Greg Prince: The Happiest Recap started in the depths of depression over the then-current Mets of 2009, who weren’t winning very often in real time. With the franchise’s 50th anniversary approaching, I got to thinking about highlights and wins from better times and came upon the idea of constructing a mythical season in which I — on Faith and Fear — would write about the “best” 1st game (or Opening Day) in Mets history, the “best” 2nd game…clear through to the “best” 162nd and 163rd games. The key was the number had to match an actual game played on a previous Mets schedule. Thus, the “best” 37th game, for example, was the 37th game of 1973. The “best” 146th game was the 146th game of 1976. It was a different twist on merely listing the Top ‘X’ games in Mets history or doing a “This Date” feature. I followed through and ran the series in 2011, shadowing the actual Mets schedule that year.
BB: So then how did it go from a series on the site to a book?
GP: Having published the book version of Faith and Fear in Flushing in 2009, I guess I had the fever a little bit to do something else. Around the time I began to think this project might work as a book, a publisher came out with a team-by-team series called “162-0,” which was similar but not exactly in line with what I was doing. So for a moment I was discouraged that a good idea had been used elsewhere, and not necessarily to my satisfaction. Thing is, the more I worked on the blog series, the less concerned I became with the “best” aspect for a particular game number and found myself fascinated by more than 162 games fitting a narrow description. I wound up writing about 326 games — a “Happiest” entry and an “Also Happy” entry for each game number — and within those entries, sometimes incorporating more games and more stories.
BB: That’s a nice evolution.
GP: The box scores I was researching and the books, magazines, web sites and newspaper clippings I was looking up in support of those box scores were reminding me of lost Met tales and bringing up names that had been tucked away in the Met memory storage locker for decades. It seemed a shame to leave them to fade into obscurity. Met histories are too often narrowed down to the lovable losers of 1962; stumbling into Seaver and hiring Hodges; 1969; 1973; 1986; and maybe Piazza hitting a dramatic homer after 9/11. Our fandom (anybody’s fandom, really) is so much more than the agreed-upon milestones. It’s the big inning we’re all talking about the next morning or the rookie who came up to pitch a shutout and then disappeared or the quirky game where all 17 hits were singles. It’s firsts and lasts and lots of in-betweens. It’s the championships and superstars, too, of course, but it’s also the moments of contention that fizzled and the stage being set for great things and the residual fumes on the other side of those great things and the games and players who got us through the rough times. It’s everything, if you’re a steadfast fan of a team.
BB: I love that.
GP: So with 50 years of Metsdom completed, I decided to shake out the contents of the blog series and rearrange and supplement all I’d done, digging a little deeper to come up with the 500 Amazin’ wins that would best tell the story of the first half-century of the franchise the way we as fans experienced it. It’s Mets History of the Subconscious, almost. The losses filter in because, let’s face it, these are the Mets, but I guarantee a 500-0 record when all is said and done.
BB: How did you decide to make it a four part series instead of one fat volume?
GP: I wanted to let the game stories breathe. I wanted to be able to write about Jim McAndrew for as long as it took to explain Jim McAndrew. I wanted to take a detour into Tom Seaver’s history as a relief pitcher. I wanted to make note of the handful of times the Mets have used a de facto designated hitter (a pinch-hitter who bats for the pitcher and then comes up again when the lineup bats around). I wanted to transcribe Bob Murphy’s and Lindsey Nelson’s calls where reading how we listened to them would bring a moment alive again. I wanted these, in a way, to be 500 bedtime stories. Put all that together, and that’s a pretty hefty volume. I found breaking the saga into four pieces helped discipline the eras a little better.
B: Yeah, that makes sense. GP: There is no narrative, per se, but I think one coalesces organically in each volume. In First Base, you can feel the youthful ineptitude of the early Mets wearing off little by little as you read about the first big moments produced by an Ed Kranepool or a Cleon Jones. At the same time, you have a sense that it’s still a team depending on a blast from the past via Duke Snider or leaning into a hopeful future with Ron Hunt or Grover Powell, whatever those guys become eventually in their careers. In a way, it’s the Mets family history as told by your well-meaning if slightly obsessive uncle.
BB: Did you have any hesitation about just writing about wins and not loses?
GP: From a practical standpoint, not really any regrets on 500 wins and 0 losses. The losses worm their way in anyway. You can’t write about the great wins of the 1973 postseason, for example, without acknowledging the gut-wrenching losses. Since the first volume officially ends with Game Five of that World Series, wherein the Mets take a 3-2 lead over Oakland, you can’t just say, “well, good night everybody!” Thus, Game Five becomes the platform to also discuss Games Six (George Stone not being chosen to start) and Seven (Willie Mays not being chosen to finish). And you can’t fully appreciate the few resonant wins from 1962 without noting there were only 40 wins to begin with that year.
BB: Good pernt.
GP: I mention in the introduction that my personal favorite game ever — best game I ever watched, in my opinion — was Game Six in 1999 against Atlanta, the one remembered mainly for Kenny Rogers walking in the winning run in the eleventh inning (thus largely reviled by Mets fans) but remembered fondly by me for how the Mets fought back from 0-5 in the first inning and 3-7 later to take 8-7 and 9-8 leads and how the game topped off the most intense 30 days of fandom I ever experienced. I promise “you won’t read about it here,” and then instantly backtrack that, yeah, you probably will, but only in the context of the whole story. I’ve learned from eight years of blogging that while Mets fans are willing, almost anxious to cope with reality (reminding each other of the woe that has befallen us from time to time), nobody really wants to be hit over the head with it as a going concern. So while you can say, “Oy, the collaspe of 2007!” the minute you start detailing the four-game sweep at the hands of the Phillies that presaged the blowing of an enormous lead (as I did in a blog entry in late August of 2012), the reaction is, per Tom Petty, let me up, I’ve had enough.
BB: I liked what you talked about in terms of being a steadfast fan. That can be a problem when you root for the Yankees where you tend to evaluate seasons on whether they’ve won the World Series or not. And when you do that you neglect some of the smaller things that are really the rich moments that make up not only a season but our fandom.
GP: It’s crossed my mind in the process that this wouldn’t necessarily work for other franchises, particularly ones wherein postseason berths are almost a given. The Mets have won 43 playoff and World Series games, and they’re all in here, but they’re not necessarily the most, shall we say, Amazin’. You get a Mets fan who was sentient on June 14, 1980, and he or she will eventually tell you about the Steve Henderson Game, a night the Mets trailed the Giants 0-6 and won 7-6 on Hendu’s three-run homer in the ninth. What made that game special was it was in the midst of the “Magic is Back” season in which the Mets had that silly ad campaign of the same name and weren’t winning and weren’t drawing flies and all of a sudden, everything falls into place for a couple of months. Every win is a come-from-behind affair and the “magic” thing catches on to such an extent that even Joe Torre and his players are talking about it. Henderson hits the home run on a Saturday night, and the next day there is such a large walkup crowd that they actually had to turn fans away.
BB: I vaguely remember that because Joel Youngblood was my brother’s favorite player at the time.
GP: Now by the end of 1980, the magic has dissipated and the Mets are back in the dumps and nobody is showing up at Shea, but a game like that lives forever. That’s the reward of constancy.
BB: Getting back to the format of the book for a sec. How much re-writing did you do with these pieces from the original blog posts?
GP: It depended on the entry. Some games were transplanted whole if they worked as such. Others were expanded if I didn’t think I gave enough information in the first place. For 1973′s pennant race on the blog, I had layered a lot into a couple of posts. In the book, every win from the middle of September onward gets its own treatment (maybe a few paragraphs, maybe a few pages) so you’re living the most improbable weeks in Mets history day-to-day almost, just as it occurred. I’ll do something similar when 1999 rolls around. Conversely, some blog posts were contracted altogether if I thought one more extra-inning marathon or walkoff home run wasn’t really revealing anything that wasn’t already being revealed in another game. And there’s a bunch that — because the original “best game number” format demanded tough choices — simply didn’t appear on the blog.One name that didn’t show up whatsoever in the blog series was Les Rohr, the Mets’ first-ever amateur draft pick.
GP: His debut in late 1967 (Game No. 50 in the book) was a success, which in itself is a bit of a milestone — one of the recurring themes of First Base is the Mets’ search for that young fireballer who’s going to lead them to the promised land — but digging a little deeper, I realized Les was the 54th player used by the 1967 Mets, the most they ever used in a season. So Les gives me a reason to talk about the Grand Central Terminal atmosphere that prevailed in the clubhouse in those days. Plus the year he was drafted, 1965, was the same year the Jets drafted Joe Namath. It’s not a huge thing, but it’s an intriguing parallel where highly touted prospects (playing in the same stadium, no less) are concerned. And then there’s what happened with Les Rohr after that first start. He pitched well a couple more times, hurt his arm in the 24-inning, 1-0 loss at the Astrodome the following April (an instance when I can mention a historic loss in a book all about wins) and after a token appearance exactly two years after his debut — as the Mets were on the verge of clinching their first title — he was done. Rohr was, on the surface, a flameout, but the Mets drafted very spottily with their high picks in those days, which is another tidbit I get to throw in (Steve Chilcott over Reggie Jackson and all that) and it provides some foreshadowing as well, because the lousy drafting would come back to haunt the Mets in the ’70s. In other words, you could do worse than drafting Les Rohr with your very first pick…and the Mets somehow managed to.
BB: Did you write it all at once and then are releasing it in four volumes or are you still working on the others? What are the publish dates for the other volumes?
GP: I’m pushing ahead chronologically so the second, third and fourth volumes are coming together in order, publication dependent on the respective schedules of my talented art director Jim Haines and myself. Second Base is currently in production. Third Base is being written. Home is loosening up in the on-deck circle. Think of it in the realm of waiting for the next series from Topps in a given year.
BB: One last thing. I’m curious about what, if anything you found in your research that surprised you?
GP: In a broad sense, it was surprising to realize that players who are historically written off as hopeless actually accomplished some things in a Mets uniform. Marv Throneberry hit a game-winning home run. The two Bob Millers teamed to pitch the Mets to a win. Jack Fisher may have lost 24 games in 1965, but he threw a gem from time to time. On an individual basis, if I hadn’t done this, I wouldn’t have known about the proto-Steve Henderson Game, the Tim Harkness Game, in 1963. It was a 14-inning affair that Harkness won, 8-6, with a grand slam after falling behind the Cubs in the top of the 14th when Billy Williams hit a two-run inside-the-park homer. What blows my mind about it is a) that Harkness came out from the center field clubhouse onto the balcony to take a bow the way Bobby Thomson had 11 years earlier and b) the comments I found on Ultimate Mets Database from people who were kids back then, still remembering the cries of “Let’s Go Mets!” echoing as they headed back to the subway. This was 1963, 111 losses, yet it didn’t matter. A friend once told me he thought the 1963 Mets were the bravest team he ever saw, that if they had the talent of the 2008 Mets, they’d have won 140 games. I didn’t get it when he told me that. I kind of got it after Tim Harkness and the rest of the games I looked at from that season.
BB: That’s interesting.
GP: One more surprise: I knew that The Odd Couple filmed its baseball scenes before a game in 1967 at Shea, with Bill Mazeroski hitting into a choreographed triple play. What I didn’t know was there was an even more bizarre scene in the real game that day with the Pirates batting out of order and Wes Westrum — who you never read anything about other than he couldn’t take all the losing — waited until a key moment in the game to bring it to the umpires’ attention and wound up getting Pittsburgh runs taken off the board. If you were at that game, you probably went home talking about it for a week.
BB: Go figure that.
GP: I know a lot about the Mets. I didn’t know that at all.
A: He saw that I was true to my word. It wasn’t just a book about him and Kim, although it had a lot of Kim in it, of course. The Kim stuff ties together in a way that you couldn’t get if you were writing fiction. Real life is infinitely more perverse than fiction.
Q: Right. Kim was always the hook.
