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Alaskan Range: Baseball Or Westerns

...Buffalo Jones was a real westerner. A famous roper, he lassoed warthogs, zebras, rhinos, and a lioness in Africa for zoos, bighorn sheep for the Smithsonian, and musk ox in the Canadian Arctic...

Columnist and librarian Greg Hill "lassos'' a few Westerns.

P.T. Barnum once claimed that “Every crowd has a silver lining,” and that even applies to the recent Texas Rangers-St. Louis Cardinals World Series that was umpired by School for the Blind graduates. During the series, the “Cardinals ‘won’ 69% of the bad calls and owned a slight advantage on borderline calls,” Baseball writer Scott Lucas noted. In the end, questionable umpiring calls, including one by an umpire who’s an avowed Cardinals fan, helped extend the Series to the full seven games.

The extra games in St. Louis filled the St. Louis coffers with enough tax revenue to cover a $2.8 million budget shortfall, and thereby reversed the furloughing of seven thousand city employees, which included librarians. Even so, raising a die-hard Rangers fan’s spirits these days involves some heavy lifting, for as Don Marquis once said, “Every cloud has its silver lining, but it is sometimes a little difficult to get it to the mint.”

Literary escapism is one solution, and judging by fiction's enduring popularity, I’m not alone. Mysteries are big circulators, along with science fiction, romances, fantasy, and historical novels. The day after the Series ended so miserably, I escaped into the audio version of Patrick O’Brian’s “Master and Commander,” knowing that 20-volume series ought to distract and entertain me until pitchers and catchers report to spring training in 160 days. O’Brian doesn’t fit every mood, so I’ll likely intersperse his Napoleonic Age tales with Terry Pratchett’s satirical fantasy or Elmer Kelton’s westerns.

Kelton was the son of a working cowboy raised on a ranch in dustiest West Texas who got his journalism degree through the G.I. Bill. He was farm and ranch editor for the San Angelo Texas Standard-Times and later edited the “Sheep and Goat Raiser Magazine” and “Livestock Weekly,” writing western novels all the while. And they’re good: the Western Writers of America gave Spur Awards to seven of his thirty westerns. Kelton also won the Owen Wister Lifetime Achievement Award, named for a wealthy Philadelphia doctor’s son and author who was a Harvard buddy of Theodore Roosevelt.

Like Roosevelt, Wister visited the West and wrote about it, but where Roosevelt concentrated on history and public policy, Wister wrote nine novels, thirteen nonfiction works, six short story collections, nine operas, and nine plays over the course of his fifty-year career. Even Wister’s publishing record pales beside Zane Grey’s ninety westerns. Baseball provided momentum to Grey’s life. The son of a poor Ohio dentist, Grey attended the University of Pennsylvania on a baseball scholarship and later played minor league ball. Afterwards, he read Wister’s “The Virginian,” which motivated Grey to travel west. There he met the now-obscure guide, Buffalo Jones.

Born in 1844, Jones moved from Illinois to Kansas as a young man to run a fruit tree nursery but soon turned to buffalo hunting. He was good enough to earn his “Buffalo” sobriquet, but later Jones championed buffalo preservation, breeding stock that he shared with zoos, museums, and Roosevelt’s new Yellowstone National Park. He also crossbred them with cows to produce “beefalos,” which are hardy and meaty, but usually sterile. A friend of lawmen Pat Garrett and Wyatt Earp, rancher Charles Goodnight, Buffalo Bill Cody, and the ubiquitous Theodore Roosevelt, Buffalo Jones was a real westerner. A famous roper, he lassoed warthogs, zebras, rhinos, and a lioness in Africa for zoos, bighorn sheep for the Smithsonian, and musk ox in the Canadian Arctic. Once he supposedly roped a grizzly and spanked him.

Zane Grey hired Jones to guide him around the West and modeled several characters after him, including the protagonist in “Last of the Plainsmen.” Grey’s books were enormously popular, with fifty novels issued posthumously and over 100 movies inspired by them. Between regular editions, large print, and sound recordings, our library catalog lists 110 Zane Grey titles, even after a library roof leak last Thanksgiving destroyed some. Another silver lining: that catastrophe drew public attention to the library roof crisis, action was taken, and it’ll be replaced next spring.

While we wait, baseball fans among us can still enjoy one of the 1,275 baseball titles at the library, for as Voltaire noted, “Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.”


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