In an era when poetry commonly appeared in sports pages, and these pages themselves were the sole media for sports, few chronicled baseball as William F. Kirk did. Beginning in 1905, his poems, game accounts, and comic pieces graced the New York American. Satire, whimsy, and empathy characterized his work. John McGraw’s Giants and raucous Polo Grounds crowds served as his muses. Like many baseball careers, Kirk’s heyday was brief. After a half-dozen years at the sports desk, Kirk turned to a more general treatment of American life.
William Frederick Kirk was born on April 29, 1877, in Mankato, Minnesota, one of ten children. His father David emigrated from Scotland, his mother Caroline hailed from New York. The family moved to Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, in 1882, where the elder Kirk worked as a city engineer.
After graduating from high school in 1894, William apprenticed at the Chippewa Falls Independent, learning the trade of a type-setter. In this capacity, Kirk moved on to the Chippewa Herald, then the Eau Clare Daily Morning Telegram. Along the way, he developed expertise in stenography and typewriting. Which he used when he returned to Minnesota in 1899 to work for a wholesale hardware firm in St. Paul.
Kirk started contributing verse to newspapers in the Twin Cities, but the attempts failed to take hold. He returned to Wisconsin and the Chippewa Herald in 1902, becoming the newspaper’s city editor. At the same time, Kirk contributed a column of “jokes and rhymes and paragraphs” entitled “Fleeting Fancies.” The effort was an immediate hit. Within six months, it had attracted the attention of Charles Pfister, owner of the Milwaukee Sentinel, who snatched up Kirk and the column for his paper.1
“Fleeting Fancies” was middlebrow entertainment. Americana was heralded in poems such as “The Wooden Indian” and “Marbles.” The common man was saluted (“The Winners”), but without noble endeavor any life could be considered empty (“A Little Man”).
Mostly, Kirk was a humorist, often adapting for satire poems commonly recognized by his readership. He channeled Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Hiawatha to speak on contemporary matters such as strikes or yellow journalism. As the “Norsk Nightingale,” Kirk mined the Scandinavian culture of the upper Midwest, with Swedish-Americans treated as sometimes kind-hearted, sometimes brutish, folk. In Kirk’s hands, a work such as David Bates’s “Speak Gently,” opened as:
Speak yentle; it ban better far
To rule by love dan fear;
Ef yu speak rough, yu stand nice chance
To get gude smash on ear.2
Kirk’s poems were distributed to newspapers from coast to coast. In 1904 a collection was published as, appropriately, Fleeting Fancies. (A year later, a collection of the Scandinavian poems appeared as The Norsk Nightingale.) The book was generally well-reviewed, with Kirk recognized as arriving at “the very head of American press humorists.”3
Meanwhile, William Randolph Hearst was scaling the heights of the newspaper industry. After taking over the San Francisco Examiner in 1887, Hearst leapt across the country to purchase (with his considerable family fortune) the New York Morning Journal in 1895. The next year, Hearst launched the New York Evening Journal. The two papers (the Morning Journal was renamed the American in 1901) were characterized by sensational story-telling, sympathies towards working-class and immigrant populations, and innovative features, graphics, and comics. The Hearst empire quickly expanded to Chicago (the evening American launched in 1900, the morning Examiner in 1902), Los Angeles (the morning Examiner in 1903), and Boston (the evening American in 1904). The Hearst “wire” linked nationally-oriented material ranging from editorials (increasingly supporting Hearst’s political ambitions) to the Sunday comics across these papers, and others which arrived in the years ahead.4
Hearst had an eye for talent, and a billfold to ensure he got what he wanted. It is unclear by what means he, or one of his lieutenants, recruited Kirk. Or, alternatively, how Kirk might have marketed himself to Hearst. But there was perhaps some inevitability that the Hearst newspapers and a rising national star would meet. By 1905, scarcely four years after failing to launch in the Twin Cities, Kirk was in New York City, covering baseball for the American.
Kirk had written about baseball in his Wisconsin days, although not frequently, and with generic results. For example, in “Jimmie’s Reply,” an otherwise disinterested schoolboy merrily rattles off a few dozen Irish-American ballplayers when asked by his teacher to name famous Irishmen.5 But once at a New York sports desk, evident gifts quickly came forth from Kirk’s typewriter.