A: I did this reading recently. My parents were there, my brother, guys I grew up with. And Artie Lange, the comedian, was there, and asked the most perceptive question I’ve been asked about the book. He goes, “Could you have done this book if Duk Koo Kim hadn’t died?” And I hate to say it, but the answer is no. In terms of the architecture of the story — I know this is a cruel and callous way to talk about it — but it raises the roof on the construction of the story.
Q: If Kim didn’t die, Ray would have been in line to capitalize on being a media darling, he’d have gotten all the endorsements that were up for grabs because Sugar Ray Leonard had retired.
A: If he doesn’t die it’s like a perfect, happy story for Ray. Talk about an anomaly, a happy boxing story. But because it’s a boxing story, it can’t be that.
Q: Some of the most riveting material in the book is in the year or two after the Kim fight, listening to Ray struggle to sort out what happened.
A: I think he did sort it out for himself. There’s no way the outside world is going to let him forget, and that includes me, his friend, Mark Kriegel.
Q:His friend Mark Kriegel or his biographer Mark Kriegel?
A: I can’t make that distinction. If I couldn’t make that distinction as a biographer why would I make it as a friend? I didn’t stop being his friend because I’m his biographer, and I didn’t stop being his biographer because I’m his friend. However you want to characterize it — did I exploit it? Yes. Did I use it to tell a story about fathers and sons? Yes. Did I also use it to aggrandize Ray? Yes, I did that too. I say “exploit” almost facetiously, because I knew Ray didn’t want to go there, and I knew I was going to go there and I wanted to go there. I had to go to Korea and do everything I could to find Kim’s son.
Here’s Mickey talking about Woody Allen and Paul Simon:
Q: I like the non-sports-writing celebrities you featured in the magazine, like William F. Buckley and Woody Allen.
A: I called Woody Allen’s agent, [Jack] Rollins and [Charles] Joffe. I don’t know whether I talked to Rollins or Joffe. I told him I was running a magazine called Jock and wanted to know if Woody would be available to write a piece about what it was like growing up playing stickball in New York. He said, “I doubt it, but I promise you I’ll mention it to him.” An hour later I got a call from Rollins or Joffe, and he said, “Yeah, Woody would love to do it. He’s doing a play, ‘Play it Again, Sam,’ and does two shows on Sunday. Come between the matinee and the evening performance, bring a photographer and you can get your story and your pictures.”
Q: So it was ghostwritten by you?
A: No. I went there and Woody dictated it to me, it wasn’t ghostwritten. And he said, “What are you doing to do for photographs?” I told him I thought we’d just take a couple of shots of him there in his dressing room. “That doesn’t make any sense,” he said, “not if you’re doing a story on stickball. I know a perfect brownstone about four or five blocks away, let’s go down there.” So about six of us walked down past Eighth Avenue to this brownstone. I had two of my kids with me, they were like 10 and 11, and two of their friends, and they were the rest of the teams. Woody had a stick and a ball, and one of the kids pitched to him and the others played in the field. And that’s where we got the pictures.
A: Now, we did this shoot before the Mets had won the pennant, and after they won I get a call from one of Woody’s managers. He said, “Woody wanted to know if he could ask you a big favor?” I said, “Sure.” “Can you get him four tickets to the World Series?” Honest to God I had to bite my tongue. Are you kidding me? You don’t think that Woody Allen would mean more to the Mets than Mickey Herskowitz from Houston, Texas? For some reason that didn’t occur to him. So I called the Mets PR guy and got him tickets to every home game. Next week I got a handwritten “thank you” note from Woody.
Q: You also had an encounter with Paul Simon, right?
A: I sure did. I was thinking of stories, and it dawned on me that Rollins and Joffe also managed Paul Simon. “The Graduate” had come out, and the song “Mrs. Robinson” was everywhere. So I called up and asked if they thought Paul would be willing to do a story for me on what it was like growing up as a Yankee fan. And Rollins or Joffe said, “Well, I don’t know. I didn’t think Woody would do a story and he did. We’ll ask Paul.” The next day I’m sitting in my office … the secretary put a call through and the voice said, “Mickey?” I said, “Yeah.”
“This is Paul.”
I was stunned that Paul Simon called. I said: “Paul, jeez, terrific of you to call, and call back so quickly. And to call back yourself. Everybody usually goes through three or four layers of gatekeepers, I’m really impressed.” He said, “Well don’t be. It’s an everyday courtesy.” He talked about what I had pitched and said, “I think it’s a groovy idea and I’d love to do it.” And so I explained what I wanted but also said I’d love it if he could talk about the Joe DiMaggio line, which everyone was so touched by. It took everybody back to nostalgia in their lives.
Q: What did he say about it?
A: He said the line just came to him. He hadn’t had DiMaggio in mind, but his name came to him; he had to have a long enough name to fit the melody. It was funny because he told me that a month or so after the song hit big he was on a TV show with Mickey Mantle and Mantle said, “How come you used DiMaggio’s name in your song and not mine?” Simon said he had to explain to him that it had to do with the melody and not the name.
Q: That’s funny that Mantle asked him. Because he was also a player of Simon’s generation more than DiMaggio.
A: That’s right. Anyhow, we didn’t talk long, maybe about 10 minutes. I was out of things to say. But I was so flattered and grateful for the call, I felt like I had to say something. So I told him that “Mrs. Robinson” was my favorite song. I made it up; it was such a dumb, bulls— thing to say, but I felt I had to say something complimentary to him for calling. There was a pause on the other line. And the next thing he said was: “You didn’t like ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’?” You talk about the insecurity of an artist?
Q: He was straight, he wasn’t joking?
A: I said, “Oh, no, no, no. ‘Mrs. Robinson’ was my favorite sports song. I love ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters.’” And the truth is, I didn’t know what he was talking about. I had been hearing it for weeks but didn’t know the name of it.
Here’s more on how Jock came to be.
Bronx Banter: Before we get to Jock magazine, let’s talk about your early career in Houston.
Mickey Herskowitz: I don’t need to exaggerate what a sports-nuts state Texas is. In fact, the most famous line I ever wrote was when one of the Super Bowl’s came here, I tried to explain Houston and one of my stories started, “We never knew how important Religion was in Texas until people started comparing it to high school football.”
And so way back, I was with the Houston Post.
BB: This was before Wells Twombly, right?
MH: Well before Wells, about ten years before he came along and then he was at the Houston Chronicle. The funny thing is I hired Wells to write for Jock and then had to renege when we started running out of money. He was really hurt. I couldn’t tell him that we were going broke at the time so I had to make up some sleazy excuse. Years later, he asked me about it and I told him the truth. So anyway, I was at the Houston Post and a couple of guys came to me and wanted to have a magazine about sports in Texas. This was the year Elvin Hayes was leading the University of Houston to prominence in college basketball. So a couple of advertising guys came to me and they had a little bit of money.
BB: You were a columnist at this time for the Post, right?
MH: I was in my twenties but a columnist.
BB: You’re younger than Dan Jenkins then.
MH: I was the next generation. Blackie [Sherrod], Dan, a wonderful writer in Fort-Worth named Jim Trinkle, Orville Henry in Fayetteville and Dave Campbell in Waco, Dan Cook in San Antonio, a named Jack Gallagher in Houston, those were the top-rated writers in the state as far as sports went. Bud Shrake came a little later. Gary Cartwright came after that. I don’t know if I was their mascot but they all looked after me.
BB: And you grew up in Houston?
MH: I was born there in the late 1930s. I remember Blackie never missing a chance to pay me a compliment. And years later when Dan was at Sports Illustrated he actually referred to me in print as the best baseball writer in America. Dan told me that on Mondays or Tuesdays when the out of state newspapers came into the office there’d be a scramble to get the Houston Post to see what my ledes were on the Astros ballgames. He really told me that. They brought me up there and offered me a job and I reluctantly turned it down because I was doing a TV show and a radio show in Houston along with the column and the money couldn’t match the three jobs I had back home. The three jobs in Houston were probably easier to handle than one in New York because of the cost of living.
BB: This was before Jock?
MH: Yes, and getting back to Jock, I had these advertising guys come to me about doing a magazine about sports in Texas and if it made sense to do something about sports anywhere that’s where you would start. It was called Sport Folio. I didn’t have any literary figures but I had all the top sports writers in Houston and Dallas, Austin. It was a monthly.
BB: Did you model it after Sport magazine?
MH: No. I stayed at the Post, this was a part-time job. Truth is, I modeled it after Esquire, which is what I did with Jock, as well. Sport Folio lasted about a year. Par for the course, ran out of money the second year. Then about a year after that I got a call from Chris Schenkel. Some money people out of Dallas were going to put out a magazine out called Chris Schenkel’s Sport Scene. Chris was the Bob Costas of his day, the go-to-anchor of his time. Did the Olympics forever, a lot of golf, was a terrific football play-by-play announcer, basketball too. SI did a great cover story on him. At one time he was the biggest name in sports broadcasting. He was the anti-Cosell. Totally factual, understated, non-dramatic. And a golden voice. So Chris called and asked if I would commute to Dallas an edit the magazine. And I did. I had Blackie and Jenkins and Steve Perkins who was a fine writer from Dallas and been in New Orleans.
BB: SI would let Jenkins moonlight for you?
MH: I say I had Jenkins, he maybe did one story for me on TCU but he did it under the radar. He wasn’t freelancing for anyone else.
BB: Did you have Gary Cartwright?
MH: No. I want to put this the right way so it doesn’t seem like a criticism but at that time Gary was still young and he was fourth or fifth in line behind Dan, Blackie and Bud Shrake. Thing about Gary is that he just got better and better and he’s still around of course. But we only had four or five big stories per issue so I didn’t have a big line up. Sports Scene was in mind a success because it was really classy. The people who owned it put a lot of money into it. It was glossy. We could go anywhere and write about anything. I covered the Olympics for that magazine in ’68. And what happened was an advertising guy in New York saw Sports Scene. Keep in mind New York magazine had just made a big splash and was a big success. There may have been city magazines at the time but they were small. In Houston, you had one that strong-armed ads for dentists and doctors and lawyers. Had little fashion stories, luncheons.
BB: They were provincial.
MH: Right. They were not for reading. They were beautiful and glossy but no content. New York was the first real city magazine unless I’m overlooking something in Boston of Philadelphia. So this advertising guy saw Sport Scene and compared it to New York, which was showing a profit after three years, which if you know magazines, is rare. You are lucky to show a profit after three years, hell, you are lucky to still be in business after three years. The stock market had had a real go-go run from about ’66-’68 and he thought he could take the model of Sport Folio and Sport Scene and get a Wall Street company to back it. And that’s exactly what we did.
BB: Did you move to New York?
MH: I did. Had an apartment in the same building with the mayor though he didn’t live there. John Lindsay played tennis with Hank Greenburg outside my window on Sundays. I was at Sutton Place. Cost me about $295 a month to park my car and a luxury apartment in Houston at the time cost about $350.
BB: Did the deal happen quickly?
MH: I flew to New York and met with their key sales people. It was like Alice in Wonderland. I’m almost embarrassed. It was so easy because so many people love sports. The only people they invited to the business meeting were the ones that were nuts about sports. Why wouldn’t they want to take this company public? I called coach Paul Bear Bryant, Jimmy Demerit, AJ Foyt, Cosell, Curt Gowdy, that was my role.
BB: You wanted them to invest in the magazine?
MH: No, no, they agreed to be on the board of directors and each got 10,000 shares. They did it as a favor, nobody asked for anything. But it was a marquee lineup. We went public in June of 1969, just as the recession began. In July, the Mets were 9 games out of first place. I came up with the idea for the first cover. It would be 4 or 5 Met players raising the flag on Iwo Jima except it was on the pitcher’s mound. That was on the inaugural issue, must be worth a pretty penny today. Cleon Jones, Tom Seaver, Ed Kranepool and those guys.
BB: This was after the Jets had already won the Super Bowl.
MH: The same year. And the Knicks had lost to the Bullets in the playoffs but they won the championship the following season, in June of 1970.
BB: New York hasn’t seen a banner year like that since.
Stayed tuned. All week, we’ll be featuring a different article from Jock.
