"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Bronx Banter Interview: Arnold Hano

Part One

You don’t know Arnold Hano. How could you? You live in a world of bullet points and exclamation points, a place where sports writers aspire either to the pomposity of ESPN’s Sports Reporters or to the cacophony of Around the Horn. Where once a journalist would worry about supporting an argument with keen observations or weighty statistics, all that seems necessary now is a good set of lungs to shout down dissenting opinions.

Arnold Hano is more than this. If you do know him, you’ve probably read A Day In The Bleachers, Hano’s account of the first game of the 1954 World Series, or you might’ve read some of the pieces he wrote for Sport Magazine or Sports Illustrated over the ensuing thirty years. If you’re a television watcher, you might have come across some of his profiles in TV Guide, and if you’re a fan of pulp fiction, you’ve undoubtedly read one of his dime store novels.

I knew all this about Mr. Hano before I met him this past February. In some ways, he was exactly what you would expect from an eighty-six year-old man. He was direct, and to the point, and didn’t bother with unnecessary chitchat. We spoke on the phone twice, and when I asked if he’d consent to an interview, he started out by interviewing me. He asked about my interest and questioned my intentions. He wasn’t suspicious, he was just wondering why I wanted to talk to him and if I would be worth his time. Even when we finally agreed on a date, he offered to give me thirty minutes or so, with an option for more “depending upon my ability.” We ended up talking for close to two hours, the greatest compliment he could’ve given me.

Mr. Hano and his wife live in the tiny town of Laguna Beach, a city best known for its art scene and a television series on MTV. I walked up the steps to the house on a crisp Sunday morning and was greeted by Mrs. Hano, who led me into a small study, one wall of which was packed with books from floor to ceiling. In the corner sat a small, thirteen-inch television set. Mr. Hano pointed towards it, saying, “You can see that we read a lot more than we watch television.” And with that, we were off.

BronxBanter:  I want to start at the beginning. Tell me about where you grew up. New York City, right?

Arnold Hano:  New York City. Mainly I tell people I grew up in the Bronx, and sometimes I tell people I grew up in the Polo Grounds, which is across the river in Manhattan, but I was born in Washington Heights, which is at the top of Manhattan. And then when I was about four years old we moved across the Harlem River and into the Bronx. I grew up in the Bronx and went to DeWitt Clinton High School, which is the high school at the north end of the Bronx, and we were there until I was maybe fourteen or fifteen when we moved into Manhattan. The formative years were those years between maybe four and fifteen.

BB:  You talk about those formative years. How important were sports, either playing sports or following sports, in your daily life?

AH:  Both, both, both, both. I played everything, and I read everything, and I followed everything. My father brought home two newspapers everyday. He brought home the Herald Tribune and the New York Sun. I said, “How come you read the Tribune and not the Times?” And he said the Tribune was better written. So I was reading sports pages in the Tribune and I started reading Bill Heinz in the Sun when Heinz was just breaking in. Do you know Heinz at all? Great writer. I played all the ancillary games. I played punch ball, I played stick ball, I played stoop ball… There was a game in the playground called box ball, that was a very good game that we played. And then I started playing baseball in sandlot games and Police Athletic League teams and stuff like that. I was a walk-on in my senior year of college as a pitcher. I know looking at me you don’t believe all this, but I was once actually tall. I’ve lost five inches of height to issues with my spine.

BB:  And what school was that?

AH:  That was Long Island University out in Brooklyn. I’ll tell you about the walk-on later. But I played basketball, I played football, all the sports. I ran, I did everything. I was very involved in sports. I remember when I was a kid we had a stickball league behind our house. There was a length of houses, lots of room. I hit fifty-three homeruns in one season, I remember that! [Laughing.]

BB:  That’s so funny, because I remember when I was a kid we had a field, a grass field – it wasn’t stick ball in the alley – but I remember keeping track of things like that, how many home runs we had hit in this make believe season that we played whenever we wanted.

AH:  That’s right… So I was very involved.

BB:  So did young boys in the 20s and 30s, did they dream of growing up to be sports heroes as much as they do today?

