were, to the diamond. Not that I disliked books, but the cut-and-dried curriculum of the college did not appeal to me. Humanity was a much more interesting study." (13) Crane's Latin professor, Frank Smalley, later the Dean of Syracuse's Liberal Arts College, confirmed this sentiment in a condolence letter to Cora Taylor in August 1900 after the writer's death. Smalley recalled the young student had "devoted himself to athletic sports with ardor, especially base-ball and was our finest player." (14) On the baseball field, Crane was a 5'6", 125-pound pepper pot, and one former teammate, pitcher Mansfield French, described him as playing "with fiendish glee." (15) Initially a catcher, Crane struggled with the long kneeling throw to second base when runners attempted to steal on him, so while playing for Syracuse he moved (or was moved) to shortstop. (16)

Historian Peter Morris suggests that Crane's "success on the baseball diamond [at Syracuse] eased his struggles to communicate as he 'loved to talk baseball and took great delight in telling of his experiences of the ball field and of his acquaintance, at least by newspaper reputation, with the leading professional players of those days. When on trips to play with other college teams he proved to be sociable and companionable.'" (17) Crane managed to see a fair bit of the New York countryside as Syracuse played St. John's Manlius, Union, Hamilton, Rochester, Hobart, and Colgate. While box scores are not available for every Syracuse game that year, it appears Crane was a modest-hitting catcher and shortstop for the "Orangemen" (the university's principal color and emerging nickname). During his single season with Syracuse, Crane hit .273 in 22 recorded at-bats.

Morris also notes that "[Crane's] ability to 'talk baseball' was accompanied by a new interest in other modes of communication. He covered his disorderly room in the Delta Upsilon fraternity house with 'baseball masks and bats, running trunks, chest protectors and other athletic and literary sundries. The occupant was certainly athletic and literary.'" (18) As at Lafayette College, however, Crane once again did little more than live in the fraternity house, halfheartedly attend a few classes, and play baseball for the university team. After just one season of collegiate baseball, he departed Syracuse to pursue a more glamorous (and immediate) career in journalism.

Early in his new venture, Crane met one of the great personal influences on his life: William Dean Howells. A prolific, often brilliant novelist and critic, Howells served on the editorial staff of Harper's Monthly Magazine and eventually became its editor. Nicknamed "the Dean of American Letters," he had many friends and contacts in the literary world. He was the best friend of Mark Twain and Henry James and became acquainted with the young Stephen Crane through Hamlin Garland, another pioneer of American literary naturalism. Howells biographer Edwin H. Cady also mentions the editor receiving a fan letter from painter and sculptor Frederic Remington, who was inspired by a group of Americans ... [who] embodied the spirit of a gambling culture. They were lovers of action and competition--of pitting oneself against nature, against pain and pressure, against other men. They were sportsmen. As climbers, hunters, and fishermen they loved wildness. As boxers and wrestlers, rowers and runners, inventive developers of baseball, football, basketball, and hockey, they were changing the face and tone of American life, ... [expressing] the essence of American culture perhaps more directly than anything else. (19)

Cady notes that these sporting figures required a literature of their own. However, while Howells "[agreed] that sports were healthful and emotionally appropriate for the young," he did not think this "quality of life" was suitable for literature. (20) Crane disproved his literary mentor through his subtle use of sport metaphors and allusions.

Much--perhaps too much--critical discussion has focused on Crane's ability to brilliantly portray war even though he had no battle experience. The Civil War had ended less than thirty years before Crane began writing, so veterans from both sides of every campaign were still around to tell stories of where they had been and what they had seen and done. Written accounts in the form of memoirs, diaries, letters, and journalism were also readily available, as were Matthew Brady's extraordinary photographs. And of course, Crane's imagination was a vital catalyst in his creative endeavors.