In our chat over at Sports on Earth, Stratton–who goes by the name Kip–and I talk about Patterson’s relationship with Muhammad Ali. But there’s far more to Patterson’s career than his two fights with Ali.
So, dig in, and please enjoy the rest of our conversation.
Bronx Banter: Patterson has long been a favorite of writers like W.C. Heinz and especially, Gay Talese. Yet there haven’t been so many major biographies on his life. What drew you to writing about him?
KS: Oh, yeah. I was a boxing fan since I was a kid. Boxing was in a kind of golden age, which probably started around the time of the Patterson-Johansson rivalry and lasted until, say, the Leonard-Hagler fight–which, incidentally, I believe Hagler won–a quarter of a century later. Although Muhammad Ali is the best known there were many terrific boxers were during that time, including Patterson. But I didn’t know how complicated Patterson was until I read that Talese piece. After that, I picked up more and more about Patterson here and there over the years, all of it interesting. In 1988, I met him, briefly, at a celebration marking the centennial of Jim Thorpe’s birth. Something about him in person seemed compelling and that increased my fascination with him. Eventually I read his autobiography, Victory Over Myself, which appeared at the peak of his career and I was blown away by what I read. Then, Thomas Hauser’s authorized biography of Ali appeared, which included a quote from Ali in which he listed Patterson with Liston, Foreman, and Frazier as the best he ever fought. Patterson, but not Ken Norton. Patterson, but not Larry Holmes. Patterson, but not Archie Moore. Ali said Patterson had the best boxing skills of any fighter he met in the ring. That pretty well cinched it for me. I knew I wanted to write about him someday.
BB: Can you talk about the work Talese did on Patterson, both for The New York Times and Esquire and how that influenced your thinking on the fighter.
KS: Talese joined The Times as a sportswriter after he served a hitch in the Army; earlier, he’d had a job on the Times as a copyboy following his graduation from the University of Alabama. As I recall, he told me he intentionally targeted a job in the sports department because it would allow him to employ more stylistic freedom than other sections of the paper, which were very much locked into “Old Gray Lady” rules of writing. He said he admired what was going on in the pages of some of the other newspapers in the city at the time, in particular The New York Herald-Tribune. The sports pages of the Times would give him the same leeway writers at these other papers had. I read many articles he wrote for the Times’ sports section. They were experimental as hell for that paper. I remember one about the future light heavyweight champion, and future author, José Torres. The profile did not give Torres’ name until the last sentence! So Talese was doing this wonderful sort of creative nonfiction for the Times. To be sure, much of it was immature compared to the masterpieces he would later write. But it was interesting. So, here you have Talese, interested in taking this whole new approach to sports writing and he runs into Floyd Patterson, a whole different sort of boxing champion.
BB: It was as if they were made for each other.
KS: Gay wrote more than four dozen bylined Times pieces about Patterson that I found. I’d never met Talase prior to starting research on the book, but he was nice enough to offer me some time for an interview after I approached him via a mutual acquaintance.
BB: You went to his brownstone here in New York?
KS: I arrived at Gay’s house on the Upper East Side on a day when he suddenly had crushing deadlines of his own. But he granted me time. I think he was impressed that I had dug up all those old Times articles. He was an absolute gentleman–of course attired in finely tailored clothes. He presented me with an inscribed copy of his newest book, which I totally did not expect. We talked and talked, not just about Patterson and D’Amato and company, but about Norman Mailer and James Baldwin and John Gregory Dunne and two of Gay’s great friends, David Halberstam and Ben Gazzara.
BB: Wow, I knew he’d been friends with Halberstam but not Gazzara.
KS: Yeah, Talese and Halberstam were friends from when they came to know each other as young reporters on the Times. Gay thought Halberstam was the greatest reporter of their generation, and I think he’s undoubtedly right about that. Gay told me that he and Gazzara followed the fights together, among other things. I also read a quote of Talese’s in which he said something like Gazzara, once he became prominent as an actor, let a whole generation know it was okay to be Italian-American. Something like that. It would have been great to have hung out with Talese and Gazzara to listen to them talk about boxing.
BB: And women. Where’s Casavetes when yo need him?
KS: Talese invited me downstairs to his basement office and showed me his archives. Like Mailer, he’s kept everything. Using large sheets of paper, he storyboards his articles as if they are three-act dramas. He showed me his actual storyboard for “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” which some of us think is the best magazine article ever written by an American. And he showed me the storyboard for “The Loser,” that piece I studied in Harry’s class all those years before. I was flabbergasted to actually see that relic from all those years ago. Talese and I also talked about his collaboration with Patterson for the Esquire article in which Floyd called for people to try to understand Muhammad Ali, not just jeer him, one of the first sympathetic Ali articles to run in a mainstream magazine. So I felt as if I had Talese looking over my shoulder the whole time I worked on this book. You know, this notion of, You better not fuck this up because there are high expectations whenever you take up the subject matter of Patterson.
BB: And he wasn’t alone, right?
KS: Talese, yes, but also Heinz, Mailer, Baldwin, Hamill, Oates, Schulberg–writers of that caliber. So I felt as if I had a standard to meet. Beyond that, Gay gave me a lot of insight into the Patterson saga through his comments in the interview, in particular about D’Amato, a character who merits a great deal of examination.
BB: Patterson had an unusual sensitivity and honesty for a fighter of his caliber, didn’t he?
KS: Let’s start with the instructions given by the referee before the opening bell. Nowadays, this is the time for the absurd exercise in posturing known as the stare-down. It wasn’t quite like it is now in Patterson’s day, but it was still expected that a fighter look the man he was going to battle in the eye. Patterson never did that. He stared at the other guy’s feet. He couldn’t look into the eyes of someone he was getting ready to hurt. If he did that, he wouldn’t be able to fight. He cradled Ingemar Johansson’s head after he knocked Ingo out. He helped an opponent recover his mouthpiece after he, Floyd, knocked it out.
BB: He was also candid, especially with Talese.
KS: Patterson was perhaps the most eloquent champion ever when it came to mining deep feelings and expressing them. He spoke honestly about fear, about cowardice — he described himself as a coward once. At the same time, he was reclusive and seemed to like to stay silent most of the time. He was not comfortable around people, an introvert, yet he did as much charitable work as any champion in history. He lived a conservative lifestyle in that he didn’t drink or do drugs or make the party scene very much, and he held conservative stances about other things, yet he was an early and outspoken liberal when it came to the civil rights movement. He lent his name and gave money to desegregation causes. He went to Alabama with Martin Luther King. He was often, to quote Kris Kristofferson, a walking contradiction.
BB: Patterson’s accomplishments in the ring tend to be overlooked these days. How much of that is due to the huge impression that Ali left?
KS: Patterson was the bridge between Rocky Marciano and Ali. The year Patterson won the heavyweight title, you had Humphrey Bogart appearing in The Harder They Fall. The year Patterson fought his last pro fight, you had Ron O’Neal appearing in Super Fly. Because of this, it’s hard to really associate Patterson with an era in the way you can a Dempsey or a Louis, and I think that’s allowed him to slip through the cracks to a certain extent.
BB: He gets lost.
KS: Absolutely, the light of Patterson gets lost in the glare of Ali. Patterson brings speed into the heavyweight ring that no one had ever seen before, revolutionizing the possibilities for a heavyweight fighter. But then Ali shows up with hand speed that matches Floyd’s and has even faster ring mobility and is taller and weighs more. Makes it easy to overlook Patterson. Floyd is good in interviews, eloquently giving well thought out answers. Ali takes control of interviews, makes them his own, makes them funny, makes them memorable for years to come. Patterson’s a good looking guy. Ali has movie-star good looks, one of the handsomest men to grace the public stage during the 20th century. Patterson has great wins over Moore and Johansson, but Ali has monumental victories over Liston, Frazier, and Foreman, and, indeed, Floyd himself. Mailer writes a significant article about Patterson but writes a significant book about Ali. On and on. The Greatest was and is The Greatest. But I think enough — or more than enough — has been written about him. I think it’s time to look at some of these other figures. Patterson. Joe Frazier. And so on. You go to a bookstore, and often the only boxing titles you see are about Ali. That’s not right. Elvis was the king of rock-and-roll, but that doesn’t mean that Buddy Holly and Little Richard aren’t damned significant figures. So be it with Floyd Patterson.
BB: What is it about stars of the 1950s and early ’60s being forgotten?
KS: Well, again, I think Ali has something to do with it. People became so fixated with him. We’ve now had a couple of generations of American boxers come along, many of whom don’t know how to keep their hands up or are otherwise lacking in boxing fundamentals because Ali didn’t do it that way. But they’re pretty good at pulling off ring antics of some sort. This is part of the downside of the Ali legacy. Ali became sloppy about staying in shape–of course I’m talking about fighting shape here–in the second part of his career, and that became part of the negative legacy too. And one thing Ali did was that he made the fight be something more than the fight. Often it seemed that the sideshow was more important to the fans than the fight itself. That’s carried over to subsequent generations of fighters.
BB: How so?
KS: Floyd Mayweather is a brilliant boxer, but it seems that his fans are more interested in the gangsta production surrounding the fight than the fight itself. Well, Mayweather understands that expectation and delivers time after time. The fights of the pre-Ali era was something entirely different. Flourishes occurred here and there among the boxers, and fairly often when you talk about Archie Moore, who was a different sort of character for the 1950s, but the fight itself was the thing. Beau Jack headlined the Garden 21 times during the 1940s and ’50s and brought no show except his boxing skills. That was enough for the time. Fighting well. And the fans would stream in to see it. Now there has to be more. Showbiz. Glitz. Outrageous haircuts. Bling glittering off trunks. That’s the expectation. Modern fans don’t resonate with many of those older, pre-Ali fighters who did nothing more in the ring than just fight. In order to have resonance with modern fans, the older boxers have to have a hell of a back story, like Floyd Patterson.
BB: I think it’s interesting that Ali mentioned Patterson over Norton who fought well against Ali, arguably better than Patterson did.
KS: Floyd had a great trainer in Dan Florio. It is doubtful that any heavyweight champion had better instruction in and subsequent competency at the rudiments of boxing than Patterson. You know, how to set up a right cross with a left jab. How to set up a right uppercut. So I think in part what Ali was saying is that Patterson was the best schooled of any boxer he faced. Beyond that, if you watch the film of the first Ali-Patterson fight, you see that Floyd’s hand speed was something Ali was unaccustomed to encountering. Ali lived and died by his jab, but Patterson had the speed to catch a lot of Ali’s jabs in that first fight. Now, don’t get me wrong: The fight was a mismatch from the get-go. Ali was bigger and younger; Floyd was injured and shouldn’t have been fighting in the first place. But in those early rounds, Floyd does a very respectable job taking Ali’s jab away from him by blocking them with his right hand. I think those are the reasons Ali had so much respect for him.
BB: Since Ali has cast such a large shadow over Patterson, and a host of other fighters, can you talk about how Patterson stands up on his own, without comparing him in any way to Ali.
KS: First, let’s talk about Floyd the amateur. Pete Hamill has said that Patterson was one of the great amateur boxers in the history of American sports. Hamill’s right. Patterson’s record in the Golden Gloves and the AAUs is very impressive, especially when you consider he was 16 and 17 years old when he was scoring all those victories. Then he went to the Olympics. The 1952 US boxing team at the Helsinki games is a great story. The United States had never performed particularly well in Olympic boxing prior to 1952; our teams were dominated by white collegians before that. But in 1952, you had a team whose dominate fighters were inner city guys who were tough and talented. That team brought back five gold medals to America. Five! And all five of the gold medalists were African American. This was at a time when big league baseball and pro football were barely integrated. It would be twenty years before some Southwest Conference football teams integrated. This was a huge event in the history of sports in America. And Floyd Patterson was the star of that team. To the end of his life, Floyd said that winning a gold medal in the Olympics was his proudest accomplishment.
BB: And that’s all before he went pro.
