"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Bronx Banter Interview: Harvey Frommer

[Editor’s Note: I love reading long interviews and during the first few years here at Bronx Banter was able to conduct a series of them myself. For a number of reasons I wasn’t able to keep doing them. So I’m happy to present the following, a Q&A with veteran baseball author Harvey Frommer, that was done by Hank Waddles, who is no stranger to indepth interviews.]

Bronx Banter Interview

By Hank Waddles

From the moment the Yankees broke ground on the new Stadium across the street from the current park, an entire industry has been growing around the public’s need to remember the House that Ruth Built. Already you can buy vials of dirt, limited edition lithographs, and pictures with facsimile autographs. I’m certain that in the months to come we’ll be offered bricks, rivets, and splinters from the bleachers, assuming we’re willing to take out a second mortgage in order to pay for it all. One of the finest products out there, though, is a visually stunning book by Harvey Frommer, Remembering Yankee Stadium: An Oral and Narrative History of "The House That Ruth Built". Filled with beautiful photographs that span the Stadium’s history, the book tells the story of the past eighty-five years one decade at a time, relying heavily on the voices of the players, writers, and fans who took the field, reported from the press box, and walked through the turnstiles each afternoon from April to October. Last week the author was kind enough to chat with me about the book. Enjoy…

Bronx Banter: There has been a flood of products over the past year relating to the closure of Yankee Stadium. Why was this project important to you personally?

Harvey Frommer: I think mine is the definitive book. I’m positioned by experience, by temperament, and by track record to do this, which I think blows away all the others. I’m not the only one to say this. The reviews I’ve gotten plus the people who’ve seen it really agree with me. Some of the other products were very quick commercial attempts to capitalize on the closure of Yankee Stadium and the creation of the new one. The bulk of them, in fact all of them, came out in the spring. Mine just came out September 1, 2008, so in a way it’s like the last shall be the first. I’m very happy with what I’ve done. I’ve written eight other Yankee-oriented books, I’ve done hundreds of article on the Yankees, and I wrote for Yankees Magazine for eighteen years. It seems like an immodest answer to your question, but I didn’t intend it to be.

BB: That’s okay, that’s what I was looking for.

HF: I don’t like to trash the opposition. They’re all good people, but I’m proud of what I do.

BB: Good. It’s certainly a beautiful book, and I’ve enjoyed it since I received it. I went to my first game at the Stadium when I was seven years old in 1977. When was your first game? Do you remember much from it?

HF: Believe it or not, people ask me what are some of my favorite Yankee Stadium memories and what was my first game there, but I would have not been a very good interview for the book. But I found some great people to interview. Mine basically blurs through the various decades. My great thought or feel about Yankee Stadium is having the honor of Bob Shepperd doing the introduction to the book. The voice of Bob Shepperd has always stayed with me when I’ve been at the Stadium and when I haven’t been at the Stadium. So if you want to single out a theme or a moment, I guess it’s not the traditional response to that question, but it would be hearing him announce different Yankee players through the generations. I guess I probably started going to the Stadium in the 50s, and he began in 1951. I don’t think I began that early, but maybe I did. But his voice ringing down through the decades — and now he’s 97 and he’s not that well – I think that typifies my experience and, I guess, millions of others in terms of Yankee Stadium. Reggie Jackson allegedly calls him "the voice of God," but I call him the Voice of the Yankees. I’m giving you odd answers to good questions…

BB: That’s okay. Whenever I talk to authors I think I most look forward to asking about their research and writing process, and that’s especially true with your book. When did you start this project?

HF: I think the project was started a decade ago. I’ve always had a certain thing for Yankee Stadium. The physical job of doing it was when I got a contract that was about two years in the working. I teach oral history and also sports journalism at Dartmouth College, and some of those skills that I try to put into my students were definitely used in this particular book. I’d like to put it on the record that the New York Yankees did not cooperate with me at all. In fact, they locked me out from any access at the ballpark, to their clips, to their photographs, and to the players they could control because they were doing the official book, and mine was the unofficial book. They did me a favor, because I had really more of a challenge on my hands. The challenge resulted in my getting all kinds of interesting personalities into the book. I got a guy who was a hundred years old named Bill Werber, who was with the Yankees for about a month in 1927. I got Bob Shepperd to write the introduction. I got people who have been long time fans who had great, great stories to tell. I got a guy like [Duke] Sims, who the other books would not have thought of interviewing, who hit the last home run at the old Yankee Stadium back in ’73 just before the refurbishment began. He didn’t even realize he had hit the last home run. So the process really was made more difficult but made more challenging, and anybody who knows me knows I like a challenge.

BB: You answered this a little bit, so I’m gonna combine a couple of questions for you. A lot of the voices that you used were obviously famous, either because they were players or celebrities in other fields, but others are not. They were just fans, it seemed. I was wondering if that was a conscious choice going into the book, and also, how were you able to contact so many people?