During the decades following the Civil War, baseball, football, and sports in general were coming to the forefront in American life. Professional baseball had taken permanent hold with the great Boston and Baltimore teams of the 1880s and 1890s, and players like Cap Anson, Dan Brouthers, Ed Delahanty, Old Hoss Radbourn, Kid Nichols, and a farm boy named Cy Young were achieving legendary status. Despite accumulating fatalities during football's flying wedge days, gridiron heroes ruled college campuses. In 1889, Caspar Whitney and Walter Camp selected their first All-American team in Harper's Weekly Magazine, heavily favoring the Harvard-Yale-Princeton trinity. Not too many years later, they discovered men were also playing the game west of the Liberty Bell.

Sports--especially baseball--attracted writers of all kinds. During the mid-1800s, British-born sportswriter Henry Chadwick had developed the box score, recording in marvelous capsule form who played, who won, who lost, who did well, and who didn't. Celebrating the epic patriotism of the national game, Ernest L. Thayer used the subtitle "A Ballad of the Republic" when he chronicled the poetic woes of "Casey at the Bat" in 1888. The tale of Mudville's misery has enthralled audiences ever since. In 1889, songwriter J. W. Kelly urged Boston's Mike "King" Kelly to "Slide, Kelly, Slide," and Mark Twain had "Connecticut Yankee" Hank Morgan organize a ballgame "in King Arthur's Court." By the 1890s, baseball as a pastime had a pervasive presence throughout American culture.

Engaging intellectually with the times, Crane considered the shared attributes of sports and war--sacrifice, charity, fraternity, rescue, and redemption--as much the same. After reading The Red Badge of Courage, Hamlin Garland "asked Crane where he had learned enough about combat to write convincingly on the subject." The young writer answered, "on the athletic field." Crane elaborated: "The psychology [of war and sport] is the same. ... The opposing team is an enemy tribe." (21) The closest Crane may have come to real "battle" in his first twenty years was playing baseball or, briefly, football. In fact, an 1896 Book Buyer review of The Red Badge of Courage reported that "about the time he was at work on the 'Red Badge' [Crane] was also engaged in coaching and playing quarter-back upon a football team in Lakeview, a suburb of Paterson, N.J." The novelist confessed, "I have never been in a battle, of course, and I believe that I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field." (22) Given his own acknowledgment of the importance of sport, readers should not be surprised to see athletic allusions in Crane's work.

Trying to establish direct relationships between incidents in writers' lives and episodes in their literary works is always risky, but three events in Crane's life--two with baseball, one involving personal failure or cowardice--seem too close to dismiss as potential influences on The Red Badge of Courage. The first occurred at Claverack when Crane was offered the captaincy of the baseball team but turned it down. His parents would have been proud of him for not further committing to a frivolous game, but the young man believed he had shirked his duty and let down his teammates. This suggests how Henry Fleming joined the army but then shirked his military duty and let down his fellow soldiers by fleeing from battle. Parents and son would have condemned Fleming's act. Baseball was one thing, war--and a righteous war to end slavery--was quite another.

The next episode came at Lafayette College, where Crane's indifference to academic work resulted in his dismissal after the fall term. Although his time there was short, an incident of spectacular personal failure left an impact on Crane, perhaps more than anything he encountered in the classroom, around the diamond, or on the gridiron. At Lafayette, he joined the Delta Upsilon fraternity, and one night a group of sophomores intent on hazing the freshman knocked on his locked bedroom door. Hearing no response, they broke down the door and found that "Steve was petrified with fear and stood in a grotesque nightgown in one corner of the room with a revolver in his hand. His usual sallow complexion seemed to be a ghastly green ... both arms were limp and the revolver was pointed to the floor" (italics added). (23) Cady suggests that Crane may have been stunned to realize how close he had come to murder. (24)

Perhaps Crane was stunned (it would be the appropriate reaction), but the experience also foreshadows events and a description in The Red Badge of Courage. In chapter 5 we find that "[Fleming] had a mad feeling against his rifle, which could only be used against one life at a time. ... He craved a power that would enable him to make a world-sweeping gesture and brush all back. His impotency appeared to him and made his rage into that of a driven beast" (italics added, 113). It is speculation, of course, but Sigmund Freud's work was becoming known, and revolver, rifle, and bat barrels are all cylinders. Moreover, in chapter 17 Crane seems to raise the possibility again: "... it occurred to the youth that his rifle was an impotent stick" (italics added, 173). Speculation or not, the possibilities range from a crisis of masculinity to a batting slump to a good-field-no-hit shortstop.