KS: That’s right. He won the heavyweight title at age 21, the youngest man to do so. His record stood for around three decades before Tyson won it at an even younger age. Patterson won the title, lost it, then regained it. He was the first person in history to win the title twice. This was something that boxers the likes of Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis couldn’t do. He came damned close to winning the title a third time in his fight against Jimmy Ellis. At around the halfway point of his pro career, he, an African American fighter, fired his white manager and became his own manager. He did all these things showing a high level of fair play and honor. For instance, everything was set up for him to be able to avoid fighting Sonny Liston. Many people inside and outside the boxing world believed Liston’s extensive criminal background was justification for keeping him from competing for the crown. Floyd could have bought into that argument and every sanctioning body would have supported his decision. But Patterson believe Liston had earned a shot at the title, that he deserved it, and Patterson gave it to him, even though he knew it would spell his doom as champ. Remarkable, just remarkable.
BB: And he had a complicated relationship with the trainer Cus D’Amato.
KS: Patterson had to paired with just the right mentor if he was ever going have any success fighting. I believe it could not have been anyone else other than Cus D’Amato. I spend a good deal of time in a boxing gym and I hear the same thing over and over: Boxing is mostly mental. Boxing is 75 percent psychological. My friend Anissa Zamarron, a two-time world champion female boxer, says that a successful boxer has to take on the mind-set of a rooster in a cockfight whenever the bell rings. Well, getting Floyd to be a rooster psychologically took some doing. I’m not sure anyone other than D’Amato could have taken Floyd that far. He was a very talented amateur psychologist, I believe, especially when dealing with young boxers, teenaged boxers. Floyd came from a large family and his father was usually absent, out working, holding down two or more jobs, and because his father worked so much, I got the feeling that Floyd didn’t receive very much fathering from him. Floyd was closer to his mother. D’Amato became this sort of surrogate father figure.
BB: Your portrait of D’Amato could be a book on its own.
KS: D’Amato was pretty messed up himself. He was regarded as a mystery figure during his prime–some writers wrote that he had no family, stuff like that. But I dug up quite a bit about him. In fact, he was the son of Italian immigrants, grew up in the Bronx, lost his mother at a very early age, had a beloved brother, a boxer and a talented artist, shot and killed by a New York cop. D’Amato went through serious depression as a kid, obsessed with funerals and all that. He also told stories about himself as being some sort of vicious street tough, which were probably exaggerated or made up entirely. He was a ne’er-do-well who couldn’t keep a job, a dabbler in city politics but not too successful in that either. But then he stumbled into the world of boxing, and though he was no athlete himself, certainly never boxed, he found himself in this world of prizefighting. Boxing was completely mobbed up in New York at the time, and D’Amato willing “did business,” in his early days when called upon to do so. But then he eventually very publicly set out to expose the mob’s reign in boxing with an attempt to dislodge; at the same time, he continued to associate himself, secretly, with some powerful organized crime figures. Complicated man. He had no interest in making money for himself, but I think he was a kind of publicity hound. He always wanted it known that he was the brains behind Patterson. He brought Floyd along brilliantly through the amateur and early pro days. No one could have done a better job. He and Dan Florio were able to pick fighters that stretched Patterson, helped him grow from a middleweight to light heavyweight and then to a heavyweight contender. Cus was great at building up Patterson’s confidence. So a father figure, a confident, an adviser, a spokesman–all those things. But there were also problems.
BB: Was Patterson’s break from D’Amato necessary in him becoming his own man?
KS: Once Patterson won the world title, it became apparent that D’Amato was a bit in over his head in handling a champion at that level. He made mistakes on contracts that ended up costing Floyd money. That sort of thing. Just making a fight was a tortuous process for him. The business decisions were what Patterson pointed to when he eventually talked about why he fired D’Amato and took over his own career. But there was more. I think part of it was the need for a son to break away from his father, figuratively speaking, for Floyd to prove that he was his own man. D’Amato’s hesitancy to match Patterson with some of the ranking contenders of the late 1950s made it almost seem as if Floyd were afraid to fight them. Well, one thing you didn’t do to a proud black man was put him into situations in which it might seem as if he were a coward. Jesus, that harkened back to way too many old American stereotypes. I’m not sure D’Amato ever got that, however.
BB: You write about how he have made some unwelcome advances though Patterson never called him out publicly on that.
KS: I discovered in my reserach there was a lot of whispered speculation about D’Amato’s sexuality in some quarters. D’Amato had a long-time relationship with Camille Ewald, but she usually lived apart from him. In the 1950s, a man was expected to be married with children or have a very visible girlfriend or, in the world of boxing, maybe both. Cus didn’t do this, so he was suspect. For a time, he shared a one-bedroom apartment with Jim Jacobs. That too spurred whispering. I mention this because in the context of the times, this was a big deal. Then there was the event about which Patterson told Talese. D’Amato was so obsessive about “protecting” Patterson from enemies, real or imagined, that he took to sleeping the same bedroom with him. And then in the same bed with him. One night, Floyd told Gay, Patterson awoke to feel D’Amato rubbing Floyd’s leg with his foot. Floyd feigned sleep and didn’t react in any way. Nothing like this ever happened again, as far as I could find out. And who knows? D’Amato may have been sound asleep himself and it was some sort of reflexive thing. I mention all this only to portray just how closely, how intimately if you will, connected Patterson and D’Amato were at one point. It went beyond the typical manager/trainer’s relationship with a boxer, and because of the nature of the sport, that’s always a pretty intimate relationship anyway.
BB: Still, Patterson need to break from him eventually.
KS: Floyd could never become what he did had it not been for D’Amato, but he also had to break with D’Amato if he was to grow into a man fully in charge of his life. Floyd broke with Cus and drove his career where he thought it had to go, the fights with Liston and Ali, the defeats, the dethronement, the tarnished legacy. To me this is what Aristotle was getting at when he wrote about tragedy. To me, Floyd Patterson is a tragic figure in this regard. And if it was cast into the tradition five-act form, D’Amato would be a key figure in “The Tragedy of Floyd Patterson.”
BB: Before I let you go, I’ve got to ask you about your book of poetry,Dreaming Sam Peckinpah. How did you get into poetry?
KS: Poetry was the first thing I wrote in earnest. In high school, I had a teacher, Kenny Walter, who turned me on to contemporary poetry in a serious way. Now, where I came from, it wasn’t exactly okay for a guy to be interested in something like poetry, under normal circumstances. But Kenny had been something of a star athlete in my home town before he went off to college and came back a teacher, and he was still a serious weekend basketball and tennis player and a serious bird hunter. So he showed you could be into poetry and still be “manly.” Keep in mind we’re talking about a pretty remote place–rural Oklahoma—inhabited by a lot of people with backwards notions. So Kenny made poetry accessible, and I sure as hell was interested.
BB: What poets did you read early on?
KS: The big poet who fascinated us at that time was James Dickey, again, a former athlete, a guy who seemed to know a lot about the woods, a guy who seemed to know a lot about things like archery. Since then I’ve learned he was in part a fraud, a damaged person, but, again, he wrote about things I could relate to. Anyway, through that portal, I entered this whole world of verse. I was so damned naïve—I didn’t realize there were all these competing factions in that world. The portal through which I entered was one dominated by some poets who would be classified as Academic poets: Dickey, Richard Hugo, William Stafford. Stafford eventually became a friend of mine for a while, a kind, generous man. Also Robert Lowell during his confessional period—I still think “Skunk Hour” is a terrific poem. Elizabeth Bishop.
BB: When did you break out of the “academic poets”?
KS: That came later and was a liberating experience. Here were a bunch of people writing verse that came from the truest artistic inspiration. Sometimes the verse ended up being, to my taste, not completely successful, but, damn, you could not deny the spirit and the true artistic inspiration behind it. Other times the verse exceeded what the Academics could pull off at their best. I remember well watching a black-and-white PBS documentary about Charles Bukowski at a time when Bukowski was hardly known. It was fascinating and led me to seek out some of his early verse, which was not easy to find in a place like Oklahoma City at that time. As I said, it was liberating. So I just kept writing verse, never stopped. I write poetry that’s not destined to end up in The New Yorker or Poetry. I came in through the Dickey-Hugo-Stafford portal, and their influence is still on me, but I think I wound up writing more in the Outlaw Poetry tradition.
BB: What did you write about?
KS: I wrote a series of haiku about boxing, in part as a sort of satire on the form. Seriously, boxing haiku? Sports infiltrates the verse. I write about rodeo. I wrote a poem about learning at a football game about the suicide of a girl I knew and dated some as a teenager. I wrote poems about a lot of hard slices of life, about dumping my father’s ashes in a stream in the Cascades, about my stepbrother’s death from AIDS. I wrote poems about Merle Haggard and Harry Dean Stanton and Warren Oates and Dennis Hopper. I wrote about beer joints. I wrote about a Mexican food place in Uvalde, Texas.
BB: And then…Peckinpah?
KS: I’ve long considered the director Sam Peckinpah to be a kind of poet, when he was at his best. He created his metaphors in the mixed media of film rather than by writing them down as lines on paper. I’ve thought a lot about Peckinpah’s work over the years, read a lot about him. I had a poem that included in a line the phrase “dreaming Sam Peckinpah.” I thought for a long time it would be a good title for a book. Well, I had all these poems I’d written, one or two going back more than thirty years. And one day it occurred to me that they could be arranged in a thematic way, sort of in the way a rock concept album from back in the day would be arranged. So I did that, drawing on quotes from or about Peckinpah, and, damn, if I wasn’t happy with the results. About that same time, a wonderful small press publisher had told me he’d be interested in something like what I was working on. Things clicked. And that’s how Dreaming Sam Peckinpah came to be.
Visit Stratton’s website here; you can purchase the Patterson book, here.
Bronx Banter: You were a novelist before you wrote journalism. How did you transition from writing fiction to doing non-fiction?
Robert Ward: My first novel Shedding Skin was really good and won the NEA Grant as one of the top novels of 1972 because I had lived it all. I had actually hitched around and gone to Haight-Ashbury and lived there and been idealistic and seen my ideals trashed. I’d suffered a nervous breakdown living that way, and was barely able to survive mentally. All of that material got into Shedding Skin. So it was lived experience not second hand stuff from a book. In short it was wild-exaggerated-for-comic effect-reportage. But the bottom line was it was real. You can’t twist and turn stuff unless you have it to begin with.
BB: The so-called New Journalism was in full swing by then.
RW: That’s right. I had done a little journalism work. In fact, I’d help start an underground newspaper with John Waters, Jack Hicks, Elia Katz, and Jack Walsh in Baltimore. It was called the Baltimore Free Press. My first piece for it was an interview with The Loving Spoonful, when they came to town. I was a huge fan of theirs and assumed they’d be happy guys, considering the many hits they’d had.
But I found them to be depressed and bummed-out because they hadn’t had a hit for I think it was like eight months. It was the first time I realized how fleeting rock n roll fame could be. They were unhappy and John Sebastian seemed really miserable. I wish I could have found that piece and included it. It taught me a lot. That getting out in the world and seeing things for yourself was really exciting.
BB: Getting you out of your head and in the insulated world of academia.
RW: Yeah, it was a lesson I didn’t learn well enough, because after I had published Shedding Skin and gotten married again, I found myself with two young boys–my second wife’s kids from her first marriage–and no money. Teaching was at least a little security but it was killing me. I knew I didn’t belong in it. When my second novel–which was supposed to be this Great Radical Tome that would fan the fires of revolution–failed miserably, I knew I had done what so many other writers of my generation had done. That was become an academic, a guy who never saw anything but pretended to know all about the world. I got drunk on campus and played the enfant terrible with a bunch of teenaged students. I had grown to hate myself for being such a phony, so I was determined to become a journalist like Tom Wolfe or Hunter Thompson and let the chips fall where they may. When my wife left me for this rock n roller dude I knew I had to re-invent myself or really go down the tubes. I got encouragement from Tom Wolfe when he came to campus and figured out a way to get the Geneva police to let me hang with them and did my first piece on them. From that moment on my career took off.
BB: What was it about Wolfe and Thompson, as opposed to Gay Talese, for instance, that turned you on?