AH:  I did. I can’t tell you their dreams, but I dreamed of standing on the mound at Yankee Stadium and striking out Lou Gehrig. That was a dream of mine, to throw my screwball past Lou Gehrig. Carl Hubbell had been one of my heroes, so I learned how to throw a screwball. I could control a screwball better than I could control a fastball. When my brother and I – my brother was three and a half years older, he was my mentor, he was the greatest big brother anybody ever had. He and I would go to ballgames, and in those days at the end of the ballgame you could run out on the field. We would slide into the bases before the bases were uprooted, and we would stand in centerfield and see whether we could see home plate, because of the mound, and we were little kids. He could and I couldn’t, and that sort of stuff. It was just a wonderful growing up experience to have, especially to have the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium across the river from each other within spitting distance. My grandfather was a cop in the New York City Police Department, and he had year passes to the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium, and he left them to me, so I got in to see as many games as I could see every summer. I was a Giant fan more than a Yankee fan, but I was a Babe Ruth fan, so I would do both.

BB:  What was that like, growing up like that? You can’t really relate to that now. Even the Mets and Yankees are far apart, and the Dodgers and Angels here aren’t even in the same city. What was it like with those teams so close together?

AH:  I’ll tell you even how closer it was. We lived in an apartment building in Washington Heights – this was from the time I was born until I was four – where Bob Meusel and Irish Meusel lived. Bob Meusel played left field for the Yankees, Irish Meusel played left field for the Giants. One would be using the apartment while the other was on the road, so they shared that apartment. They lived one story above us. You can’t get any closer to baseball than to have as your neighbor Bob Meusel and Irish Meusel. I used to ask my father, “Who’s better, Bob Meusel or Irish Meusel?” And my father was very, very diligent about questions like that. He’d say, “Bob Meusel has a better arm, he’s a better fielding left fielder. Emil…” He never called him Irish. “Emil Meusel has more power.” I’d say, “Well who’s better?” And he’d say, “You have to decide that.” So having the two teams there, my brother was a Giant fan and I was a Yankee fan up to 1926 when Tony Lazzeri struck out against Glover Cleveland Alexander and the Yankees lost that ballgame by one run and the Series. My brother said, “See, I told you how lousy they were.” So I shifted in 1926 to the Giants, and 1927 began the Yankee dynasty that may have been one of the greatest teams ever. But I didn’t really care because I still remained a Babe Ruth fan. I loved watching him hit homeruns.

BB:  Now tell me about Babe Ruth, please. I know…

AH:  You know the fat guy.

BB:  I know the facts, I know the numbers. But tell me about your memories of Babe Ruth.

AH:  Babe Ruth was a great all-around ballplayer. People don’t know this, but he stole seventeen bases on two occasions. People think of him as a fat truck, but he could run. He ran gracefully with short steps, funny for a guy who was 6’3” and 210 before he starting getting fat. He took quick steps and he would play right field and catch balls before they went into the bleachers. Very graceful. He didn’t have a strong arm. Odd thing is, he didn’t have a powerful arm, he had a very accurate arm.

BB:  Especially for a pitcher.

AH:  Yes, for a pitcher. He wasn’t a strikeout pitcher – I’ll tell you about that later, too. He would always throw to the right base. We say that about most outfielders. Ruth always threw to the right base. DiMaggio always threw to the right base. The others maybe did, maybe didn’t. Mays most of the time threw to the right base, but Ruth always threw to the right base. One day in 1933, the day before the season ended, by father said to my brother and me as we were in the kitchen doing the dishes, “Boys, let’s go to the Stadium tomorrow. The Babe is gonna pitch.” I had forgotten that Ruth did pitch on occasion for the Yankees. Nobody knows this, but Ruth was 4-0 for the Yankees all those years. So we went to see Babe Ruth pitch the last game of the 1933 season. The Senators had already clinched the pennant, the Giants had clinched in the other league, so this was just a nothing game. I thought maybe he’d make an appearance, pitch an inning or two or three – he pitched a complete game. He hadn’t pitched a complete game since 1930, and then he pitched a complete game. And before that he had pitched two four-inning stints for the Yankees, so he pitched four times. So he pitched a complete game, he gave up twelve hits, it was not a great pitching performance, but the Yankees won, 7-5. He didn’t strike out a soul. Years later I saw him on Broadway. I went up to him and said, “Hi, Babe.” He said, “Hi, kid.” That’s the way he treated everybody. I said, “You know, I saw you pitch your last game at the Stadium.” This was maybe eight years later or so. I said, “How come you didn’t strike out anybody?” And he said, “I wanted those other eight guys to earn their money!” And that was Ruth.

