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The Spin Rate: “Kenesaw Mountain Landis” by Jonathan Coulton

Jonathan Coulton fictionalizes baseball's first commissioner.

From walk-up songs to seventh-inning stretches, music and baseball are inextricably interwoven. The Spin Rate is a weekly look at the stories behind the bands and artists who share a love for the sport, and the songs that draw inspiration from the annals of baseball lore.

 

Jonathan Coulton – “Kenesaw Mountain Landis”

 

 

Jonathan Coulton sported a Yankees logo while playing Little League baseball—maybe an unlikely emblem to bear in his native Colchester; a Connecticut Yankee in New England’s court.

“I was a fan of a logo and an idea,” Coulton said in a phone interview. “I was stunned to discover the Yankees were despised. I have a soft spot for a team that doesn’t need one.”

It might also have amused the songwriter’s future self, who grew up to write select songs tackling mathematical concepts like fractals, that his short-lived baseball career was something of a statistical anomaly.

“I’d either get walked or struck out,” Coulton said. “Mostly the former, since it was early Little League.”

During two seasons, spent mostly in left field, praying the ball wouldn’t be hit in his direction, Coulton didn’t register a single tally in the hit column. He lays the blame for the extended slump, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, on the fact that his playing days came before his wearing-glasses days.

Those days also wove into Coulton’s ballpark-going days: He recalls the vibrant, colorful atmosphere at Brooklyn Cyclones games of his youth, marshaled by the antics of King Henry, a bombastic emcee who led interstitial bits between innings.

It’s with these baseball bona fides that Coulton eventually put pen to paper for one of the most gleefully, fictitiously absurd songs about the game—”Kenesaw Mountain Landis,” which appeared on his 2003 debut LP, Smoking Monkey.

Coulton had wanted to write an endless, multiverse (in the so-many-stanzas sense, not the Everything Everywhere All At Once sense, but, also, it sort of is? More on that later.) song, and the framework for “Kenesaw Mountain Landis” was modeled after Bob Dylan and “stolen” from They Might Be Giants, a similarly-brainy band who’d previously perfected the “incorrect history song” blueprint.

The game plan: Pit an impossible hero (Kenesaw Mountain Landis) against an impossible villain (Shoeless Joe Jackson), mythologize the story with preposterous folklore, blend in pop culture, and follow that thread until the story’s told.

But why, of all baseball’s heroic figures, did Coulton tap baseball’s first commissioner as his song’s namesake and protagonist?

“I had seen Eight Men Out a decade before writing the song, and I kind of remembered what happens,” Coulton said. “Kenesaw Mountain Landis just sounds like a fantastic name. He’s named after a mountain, so he became this larger-than-life person.”

Coulton cops to doing “absolutely zero research” before writing, to tremendous effect. Any accuracies from here on out are half-remembrances and coincidental: In Coulton’s rambling verses, Landis is a 17-foot-tall mountain of a man with 150 wives and true aim with a rifle (spoiler alert, but he snipes Shoeless Joe’s middle finger clean off from aboard a blimp).

Shoeless Joe from the Coulton Dimension has a nasty cannibalistic streak, and after being bested by the commissioner’s heroics, morphs into Joe Jackson, the English musician behind “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and oft-mistaken for Elvis Costello. Coulton said the shared-name head fake that caps the track was unplanned serendipity.

While some scholarly listeners can get slightly up in arms over imperfections in Coulton’s lyricism covering fractals, baseball fans in his audience have been happy to let the screwball story ride without much scrutiny.

“Most people are happy with the ridiculousness,” Coulton said.

Coulton’s more-recent brushes with baseball come mostly from playing MLB: The Show (yes, still as the Yankees) and bucking traditional managerial philosophies to the frustration of his opponents. No one, he said, expects a pitcher to hurl sinker after sinker after sinker.

“Kenesaw Mountain Landis” stands tall as an ode to stream-of-unresearched-storytelling, but Coulton joked that it would be fun to do a baseball song that purposely gets things only half-right: Playing with the accuracy of dates and records to ruffle the pedantic stathead in all of us.

“Sports are just so woven into the fabric of everything,” Coulton said. “Few things are able to bring out us vs. them passion like sports can.”

 

Photos by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire & Dorien Monnens on Unsplash | Adapted by Michael Packard (@artbyMikeP on Twitter & IG)

Erik van Rheenen

Erik van Rheenen is a Syracuse University alumnus, aspiring novelist, Yankees fan, live music enthusiast, and a believer in long-winded lists and the Oxford comma. You can find him on Twitter @therealvandyman.

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