E. Ethelbert Miller: Baseball, Memoirs and Secrets

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Poet E. Ethelbert Miller chair's the board of the Institute for Policy Studies and is the director of the African-American Resources Center at Howard University. He's also the author of a new memoir, in which he uses baseball to describe his life. He tells Liane Hansen a memoir writer has to decide which secrets to tell.


Poet and author E. Ethelbert Miller has been writing about baseball lately. He's just completed his second memoir, "The Fifth Inning." Ethelbert Miller chairs the board of the Institute for Policy Studies and is director of the African-American Resources Center at Howard University. Welcome back, Ethelbert.

Mr. E. ETHELBERT MILLER (Poet; Author, "The Fifth Inning"; Director, African-American Resources Center; Board Chairperson, Institute for Policy Studies): Oh, it's always good to see you.

HANSEN: Your memoir, you call it "The Fifth Inning." Would you start off by reading the passage that begins, "In the fifth inning"?

(Soundbite of memoir "The Fifth Inning")

Mr. MILLER: (Reading) In the fifth inning, you know, anything can happen. This could be a complete game. You count your blessings for surviving the fourth. The first hitter sends a ball deep to the warning track in left field. This brings your manager to his feet. He starts to pace in the dugout. He's afraid you're losing it. You look down at your feet and kick the rubber. You're afraid too, and it tips the next hitter off. One swing and you're down four. The next two hitters follow with a single and a double. It's over now. You might as well play catch in the backyard with the kids. The catcher asks the umpire for time and walks out to the mound. Here's comes your manager getting ready to ask for the ball. Inside your glove, you hold it and keep waiting for it to speak. The silence tells its own story, but the game keeps searching for an author.

HANSEN: Fifth inning. You're nearing the end of your 50s.

Mr. MILLER: Right.

HANSEN: Why does the baseball metaphor work for you in this memoir?

Mr. MILLER: Well, I went back to what people say, write about what you know. And I realized that one thing I knew was baseball, and it was something I enjoyed growing up in the South Bronx, in the shadows of Yankee Stadium, standing getting autographs from people like Jim Bouton, you know, and Hector Lopez and Mickey Mantle. And so I went back to that. But what triggered it was the fact that I was losing so many friends who were not making it through their 50s, who weren't making it through that complete game.

HANSEN: You also write "The memoir writer has to decide what secrets not to tell." You hint at some of your own secrets? You've stopped drinking. What secrets were OK for you to tell?

Mr. MILLER: Well, I think, you know, sometimes what happens, you ask yourself, and you're like, what secret am I willing to reveal at this particular point? And will it help someone? Something that you've kept to yourself, that now you feel, if I share this, this might help somebody in their life.

HANSEN: I can't help thinking of baseball. I mean, because every player has their statistics and their probability.

Mr. MILLER: And their superstitions.

HANSEN: And their superstitions. And there are some you tell and some...

Mr. MILLER: You don't.

HANSEN: You don't.

Mr. MILLER: That's why it's a short book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Baseball is also about magical stories. There are always two outs. It's the bottom of the ninth. You know, the count is three and two. And comes that last pitch. And boom! Magic happens.

Mr. MILLER: I mean, I will always go back to Bill Mazeroski, you know, hitting a home run in the World Series, Pirates against the Yankees.

HANSEN: You recall "Imagine you were playing for the Yankees." I'd like you to read, actually, that passage.

(Soundbite of memoir "The Fifth Inning")

Mr. MILLER: (Reading) I think all memoirs should consist of magical stories. How often did I imagine myself playing for the Yankees when I was a child? It was I, not Mickey Mantle, who hit the home run in the bottom of the ninth. We didn't call it a walk-off home run back then. We didn't stand in the batter's box like Reggie Jackson or Manny, looking at our artwork. We didn't cast our bats aside like fishing rods or spears. No, there was no posturing or television highlight. We played the game, not like entertainers, but like workers putting in a good day's work. We played with our backs hurting and our hands bruised. We played with our bad knees and sore muscles. Some of us were ironmen, and others were simply legends.

HANSEN: I think about all those pitchers that are - made it to their 40s, you know, and are still pitching really well.

Mr. MILLER: And knowing how to pitch and not just throw.

HANSEN: Yeah. Did you think then that you would make it to the fifth inning?

Mr. MILLER: I don't know because, you know, my brother died, you know, in his 40s. And when you lose a person in your family who you thought would live forever, it wakes you up. And so I don't take things for granted.

HANSEN: How many more innings do you want to play?

Mr. MILLER: I want to play a few extra innings.

HANSEN: Yeah, you want to go into overtime.

Mr. MILLER: I want to go into overtime, right.

HANSEN: How many do you think you will be able to play?

Mr. MILLER: Well, you know, that depends on - you know, I look at my mother. Next year, she'll be 90. I look at friends of mine who - they've been married, you know, for X number of years, and I wonder whether they can pass Joe DiMaggio's 56 straight games. You know, I mean, I look at baseball and look at life, and you're blessed, you know, from one pitch to the next.

HANSEN: E. Ethelbert Miller chairs the board of the Institute for Policy Studies and is director of the African-American Resources Center at Howard University. Great to see you again. Thanks for coming in.

Mr. MILLER: As always, good to see you. Thank you.

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