It helped, too, to sit in the Polo Grounds press box. Under McGraw, the Giants had won the National League pennant in 1904 and comfortably led the circuit in attendance. In May 1905, with another heated race brewing, their bitter Pittsburgh rivals came to New York for a key series. McGraw, seeing Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss chatting with friends during the game, impertinently shouted “Hey, Barney!” at the magnate. “I did not answer that too familiar greeting,” Dreyfuss recounted, in a letter to league president Harry Pulliam, “nor did I respond to any of his several attempts to attract my attention. He then urged me to make a wager, and was so insistent that I finally told him I would have nothing to do with him. With that he accused me of being crooked, of controlling the umpires, and made other false malicious statements.”6
The controversy played out in the press, with McGraw earning a 15-day suspension. Kirk’s colleague, Sam Crane, battled the verdict with his Evening Journal columns, eventually resulting in a petition signed by some 10,000 Giants fans, demanding McGraw’s suspension be lifted. Which it was, after another round of court action. Kirk, in the American, then adapted Longfellow’s “Excelsior” to chronicle “The Dreyfuss Incident”:
The shades of night were falling fast,
When toward the Giants’ club house passed,
A magnate with a new spring suit—
Suddenly came this flip salute:
His brow grew stern, his jaws were set;
Said he, “Vat’s dis alretty yet?”
And still from the veranda came
That slogan, spoken just the same.
“Ach, himmel!” said the Pittsburg chief,
“Such nerf iss quite peyond pelief!”
Again that salutation raw—
‘Twas from the lips of Muggs McGraw:
“Be careful, Muggs,” a rooter cried;
“You’re injuring little Barney’s pride.”
Another fan said, “Cut it out!”
But still arose that ringing shout:
Now Muggs is fined—a measly shame;
Fined and ejected from the game.
But fans for many years to come
Will keep that war cry going some:
The Giants won another pennant in 1905, then dismissed the Athletics in the World Series. Dreyfuss would be greeted by McGraw’s war cry for years to come.
Kirk’s column for the American, soon entitled “The Base Ball Bugle” also featured satiric tales. In January 1906, he visited Giants veteran “Bad” Bill Dahlen. “I found the great shortstop in his Brooklyn home, feeding his chickens,” the piece opens. A knowing send-up of Hearst sensationalism follows: “Ever and anon an elevated train crashed through the guards and was smashed into kindling on the street below. For a moment the cries of the injured mingled with the sounds of traffic, then died away.” Greeting his visitor, Dahlen sighs his borough’s misfortunes off. “Of course, one hates to see his friends and neighbors maimed.” Then the host tells of his off-season pursuit of inner peace: “The more corn I throw to my feathered friends this winter, the less profanity will I hurl at the umpires during the coming season. Frank Bowerman is the same way. He told me one day that every time he fed the little calves on his Michigan farm he felt his heart warming towards humanity—even toward Hank O’Day.”8
A younger Cubs team sprinted past the Giants in the 1906 race. Outfielder Sam “Sandow” Mertes was traded to St. Louis in mid-July. Kirk, turning to Samuel Woodworth’s “The Old Oaken Bucket” for inspiration, wrote “A Song of Sadness” for the departed Mertes and his little dog Happy, who had accompanied him to the Polo Grounds for every game:
How dear to my heart are the scenes of my childhood
When Polo Ground gossip recalls them to view;
The ninth inning rallies, the famous world’s series,
The rousing old crowds that the conquerors drew.
And now that Sam Mertes has gone to St. Louis
We miss, with a longing both wistful and vain,
The rooting and barking of Sandow’s dog, Happy,
The game little bull pup that tugged at his chain;
The small brindle bull pup,
The playful young bull pup,
The brave little bull pup that tugged at his chain.
With what a swift spurt when the contest was over
He dashed through the crowd to discover his lord;
How many fond glances have followed his movements,
As searching for Sandow he streaked o’er the sward!
Now master and dog have been switched to Missouri,
And all of the friends they have left in their train
Will drink to the health of the faithful left fielder
And the game little bull pup that tugged on his chain;
The small brindle bull pup,
The playful young bull pup,
The brave little bull pup that tugged at his chain.9
Dedicated to “the multitude,” a Hearst newspaper was “in sympathy with and pledged to the cause of the masses of mankind.”10 Kirk’s sensibilities were egalitarian. Rather than cast judgment on the excesses of baseball in his era, he celebrated them as the expressions of the crowd. But his adopted city—and his adopted Giants—were always perched a bit higher than anyone else.
Such world-views were evident in a 1907 “Bugle” column where Kirk considered the Cincinnati “Field Day.” This annual, late-season event featured base-circling and throwing events, bunting exhibitions, and the like. To the Bugle’s editor this was hardly “very remarkable, except for the fact that it was held in Cincinnati!” Kirk imagined, instead, a lineup of events tailored for New York:
- Throwing a pop bottle for distance.
- Throwing a pop bottle for accuracy.
- Chasing an umpire to the clubhouse.
- Running from an enraged player to the street car tracks.
- Long distance talking contests.
- Long distance memory contest, the prize to be awarded to the fan who can remember the earliest base ball statistics.
- Swearing contest, (a) for vigor, (b) for diction.
- Peanut eating contest, the peanuts to be furnished by Harry Stevens [the concessions operator who introduced ‘hot dogs’ at the Polo Grounds in 1901] in order to make the test a severe one.
With some grudging admiration, the editor admitted, “While it would be better to confine the entries to Manhattan fans, the fans of Brooklyn might be allowed to compete in the pop bottle events.”11
In 1908, the Giants again were in a pennant race, and invigorated Kirk’s playful game accounts. As an example, on June 20, Kirk described a play on the field—and the reaction of the Polo Grounds crowd—during a 6-3 victory over the rival Cubs:
Before going any further, let us dwell on a phenomenal piece of fielding. In the fifth inning, Pfiester led off with a clean single and took second on Evers’ sacrifice. Artie Hofman smashed one hard and cruelly toward the centerfield ropes. It looked like a certain home run. Seymour started with the crack of the bat, hurried over the greensward like a leopard, gave a great leap skyward at the “flycological” moment, and speared the ball with his bare hand. There was a hush for a moment until Seymour lit on the grass with the ball in his possession.
Then—well, you might buy a seat for every game during the rest of the season and never hear such an outburst of applause again. Even the hardened regulars got up in their seats and yelled like Roosevelt rooters. Fair women in the upper tier waved their M.W. [Merry Widow] lids until the hairpins fell into the necks of the fanatics beneath, but the fanatics plucked out the hairpins and kept on shrieking. It was perhaps the greatest ovation ever given a ball player for a fielding performance.12
On September 23, the Giants hosted the Cubs, and had victory snatched away by a ruling that Fred Merkle had not advanced to second base. The next morning Kirk, not by nature a cynical soul, conveyed the decision to his readers:
Hank O’Day and Robert Emslie stayed in that little coop for many moments, talking it over. Emslie, seeing that he has a wig, was the judge, and Hank was the attorney. Many and learned were the arguments going back and forth, because neither of the worthy arbitrators had seen the play, and they were to make up in talk what they lacked in vision. When they finally came out of the gloom and were braced by a gathering of baseball scribes, Emslie declined to be interviewed, and O’Day muttered something about “no game.”13
Kirk wrote in a 1907 poem, “Life—In New York,” of heartless crowds, a continuous struggle to meet expenses, but also a glamorous and enticing Manhattan culture.14 Described early in his career as “a little over six feet of good natured and heart-warming humanity,” he fit in well with his New York sportswriter peers, most of whom were also transplants to the city.15 By the second meeting of the Base Ball Writers’ Association of America in 1910, he was a participating member.16 Aside from his newspaper life, Kirk was an accomplished billiards player, and an occasional songwriter.
It was reported in 1906 that Kirk was to marry Antoinette Drummond (nee Benedict), a Wisconsin divorcee.17 Yet there is scant evidence confirming this marriage.18 In his writings, women sometimes appeared as frivolous, and sometimes he mocked the era’s suffragette movement.19 But also, in some of his finest baseball poems, women play prominent roles. The bittersweet “The Story of Two Fans” relates a circa 1910 romance between fans of two New York teams, the regal Giants, and the pedestrian Highlanders:
A boy named Harris Dewdad loved a girl named Sophie Stein,
When he would coo “Whose ‘oo is ‘oo?” she’d answer, “I art thine.”
They worshipped one another with a worship most profound,
Love is the wondrous bunk, you know, that makes the world go ‘round.
Ofttimes, said Harris Dewdad, “Kid, you’re certainly divine!”
And “Cheese!” would be the answer of our heroine, Sophie Stein.
The month of roses came along, the blushing month of June,
Harris and Sophie started framing up their honeymoon.
“Heavens!” said little Sophie, “what if your old man should kick?”
“Calm your fears,” said Harris Dewdad, “I can dewdad mighty quick!”
And thus they cooed together like two pidgeons in a pine,
The stalwart Harris Dewdad and the clinging Sophie Stein.
They went to see a baseball game up on the heights one day,
Sophie was watching Harris, he was piping off the play.
“Come on you Chase!” “Ford reach third base!” young Dewdad cried aloud,
“Kleinow, come on! Keep coming, John! We’ve got that Boston crowd!”
Then from the lips of Sophie Stein escaped some words like these:
“I love to watch the Giants, but this outfit is a freeze!”
This is a true recital, word for word and line for line,
Of the reason Harris Dewdad quit the lovely Sophie Stein.20
In 1911 Right Off the Bat, a collection of Kirk’s baseball poems, was published. Within the volume is “Raymond’s Ride,” where Longfellow’s Paul Revere becomes Giants “spitball king” Bugs Raymond, shakily on the wagon.21 The next September, the pitcher’s tragic life ended, and Kirk eulogized him with “The Late Arthur Raymond”
His frame was once a frame of steel
That turned into a frame of clay.
The hours he whiled as might a child
Living and laughing in today.
As babies chase bright butterflies
He chased the phantom known as Joy.
Pray pity him, you critics grim—
Remember, he was just a boy.
Who knows, in all this world of cant,
In all this world of right and wrong.
If those who preach and those who rant
Will hear a sweeter welcome song?
He was a wastrel, nothing more,
With strength Fate told him to destroy,
But you, still strong, who called him wrong,
Remember, he was just a boy.22
The Giants won three straight pennants from 1911 to 1913, yet Kirk found the life of a sportswriter increasingly monotonous. As early as 1906, he began writing stories from the perspective of a small farm boy, which would evolve into the “Little Bobbie’s Pa” column. A similar ongoing effort, “The Manicure Lady,” was underway by 1908. Hearst by this time was consolidating his syndication efforts, which reached cities without Hearst papers, and began the International News Service in 1909. Kirk’s non-baseball writings were tailored perfectly for mass consumption, and he abandoned the sports beat for them. His baseball poetry continued on the side but, by 1914, it rarely sparkled as it once had.
In 1918, he returned to Chippewa Falls. Kirk produced, remotely, his syndicated columns, now including “Strolls through Sportsville.” Its entries, contrasted to his writings a decade before, are stale. After World War I, his affectionate poems towards his home city and state stand out the most.
In 1926, Kirk fell victim to cancer, and passed away soon afterwards, on March 25, 1927. He left a final poem, “The Last Inning,” behind:
The doctor knows what his trained eyes see,
And he says it’s the last of the ninth for me.
One more swing while the clouds loom dark,
And then I must leave the noisy park.
‘Twas a glorious game from the opening bell—
Good plays, bad plays, thrills pell mell.
The speed of it burned my years away,
But I thank great God that He let me play.23
I would like to thank fellow SABR members Joe Niese and Joanne Hulbert for key assistance with this piece. Joe shared his biographical sketch (see notes) of Kirk. Joanne as the Co-chair (Poetry) of the Baseball and the Arts Research Committee provided several helpful insights. Also, Ann Gaines Rodriguez was very helpful in obtaining materials from the New York Journal American Morgue at the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. Finally, Paul Anderson, the author of a wonderfully crafted Wikipedia entry on Kirk, was exceptionally generous in sharing numerous documents.
As presented in these piece, Kirk’s writings are unchanged from their sources. Also, bracketed material has been used as minimally as possible in his writings.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed the following sites:
1 Kirk’s background is detailed in “William F. Kirk Ends His Gallant Fight,” Chippewa Herald-Telegram, March 25, 1927. Also see “America’s Newest Humorist,” National Magazine, Vol. 20, 1904, 473-476; Joe Niese, “William F. Kirk,” VolumneOne, http://volumeone.org/articles/2010/07/01/1540_William_F_Kirk, accessed January 12, 2015.
2 William F. Kirk, Fleeting Fancies (Boston: Gorham Press, 1904), 109.
3 Saint Paul Globe, June 26, 1904, 33.
4 For Hearst’s story, see David Nasaw, The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000).
5 William F. Kirk, “Jimmie’s Reply,” Butte (Montana) Inter Mountain, July 23, 1903, 4. (This piece is cited as originally appearing in the Milwaukee Sentinel.)
6 “Conduct of M’Graw Will Cause Trouble,” Washington Times, May 23, 1905, 8. Frederick G. Lieb, The Pittsburgh Pirates (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003), 117-120.
7 William F. Kirk, “The Dreyfuss Incident,” Minneapolis Journal, June 8, 1905, 9. (Like many of Kirk’s American pieces, this was distributed to other papers, with the American attributed as the source.)
8 William F. Kirk, “Kirk Visits Dahlen in Brooklyn Suburban Home,” Asheville (North Carolina) Citizen, January 28, 1906, 8. (Again, this piece is cited as originally appearing in the American.)
9 William F. Kirk, “A Song of Sadness,” Washington Post, July 22, 1906, 8.
10 East Oregonian, December 28, 1905, 1.
11 William F. Kirk, “’The Bugle’s’ Base Ball,” Sporting Life, October 5, 1907, 6. (This piece is cited as originally appearing in the Journal.)
12 G.H. Fleming, The Unforgettable Season (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981), 100-101.
13 G.H. Fleming, “The Merkle Blunder,” The Complete Armchair Book of Baseball, John Thorn, ed. (Edison, NJ: Galahad Books, 1997), 497.
14 William F. Kirk, “Life—In New York,” Salt Lake Herald, March 24, 1907, 31.
15 “Billy Kirk’s Book,” Bismarck (North Dakota) Daily Tribune, June 11, 1904, 2; on the background of Kirk’s peers see “Very Few,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 15, 1906, 33.
16 “Base Ball Writers Meet,” Sporting Life, December 24, 1910, 11.
17 For Mrs. Drummond’s divorce, see “State News,” Oshkosh (Wisconsin) Daily Northwestern, March 15, 1906, 4. For her marriage to Kirk, see “Milwaukee Humorist is Soon to Marry Divorcee,” The (Chicago) Inter Ocean, June 9, 1906, 4.
18 Beyond the 1906 stories, the only evidence the author found regarding any Kirk marriage was a 1910 marketing story in support of the play “Seven Days,” where Kirk goes to the play (and enjoys it) per his (unnamed) wife’s insistence. See “The Great Comedy Hit ‘Seven Days,’” Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 15, 1910, 2. If that is considered somewhat manufactured, there is John F. Herne’s “To The Droll Umpire,” Sporting Life, April 25, 1908, 18. Within this poem, both umpire Tim Hurst’s and Kirk’s pursuit of romance is seemingly made light of.
19 See William F. Kirk, “The Suffragettes,” Bisbee (Arizona) Daily Review, March 10, 1909, 8; William F. Kirk, “Our Baseball Primer,” Chicago Examiner, September 15, 1910, 9.
20 William F. Kirk, “The Story of Two Fans,” (Syracuse, New York) Post-Standard, May 26, 1910, 10. (This piece is cited as originally appearing in the American.)
21 William F. Kirk, Right Off the Bat (New York: G.W. Dillingham, 1911), 23-24.
22 William F. Kirk, “The Late Arthur Raymond,” Sporting Life, September 21, 1912, 15.
23 "W. F. Kirk, Syndicate Writer, Dies at 50," obituary clipping from New York Journal American Morgue, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin, File CDL 3B 52/6.