Lastly, an incident at Syracuse showed Crane what happens when others fail to fulfill their duties and responsibilities. This defining moment occurred on June 6, 1891, when the Syracuse nine travelled to Hamilton for a key game against Colgate. When a couple of players neglected to make the trip, it forced Syracuse to play short-handed and to lose the pennant to a despised rival they considered inferior. The next day, the Syracuse Sunday Herald reported the humiliating 13-0 loss: "Syracuse was badly crippled by the fact that only seven of their regular players went to Hamilton. The shortstop had to play first base and the manager [Shepherd] had to play center field, one position being vacant. Nevertheless, the Syracuse boys did some good work. Especially notable was the playing of Marvin, Crane and Reddington." (25) On June 8, 1891, the Syracuse University News reported, "Since we lost our chance for the pennant, the interest in base ball seems to be entirely dead. At Hamilton on Friday, we lost a game to a team far inferior to ours, on account of this woeful lack of enthusiasm." (26) Crane was likely furious at Syracuse teammates who failed to travel to the Hamilton game for which his expectations had been so great, and their absence in "battle" would have certainly sparked his indignation. When he returned to campus after this disappointing match, he did little more than take his final exams and leave the university.

A similar pattern emerges in The Red Badge. Early on, the rookie soldiers talk trash in the trenches, bragging about what they're going to do in the battle. Marching along, looking for a fight, "The greater part of the untested men appeared quiet and absorbed. They were going to look at war, the red animal--war, the blood-swollen god. And they were deeply engrossed in this march" (103). A few paragraphs later, though, they get a preview of the real thing: "After a time the brigade was halted in the cathedral light of the forest. The busy skirmishers were still popping. Through the aisles of the wood could be seen the floating smoke from their rifles. Sometimes it went up in little balls, white and compact" (103). The description may anticipate the reaction of rookies who have just seen the other team taking batting practice and "popping" white balls off and over the wall or into the seats. Not surprisingly, snatching up anything they can, they start building bunkers.

Perhaps no single incident at Claverack, Lafayette, or Syracuse would have influenced Crane to write The Red Badge of Courage, but together, the three episodes foreshadow much that happens to Henry Fleming. The novel's plot follows an archetypal narrative theme: the initiation tale. The basic pattern is that a youth leaves the comfort and security of home, ventures into an alien situation, undergoes a painful or traumatic ordeal, and emerges from it with a new understanding of the world. Sports also follow the pattern of the initiation plot. A youth plays around at a sport and picks up a few fundamentals, but enters a new world by joining a team. Something happens to the rookie: perhaps he backs away from a curve ball that crosses the heart of the plate, or maybe an experienced lineman flattens him with a "pancake" block. Embarrassed, the youth can go home or go on. Either way, nothing will ever be the same again. The Red Badge of Courage follows the same pattern.

The novel opens on a note of agonized waiting, on the order of pregame jitters as it were. In a sense, the book takes on the rhythm and flow of a baseball or football game (or war), long periods of boredom interrupted by sudden moments of violent action and even terror. The men have been waiting for something to happen, listening to rumor after rumor, doing anything they can to stave off their frustration. They mend uniforms, wash clothes--and talk. Their conversation homes in on one question posed in a variety of ways: Do you think anybody will run? Who do you think will run? Will you run? Will I run? Their conversation suggests the talk that goes on before a ball-game: What does he throw? Can he hit the drop? Can I see his fastball?