RW: I was influenced by Wolfe and Thompson and also Terry Southern. But pretty soon I found my own voice, which was not so absurd as either Thompson or Southern, and less erudite and right-wing than Wolfe’s. I wanted to be funny and smart but also compassionate and risk feeling things for my subjects. I didn’t want it to be all outrage and jokes. And I was still basically a Lefty.
BB: That’s great you mentioned Terry Southern. Of the three guys you mentioned he’s the one who is least remembered now. Why do you think that is? He could have been the biggest influence of all three at the time.
RW: Terry was my hero, not for his journalism, but for his book The Magic Christian, which is still the funniest and hippest satire on American greed, show biz and hype ever. I loved his sensibility and shared it in a way. As a kid in college the crowd I ran with got into speaking only in clichés to people we didn’t dig. It was cruel and very funny for a while. The people we were talking to often didn’t realize it was going on. Of course it was very immature but hey, we did it mainly to people who were the big men on campus, jerks. It was the arty students little revenge on them. They were the fifties people and the world was fast-changing. It was around then–my junior year–that I discovered The Magic Christian on a pile of remaindered books at E.J. Korvettes. A black hardback book with a pink pig on the cover. I picked it up and read the opening lines: “Grand Guy Guy Grand was, as he put it, on the go.” After reading a couple more cliché laden lines I had the great realization that this novel was going to be one of my favorite books of all time.
BB: I love when that happens.
RW: Certain books are like that. You need only look at their covers and read one or two lines and you know your whole life will be changed by them. The only other books I’ve read that put this astounding spell on me were Catcher in The Rye when I was fifteen and A Fan’s Notes in my 20′s. Anyway, I realized that this Terry Southern chap shared my love of the put-on and had a very similar sensibility as myself and my friends. The use of clichés, the feeling that the world was mad, but also this almost academic rigor in his sentences. Parodic 19th Century stuff. Perfect. I never actually used his riffs, but he helped me see into sham and the great hustle of pop culture. Later, in New York, we became friends and he was one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. His bullshit detector was foolproof. That’s what I think we shared.
BB: That’s one thing about Wolfe and Thompson and Southern–their style seems loose at first almost improvisational which may explain why it appeals to younger readers but it actually takes a huge amount of discipline and rigor to pull it off. I remember the same being said about Robert Altman, that he produced casual-looking ensemble style but it took a ton of discipline to achieve it.
RW: Well, with Wolfe , Southern and Hunter Thompson their style and sense of humor is first what appealed to me. They all had the sense of how wild the world was, what an amazing parade of fools and heroes passed before us. I loved that about them. They really caught the unique quality of American life like no one else. But what people forget about Wolfe and Thompson was that they really knew their subjects inside and out. I took Tom Wolfe from Hobart College in Geneva to his plane in Rochester and he told me all about Jospeh Smith in upstate New York and the history of the Mormons. It was the same for whatever he wrote. He researched the subjects before he went out and interviewed them. I did the same thing with ex-Premier Ky of Vietnam. I spent three days in the library before I went out to California to interview him. Six hours a day. I wanted to know everything I could about him. Research made a huge difference. We were able to talk about people like Ellsworth Bunker, Johnson, Thieu and many others. When someone is relaxed and likes you they’ll tell you great stories and allow you to hang out with them. Going to a parents-teachers meeting with him was absolutely amazing. The twenty-something-year-old kids who were teaching his children were absolutely terrified of him. But he was as nice as he could be to them. I wouldn’t have gotten to go on that little every day journey with him if I hadn’t prepared. You can only get the casual, everyday stuff if you’ve really done your homework.
BB: One of my favorite pieces in the book is a memoir story about your grandfather and the strip clubs in Baltimore. It reminded me of a scene out of the movie Diner. How did Baltimore shape you?
RW: Baltimore is a tough town, a very loyal town, a town of small neighborhoods in which people know one another all their lives. At least it was that way when I grew up. It formed my consciousness. You had a rough kind of wise guy humor there, and growing up my friends and I laughed at anything that scared us. But the really tough thing about the place was that there was just about no place to go if you wanted to be a writer. That’s why I had so little confidence when I grew up. My dad used to laugh at my desires to be a writer. Mainly because he was a failed painter. He had talent and was very artistic and a sensitive guy. Very smart. But there was no outlet for a working class kid like him and there was very little for me. I used to try and write and he’d look at me and say, “Mister Hemingway. You think you’re going to be a big writer. Well, you’ll learn pal. You’ll learn like I learned. Nobody wants you. Nobody is waiting for you, Mister Hemingway!” How I hated those words.
BB: I have an uncle who grew up in South Ozone Park in Queens and they used to rag on him for wanting to be a painter. “Hey, Freddy the Artist.” Like he was a clown.
RW: Maybe my father did me a favor because I would scream back at him: “I AM GOING TO BE A WRITER AND NOTHING YOU CAN SAY WILL STOP ME!” Man, I hated him in those days, he never took up for me. I was busted by the cops once for speeding, and I called the cop a fascist. They made me come down to the Chief of Police’s office with my old man. I thought he’d speak up for me, you know say something like “He’s really a good boy, officer.” Instead he said, right in front of me, “He’s a rebellious boy officer and always has been. I don’t know what to do with him. He won’t listen to me or his mother. He’s just no good.” The Chief suggested they lock me up for a week to see if that would get me straightened out and my father didn’t say anything at all in my behalf. I just sat there totally freaked out. I knew they couldn’t really lock me up for a traffic ticket and a wise crack. They let me go with a warning. The cop told my father “If he ever gives you anymore trouble Mister Ward call me and we’ll lock him up for a while.” Then we left. In the car going home I screamed at him. I was crying, “You sold me out to that cop. You didn’t even stand up for me, you cowardly bastard.” I jumped out of the car on the way home at a red light and just wandered around on the streets for hours until my friend Hicks got home and then stayed on his couch for a month.
BB: How long did the rift last?
RW: A while. But later in life we made up and he admitted he had been too tough on me, that he had been a lousy dad. I found out about things his dad had done to him. It was a sad story. I knew I had to get out of Baltimore or I’d drown there. But in many ways I loved the city, loved the Orioles, the Colts, my buddies and our wild, drunken car rides. But you could see very early–and I saw it in my own family–that no one who wanted to be a writer from my class of people was going to get anywhere in that town.
BB: How did you find support or the confidence to become a writer in spite of that?
RW: It took my years to find myself and my own way but I found people who helped me. Some in academia and some–most of them–in New York. Editors and other writers who told me I was talented and couldn’t do enough to help me. People call New York a heartless place but they don’t know anything about it. No place was ever better to me. If you have talent in New York and want to work you’ll succeed. Same in LA. There are rough people in both places but if you’re tough enough and want to work, you’ll make it.
BB: Did you grow up reading Mencken? And did you follow your contemporaries from Baltimore, reporters like Mark Kram, a fellow blue collar guy, or Frank Deford, who was not so blue collar?
RW: Mark Kram wrote obits for New Times. I knew him a little. Good dude. I never read Frank Deford. Never met him. He was older than me. I loved Mencken to death. And still recall his great essay “Why Baltimore Is Superior to New York.” He said that basically it was better because people in Baltimore were your friends whether you were successful or not but in New York once you lost your mojo no one would talk to you anymore. I didn’t find this to be true but it informed my life when I got to New York. I met various con artists and hustlers there. And was, for the most part, not all that surprised because of Mencken.
BB: When you started doing pieces for the New Times, and then even later when you profiled celebrities, did you have a hard word count?
RW: There was sometimes a word count. “We need about three thousand words on this one.” But if I got great stuff they would always try to fit it in. New Times was the best at that. But so was Sport, GQ, Rolling Stone. These were real writers’ magazines. When I think back on it, I can’t believe how lucky I was to work for mags that cared about the writers, and made them the stars of the magazine world.
BB: One of the most notable differences between magazine pieces then and now is that writer’s were given far more space back then.
RW: There is nothing out there now like this. Maybe Harper’s and the New Yorker. But the other mags have all become pretty much promotional organs for the stars of entertainment. That’s because the publicists control the scene now. If you’re a little mean, from their point of view, to one of their clients, say Tom Cruise, the PR firms will make sure you never get access to any of their other clients. It’s a form of censorship. And a very effective one. Of course you can say whatever the hell you want on the internet but that’s not reportage. People who blog and trash public figures rarely have any access to them. And most of them aren’t real writers either. Merely having a snarky opinion isn’t writing.
BB: Can you talk a little bit about the New Times another magazine that is not well remembered by younger generations.
RW:New Times was a new magazine in the early 70′s. It was started by Jon Larsen, whose father was a journalist with Life, and in fact the Larson School of Journalism was named after him at Harvard. Also Frank Rich, David Hollander, and it was owned by George Hirsch. It was a bi-weekly magazine with really good writing in it. Larry L. King, one of my favorite writers from Willie Morris’ Harper’s in the sixties, and Robert Sam Anson, the intrepid war reporter from Harvard, was there as well. It wasn’t as counter cultural as Rolling Stone, but very political. I’d say it was a cross pollination of The Voice, Rolling Stone and Esquire. Later when they brought on John Lombardi from Rolling Stone as an editor it attracted some wilder writers like Lucian Truscott, who did great work for them. It never quite found its true identity, however. Not quite Time, not quite Stone. Eventually, as circulation dropped Hirsch sold it and started a new magazine called Runner. He told me later that one of the problems with New Times was that the ad guys would work their asses off to get say a Xerox account and then Larsen would publish some investigative piece on them which would, of course, infuriate Xerox and make them cancel their contract. But for me it was a showcase. They gave me as much space as I wanted and I loved working with everyone there. I’m still close pals with most of the guys I worked with there.
BB: The first non-fiction story you wrote was about the police in Geneva, the college town where you taught. It also brought your first brush with consequences. What did you learn right off the bat about the impact you’re reporting might have on a subject and did that effect how you approached doing stories moving forward?
RW: ”The Yawn Patrol.” That really shook me up, the cops harassed me slightly after that, but I never let it bother me. I was determined to take the journalism life seriously and rather than scare me off, it made me excited to know that my words could have a real effect in the real world. I was sorry that I’d made the cops life uncomfortable for a while but it was the truth. That line about the girl’s legs and their walks…walks with money behind them…said it all. The class gulf between the kids they protected and their own lives. What I learned was that if a piece is really good it’s going to sting somebody and they might come after you. But if you let that stop you, you shouldn’t be in the game.
BB: I like that your go-to line with subjects was that you were there to “set the record straight.” Can you talk about why this worked as a way to relax them?
RW: The beauty of the new journalism was that they’d tell you to write a piece on say Larry Flynt but there was no word count at all. They left it to the writer’s judgment. I spent a week with Flynt and got stuff that was totally outrageous. No one had ever really hung out with him before. When he asked me if the review was going to be negative or positive I answered, “I’m here to set the record straight.” To my mind this meant whatever I find I’m writing, unless you specifically tell me it’s off the record. I don’t know what Larry made of what I said. But he did mention how he thought of his life as a Horatio Alger story. “Poor Boy From The Back-Woods Makes Good.” He never actually said he wanted me to write the story that way. But it’s probably what he expected. But I had already told him why I was there. “To set the record straight.” And what great stuff I got for the record.
BB: He was the gift that kept giving.
RW: I sent the 10,000 words into New Times and they couldn’t believe it. They ran the whole damned thing, pretty much as I wrote it. That was so exciting. I mean I had barely started in my career and here was a cover piece. Plus, we asked Flynt to pose with his Blow Up Sex Dolls on the cover of the magazine and he did it. He had no idea what the piece said inside. Of course, when the piece came out he was shocked. Which I thought was pretty funny since he spent all his time shocking the bourgeois liberals and Bible Belters with his outrageous sex and outhouse humor. Eventually, he got over it and offered me the editorship of Hustler! I turned it down but my buddy Paul Krassner took the gig. Think he lasted about a year.
BB: I can’t believe that Flynt was taken aback by your piece. Did that just show his own naiveté at having a writer follow him around for a week?
