Friday, October 3, 2008

“The Curves of Annabelle Lee”

One of my favorite sports articles of all time is a retelling of the classic poem, “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe. Only this version, written by K.C. Clapp of the Grand Rapids Herald in July 1945, was not the story of a lost love, but of a lost baseball game. The Annabelle Lee in Clapp’s poem was a left-handed pitcher for the Fort Wayne Daisies of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). On July 7, 1945, she pitched nine innings of no-hit, no-run ball against Clapp’s hometown team, the Grand Rapids Chicks.

Annabelle Lee Harmon, a native of North Hollywood, California, died on July 3 at the age of 86, and as the baseball playoffs begin, it seems like the perfect time to remember her. Hardly any media outlets noted her passing, and that’s a pity, because she was a warm, elegant, delightful woman who made an indelible imprint on the national pastime. She played pro baseball for seven years and threw the AAGPBL’s first perfect game on July 29, 1944. Beyond that, she was the aunt of major league pitcher Bill Lee—and the person who the “Spaceman” credits with teaching him how to pitch.

My most vivid memory of Annabelle is from 1995, when the All-Americans met for a reunion at a resort in Indian Wells, California. Annabelle was there with her mother Hazel, who was close to 100 years old. The paperback edition of my book about the league, A Whole New Ball Game, had just come out, and I had traveled from the east coast to show it off to the women who inspired it. With me were two friends, including Felicia Halpert, a sportswriter and a storied softball player from the women’s leagues in Brooklyn, New York.

It was late—close to midnight—but Felicia had been asking Annabelle if she still had her “stuff.” Annabelle said, “Sure, I’ll show you.” She laid down a makeshift home plate on the edge of the hotel’s patio, stationed Felicia there with a glove that seemed to appear out of nowhere, and walked off her pitching distance. Then, under fluorescent lights in the warm autumn night, the 73-year-old southpaw put on a pitching clinic. She delivered fastballs, curves, and knuckleballs, and Felicia, whose position was shrouded in darkness, did her best to catch them. Pretty soon her former teammates were lined up on the patio, cheering her on.

As I watched, I couldn’t help but think of my favorite line from Clapp’s poem: “The moon never beams without bringing me dreams of the curves of Annabelle Lee.” All these years later, I still remember Annabelle on that patio, firing pitches through the night, a feisty blond with a poetic name, a wicked knuckleball, and a shared legacy as one of the original girls of summer. She will be missed.

“Annabelle Lee Again Arouses Poet’s Muse”
by K.C. Clapp
Grand Rapids Herald, July 10, 1945

It wasn’t so many hours ago
July 7, specifically,
That a maiden there pitched whom you may know
By the name of Annabelle Lee,
And she hurled so well that not a Chick hit,
Going down to her, one, two, three.

She was not wild, this talented child,
Who twirled so effectively.
And no free passes were handed out
By this stingy Annabelle Lee
But the base hits rang for the Fort Wayne gang
For a 6-0 victory.

And this is the reason as 3,000 know
Who witnessed her wizardry
That not a Chick could hit a lick
Off the slants of Annabelle Lee,
So they sharply dropped from second spot
To a humble berth in 3.
But Fort Wayne cheers its peach-clad dears
Because of Annabelle Lee.

The moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the curves of Annabelle Lee.
And the South Field lights will gleam many nights
Before such a sight I may see—
No hits by Ziegler or Tetzlaff or Eisen,
No hits by the bustling “B.”
No hits by Maguire or Petras or “Twi,”
Why? Because of Annabelle Lee.

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