In the midst of all the talk is a young recruit named Henry Fleming, often referred to simply as "the youth." In this vein, to show the dehumanizing aspect of war, Crane frequently deprives his characters of their names, so that Wilson becomes "the loud soldier" and Jim Conklin "the tall soldier." Relating to sports, "the youth" could also allude to the unproven rookie. During spring training, "invitees" wear high-numbered jerseys with no names because they come and go so quickly. New players receive a name after they prove their worth to the team. Near the end of chapter 1, the veteran Jim Conklin says, "They call the reg'ment 'Fresh fish' and everything; but the boys come of good stock, and most of 'em '11 fight like sin after they oncet git shootin'" (90). The Dickson Baseball Dictionary lists "fresh leaguer" as a term for a rookie dating back to Sporting Life in 1885. (27)

Fleming, the rawest of recruits, is much like a rookie ballplayer. He asks whether men will run, wondering if he will be one of them. He tries to convince himself that he will acquit himself well in the coming engagement. Says the narrator, "He lay in his bunk pondering upon it. He tried to mathematically prove to himself that he would not run from battle" (87). The description is bit like that of a rookie poring over his past statistics and wondering if he can handle his promotion to the big leagues. The youth can't stop thinking about it: "For days he made ceaseless calculations, but they were all wondrously unsatisfactory. He found that he could establish nothing. He finally concluded that the only way to prove himself was to go into the blaze, and then figuratively to watch his legs to discover their merits and faults" (91). His calculations will be meaningless because Crane's universe is indifferent, a world in which all things are random. Crane summed up his thinking in a poem in the volume War Is Kind (1899), an ironic title if ever there was one:
A man said to the universe:
"Sir, I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
"A sense of obligation." (1335)

Fleming and the other young soldiers in their company hold their ground against the first Confederate charge, but the counterattack takes them by surprise, and "the youth" and many others run: "He [Fleming] ran like a blind man. Two or three times he fell down. Once he knocked his shoulder so heavily against a tree that he went headlong" (120). (28) Their action becomes all the more shameful when they learn that their fellow soldiers who stayed have successfully repelled the onslaught.

Fleming does everything he can to rationalize his actions. He thinks running was the intelligent thing to do. To convince himself, "He threw a pine cone at a jovial squirrel, and he ran with chattering fear. ... The youth felt triumphant at this exhibition. There was the law, he said. Nature had given him a sign" (125-26). The squirrel, of course, acts out of instinct or its nature. However, Thomas Hobbes commented on the state of nature in Leviathan (1651): "No arts; no letters; no society; and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Accordingly, humanity strives to tame or sublimate instinct and nature through whatever means it can; thus, Fleming must learn that a man has to overcome his instinct to flee and make his stand.

His innocence cast aside, Fleming realizes the real cost of his flight and his outlook begins to change: "At times he regarded the wounded soldiers in an envious way. He conceived persons with torn bodies to be peculiarly happy. He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage" (133). He gets his wish a bit later as he grabs hold of a man in near hysteria and won't let go. The man reacts "in a lurid rage. He adroitly and fiercely swung his rifle. It crushed upon the youth's head. The man ran on" (149). The description is close to that of a batter connecting with a fat pitch and circling the bases. Head throbbing, Fleming finally collapses:

Suddenly his legs seemed to die. He sank writhing to the ground. He tried to arise. In his efforts against the numbing pain he was like a man wrestling with a creature of the air. ... Sometimes he would achieve a position half erect, battle with the air for a moment, and then fall again, grabbing at the grass. ... At last, with a twisting movement, he got upon his hands and knees, and from thence, like a babe trying to walk, to his feet. ... (149)

True to the unwritten code of the warrior and the athlete, through conditioning and training, Fleming has worked to avoid injury. Accordingly, he is stunned and surprised to find that he is not invincible or indestructible. In a sense, his injury may result in questions of his manhood; in no way can it be described as a combat injury. He can't just "walk it off" or "shake it off" He is indeed going down. Ironically, though, it becomes his red badge of courage:

He fought an intense battle with his body. His dulled senses wished him to swoon and he opposed them stubbornly, his mind portraying unknown dangers and mutilations if he should fall upon the field. ... Once he put his hand to the top of his head and timidly touched the wound. The scratching pain of the contact made him draw a long breath through his clenched teeth. His fingers were dabbled with blood. He regarded them with a fixed stare. (149-50)

He has survived, his initiation is complete, and the first half of the book comes to an end.