HF: This is my fortieth sports book, so I do have my own personal archive and my own personal network of contacts. That was one of the ways I was able to do it. Also, I train my students to ask this question after they finish interviewing someone who is very good: "Are there any more at home like you?" So I usually am able to get referrals and way basically leads on to way. There’s a guy in L.A. who’s a talent booker, Paul Doherty. This guy came to me from another guy who’s in L.A., Seth Swirsky. I’ve reviewed some of his books and I’ve gotten memorabilia from him. He’s a sports memorabilia collector. So Seth recommended Paul Doherty. It was through Paul Doherty that I was able to get Bob Shepperd and also some other people who supplied me with the most incredible photographs and incredible stories. Way leads onto way in getting these various people. Somebody like a Whitey Ford I knew, so I could reach out to him and call him. And Bill Gallo, who’s a cartoonist for the New York Daily News, I knew him also. I was able to get a hold of him. Many of the others I didn’t know, but I was able to reach out and get them.

BB: You mentioned the photographs; I wanted to ask you about that. The book is visually spectacular.

HF: I was told by my agent when I signed the deal that this would be the most beautiful book of my life, and he was correct.

BB: There are pictures in the book that I think people haven’t seen, pictures that beautifully capture the different eras as the book is divided by decades. I was wondering, how were you able to gather such an amazing collection of photographs, especially since, as you mention, the Yankees gave you no help?

HF: I’m a big user of e-mail, and I have about five thousand people on my list called Frommer Sports Net, and that is a column of reviews and stuff that I send out, maybe too often, but I keep picking up more and more people. It’s like a snowball going down hill. Some people recommended, when they knew I was doing this book, that I meet three primetime collectors who have this incredible collection of photos. Some of their stuff is in the book. This fellow Seth Swirsky that I mentioned before has an incredible memorabilia collection. He made all his stuff on the Yankees and Yankee Stadium available to me. The Hall of Fame I’ve worked with before, and they were invaluable in making available their vast collection to me. Then the Associated Press, I have a contact there. So it’s really been, as I said at the outset of our conversation, I’ve been doing sports books for thirty-three years. I have forty sports books plus five oral histories that I’ve done with my wife, so I have a network of contacts and an ability to reach out. In addition there’s a place called Photofest in Manhattan. Not too many people who do sports books know about them, but they also have some rare photos that I was able to get. Plus there were people who gave me photos that they had taken. Those weren’t used too much because Abrams, Stewart, Tabori & Chang is kind of a classy, high-definition publisher so all the photos in there had to be of excellent quality. But we got a few of those into the book. What I especially like is the endpapers, those big blow-up inside covers of those tickets. Those were tickets from Seth Swirsky’s collection. It was the genius of the people who designed the book to blow them up and use them inside. I thought that was just wonderful.

BB: Do you have a favorite picture? I imagine you putting the book together and getting pictures here and there. Was there one that came across your desk that kind of blew you away?

HF: I think the cover is incomparable. I don’t know what you think, but I like the cover front and back. People don’t realize that el has always been there outside the right field wall of Yankee Stadium. So to have that shot looking in is incredible. I also like the shot where they have Thomas Wolfe’s quote, right near the title page, over a vast assemblage of basically white males wearing jackets and hats, I think they called them fedoras or slouch hats back in that day. But everybody had a hat, and everybody had a jacket.

BB: That’s funny because when I got the book and flipped through it, that was the first picture I showed to my wife and we talked about the same thing. Every single guy is wearing a hat.

HF: And that whole industry has died. I guess they’ve gone into baseball caps or other caps, because that industry is gone. But it was very interesting to see. That’s one of my favorite shots, maybe because of the Thomas Wolfe quote placed on top of it. But there are many, many… I love the shot of Pedro Martínez…

BB: Coming off the field with the crowd in his face…

HF: These crazed Yankee fans screaming at him, and you only see his back. That one I think is great. There are so many, and that’s why I’m very aggressive in defending this book versus the competition because I don’t think there is a mix and match of voices, of photographs, of my narrative, and even the Stadium elegy section that I put in at the end which has these factoids and statistics. It was a book really done by me for fans and for the general public too.

BB: Yeah, I really enjoyed the pictures, especially the historical pictures that really set the frame for things. As far as the players, the one I like the most is the one of Joe DiMaggio – he was always one of my favorites – where he’s kind of curing his bat with that big ham bone, I guess it is.

HF: That’s one of my favorite shots, too.

BB: That was always something I read about as a kid. I could never figure out why players would want to rub their bats with a bone, so it was really cool for me to see that picture there. Another thing I wanted to ask… there are a lot of great non-baseball moments from the Stadium’s history – heavyweight championship fights, papal visits, football games – that are a part of the Stadium’s history, but you chose to focus on the Yankees. Any reason for excluding those other events?

HF: I was told by the publisher and also the editor that they wanted it to be about baseball. It was not my decision, it was the publisher’s decision that they only wanted Yankees and not the other stuff. In retrospect I think it was the right decision because the book is 240 pages, and it’s just loaded. To put the other things in would’ve just distracted.