Sometimes in his last years they’d take him out after maybe seven innings and put in Sammy Byrd or some other right fielder for defensive purposes because he was getting pretty out of shape. And we kids, we knew better, we knew the rule, but we’d yell “We want the Babe! We want the Babe!” from the seventh inning until the ninth inning. Once in a while he’d come out of the dugout and he’d lift up his cap or do something like that. We knew he couldn’t come back into the lineup, but that didn’t stop us. That’s the way we were. We loved him, and he loved us, which was very nice. A great combination. I’d see him in his great polo coat on Broadway sometimes, with his jaunty cap, and his wife and daughter walking along. He was just wonderful.

BB:  Just last night I was reading a piece you did on Babe Ruth for Sport Magazine, and you talked about him as being interesting to people because he was a character. He was a great player, but he was a character and so that’s what kind of drew people to him.

AH:  Yeah.

BB:  It was interesting, it kind of struck me and I was trying to think of that in today’s terms, in today’s landscape, and it made me think of Alex Rodríguez, who is not a character, and I don’t know that anybody really loves Alex Rodríguez, and then you have Manny Ramírez who…

AH:  Who is a character!

BB:  Who is a character. They’re both great players, both great hitters, but it’s funny how the fans…

AH:  Love Ramírez…

BB:  Love Manny Ramírez…

AH:  …and A-Rod…

BB:  …not so much.

AH:  And sometimes they don’t like him at all.

BB:  Right. Do you see some of that? I’m not saying that Manny Ramírez is Babe Ruth, but do you see some of that?

AH:  I see that, you’re right. There aren’t many of them. But then there even weren’t that many in those days. Ruth changed the game. Even though we were there when it happened, usually historically you don’t notice when history occurs. We knew history was occurring when he started hitting those homeruns, and the game just changed from what it had been. The 2-1 ballgames, the John McGraw games of before, scratch out a run, hit and run, steal a base, sacrifice, all this sort of stuff. And then Ruth comes along and with one swing he changes the game. They changed the stadiums, they changed the size of the fields, everything changed. And then he was bigger than life. He drank too much, and he caroused too much, but we all knew it. Everybody knew it, but it didn’t seem to matter. You know, he broke the law every day from 1919 to 1934 by having a drink because that was Prohibition. We talk about what Barry Bonds did was against the law – well, it was, but what Ruth did was against the law. But it was different with him. This is a guy who was probably out of shape for half his career, and he played for twenty-one years, something like that?

BB:  I was struck by that. In that article you mentioned something like that. Yes, he lived fast and hard, but he played for twenty-two seasons. I know he hit 714 homeruns, but, wow, twenty-two years, that’s a long time for anybody to play. Even in this era.

AH:  And they don’t have to today. The money made a big difference. Although when Ruth was making his $80,000, that was also an out-of-shape salary. The two most influential ballplayers that I’ve ever been involved with, that I’ve ever seen, are Ruth and Jackie Robinson. They both changed the game dramatically. Okay, what else?

BB:  You talked about how you wanted to grow up to strike out Lou Gehrig, but at some point you must have realized that that wasn’t in the cards for you, and that if you were following baseball it would be with a typewriter and a notebook instead of a bat and a glove.