The youth has changed: "He did not give a great deal of thought to those battles that lay directly before him. It was not essential that he should plan his ways in regard to them. ... He could leave much to chance. Besides, a faith in himself had secretly blossomed, and a little flower of confidence was growing within him. He was now a man of experience. He had been out among the dragons, he said, and he assured himself that they were not so hideous as he had imagined them. Also, they were inaccurate; they did not sting with precision. A stout heart often defied, and, defying, escaped" (165).

From that point on, Fleming becomes a fire-breathing soldier. In the next encounter with the enemy, the color sergeant is mortally wounded, and Fleming and Wilson successfully prevent the flag from touching the ground. In its way, the scene suggests two teams fighting for the pennant: "The youth and his friend had a small scuffle over the flag. 'Give it if me!' 'No, let me keep it!" (188). Chapter 20 ends simply: "And they were men" (193).

The opening paragraphs of chapter 21 imply a question that haunts athletes and warriors alike: Is there life after the last game? Is there life after the war? What happens when the cheering stops? The questions haunt the men, and a change has come over them:

In this last length of journey the men began to show strange emotions. They hurried with nervous fear. Some who had been dark and unfaltering in the grimmest moments now could not conceal an anxiety that made them frantic. It was perhaps that they dreaded to be killed in insignificant ways after the times for proper military deaths had passed. Or, perhaps, they thought it would be too ironical to get killed at the portals of safety. With backward looks of perturbation, they hastened. (194)

Fleming has come through his initiation. A warrior or an athlete or anyone who has had a long career in any field must eventually acknowledge that a phase of his life has reached its end. He can move on only when he recognizes that fact. Fleming has succeeded in doing so, for he despises the brass and bombast of his previous gospels. ... With the conviction came a store of assurance. He felt a quiet manhood, nonassertive but of sturdy and strong blood. He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point. He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man. (212)

The Red Badge ends as it should, on a note of purification and hope; warrior and athlete may finally rest:

It rained. ... He had rid himself of the red sickness of battle. The sultry nightmare was in the past. He had been an animal, blistered and sweating in the heat and pain of war. He turned now with a lover's thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks--an existence of soft and eternal peace.

Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds. (212)

As a coda or afterword, Crane published a story in McClure's in August 1896 with the appropriate title of "The Veteran." In it we meet a much older Henry Fleming talking to a small group of people about the battle at Chancellorsville. That night a fire breaks out in his barn. The people who come to help think they have gotten out all the livestock until "this Swede" (670) shouts that they have forgotten a pair of colts in the back of the barn. Fleming rushes back into the barn, and his story ends as it must: "When the roof fell in, a great funnel of smoke swarmed toward the sky, as if the old man's mighty spirit, released from its body--a little bottle--had swelled like the genie of fable. The smoke was tinted rose-hue from the flames, and perhaps the unutterable midnights of the universe will have no power to daunt the color of this soul" (670). It is the last act of the hero, be he warrior or athlete. He has sacrificed himself for the sake of another, be it a pair of colts or the team or even the culture. Viewed this way, Fleming dies the perfect death.

Interestingly, while The Red Badge of Courage contains no specific mention of baseball, Crane's love of the game and actual participation in it from 1888 to 1891, plus his on-going familiarity with many sports (including football through 1895) suggest why he might have incorporated phrasing from the game.

