I don’t remember the first time I met Dayn Perry but it must have been about five years ago now. This was back when he was writing for Baseball Prospectus in addition to Fox Sports. We hit it off immediately and have remained pals ever since. Dayn’s got that easy Southern charm that makes for wonderful company. When he told me that he was writing a book about my boyhood hero Reggie Jackson I was more than somewhat eager to see what he’d come up with. We spoke about Reggie and the writing process often while he was working on the book and Dayn went so far as to mention me in the acknowledgements.
The book, Reggie Jackson: The Life and Thunderous Career of Baseball’s Mr. October, drops today. Dayn and I caught up recently to chat about all things Reggie and what it was like writing a biography.
Bronx Banter: There are two big biographies out this spring, one of Willie Mays and the other on Hank Aaron. Both books are well over 500 pages and aim to be the definitive work on their subjects. Your book is leaner at 300 pages. What was behind your thinking in making this a trimmer rather than an exhaustive narrative?
Dayn Perry: Part of it was that the publisher wanted me to stay as close as possible to 100,000 words. The initial manuscript I submitted was about 20,000 words longer than the final product, so I undertook some heavy editing toward the end of the process. On another level, though, I wanted a brisk, readable book that included all the important events in Reggie’s life and aspects of his character. My hope is that we’ve achieved that.
BB: You wrote this book without Reggie’s participation. Was that because he didn’t want to talk with you?
DP: On a couple of occasions, I spoke with Reggie’s business manager and requested an interview, but I never received a response. My understanding is that he didn’t want his cooperation to detract from the book he was working on at the time with Bob Gibson and Lonnie Wheeler. That’s understandable, of course.
BB: What, if any, obstacles did it present?
DP: It made it easier because I much enjoy the solitary aspect of writing, and the more of that I’m allowed the better my work is going to be. I still conducted 50 or so interviews for the book, and they made it a better work, I think. But I think of myself more as a writer than a reporter, so the nuts-and-bolts writing–the craft aspect–is the most fulfilling part of the job. Also, I think cooperation with the subject can sometimes lead to a varnishing or leavening of the work, even if it happens unconsciously. Obviously, I had no such concerns. It’s an honest, fact-based account, but I didn’t have to worry about satisfying him at every turn.
BB: Did Reggie prevent anyone from speaking to you?
DP: Not to my knowledge. A number of former teammates of his declined to speak with me once they learned Reggie wasn’t cooperating with the project, but so far as I know he didn’t actively work to undermine my efforts.
BB: There has been so much written about Reggie, particularly during his years in New York. What does your book offer that is new?
DP: My book sheds new light on the Mets’ decision not to draft him and covers his Angels years and retirement for the first time. Some people are going to be familiar with his Oakland years, and even more people are going to be familiar with his New York years. But so much of that time is forgotten or neglected by history. I think the totality of his life–the scope of his life–is something most people haven’t grasped yet.
BB: Other than reading about Reggie were there any biographies–sports bios or any bios for that matter–that you read before you started writing? Were there any that had a particular impact on you?
DP: I love “Clemente” by David Maraniss, which captured what a complicated figure Clemente was. “The Power Broker” by Robert Caro, although it doesn’t deal with sports, remains one of the five or so best books I’ve ever read. It’s been just a few years since I read it, so it’s still with me. “Luckiest Man” was another recent bio that made an impression in its simple elegance and graceful treatment of its subject.
BB: How was Reggie different from the other black stars of the ‘60s like Jim Brown, Kareem and Bill Russell?
DP: I’d say his swagger on the field. All of those men were pioneers and intellects, and all were great at their chosen sports. But Reggie, with those home run trots and his unimaginable candor with the media, seems a breed apart in comparison. I’d attribute those differences to Brown’s and Russell’s being of a prior generation and Kareem’s being a more muted personality.
BB: The other thing that seems to be different from Reggie and those other ‘60s guys is that Reggie wasn’t a Black Power guy, or overtly political. And yet, his attitude on the field was a political thing in a way. I know he was raised in a predominantly white community. Can you talk about his relationship with race?