AH:  My brother taught me to read when I was three years old, so I was reading before the average kid was reading. My folks would bring home books from the library. They would go out on a Friday or Saturday night, and there was a lending library, a private lending library nearby, and they would put a book at my bedside and a book at my brother’s bedside. We shared a bedroom. And I’d get up around four in the morning, take it to the window, and I’d read the book. Anyway, I was involved in reading early on. And then when my brother put out a mimeographed newspaper in the Bronx when he was maybe eleven and I was maybe eight, I was his reporter. He and a guy named Lester Bernstein – Lester had the mimeograph machine, I guess. I would run down to the news stands, and I’d copy stuff off and then rewrite it for our Montgomery Avenue News that we put out once a week. I did that for a while, and then I got bored because all I was doing was copying other people’s stories. I decided I wanted to write a story of my own, so my brother, who was a great guy, said write one. So I invented a cop who would always fall to his knees when he shot the bad guy and I called it Sitting Bull. It was my first pun. Every episode he would be tied to the trolley tracks and the trolley would be coming down, or the bad guys would have him hanging by his finger nails to the edge of the roof and stuff like that. Either I pooped out or the paper pooped out. I did about six or seven of these episodic things. I was eight years old writing the equivalent of a novel for a street newspaper that we sold for a nickel a copy door-to-door.

BB:  Do you still have any of those?

AH:  [Shakes head wistfully.]

BB:  Really? How much would you pay to have a copy of that?

AH:  Life. Anything, anything, anything. I suppose if I put something like that on the internet, somehow, somebody, someplace might know of a copy. That would be great. I’ve thought about it in the past, but I don’t. So I was writing at that age, and when I went to college – I started college when I was fifteen – I was going to be a doctor. I was taking chemistry and biology and it was taking me for a loop. One day I wandered into the newspaper office, and they were laughing. I didn’t know you were allowed to have fun. They were enjoying themselves, so I changed from a science major to an English journalism major in my sophomore year. I became the sports editor of the college weekly in my junior year, and senior year I was editor-in-chief with another guy. Now that was a good period for Long Island University, because two of those years we won the NIT. The best basketball team in the country at a college that had 700 students. That was rather remarkable, and I covered all those games. So I was writing sports back then. And then when I got out of college I became a copyboy at the New York Daily News and they found out that I knew sports so they’d send me to the games with the photographer. I’d run the pictures back and I could write the captions and stuff like that. So I was always involved. I knew at someplace along the line in my sophomore year of college that this was what I was gonna do for a living. I didn’t know how or what – would it be a newspaper, or freelance, or a novelist, but I knew I’d write.

BB:  Here’s on thing that I found out recently. A Day in the Bleachers, which I want to talk about in a little bit, you wrote in 1954, but before that you were already an established writer, and you were doing some editing work?

AH:  I was an editor. I was the managing editor of Bantam Books from 1947 to ’49, so that would’ve been 25 to 27 years old. The woman who was my boss at that time, her husband got called into this odd organization that nobody ever heard of and had to go to Washington, so she went with him while he joined the CIA. And so I filled into that spot and became the top editor there. I was the top editor there until I tried to unionize the shop and they fired me in 1949. I answered an ad to start a paperback line and I started Lion Books. These here are about half of the books I put out.

BB:  And these were pulp fiction?

AH:  Pulp fiction. Well, not so pulpy. Robert Bloch, who wrote Psycho, we have an original novel of his called The Kidnapper. Very good. People liked me. As an editor I was never the publisher’s editor, I was always the writer’s editor, and writers liked that. I drew a lot of good writers. Jim Thompson. You know who Jim Thompson was, right? Well, Jim came in and did maybe ten novels for us in a relatively short period of time. Anthony Boucher was the New York Times reviewer of mysteries, and he started to review our mystery line because of Jim Thompson, and paperback mysteries were never being reviewed. It was the first time, I think, they had ever been reviewed. We did a lot of firsts. When I was with Bantam I said to Ted Pitkin, who was one of my bosses there, “Why don’t we do All Quiet on the Western Front?” The Erich Maria Remarque novel, it’s the best war novel ever. He said we couldn’t because it was a pacificist novel, and pacifism equals communism. So they wouldn’t do it. So when I went to Lion Books that was one of the first books I did. I did a whole line of anti-war books. Make me a pacifist. Big deal. We published the only piece of fiction that Leonardo DaVinci ever wrote. It’s a novel. It’s a novel-ish. Robert Payne, who’s a DaVinci aficionado, he brought it in and said, “Can you use this?” I said, sure, we’ll do it. It’s not good, but it’s Leonardo DaVinci! I mean, gee whiz! I was the hot editor there, and that was until 1954. There was an Eisenhower recession then, and Martin Goodman, the boss there, cut everybody’s salary ten percent. Well I had an ex-wife and two kids and Bonnie and the kid, and that was my margin. He was removing my margin. So I figured since I had been writing already, I’d just support myself or not. But I’d rather starve on my own terms, so I quit.

BB:  And that was what year?

AH: Fifty-four, and then we came out to Laguna a year later. I freelanced. I was writing stuff, I was writing short stories, I wrote a novella for Argosy and an editor said it was the best thing they’d ever published, and they’d published Hemingway and people like that. So I was a pretty good writer. I’ve always been a pretty good writer. I don’t consider myself a sportswriter, I considerable myself a writer. I’ve had twenty-six books published; nine of ‘em were sports books, seventeen weren’t. I did a novel on Gaugin that I think is a pretty good novel. I did a novel on Sam Houston that’s in the Alamo library, things like that. I did articles for the New York Times on environmental issues. Lyndon Johnson wanted to build a couple of hydroelectric dams in the Grand Canyon and force you all to go long with it. I did a piece for the New York Times about it and what it was going to do the canyon and to the Colorado River, and it killed the project. You’d all thank me personally. So I’ve done a lot of other writing other than sports writing. I even wrote the libretto notes for two seasons of opera. I have written everything. From short stories to play reviews to book reviews, everything.

BB:  One thing I wanted to ask that was interesting is I’m wondering how your experience as an editor affected you as a writer, not just as a sportswriter, but just as a writer. Did it affect you, or are those just two separate things?

AH:  Did it affect me? Being an editor, how did it affect me as a writer? It made me more sympathetic to writers, that much I know.

BB:  Did it make you more sympathetic to editors?

AH:  No. No. I don’t much like editors. I don’t much like editors, publishers, or agents. And today kids still come up to me and say, gee, I’ve written something, who’s a good agent? And I say, all the agents I knew are either dead or demented. Same thing with editors and publishers. I don’t know anybody anymore in that field. Pretty soon it got to be a cocktail party feel. You took John Grisham out and gave him five hundred thousand dollars for his next novel, which nobody had even discussed, over a martini or two. I was a better editor than that, and I’m a better writer than a lot of the writing that goes on today where people do that. So writing was not something that I had to do in sports alone, I could do it in other things, and have done it in other things.


1 jonnystrongleg   ~  Sep 25, 2009 1:34 pm

[0] I don't know if you care or if this was your intention, but...

"You don’t know Arnold Hano. How could you?"...

followed one paragraph later by...

"I knew all this about Mr. Hano before I met him this past February."

seems needlessly offensive in the first place and clueless-ly self-congratulatory in the second. and i would think if there was a reader who wanted to find out more about arnold hano, then this opening would probably lead them to find out more about him elsewhere.

2 RagingTartabull   ~  Sep 25, 2009 2:25 pm

You don’t know Arnold Hano. How could you?

Mr. Bissinger...paging Mr. Bissinger.

3 Hank Waddles   ~  Sep 25, 2009 3:53 pm

Hey, Jonny. If I offended you or anyone else, I apologize because that clearly was not my intent. I knew absolutely nothing about Arnold Hano before I took on this assignment. I spent several weeks getting to know him through his book and a stack of feature articles. So yes, I knew more about him at that point than most people of my generation, but not because I'm more enlightened than anyone else. My point, I guess, was that I had to do some digging to find out about him. I wasn't trying to congratulate myself or demean anyone else, I was just making a comment on what sports journalism has become, and then I tried to be more clever than I should have. Yes, I'm being critical of how the masses get their sports news, but I'm right in the middle of those masses. I watch ESPN, I read Sports Illustrated, I follow Ochocinco's tweets. Doing this interview reminded me that sports journalism used to be a lot different than it is now. My sincerest hope is that by reading this interview, a few people out there might come to the same realization. That was my goal.

4 jonnystrongleg   ~  Sep 25, 2009 4:04 pm

[3] thanks for explaining - i appreciate your take on it. i am sorry i didn't get that you had *also* not known about him and were counting yourself among the "you" that you were addressing in your first sentence. i haven't read a lot of your writing, so i guess i'd figure that out over time w/ more exposure.

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