A possible example of the influence of baseball, or perhaps cricket, occurs in chapter 16 when Fleming declares, "There's too much chin music an' too little fightin' in this war anyhow" (171). While this could just mean there is too much talking going on, baseball lexicographer Paul Dickson shows that the term "chin music" dates back at least to 1875 to describe sarcastic commentary from bench-jockeys, coaches, umpires, fans, and the like. Today, "chin music" is also baseball slang referring to a high, inside pitch that drives the batter off the plate. (29)

In chapter 22, Fleming almost becomes a fan: "He was deeply absorbed as a spectator. The crash and swing of the great drama made him lean forward, intent-eyed, his face working in small contortions" (201). Here, the young soldier sounds like a fan in the bleachers, intent on the game but too far away to clearly see the action. Perhaps this shows Fleming as intrigued enough to watch and critique the war from his seat, but lacking the bravery/manhood/fortitude to get in the game himself and take his cuts on the battlefield. Spectators often think they know what players, coaches, and managers should do in a game (two minutes of call-in radio proves that), but things look different from the on-deck circle. By enlisting, Fleming puts himself in the lineup, but when it is his turn at bat, he cannot step up to the plate.

Throughout The Red Badge of Courage, Crane specifically mentions the sports of boxing, football, athletics (in the form of sprinting), and even marbles. (30) But while "war fascinated Crane," Susan Jensen notes that "long before he wrote The Red Badge of Courage, [Crane] studied stratagem on the baseball diamond, where he spent much of his time. He learned all about offense and defense, secret moves, and the thrill of victory, without ever leaving New Jersey. When he decided to write a novel about war, [Crane] used what he had learned playing baseball to create one of the most well-known war stories of all time." (31)

In Sport and the Spirit of Play in American Fiction: Hawthorne to Faulkner, Christian K. Messenger discusses Crane's use of football language and imagery:

The suggestion of a football scrimmage as a Civil War skirmish is at its strongest in The Red Badge in chapter 19. Upon orders to charge, the regiment moves out from its position into a "cleared space," [182] which corresponds to an open field of play. The line becomes a "wedge-shaped mass" [182] resembling the powerful charge of the flying wedge. The opposition is supplied by "bushes, trees, and uneven places on the ground" [182] which "split the command and scattered it into detached clusters," [182] much as a football wedge was broken up by opposing players hurling themselves at it to reach the ball carrier. Finally, "the opposing infantry's lines were defined by the gray walls" [183].

Messenger continues, "In the first charge of chapter 19, Henry appears much like a lineman in the middle of the field. In the chapter's second charge or play, he resembles a back momentarily free in the open field. In the novel's only specific reference to football, Crane wrote:

The youth ran like a madman to reach the woods before a bullet could discover him. He ducked his head low, like a football player. In his haste his eyes almost closed, and the scene was almost a wild blur. ... Within him, as he hurled himself forward, was born a love, a despairing fondness for this flag which was near him. It was a creation of beauty and vulnerability. ... Because no harm could come to it he endowed it with power. (186)

Just as the woods represent the opponent's goal line which the player must reach and break through, the flag becomes the football, the inviolable object, and whoever carries it becomes the center of attention, ennobled yet extremely vulnerable." (32)

Sports, especially baseball and, to a lesser degree, football--two sports that Stephen Crane played intensely before writing The Red Badge of Courage--clearly influenced this aspiring author, and through participating in them (and certainly mastering the game of baseball), he probably learned more than he did in any classroom. Indeed, sports may have provided Crane with warrior or sports heroes to emulate and then, having played baseball at the collegiate level, to become the person he imagined himself to be--what Messenger calls the athletic hero. Football, in contrast to baseball, more physically demanding and violent, came to Crane after he had finished growing and better understood his own height and weight limitations. Regardless, both sports taught him the virtues of sacrifice (both physically and for a team), charity, brotherhood, rescue, and redemption and gave him an outlet through which he could express himself. It follows that these sports, growing in their relevance to a generation of young Americans, ultimately provided Crane with the inspiration to write the initiation story that informs the structure and motifs of his greatest novel: The Red Badge of Courage.


(1.) James Mote, Everything Baseball (New York: Prentice Hall, 1989), 235.

(2.) Literary critic and baseball historian Geri Strecker argues that the The Great Match was probably written by Mary Prudence Wells Smith. Geri Strecker, "And the public has been left to guess the secret': Questioning the Authorship of The Great Match, and Other Matches (1877)," NINE 18, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 11-37. The novel has also been reprinted: Trey Strecker and Geri Strecker, eds., The Great Match and Our Base Ball Club: Two Novels (Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2010).

