Paris of the Plains


Arts & Culture

Baseball and Hemingway in Kansas City.

A Kansas City postcard, date unknown.

Ninety-eight years and twenty-one days ago—October 15, 1917—a kid moved into a boarding house in Kansas City. He was a nobody, then, but his uncle, Alfred Tyler Hemingway, had gone to school with the Kansas City Star’s main editorial writer, and, through the magic of nepotism, had secured his nephew a job. The young reporter was to cover fires and crimes, as well as the General Hospital and Union Station—a beat known, colloquially, as the Short-Stop Run.

This Tuesday, as many as eight-hundred-thousand people turned out to celebrate the Kansas City Royals’ World Series victory at that same Union Station where Ernest Hemingway once met the Chicago Cubs on their way to spring training. Fans pressed up to barricades as the parade unwound along its two-mile route. Confetti cannons blasted blue and white paper into the sky. People applauded for the ballplayers whose names and call numbers were stitched on thousands of shirts. They yelled for Royals manager Ned Yost and for Mayor Sly James. Among the people northwest of Washington Square Park, my wife and I could hardly move. 

We’re not a baseball family. As a kid, though, my parents did take me to the game where George Brett stole his two-hundredth base. I remember it only vaguely—in truth, I was probably bored. It was August 30, 1993, and I was nine years old; I loved books, not sports. That’s not to say I didn’t have fun. My grandfather was there, as was my six-year-old sister. We ate ice cream out of miniature plastic batting helmets. It was a good day, but I didn’t see the significance of the stolen-base milestone. It turns out George Brett didn’t get it, either. “Ten a year for twenty years?” he told the Star after the game. “What’s so good about that?”

Tuesday was different. Everyone knew what was good about it. My wife and I inched along in traffic for more than an hour to get downtown. The many free shuttles had been exhausted, and people were abandoning their cars along the interstate, striking out on foot. Overhead, a tiny American flag had been dyed three different shades of blue. Beneath it, a woman was struggling to climb over a fence in chest-high prairie grass, trying to find some way into the heart of the celebration. People joined the throng from every direction: college kids with face paint and a two-thirds-empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s; families, grandparents, babies, and small children, almost all of them in blue or white, some of them wearing merchandise from the last time the Royals won the World Series in 1985.

More than two million people live in the fourteen counties (and two states) that make up Kansas City’s metropolitan area. It’s a small town compared to places like New York, San Francisco, and Boston. Still, the City of Fountains—we have more of them than anywhere except Rome—has its charms, its heritage of jazz and barbecue. And, of course, there’s Ernest Hemingway and the Star.

So what, you may say. Ernest Hemingway wrote only two stories about Kansas City, “A Pursuit Race” and “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.” It was a place that shaped but didn’t inspire him. He liked the food and the way people talked, he said, and he once compared it to Constantinople, but more than anything he absorbed, like a shock, the ironclad edicts of his editors at the Star. They gave him, in a literal sense, his prose style. Use short sentences, they told him. Be positive, not negative. Eliminate every superfluous word. A long quotation without introducing the speaker makes a poor lead—break into it as soon as you can. Today, according to the paper, his 1915 style sheet is “one of the most often-requested pieces of memorabilia” related to the institution’s history. It’s not as if the Star made Ernest Hemingway into a legend. He did that on his own. But we were part of his story.

It’s the same with the World Series. People want to be part of something—they want to know that the place where they live matters, that it can draw the world’s attention, even for a moment. That’s what I felt, standing with my wife, unable even to catch a glimpse of the Royals or their parade. Kansas City was part of something big. Next to us, a boy on his father’s shoulders waved his hands through the air, grasping at confetti. He couldn’t have been older than three. “I want to catch one,” he said. “I want to catch one!” His dad caught a piece of the twirling blue paper; for good measure, he asked the kid’s brother to pick up some from the ground. As keepsakes, they won’t last long—this is tissue paper we’re talking about—but they pocketed them anyway.

I’ve never been proud of where I live, but I’ve never been ashamed, either. I like San Francisco, Boston, New York—but I also like Kansas City, where we can afford a mortgage, even though I’m a full-time writer. There’s life, here, and culture, and I hope the attention brought on by the Royals’ victory shows the country that this isn’t nowhere. It’s a place with surprises—or, as Ernest Hemingway wrote, “a strange and wonderful place.”

Ben Pfeiffer is a writer and editor living in Kansas City. He’s also the interviews editor at The Rumpus.