Composer's Ode to Baseball a Grand Slam

The Associated Press
Tuesday, May 29, 2007; 3:46 PM

NEW YORK -- Hank Aaron has only faint recollections of the bat boy who would become a composer and write a composition about the home run king and two other towering black baseball heroes _ Jackie Robinson and Josh Gibson.

Richard Danielpour's "Pastime" had its world premiere in January by the Pittsburgh Symphony. Its first performance in Atlanta, where Aaron played nine seasons on his way to hitting 755 home runs, is Thursday night with baritone Gregg Baker accompanied by conductor Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony.

The 51-year-old Danielpour _ who has composed works for musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma, Frederica von Stade and Emanuel Ax _ was 12 when he met Aaron during spring training in 1968 in an encounter recorded by Palm Beach society photographer Bob Davidoff.

Davidoff, a friend of the boy's family, captured a scene that could have been an episode of "The Wonder Years." The young Richard, clutching a pen and program, appears dazzled but unabashed in his Yankees cap and jacket as he sits next to Aaron, smiling in his No. 44 Braves uniform, his glove resting on his lap.

The following year, Danielpour became a bat boy for the Braves, working for three springs at their West Palm Beach, Fla., training camp.

"To be honest with you," Aaron said in a telephone interview last week from Atlanta, "I don't remember. I guess when you're really involved in a baseball game ... you're just concentrating so much on what you're doing."

Aaron did recall a sculpture of him created by Danielpour's mother, Mehri. At Richard's urging during their first meeting, Aaron went to the Danielpour home to pose for a bust.

"In fact I still have it," the 73-year-old Aaron said. "Unfortunately it got into a fire and it kind of singed the color, but it's still there. ... She did a very good job."

Now, nearly four decades later, another Danielpour has created a work of art about Aaron and two other black sons of the South _ Gibson and Robinson _ who left their marks on society through their achievements on the diamond.

Consider "Pastime" a tailor-made triple play for Danielpour, whose passions include baseball, music and the civil-rights struggle.

The son of Iranian-Jewish immigrants, he grew up in redneck sections of Florida in the 1960s and identified with black culture. Despite his studies as a classical pianist, he would constantly listen to soul stations on his transistor radio.

His white classmates didn't take too kindly to that. "I had all sorts of terms hurled at me," he said. He persisted because "it was some of the best music around."

"So much of what the Brits came with was the result of what they learned from black American artists," he said. "We know now that Paul McCartney's scream came from Little Richard and we know that Chuck Berry's rhythm guitar was appropriated by John Lennon, and we know that Mick Jagger's strut is really Tina Turner. We didn't quite know it then. We didn't want to admit to it."

Danielpour's inspiration for "Pastime" came from the poem "Blackjack," about Jackie Robinson. At the artist colony Yaddo, Danielpour asked poet Michael Harper to write other baseball poems so he could set them to music.

"He didn't really react too much," Danielpour said. "Then after another week, I tossed him a baseball and said, `See if this will help.' I said, `Consider it the grain of sand that gets into your shell.'"

Within a week or so, Harper wrote nine, of which Danielpour used five.

"Pastime" was commissioned by the Pittsburgh and Atlanta symphonies and the Brooklyn Philharmonic to honor the three baseball legends who played in those cities. The Pittsburgh premiere was on the 60th anniversary of Gibson's death; it will be performed in Brooklyn in July 2008.

Written in the style of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," the piece starts with a swaggering introduction, complete with percussive strikes that conjure images of a pitch slamming into the catcher's mitt. The epilogue has a gentle, sentimental theme that is sidetracked by arrogant motifs, including a grotesquely distorted reference to "The Star-Spangled Banner" that suggests a lamentation for baseball's loss of innocence.

The inner movements, however, suggest that baseball was never really innocent.

The second and third movements are requiems for Gibson and Robinson. Eerie, hushed chords by the strings are interrupted by furtive chirps of the woodwinds.

Gibson was said to be the greatest power hitter of the Negro League. He played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays from 1930 to 1946, dying in 1947 at age 36.

"Gibson died before his time," Harper's text says. "On the trestle of Jim Crow funeral cars lies the body of Josh Gibson."

Only three months after Gibson's death, Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the Major League's color barrier.

"We saw the jeering train unwinding its sheets in Georgia, your mail cringing with snake juice spat in the Bronx; and when you crossed the border we cheered our black ace," Harper declares in "Blackjack."

The fourth movement is called "Henry Aaron's Hammer." The music is faster, louder and more agitated. The text credits Aaron for "doing the impossible every day without fanfare, without losing his cap even once."

"It's just the way I tried to play the game," Aaron said last week when read the lines. "I just played the best I could, and I think that he said it exactly the way I would say it."

The poem also mentions the racist threats Aaron received while on the road to break Babe Ruth's home run record.

"Looking back and thinking about some of the things that happened back then, the country wasn't truly at the point where the playing field was equal for everybody," Aaron told The Associated Press.

Is it better now?

"I would say somewhat, but there are still problems," Aaron said. "Whether it's here in America or anywhere, if you have such (divisions) between the haves and the have nots you're going to run into problems like that."

Or as Harper says in "Blackjack": "And the answer, answered still to come."


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