DP: Reggie had an incredibly complicated relationship with race, and in the full light of his early life that’s understandable. He grew up around whites, and it’s clear that he prefers to surround himself with whites to this day. Still, he made a difference in terms of race. I interviewed Dr. Harry Edwards early in the process, and he told me something to the effect of, “Reggie wasn’t a guy you’d call on to march on the front lines, but he had immense credibility in the black community because he didn’t take any shit. He was a bad dude.” That’s true, I think. Reggie was at times cynical when it came to race (i.e., he would wield it when it was beneficial to him), but he was uncompromising. That made him a powerful figure. He at once uplifted and liberated black ballplayers to be themselves and break from the old passive models, but Reggie wasn’t on a mission of conscience. He did it because that’s who he was.
BB: What it was like for you, a white southerner, to write about race?
DP: I was born and raised in Mississippi and lived there until I was 29 years old. Any white Southerner who’s honest and morally centered will admit there’s much to be ashamed of in the past. You can’t be from the South and read about Bull Connor or Ross Barnett or George Wallace or Strom Thurmond or Byron De LaBeckwith and not feel a sense of lacerating regret. As for how my upbringing informed my work in this book, it’s a bit painful for me to observe Reggie’s occasionally self-serving use of race. I’d ask myself: who the hell am I to be commenting upon this? But the facts demanded it, I think. It’s not a character judgment, though. My parents have been married more than 50 years, and I grew up in a stable middle-class home as part of the majority population. Give me an upbringing like Reggie’s–racially isolated, broken home, erratic male role models, money and fame at an early age–and I’m sure I’d be far more outrageous and maladjusted than he is even in his worst moments. I tell some uncomfortable truths about him in this book, but it’s not because I think I’m somehow a better man.
BB: Was there anything you learned about Reggie that surprised you?
DP: Going in, I didn’t remember much about his season in Baltimore. I also didn’t realize just how dysfunctional his time in Oakland and New York really was. On a more internal level, I was surprised that his need for acceptance so often conflicted with his tendency to cling to affronts. His personality was even more complicated than I realized.
BB: I know the Orioles fans gave Reggie a hard time because he held out for the start of the ’76 season and then had a slow start. But he played well one he got it going. What was the relationship like between Reggie and Earl Weaver?
DP: Strained, I’d say, but nothing like the relationship he’d have with Martin. Reggie obviously wasn’t in the proper state of mind when he arrived in Baltimore. He was mourning his departure from Oakland, and he envied those who had cashed in during the early days of free agency. A number of his new teammates–Jim Palmer, in particular–seemed to blame Reggie for not reporting on time. I think it was a lonely time for Reggie, and Weaver was never one to coddle and tend to emotions.
BB: Weaver was as volatile as Billy Martin in some ways, though he wasn’t as emotionally unstable in his personal life–at least from what I can tell. How were Weaver and Martin different in terms of how they treated Reggie?
DP: Weaver understood Reggie’s game better than Martin did. Weaver, of course, cherished the three-run homer and generally didn’t worry about bunting ability or high strikeout totals. In those ways, he was well suited to manage a player like Reggie. Martin, though, was tactically involved and didn’t always appreciate Reggie’s “feast or famine” approach. “Billy Ball” and all that. As well, Weaver wanted Reggie on his team, and Martin manifestly did not. In many ways, Martin resented Reggie before he even put on the Yankee uniform.
BB: Did you come away from this experience liking him? Or did your opinion change about him?
DP: It’s strange–like or dislike isn’t something I think about with regard to Reggie. I feel I understand him and recognize there are reasons for his outrageous moments. I admire many things about him and–I’ll use the word again–understand the things I don’t like about him.
BB: I could be wrong here, coming from New York, but it seems that Reggie is best remembered as a Yankee even though he spent less than half of his career here. Can you think of any other athlete that is associated with a team that he didn’t spend that much time with?
DP: I think you’re right, and that’s an interesting question. Mark McGwire with the Cardinals comes immediately to mind. Patrick Roy and the Avalanche? Fred McGriff as a Brave? Moses Malone as a 76er? Maybe Garnett as a Celtic by the time he’s done?
BB: When Reggie got to New York, he wasn’t a great fielder, and Billy Martin hated him for his flaws. Talk about Reggie’s game when he was on the A’s. What was he like as a younger player?
DP: I think a lot of people our age remember Reggie as the fairly one-dimensional guy he was in New York and beyond. But in his Oakland days he was a true five-tool player who spent a lot of time in center field, ran the bases well, and threw like a cannon. That’s of course to say nothing of his hitting. He’s not a Matt Stairs. Reggie was an athlete. He was a heavily recruited high school football player (despite once breaking his neck on the field), and a number of big-time schools in the South were willing to integrate their programs for him.
BB: You mentioned the classic Welch encounter. Was there any star of this time–or even of any other eras–that was equally as thrilling in defeat as he was when he succeeded?
DP: This is a great question. For some reason, pitchers are coming to mind. Juan Marichal in Reggie’s day? The crazy leg kick, the fastball, his willingness to brush back hitters. In Reggie you had those violent swings and corkscrew strikeouts. In terms of personality during failure, maybe Pedro? Remember when Pedro cracked that smile after getting knocked out against the Yankees last World Series? That’s the kind of bravado and zeal, even in failure, that Reggie had. In other sports, maybe Brett Favre?
BB: What have been Reggie’s post-career highlights for you? I think it’s amusing that he’s become this elder statesman of calm and reason, especially counseling Alex Rodriguez.
DP: I’d say his dogged pursuit of ownership. This is the guy who tried to buy the A’s while he still played for them, so it’s impressive that he adhered to that goal for so long. It’s also telling that his relationship with Steinbrenner, even in retirement, remained so complicated. As for his “voice of reason” role, that’s in part why the A’s brought him back for the ’87 season, so it’s natural that he would go on to counsel players who seemed uncomfortable with the glare.
BB: This is your second book but your first biography. How different was this book from your first one?
DP: First and foremost, I actually like this book. My first book was a “get your foot in the door” sort of project that was brought to me. It was statistically oriented, and while I’m a bit of stat geek at heart I was out of my element to an extent. This project was much more gratifying, and I think the book reflects that. This is the kind of project I always wanted to undertake.
BB: You mentioned that the book was significantly longer in your first draft. What did you cut? Or, more to the point, did you ever find in your research that you had too much information? Did you ever feel a prisoner of the research?
DP: A lot of what I cut was the “throat clearing” kind of prose that tends to pop up in chapter beginnings while I’m in the early drafting process. Basically, I made sure I got straight to the point when I started a new chapter. My editor also wanted me to get to his baseball career as quickly as possible, so I cut a number of scenes from his early life and college years that turned out to be not so illuminating. Cutting can be painful for a writer–I certainly don’t need to tell you this–but it’s always good to make a work leaner and a bit less gilded. “Kill your darlings,” as Faulkner once said. As for overload, yes, when you’re poring through years and years of game stories it’s easy to get caught up in the mindset of wanting to include every single cool or striking thing that happened on the field. At same time, you want a balance of the familiar–Game 6 of the ’77 World Series and the ’71 All-Star Game, for instance–and the games that, while they typified him in some way, aren’t as widely remembered. That was a challenge, but for a baseball fan it was also a hell of a lot of fun.
BB: By the time you got to the editing stage, did you feel any sense of remove from your earlier drafts, which made it easier to kill your darlings? I mean, did you get to a point where you weren’t necessarily attached to stuff and just focused on doing whatever you could do to tell the story?
DP: Yeah, definitely. You’re a writer, and you know how important it is to have some kind of remove from your work. Let it sit for a while, re-read it, and things will jump out at you that didn’t in previous readings. Give yourself enough time, and you’ll realize what belongs and what doesn’t. That’s what I believe, anyway. That break between early draft and serious revision is essential to the writing process. It’s almost as though you grow a new pair of eyes and ears during that time. Things need to strike the ear as though you’ve never heard them before.
BB: Are you going to continue writing biographies?
DP: This book, since it’s driven by a narrative, was much more enjoyable for me to write than the first one. I have no interest in doing anything of a statistical nature again, at least as book-length projects go. I’d love to explore an individual season and how the teams in question overlay changes in society at large. That’s a vague summary of what I hope turns out to be my next project. Otherwise, I’ve had an urge to start writing bad poetry again, but I won’t inflict that upon anyone.
BB: Are there any other sports that you’d like to write about or do you see yourself mostly attracted to baseball?
DP: Baseball is far and away my favorite sport–my favorite human endeavor, in many ways–so nothing will engage me like writing about baseball. With that said, I’m open to exploring other sports through a historical scrim. I’m fascinated by the 1972 summer Olympics and by Mississippi high-school football, for instance. For me, though, there’s nothing like baseball. I don’t know what I’d do without it.
BB: Other than bad poetry, has there been anything outside of baseball that you’d like to write about?
DP: If I had the talent and standing, I’d imitate Mark Kurlansky’s career and write books about almost anything that struck me. Dogs, Chicago, a bio of Robert Pollard, gang culture, stories of people suffering from ALS … it’s a long list. Chances are, though, anything I write will at least be tinged with baseball.
BB: Ever thought about writing a memoir?
DP: I have not. I haven’t had anything like a traumatic existence. There’d be too little conflict. I really don’t know what anyone would learn from reading about my life. I would, however, like to write something about my paternal grandparents. My grandfather was a bootlegger in Etowah County, Alabama, and the local draft board thought him such a bad seed that they conscripted him into WWII at the age of 30 and with six young children at home. He saw a lot of combat in the Pacific Theater. My grandmother, meanwhile, was one of the toughest women I’ve ever known. She was bitten by rattlesnake once, she punched out a rich lady who lived down the road from her, she took up smoking in her 60s after her teeth rotted out from too much snuff. Things like that. It took a certain kind of woman to marry a bootlegger, after all. Their lives were much more interesting than mine.
BB: Coming from the South, are you self-conscious of the great literary tradition and style down there? Especially being from Mississippi, home of the great Faulkner and all.
DP: Definitely. It’s said that more people in Mississippi can write than read. It’s a point of pride for a state that doesn’t have much else going for it. I was never much of a Faulkner devotee–he’s too florid for me–but I certainly appreciate his importance. Barry Hannah, who died recently, went to my alma mater and served as something of a model during my college years. Richard Ford remains a favorite. James Whitehead’s poem titles are the greatest ever. Eudora Welty lived a few streets north of me when I lived for years in the Belhaven neighborhood of Jackson, Mississippi. She was a bit of a recluse and later an invalid, so I never saw her in person.
BB: You once told me about knowing Willie Morris a little bit. What was it like rubbing elbows with him?
DP: I also worked at a great Indy bookstore in Jackson called Lemuria, and all kinds of writers would drop by. Willie Morris was one of those. He was full of life. One night, some of us ended up back at his house drinking and listening to all these different versions of “Danny Boy” on his stereo. He was a very nice, very grounded man in person and a fool for a good time. Another time, I dropped some books off at his house to sign, and his wife showed me his workspace. It was, as I recall, two picnic tables placed end to end and all these handwritten pages spread all over the place. She told me it was for a “Vanity Fair” piece. It seemed a very chaotic way to work, but there’s no doubting his final products. My aunt, who was from Willie’s hometown of Yazoo City and knew his family, once told me, “Willie was a good boy, but he broke his mama’s heart when he went off to New York.” Anyhow, the Mississippi literary tradition means a lot to me, and I’m honored to be a microscopically small part of it.