BB: Much has been made of the ghosts of Yankee Stadium, and with the Yankees’ recent struggles I’ve been thinking that the ghosts might be at work again. Maybe they think the Stadium should have a definite closing date – September 21st. If the Yanks have faded by then, the focus will be only on that last game; people won’t be wondering if there will be any playoff games. But of course, most people feel like the Stadium deserves another October. How do you think the old girl should go out?

HF: Well, it would be nice for all the Yankee fans and myself to see it go into October, but I don’t think it’ll happen. It seems an insurmountable cushion to overcome to get them into the playoffs, but miracles have happened before.

BB: How much do you follow the Yankees on a daily basis?

HF: All the time. I follow them very closely even though my primary evidence is in New Hampshire. I’m actually working on a new book called "Remembering Fenway Park" of all things, and I’m becoming very enamored with the Red Sox. With my students, other professors, and neighbors, it’s like I’m living in Red Sox Country. I’m also the co-author along with my son of "Red Sox vs. Yankees: The Great Rivalry" so I was able to really hear both sides of that war from all kinds of people. But I do follow the Yankees and I also follow all other teams. I’m kind of a real baseball junkie. Always have been.

BB: Tiger Stadium closed several years ago, and it stood vacant for quite some time. Now it’s kind of in limbo, partially destroyed, I think. What do you think should happen to Yankee Stadium? I’m not sure what you do with an empty stadium, but there are some who feel it should stick around for a while. You?

HF: I think they’re going to be doing that, then they’ll turn some of it into a museum, some of it into a school. They have various plans as to what to do with it. There’s also this debate, which is kind of academic, going on. Do they need a new stadium? I interviewed both Roger Kahn and Jim Bouton. Roger Kahn, I guess I agree with his point of view more than Jim Bouton’s. Kahn said it really isn’t the real Yankee Stadium. That one was mutilated when they refurbished it in the mid-70s. The one built in 1923 really no longer does exist, and in a way it is a tired, old lady and it’s time for a new place. Bouton was kind of outraged that they should be tearing down the place where Ruth played and Gehrig and DiMaggio. I think I find myself in a way on the side of the Red Sox and Fenway Park. It’s a gem and a landmark, but Yankee Stadium really isn’t a gem anymore or a landmark in the same sense. Fenway is being enhanced and made more livable, and that will stay. But that’s right in the middle of the city, and Yankee Stadium is, as John McGraw said when they first decided to build in the west Bronx, "They’re going up to goatville, and nobody will ever see them again. Nothing goes on there."

BB: You mentioned the renovation in ’73 and ’74. I was wondering, what was the reaction at that time. Did that come out in your research, or maybe just your own personal memories? I was too young. Were people upset at that renovation?

HF: Well, Yankee fans were especially upset that if they wanted to see the Yankees play in New York they had to go to Shea Stadium, so that was kind of a weird experience, number one. And number two, it took two years, and the place was, if I can use this word in quotes, "emasculated." People did not like what went on. That frieze or façade that ran across the whole outfield wall, that was totally converted into scrap copper that was sold off. I document a lot of that stuff in the book. The place was shinier and brighter and cleaner, but it really had been emasculated afterwards. It was not the same, and people were upset about what they saw there.

BB: So with Tiger Stadium gone and Yankee Stadium on the way out, that leaves Fenway and Wrigley Field. What do you think it is that we see in these stadiums? Why do we place so much importance on these physical structures? Is this just nostalgia? Romanticism? What is it that we see in them?

HF: I don’t think there’s that much nostalgia or romanticism surrounding Yankee Stadium. That’s why its leave-taking will be easier. But Fenway Park led to the creation of a whole organization called Save Fenway Park. There were rallies and protests and petitions, etc. Nothing really on that scale took place for Yankee Stadium. I think Fenway and Wrigley hold a different hold on the public and on the fans. Generations have gone to them, they’ve been located right in the middle of cities. You have to really go up to the Bronx, unless you live in the Bronx, to go to Yankee Stadium. And I think the pull has basically been due to generations that have gone to these ballparks, Wrigley and Fenway – not to say that that hasn’t happened at Yankee Stadium, but you had to travel in there – but some of these places, the two that will remain, people just have walked, and people have been walking to those places for almost a hundred years.

BB: Do you have any sense to what the reaction will be, or do you have any prediction to what the reaction will be when this new Stadium opens in April?

HF: The ticket prices will be way, way higher than they are at the current Yankee Stadium. The ballpark will be smaller, but it will be kind of a throwback, from what I’ve read and seen, to the old Yankee Stadium built in 1923, and I think the spin that’s been going on in New York City among Yankee fans is that people will be eagerly looking forward to the new. Sometimes new is better, as Roger Kahn said, and I think it will be a big hit. Hopefully the Sons of Steinbrenner will get their act together and get a team that will really go deep into the playoffs and win another World Series. It would’ve been nice if it happened this year, but it won’t happen.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver