I is for Me and Z is for Zenith

Didn’t know he had a stamp. Cool.

I is for Me,
Not a hard-hitting man,
But an outstanding all-time
Incurable fan.

Z is for Zenith
The summit of fame.
These men are up there.
These men are the game.

The above quote are a couple stanzas from the famous baseball poem “Lineup for Yesterday” written by Ogden Nash. It’s one of the, if not the most, famous baseball poems written. If you don’t know anything about it, Nash essentially goes through the alphabet naming the best players of baseball by using the letter to correspond with a name. For example, G is for Lou Gehrig. He does this for all the letters with some exceptions. When he arrives at the letter “x”, he fudges a little by using Jimmie Foxx (see the two “x”‘s at the end?). However, for 24 letters, he still finds a famous player to fill the space. There are 2 exceptions — I and Z.

Now, why did he do it? In regard to I, he utilizes himself (“I is for Me”), so he uses a person but not a ballplayer. For Z, he doesn’t use any person at all, and instead, he chooses to glorify the game. All that is perfectly good, and because it’s his poem, he can do whatever he wants with it. But I still have to ask the question — why?

Let’s start with I. In many paintings, painters implant their own self-portrait, and this could be a similar construction. Another reason is to make a universal statement — “I” doesn’t necessarily pertain to him but, instead, to all baseball fans reading the poem.

On to Z. At this point in history, baseball is truly the National Pastime, and this could simply be him taking the opportunity to glorify the game itself. It could also be just a nice conclusion to the poem. Having a “z” player end the poem is a little abrupt, but having a more general conclusion brings the poem to soft close.

But possibly the most obvious (yet also most shallow) is that he simply couldn’t think of any good ballplayers with names that started with “i” and “z”. The rest of the post (after the next few sentences) will talk about the best players Nash could have used in the poem. Remember, the poem was published in January of 1949, so we have to stick with players who were stars prior to 1949.

I is a bit unusual. The letter is found everywhere in the English language (it helps to be a vowel), but few names begin with it. Because he fudged a few others, he could have used Ted Williams. Williams was still playing, and Nash avoided using active players (Bobo Newsom foiled him by coming back in 1952 and 1953 after retiring in 1948). Regardless, he could find someone with an eye in the name, but doing that is doing a bit more fudging than the x’s in Foxx, considering the rarity of x, oddity of 2 x’s, and the popularity of Foxx. So were there good players with names that began with I.

– Out of the top 400 players from 1876-1948 in OPS+, none have an I to begin their either their first or last name. No Isaacs, Irvings, or Ivans. Sorry boys.

– Looked through the top 400 pitchers in ERA+, and you know what — nothing. Still nothing. Geez. I had Baseball-Reference, so I can only imagine how hard it was for Nash.

Z is just plain rare. In Scrabble, Z and Q are the letters with the most worth (Nash cheated a bit by mentioning Don Quixote to bring up Connie Mack, but again, he could have done something similar with I and Z) at 10 points a pop. So were there any players with a Z (and I’ll even try to pull a Foxx here)?

– We have a few winners here. Jake Stenzel comes in as a “Foxx” example. A member of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1890’s, Stenzel played 9 seasons, but 1894-1897 was his peak. Offense, however, exploded at this point and Stenzel was lost in the shuffle.

Zeke Bonura is another possibility, but he only played in 7 seasons in the mid-to-late 1930’s. He was a good hitter, but he was known for poor effort out in the field. The “Bonura Salute” is when a player just waves at a passing groundball. I don’t think we can use him even if his name starts with a z.

Luckily, we have Zack Wheat, a member of the Hall of Fame (by Veteran’s Committee). Playing from 1909-1927 (mainly as a Brooklyn Dodger, he was a lifetime .317/.367/.450 hitter (129 OPS+) and was a well-respected defender. He was originally voted into the Hall of Fame in 1927, but only 29 years had passed (a player needs 30 years of retirement to be elected by the Veteran’s Committee). Because the VC only met every two years, he had to wait until 1959 to be elected, this time unanimously.

– Dizzy Dean, Dazzy Vance, and Lefty Gomez are all out because they were already used in the poem, and there were no pitchers who had a name start with a Z. Dave Foutz, Joe Benz, and Fritz Ostermuelle were the “Foxx” examples, but none were particularly good. Foutz may have been the best with a lifetime 147-66 record with 41 of them coming in 1886. Benz was fairly good, but he only lasted 9 seasons. Ostermuelle lasted 15 seasons, but he bounced between being a starter and reliever.

In the end, we have no real suggestions for I, but it appears that Zack Wheat could have been a choice for Z. We may never know why Nash wrote those two stanzas the way he did. Maybe he wanted some metaphors, or maybe he just couldn’t think of anyone to put in the poem. Maybe it was just a combination of the two. I just thought it was something fun to ponder this afternoon.

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2 Responses to “I is for Me and Z is for Zenith”

  1. Ian Says:

    As a person whose name starts with I, I cherish the rarity of it. I'm one of those nerds who loves words and letters, and I tend to think about stuff like that.

    I notice that Nash cheated a little on U too. There weren't many good options there either.

    I have to believe that Nash ended he poem the way he did because it made a nice conclusion, not because he couldn't think of Zack Wheat. Like you said, it brings the poem to a soft close.

  2. tHeMARksMiTh Says:

    Yeah, but I love Carl Hubbell so much that I didn't care.

    As for the ending, I agree. People writing poetry and fiction don't usually just take the easy road. There's usually a reason for it. And when thinking about it, I just came to the conclusion that ending with a Z name would have felt a little weird. But with the I, he may have just given up. Not sure what else he could have done with that.

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