(3.) Christian K. Messenger, Sport and the Spirit of Play in American Fiction: Hawthorne to Faulkner (New York: Columbia up, 1980,141.

(4.) Peter Morris, Catcher: How the Man Behind the Plate Became an American Folk Hero (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2009), 3.

(5.) Morris, Catcher, 3.

(6.) Ed Burns, "Stephen Crane's Historic War Novel Owes a Debt to his Love of Baseball," Sports Illustrated, April 14, 1986, w5.

(7.) Edwin H. Cady, Stephen Crane (New Haven: College & University Press, 1962), 26.

(8.) Thomas Beer, Stephen Crane: A Study in American Letters (New York: Knopf, 1923), 53, quoted in Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino, "Thomas Beer: The Clay Feet of Stephen Crane," American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 22, no. 3 (Spring 1990): 6-7.

(9.) Lyndon Upson Pratt, "The Formal Education of Stephen Crane," American Literature 10, no. 4 (January 1939): 466.

(10.) Harry Katz, "Portraits of Baseball's Tinker, Evers, and Chance," Smithsonian (October 2009): 7.

(11.) Rick Burton, "Twain and Crane: The Old Ball Game--The Author of 'Red Badge' Loved the Game More Than His Studies," New York Times, March 14, 2010, SP 2.

(12.) The Onondagan (Syracuse University yearbook), May 30, 1891, 98, 148, 157, 167, 172, 204; and Wiliam Freeman Galpin, Syracuse University: The Pioneer Days (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1952), 159.

(13.) Robert Wooster Stallman and Lillian Gilkes, eds., Letters (New York: New York UP, 1960), 78. (Letter to an editor at Leslie's Weekly, November 1895.)

(14.) Stallman and Gilkes, Letters, 78.

(15.) Burns, "Stephen Crane's Historic War Novel Owes a Debt to his Love of Base-ball," w5; and Morris, Catcher, 6.

(16.) Galpin, Syracuse University, 159.

(17.) Morris, Catcher, 7.

(18.) Mansfield French, "Stephen Crane, Ball Player." Syracuse University Alumni News 15 (January 1934): 2-3; and Clarence Loomis Peaslee, "Stephen Crane's College Days," Monthly Illustrator and Home and Country 13 (August 1896): 84, quoted in Morris, Catcher, 7.

(19.) Cady, Stephen Crane, 82.

(20.) Cady, Stephen Crane, 82.

(21.) Burns, "Stephen Crane's Historic War Novel Owes a Debt to his Love of Baseball," w5.

(22.) Anonymous review of The Red Badge of Courage, Book Buyer, April 1, 1896, 140-41.

(23.) Pratt, "The Formal Education of Stephen Crane," 4-1.

(24.) Cady, Stephen Crane, 28.

(25.) "The Pennant Won" The Syracuse Sunday Herald, June 7, 1891, 5.

(26.) "The Hamilton Game," The University News, June 8, 1891, 1014.

(27.) Stephen Crane, Crane: Prose and Poetry (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1984), 90; and Paul Dickson, The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, 3rd ed. (New York: Norton, 2009), 348.

(28.) Crane, Crane: Prose and Poetry, 120. Texts for the Library of America volume of Crane's writing are reprinted from the University of Virginia Edition of The Works of Stephen Crane, edited by Fredson Bowers. All quotations of Crane's work in this article are from the Library of America volume and will be cited hereafter by page number in parentheses in the text.

(29.) Dickson, The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, 184-85.

(30.) Burton, "Twain and Crane," SP2.

(31.) Susan Jensen, "Classic American Authors: Stephen Crane,", August 8, 2000,

(32.) Messenger, Sport and the Spirit of Play in American Fiction, 141-54 passim. (Page numbers have been changed to conform to the Library of America volume.)
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Title Annotation:'The Red Badge of Courage'
Author:Burton, Rick; Finkel, Jan
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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