RW: What you’re forgetting is I was the very first guy to do an in-depth, hang-out piece with Flynt. He was completely naive and thought–I think–that I would have the same attitude that he had about his life and career. But I never promised him anything. Anyway, he never let anyone get close to him again. Look at any other piece on him and you’ll never see that kind of access. Later, after he had forgiven me he asked me to do a documentary on him. I said I was willing to do it but I had to have control over the final cut. He wouldn’t go for that, so it never happened. But I remember when we met to discuss it in New York. He looked at me and said, “There he is: The Truth Teller!” Said with both admiration and disgust.
BB: And yet your more frightening episode was with the country singer David Allen Coe.
RW: Yes, the confrontation with Coe’s biker friends was super scary. They moved in on me in his room and there was no appealing to him because he was passed out on the bed with a girl sort of draped over him. One of them had a knife and cut away part of my leather jacket I was wearing. I remained fairly cool headed, kept my voice even, as I said, “You guys got the wrong writer. I have never written anything about Coe before. They thought I was the writer who had written a piece saying he wasn’t a murderer, that his story about how he’d been put in prison for murder but sung to the warden and gotten a pardon was all bullshit. Actually, a woman writer whose name I can’t recall now wrote the piece for Rolling Stone. Which is what his manager said when he came walking into the room. Jesus, what a nightmare. The guy took me into the next room and told me that he was sorry for the biker’s mis-treatment of me. “Come back when we tour the East Coast next year and you’ll see that we’re not like that.” Right, yeah, see you guys then.
BB: And yet your editor wished you had gotten stabbed because it would have made a better story.
RW: My editor Jon Larsen’s response was his idea of a joke. Sort of. He actually kind of meant it. It wasn’t enough to take one for the team. He wanted me to bleed for the team! I forgave him though and we’re still pals. WASP humor. He did a lot for me, gave me all the space I wanted and was a champion of my career.
BB: Another piece I really liked was the portrait of Leroy Neiman. The guy seemed so insecure, wrapped up in his celebrity–pissed that the art world didn’t take him seriously while the masses made him rich. He seemed like a character that Warhol himself could have invented but without irony or seemingly a sense of humor about himself.
RW: Looking back I think I was a little hard on Neiman. He was a pretty good guy, though he had a ridiculous king sized ego, marching around Jets stadium and waving to his fans. He did lack a sense of humor about himself and he was insecure. But you know what–he was a hell of a sketch artist and he was really good at illustrating sports heroes and other entertainers. Maybe I should have given him more credit. But he wanted to be taken seriously as a great artist like Picasso, and that just wasn’t going to happen. Still, he might be remembered as a great illustrator. People certainly love his work. And he was right about one thing: The establishment in the art world is snobby and nasty, and to tell you the truth I’ve never been a great Andy Warhol fan.
BB: Warhol was a bullshit artist.
RW: He was hip and cool and all that but I never loved his soup cans or his paintings of celebs. How much brains did it take to do what he did? But nobody ever parodied him. Why is that? Afraid if you laughed at Andy you wouldn’t be cool?
BB: He beat them to the punch.
RW: Well, I never dug him or his scene filled with drag queens and other non-talents and would have loved to have done a piece on him with all of his affectations. Leroy said so many self aggrandizing things it was kind of like shooting fish in a barrel. But it is a funny piece…
RW: Oh, yes. I couldn’t quite believe how poetic he was. But this goes along with my theory of bragging and poetry. For the average male in the world today the one place where they really become poetic is when they’re cursing someone out, or bragging about how great they are. Over the years I’ve heard the most creative use of language in these arenas. But Reggie went beyond the call of metaphorical duty. “I’m the straw that stirs the drink. Thurman Munson thinks he can stir it but he can only stir it bad. I’m the guy who puts the meat in the seats.” On and on and on…When he left the bar I just sat there reading my notes and saying, “Thank you, Jesus!”
BB: In the postscript to your story on Clint Eastwood you write about a reporter’s nightmare—your tape recorder not working. Did you tape record the Reggie interview?
RW: I didn’t use tape much at all because I was afraid something would happen to the machine. Just like it did with Clint. I had a perfect memory and let people talk, then scribbled down what they said when we were eating or having a drink. Obviously you can’t write as fast as someone talks, but I never missed a word.
BB: I know Reggie has denied saying the “Straw that stirs the drink” line. Why do you think, all these years later, he still disputes it so hotly?
RW: Reggie is super competitive and he hates to this day that I got him dead to rights. But he admitted it to Pete Axthelm in Newsweek right after he said it all. Axthelm asked him if he really said all that stuff and he said, “Ward caught me off guard.” Later, he changed it to the “took me out of context,” to which Munson is reported to have said, “For twelve fucking pages?” Then, even later, he decided he never said any of it. The next stance he might take is that he was never there at all and I never spoke to him. Then maybe he could go a step farther and say he doesn’t even exist. Who knows?
BB: I doubt he’d go that far. Reggie had a flair for hype. Genius may be too strong. That’s a word, “genius”, that is tossed around all too flippantly but I was drawn to how you used it, with great sincerity, in describing Pete Maravich.
RW: Pete Maravich was a true athletic genius. What he could do with a basketball was so amazing you had to see it three or four times to believe it. I mean running full-tilt down a court, bouncing a ball off of your instep cross court to a guy waiting under the basket? Unreal. Punching the ball with your forearm while looking the other way and making a totally accurate pass, heading the ball into the basket ten times in a row. He would do this stuff in practice and the other players would just stop and stare at him open mouthed. I feel privileged to have known and hung out with him. And then consider he did all this with one less arterial system in his body than we are supposed to have. His whole career was a miracle because most kids who are born with his heart problems are dead before they are sixteen.
BB: People tend to remember him as someone who was tortured and didn’t achieve as much as he could have but it was incredible what he accomplished considering his health problems.
RW: As a journalist you’re always on the lookout for a good story, but sometimes you run into someone who is just freaking miraculous. That was Pete. Even Magic Johnson said so. But again, he made it look easy because he practiced six or seven hours a day as a kid. Every day. He worked out all of these ball exercises and did them religiously day after day after day. He was sweet natured too. I said, “Pete I just can’t believe the stuff you do.” He said, in this really sincere voice, “Robert, you could do all of them too if you went home and practiced two or three hours a day. I mean really. Try it!”
Hearing that made me want to give him a hug. I mean it was like being told, by Einstein, “Honestly, Bob you could have come up with Theory of Relativity if you’d just worked a little harder at your physics lessons. Go home. Read a couple more science books and you’ll see what I mean” The guy was sincere and a great teacher. If he had lived he would have been a wonderful coach, because he wasn’t only talented, he was kind and patient as well.
BB: What are the general differences between writing about actors and athletes?
RW: Well, they have a lot on common. Both athletics and acting is about timing. You need to do things just right. If you’re running through the two hole on the line you need to wait for your block just long enough and then go. Same with delivering lines. You need to have the right timing when you start speaking, when you move your hand to pick up the cigarette, or answer the phone. It has to be done the same way over and over and over again. Amateur actors, for example, can’t sustain a performance because they don’t stay in character with their bodies. It’s not about just saying lines. You have to turn your body just so, pick up the magazine just so…on the third line of the speech. You have to move your mouth just so, your eyes have to squint or not squint just so. Comparably, as a wide receiver you have to make your break at the fifteen yard line every time, not the fifteen and a half yard line. You have to wait for the block as you run through the line, you have to make the back cut after the pulling guard has hit the linebacker not before. In basketball you have to get to your spot on the floor at the right moment, not a second later or a second earlier. In baseball you have to hit to the opposite field if the ball is outside. You have to play every batter differently in the field. You have to time your hitting, time your throw to second. Physical timing is imperative in both sports.
BB: That’s so true and yet people rarely comment on the physicality that goes into acting.
RW: Yeah, and athletes tend to become pretty good actors. Obviously there is sensitivity to acting, to saying lines that most jocks don’t have. Just as there are physical attributes actors don’t have when they want to play sports. Ever look at actors? They are small boned for the most part and short. They have thin legs and waists. Look at a baseball player on any team. Big thick thighs, big wrists…some of them, like pitchers, big waists. But almost all power hitters have big trunks. Reggie had huge legs, thighs. That’s where they get their power from.
BB: But isn’t there a difference between the mental makeup of actors and jocks?
RW: Actors are much more vulnerable and insecure than athletes. They worry a lot and feel, I think, that acting isn’t a manly profession. There’s a saying actors have: “To be an actor you have to be twice the woman, and half the man.” Only a tough woman can make it because it’s so tough. But for a man to do it…well, it’s seen by actors as being a kind of feminine profession. Pretending. Not very manly. Men should be building bridges, flying planes, shooting guns. Actors only pretend to do these things, so it makes them feel insecure and I think there’s still some shame in the profession. Brando used to say that all the time. I think writers feel the same thing. As a rule, both actors and writers would rather be John Elway than Hemingway. Because athletes risk physical damage, have to have physical courage. Actors and writers need courage too, though. It’s tough being a writer. No one knows how tough until they try it. It takes a kind of courage not many people will ever realize to face a white page of paper and know you have to fill it up with new, brilliant stuff that people may read and hate or laugh at. I’ve had scripts I’ve written for TV balled up and thrown back at me with absolute hatred. It took courage to go back into my room, knowing I was two seconds away from being fired or strangling my boss and just cool down and start over again. It takes courage to act in a movie and risk people thinking you are awful. Few people can either act or write well, and it takes a lot of courage to do either one as your life’s work.
RW: In those days before publicists did you find that your subjects were almost always cooperative? Or did that depend on the person’s personality? Can you recall profiling anyone who was reticent and difficult to draw out?
RW: I did a piece on Robert Duvall which was impossible. He wouldn’t say anything at all. He didn’t trust me and as a result I had to go back again and again to talk to him and I still got next to nothing. When the piece came out in Rolling Stone I heard from a friend who knew him. He said that Duvall thought I tried to make him look stupid. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. I thought he was quite bright but he didn’t say enough for me to get a very good piece.
BB: It sounds as if Duvall made his bed, determined to be unhappy no matter what you wrote. I know he wanted to strangle Pauline Kael for her review of Tender Mercies. He wouldn’t be alone. But I liked how Clint Eastwood was more objective about her critique of Dirty Harry–he understood the hype in her take. And it sounds as if Eastwood was the opposite of Duvall.
RW: Clint Eastwood was anxious to have the younger, hipper audience catch on to him. In fact, most of them were starting to get it, so we were only a little way ahead of the curve. He was famous for short interviews and I was told if you asked the wrong question he would get surly and toss you out. In fact he was friendly, courteous and very well spoken. He knew what he was doing on the screen and he understood that there was a comic side to his performance, but it had to be done completely straight. As he said to me, “If you winked or let the audience know you knew it was funny, it wouldn’t work.”
What really impressed me is when I asked him about critics who had assumed he didn’t know what he was doing, that he was just lucky. He said that he had chosen his hat and his old jeans and the serape he wore in the man With No Name Westerns with Leone. He brought them with him from America. He knew exactly the effect he was creating. The squint, the cigar, the clothes were all Clint’s ideas not wardrobe’s. That’s part of acting too, your look. People forget that. Think of the show I worked on, Miami Vice. Without the look of the show it’s just another cop show. These are things the average movie critic doesn’t even comment on. Clint was generous and civil and even did the interview with me over again when my tape recorder failed! I thought I would get fifteen minutes and I ended up with three hours of tape. He’s a great guy.
BB: How surprised were you that Lee Marvin turned out to be so agreeable to interview?
RW: Lee Marvin completely fooled me. I always assumed he would be some lout like the louts he played so well. But he was the exact opposite. He was dressed in a beautiful Italian suit, and was friendly and, at first, rather formal. But after a couple of drinks we became good buddies. He loved to tell stories of his drinking days, and he loved fishing, hanging out in the desert, listening to jazz. He also made a musical, “Paint Your Wagon,” as did Bob Mitchum.
BB: I dug the no-nonsense professionalism of Mitchum. Especially his comment about De Niro:
I was on the set with De Niro, The Last Tycoon, and he takes forty minutes to get ready for a scene in his trailer. Ray Milland was in the movie, and he gets all upset. He asks Gage Zazan how come we didn’t get that much time, and Kazan says, ‘Hey, look, you guys don’t need time like that. Come on, just say your lines, I got enough problems with him.’ The thing is, it’s a hell of a lot more work, and I don’t see overall where the films are any better, really. You tell me.”
How was Mitchum like Marvin if at all?
RW: In Mitchum’s case it wasn’t a musical but he did write and sing the lead song “Thunder Road,” which was a hit in the fifties. They both were tough guys who had big hearts. I didn’t know Mitchum as well, but Lee was kind and loved his old friends, especially Woody Strode, his partner in “The Professionals” and other films. He was so kind. When we went out to the Palm for dinner he was besieged by autograph seekers and he insisted they get my signature too, telling them, “This guy is a great writer. You’ll be happy you have his autograph some day.” You can’t get much nicer than that. He called me at four in the morning to tell me how much he loved my novel Red Baker. “Hello, this is your book reviewer from Tucson. One hell of a book, Bobby.” That was the kind of a guy he was.
BB: Was there anyone you wanted to profile that you never had the chance to get to?
RW: I would have loved to interview Johnny Unitas, who eventually became a friend of mine. He was my childhood hero, and when the horrible Irsays moved the Colts out of Baltimore in the middle of the night I wrote a piece in GQ on how much the old Colts meant to me and everyone else I knew growing up in Baltimore in the fifties.
Johnny and Alex Hawkins called me up to thank me for it! I was so moved I could barely talk. And when Johnny died I sat at my computer and wept like a baby. I’m not ashamed of it, as many other guys I knew in those days had the exact same reaction. We loved him like no other athlete. He was exactly what you wanted your heroes to be like, on the field and off. Ask any of the old Colts who are left and they’ll say the same thing. A wonderful, caring and also very amusing guy. Had a great sense of humor. And more guts and heart than any player I’ve ever seen. He was the very best of the old Baltimore too. A guy who was kind to everyone and never stiffed his fans. You could go to his old place The Golden Arm on the York Road and have drinks with him. Imagine doing that with any of the well known quarterbacks today. They all have bodyguards and live in gaited prisons. The fact that he once threw me a pass when I was twelve and then said, “Good hands” when I caught. It’s a memory I’ve cherished all my life.
BB: Were there any pieces that were tough not to include in Renegades?
RW: I wish I’d included a humorous take on the Orioles losing to the Pirates in the World Series. It was really funny and one of my best short pieces, but I couldn’t find it. And there was a profile I did on Rip Torn for American Film but I couldn’t find it until the damned thing was put to bed.
BB: I had a subscription to American Film as a kid. I remember that one.
RW: Rip is the best. One night Rip, Margot Kidder, the mad novelist James Crumley and myself went to Chez Jay’s in Santa Monica. We’d all had too much to drink and we got into a pirate contest. That is “who could do the best Arrrrgghhhh!” I did one, ok but modest. Crumley did a better one. Then Rip did one that we were sure no one could beat. It was the Arghhh to end all Arghhhh’s. And loud. Like the whole joint stopped eating to hear it.
Finally, Margot, not to be outdone by no men, stood on the freaking table, looked out across the joint and ARRRRRGHED her ass off. I’ve never heard another Argggggh to top it. The whole restaurant applauded her and they bought us free drinks. That’s Rip. That’s Margot. Thank God they never got together. There would have been a new H Bomb.
by Will Weiss |
April 25, 2012 10:23 am |
Jack Curry is known to Yankee fans as one of the faces of the YES Network’s Yankees reporting team, but he wasn’t always a “TV guy.” Prior to joining YES in 2010, Jack enjoyed a decorated career as a sportswriter, most notably at the New York Times. He forged his path without having to go to smaller markets and work his way back east, a rarity for those who work in media, particularly in New York. His full bio can be found here. You can follow him on Twitter @JackCurryYES.
Jack was a staple on the Yankees beat when I covered the Yankees from 2002 through 2006 for yesnetwork.com. At that point of his career, he was one of the Times’s National Baseball Reporters and I was a punk trying to figure out how to become a better reporter and writer, assignment editor, and do all of it without getting in anyone’s way. I recall that Jack was a pillar of professionalism; someone not only I, but also every other writer respected and liked. He’s the same person on camera as he is off camera.
Over a series of conversations and e-mails, Jack and I discussed a number of topics, ranging from what inspired his career choice to the move from print to TV and Internet, and more.
Bronx Banter: At what point did you “know” that you wanted to become a sportswriter? Was there a “eureka” moment while you were at Fordham?
Jack Curry: When I was in the seventh grade, I started a newspaper at my elementary school. It was only two or four pages. But I remember the jolt I felt when everyone at the school was commenting on my articles. It was the first time I had a byline and I loved how that felt. Writers like to know what people think of their writing so I grew to love the idea of being a sportswriter. I hung on to the dream of being a major league player through high school, but that faded. I played high school baseball, but I was a much better writer. I went to one baseball practice at Fordham under coach Paul Blair. It lasted four and a half hours and I missed dinner that night. Even if I had made the team, I would’ve been a backup. So that one practice told me it was time to stop playing baseball and start covering baseball (and other sports). I funneled all of my energy into journalism and broadcasting after that.
BB: Who were the writers that you admired growing up, and how did they influence your reporting / storytelling style?
JC: I grew up in Jersey City, NJ, and the Jersey Journal was the first newspaper I remember reading. They syndicated Jim Murray’s column so it always had a prominent spot in the sports section. But, since I didn’t know anything about syndication as a kid, I just thought Jim Murray was some guy from Jersey City who had the greatest job in the world. He covered all of the biggest sporting events and, man, he could write. I wanted that job. When I finally realize who Jim Murray really was, it didn’t change my thoughts. I still wanted that job. I got the chance to meet Jim Murray at a college football game, which was an absolute thrill. My regret is I didn’t tell him my “connection” to him. I’m guessing he would’ve thought it was pretty cool.
BB: How did you get from the Jersey Journal to the New York Times?
JC: I worked for the Jersey Journal for three summers while I was in college. I’m going to bet that I covered more Little League baseball in those summers than anyone in the state of New Jersey. But I loved it. I loved going to the games and watching which kids cared and which kids were coached well and which kids were so much better or, unfortunately, so much worse than the other players on the field. Trying to get decent quotes out of 11- and 12-year-olds can be more challenging than trying to get decent quotes out of some major leaguers.
After I graduated from Fordham, I worked at the Star Ledger of Newark for about a year. I covered high school sports there, but I wanted to do more than that. I applied for a position in the New York Times’s Writing Program. Basically, the Times hired you to be a clerk for 35 hours a week and then you could use your days off or your hours off to pitch story ideas and to volunteer to cover events, etc. When I was hired as a “writing clerk,” I wrote a lot of stories that appeared without bylines. The Times had some arcane rules about not giving the clerks a byline, which I always thought was nonsensical. When you were hired as a writing clerk, you were told that there was no guarantee you’d ever be a reporter at the Times.
Anyway, once I got my foot in the door, I was on a mission to do anything and everything to stay there. I wanted to do enough so that they had to keep me. I needed to prove to them that I could be a sports reporter there. It took about three years, but I was finally hired as a reporter.
BB: So many sportswriters jump from sport to sport now. I can think of a number of current beat writers from several of the area papers who have shuttled back and forth. What drew you specifically to covering baseball and keeping yourself on that beat?
JC: I covered college basketball and football and the New Jersey Nets at the Times before I started covering baseball in 1990. I wanted to cover baseball. To me, there was no other sport to cover. I was fortunate that the Times recognized that and trusted me with covering a baseball beat. I took over the Yankees beat at the All-Star break of 1991 and have essentially only covered baseball since then. I like basketball and I’ll watch some football, but I would have never been as happy covering those sports as I was in covering baseball.
BB: When I started at YES and began setting the editorial direction of the website, we were trying to do something completely different in our coverage of the Yankees. Our goal wasn’t to compete with the papers, but to be considered legitimate. How did you view YESNetwork.com’s presence on-site in those first few years?
JC: In the early years, I viewed YESNetwork.com’s presence as another entity that was immersed in covering the Yankees. When I first started as a beat writer, you were concerned about the other beat writers and what they were doing. But, with each year, more and more outlets began to cover the team and you had to pay attention to them, too, and see what they were producing.
BB: What struck you about the way YESNetwork.com covered the team, and the games? How, if at all, has that changed since you became a YES Network employee and contributor to the dot.com?
I think YESNetwork.com has tried to be different than the traditional newspaper sports website, as it should be. The Yankees are the brand and there’s obviously an attempt provide as much Yankee content as possible. I think there’s more interaction with the fans, which is another positive. What I’ve tried to do is use the 20-plus years of experience that I have covering this team to offer analysis on players and trends, develop feature stories and, obviously, push to break news.
BB: Describe the events that led YES to call you and offer you the YES job, and what drew you to make the jump to TV on a full-time basis.
JC: After 22 years at the Times, I decided to take the buyout and pursue other opportunities. The timing was good for me. I felt confident about making a career switch in my 40s. I’m not sure if a person can do that in his 50s. I had always had a good relationship with John Filippelli of YES because I had been a guest on “Yankees Hot Stove” since 2005.
Before I even took the buyout, YES was the place where I hoped I would land. Shortly after my departure from the Times became official, I heard from YES. There was mutual interest and I was excited about the chance to transition from print to broadcast. My colleagues at YES, people like Flip, Michael Kay, Bob Lorenz, Ken Singleton, Jared Boshnack, Bill Boland, Mike Cooney, John Flaherty and so many others, all welcomed me and helped make that transition a smooth one for me. I work with a lot of very cool and very talented people.
It’s rewarding to work for and with people you admire and respect and people that you consider your friends.
BB: Peter Gammons and Jayson Stark were among the first two prominent baseball writers who became “multimedia” guys. Later, your former colleague Buster Olney, Ken Rosenthal and Tom Verducci followed. Did it just make sense for you to do the same?
JC: You forgot to mention Michael Kay. Michael had worked for the Post and the News and did clubhouse reporting for MSG. Obviously, he also was a radio announcer before moving to YES. He was the one person who implored me to give TV a try. I will admit that I was resistant. I liked being a baseball writer. There were times where I thought I would end my career as a newspaperman. But I’m very happy to have made the switch. I love what I’m doing at YES. They have given me terrific opportunities in the studio with Bob Lorenz, who is as selfless as any co-worker I’ve ever had. Flip has also trusted me with chances to do work in the booth during games, which have been great experiences.
BB: In the last 10 years — heck, the last five even — so much has changed in how sports are covered on a daily basis. Responsibilities include blogging and tweeting, in some cases web-exclusive video reporting. The beat writer/columnist’s audience is broader than ever. Has that caused you to change your journalistic approach?
JC: My journalistic approach hasn’t changed. I’m trying to find insightful and interesting stories and tell them as adeptly as I can. I’m trying to dig up timely and pertinent information and deliver it as quickly and as accurately as I can. That’s the way I did the job at the Times. That’s the way I do the job at YES. But I am moving faster in telling those stories and chasing that information. Because of Twitter and blogging, we’re all doing that. When I was a beat writer in the early 1990′s, my world revolved around deadlines: 7 PM, 11 PM, 1 AM, etc. I’m on TV now, but, when I write for the website or I tweet, it’s usually about getting it done as quickly as I can, not about getting it done by 7 PM.
BB: Speaking of journalism, you broke the story of Andy Pettitte returning to the Yankees. What was the internal reaction to your scoop?
JC: My bosses at YES were elated that we broke the Pettitte story. I first tweeted about it and wrote a news story that was up on our website five minutes later. About 25 minutes after that, we led our spring training broadcast with the news about Pettitte’s return. Since that story came out of left field, they were thrilled that we led the way.
BB: What was the reaction to the Twitter war that ensued due to ESPN claiming credit for the story?
JC: It doesn’t behoove me to revisit what happened on Twitter after the Pettitte story broke. From a journalistic perspective, that was a very good day for YES. That’s what’s most important.
BB: Is the rapport with former players you used to cover, like Paul O’Neill, John Flaherty, David Cone, and Al Leiter, any different now that you’re on TV, considered an “analyst” like them?
JC: What’s interesting about all of those guys is that I had a great relationship with all of them when they were players, so those relationships have simply carried over. I liked talking baseball with all of those guys when I was a writer. I like talking baseball with all of them now that we’re colleagues.
BB: Which part of your career was, or has been, the most challenging?
JC: The most challenging part of my career were the earliest days at the Times, but, to be honest, those were also some of the most enjoyable days. Like I said, when I first started there, I wasn’t guaranteed anything other than a future of answering phones. I had to show a lot of different editors that I could write and report.
At first, I was going to answer this by saying the most challenging time was being a new beat writer on the Yankees. But, by that point in my career, at least I had become a reporter at the Times. I knew I had made the staff. In the early days, I didn’t know if that would ever happen. I’m glad it did.
[Photo Credits: YESNetwork.com, New York Times, Twitter]
Kram has a clean, almost invisible style that doesn’t call attention to itself. It is in the fine tradition of Gay Talese’s fly-on-the-wall approach. With Kram you don’t notice his technique because you are immersed in the story. Now 56, Kram has written his first book, “Like Any Normal Day.” It is published today.
“Like Any Normal Day looks piercingly beyond the moment the when the lights dim and the crowds go home in any young athlete’s life,” writes Richard Ford. ”Kram’s acuity and sympathies stretch far beyond his sportswriter’s practiced gaze — indeed, all the way to the realm of literature. It is not a happy story he has to tell us. But it seems to me–perhaps for that very reason–it is an essential and cautionary one.”
Bronx Banter: I’m a huge fan of “Forgive Some Sinner,” the uncompromising article you wrote about your father. It must not have been easy to write that story. How did it come about?
Mark Kram: Frank Deford planted the idea with me. He and Dad had been colleagues at Sports Illustrated during the 1960s and early 1970s but had drifted apart in the ensuing years, as friends occasionally do. They were both from Baltimore, yet not the same Baltimore. Frank grew up in an affluent area of the city, and Dad had come out of East Baltimore, a working class section. He had lettered in baseball, basketball and football in high school—in fact, he had played high school baseball against Al Kaline—but had been a poor student and had no interest in books until his pro baseball career in the Pirates organization came to an end.
Mark Kram, left, Tito Francona far right
I had known Frank as a boy and became reacquainted with him some 30 years later at a book event he had at The Free Library of Philadelphia in 2005, three years after Dad had died. We went out for a few drinks and I filled him in on the man he once knew. By the end of the evening, he said, “You know, you should write about him.” The thought had occurred to me, but I could not think of the circumstance that would arise where it would be possible. Were I to do it, it would have to have been for publication, and I could not think of any editor who would be remotely interested. Incredibly, Frank conspired with Rob Fleder, then a top editor at SI, to offer me an assignment.
BB: That had to come as a surprise, given how your father and SI parted ways in 1977.
MK: You can say that again. I showed my wife Anne the email Rob had sent me and her jaw dropped. SI had not even published an obit on him, and here they were asking for 6,000 words on him. I played along, but I was under no illusions that whatever I came up with would ever appear in their pages.
MK: Yes. As stellar has his work had been, Dad had breached some very serious ethical standards – which I explore in some depth in “Forgive Some Sinner”–so he represented a complicated piece of SI history. It seemed unlikely to me that they would have any appetite to revisit it. And yet I was excited to have the assignment, if only because it gave me a license to pick up the phone, call people and ask questions.
BB: What happened when you submitted the story?
MK: SI paid for the piece in full and then sat on it. Rob had done a wonderful job helping me get it in shape—he is a splendid editor—but as I said, I doubted that it would ever get in. A year and half passed and Rob called. He said, “I have good news and bad news.” I said, “Give me the bad news.” As I expected, he said SI would not be running the piece. But the “good news” was that I could have the story back and sell it elsewhere, if I could find someone who would take it.
BB: At least they paid you for it and let you have it back.
MK: That was kind of them – and I appreciated it. So I shopped it around but no one wanted it. And then one day, a neighbor, Jason Wilson—who is the series editor of Best American Travel Writing—crossed into our yard and said he had just been appointed the editor of “The Smart Set,” an online cultural magazine he convinced Drexel University to underwrite. “Forgive Some Sinner” appeared as part of their launch and still gets visitors to it. So I would have to say it could not have worked out better.
BB: And there is a benefit to having it on-line because a simple Google search continues to lead readers to it.
BB: I was drawn to the part of “Forgive Some Sinner” where your old man discouraged you from pursuing a career in writing. Can you shed some light on what his thinking was?
MK: Writing was an extraordinary struggle for him. I can still see him sitting at the typewriter, drenched with sweat and wreathed in smoke from the pipe that he always had going. Every word to him was a careful brush stroke. Frank captured it well in his new memoir, “Over Time”:
“To Mark, writing was a laboratory science more than a craft; he could not write the second word until the first word was perfect. He also believed that he was like a female holding a finite number of eggs—that he only had so many words within him.”
I could not have said it better. Frank and I part company on certain other observations he had, but I am a very fond of him and he is surely entitled to his opinion. But to answer your original question: I think Dad discouraged me from writing because it was such an ordeal for him. I remember he used to say, “I should have stayed in baseball and become a first base coach.” Maybe he would have been happier.
Father and Son at Graceland, 2002
BB: To what extent was writing that story a relief for you?
MK: More than you can know. For years I had looked upon with the eyes of a boy—and only those eyes. I loved him dearly, and was always trying to plead his case in one way or another, even when the evidence to the contrary had been inescapable. I idealized him. I remember I used to look at his work and wonder how he ever did it—and if I ever could even approach what he did in some small way. Writing “Forgive Some Sinner” demanded that I looked at him with another set of eyes—challenging, discerning and yet not judgmental. No one is spared suffering in life, but you can either be embittered by it or ennobled by it. Dad became embittered by it, I am sad to say, and yet that was not the sum of who he was. “Forgive Some Sinner” was a painful excavation, yet one that acquainted me with the gray areas that hold regency over us. I think in some sense “Forgive Some Sinner” primed the pump for “Like Any Normal Day.”
BB: That’s an excellent point particularly since this is your first book. Why this story and why now?
MK: For years, I had hoped to do a book. Certainly, it seemed to be a logical outgrowth of the narrative writing I had been doing so long for newspapers. But I did not want to do just any book. I had no interest in doing an as-told-to celebrity job. I wanted to slice off a piece of life and examine it. What I found in the Miley family was precisely what I had been searching for: Ordinary people steeped in extraordinary circumstances. But I did not choose this story as much as it chose me.
BB: Ordinary people…
MK: Yes. When I attended the University of Maryland, I had a conversation with the novelist James M. Cain at his house one evening. Remember, “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Double Indemnity?”
Cain was well into his 80s by then, but he told me a story that has stayed with me ever since. Carey Wilson, the producer, had once told him, “Jim, the reason I like your stories is that they are about real people. I know them.” Cain told me this story to illustrate his antipathy for Raymond Chandler, whose characters in the “The Big Sleep” included “a rich, old bald-headed guy who raises orchids and has two nymphomaniac daughters.” Cain said Wilson had told him, “Whoever heard of someone like that? You can take that son of a bitch and jump in the lake with him.” In any event, I knew Buddy Miley. We were we the same age. I had played ball with boys like him, star athletes who would only go so far before gravity pulled them to earth. I think I understood who he was.
BB: You played sports in high school, right?
MK: Some baseball and basketball. Good enough to be on the team, but more or less a bench player.
BB: How did Buddy’s story choose you?
MK: I suppose you could say Buddy whispered in my ear. He became a thread I tugged on while I worked on other stuff. I think with any creative project, you have to give yourself space to play with the loose threads you come across and see where they lead. Some of the threads you pull at snap off. Others just go on and on. Buddy became a thread that I could not let go of. Over the course of some years, I found that some intriguing themes emerged: What is our duty to one another? To what extent are we able to sacrifice of ourselves? I fooled with some of screenplay versions of the story, suffered through the usual annoyances that are attached to that, and then finally decided: This has to be a book. At that point the question became, can I sell it?
BB: Did you have a feel for how that would go?
MK: Practically speaking, it seemed to me to be a long shot that any publisher would be interested in Buddy, or his story. But I had what I think of as an epiphany. It dawned on me that the book was not about Buddy alone but the people he touched.
BB: Someone who is injured like that impacts everyone around him.
MK: Exactly. That one split second of horror that occurred one day on the football field in 1973 changed the destiny of an array of people beyond just Buddy. His parents, his siblings, especially Jimmy, his youngest brother. Friends. I even found his high school girlfriend in Alabama—Karen Kollmeyer (then Karen Shields)–whose life intersected with Buddy in an intriguing way up until the very day he died. It seemed to be the perfect book for me—not a sports book per se, or a Kevorkian book—but one that played out across a large canvas of human experience.
BB: You explain in the book that you first wrote a piece about Buddy after reading a letter his mother wrote in Sports Illustrated. What was it about her letter that drew your curiosity?
MK: I always have an eye out for pieces that play in the margins of sports. In this case, an editor at the Philadelphia Daily News passed it along to me. Since I had come to Philadelphia in 1987 from Detroit, I had no idea of who Buddy or the Mileys were. In her letter, Rosemarie said, in part:
“I am sure the majority of SI readers ‘love’ football. I ask them to spend one day with my son. They will see the terrible pain he endures. They will feel his frustrations at being totally dependant upon others.”
It went on. But the point is, I followed up on her invitation, even if it had been intended as a rhetorical one. I called her and asked if I could drop by and take her up on her invitation. Of course, I had no idea of where it would lead except for perhaps an interesting feature article.
BB: Did you stay in touch with Buddy after that first article was published?
MK: I spoke with Buddy just once after the piece appeared in the paper. Apparently, some of his old friends had read it and organized a benefit for him. Ostensibly, it was to raise funds so he could visit Buoniconti clinic in Miami in search of relief from the pain he was in on a daily basis. He did take that trip, but it was to no avail, though he did get an eyeful on a side trip to South Beach.
BB: Hey, that had to be a good feeling, that something you had written had led people to organize a fund-raiser?
MK: The hope I always have is to spark a connection. Occasionally, that has expressed itself in a level of generosity that I found inspiring. I remember I once did a story on Joe Delaney, a promising young Kansas City Chiefs running back who died trying to save some boys from drowning—a $1000.00 check showed up in the mail to forward along to his widow. In the case of Buddy, I think we see the bigheartedness of others throughout his life—and this book.
BB: He was not alone.
MK: Good people stepped forward from every walk of life to help him, from legends such as the former Colts running back Alan Ameche, his widow Yvonne, and obscure characters such as Dave Heilbrun, who volunteered his expertise to build an addition on the Miley home that allowed Buddy some space of his own. So I suppose I would say, what I have always hoped to do is move readers in a way that enables them to connect to a world outside themselves.
BB: I interrupted you there. So did you stay in touch with Buddy?
MK: We spoke just once again and he more or less faded from my radar until I received a phone call from the office one evening in March, 1997. Buddy had been found dead in a Michigan motel room. From what could be immediately ascertained, it looked like it had been a Kevorkian job. I contributed some reporting to the story that appeared the following day, but did not become more deeply involved in the story until a year later. I proposed a piece on the one-year anniversary of his death, if only because the initial reporting seemed to leave certain questions unanswered. I am also of the belief that in pursuing feature subjects—especially when there is a tragedy involved—it is usually a good idea to give people some space to grieve.
BB: That makes sense.
MK: When I revisited the Mileys in March 1998, everyone was there except for Jimmy. I was told it would just be too hard for him to be there. Although I suspected then that Jimmy had been the one who had taken Buddy to Michigan, I figured that I would be done with the Mileys when I finished that story. But I had grown fond of Rosemarie and gave her a call every now and then just to talk. Always, it seemed, we ended up laughing over one thing or another. Occasionally, I would bring up Jimmy, ask how he was and told her I would love to talk with him if he was ever up to it.
BB: And you later did a story on him as well, right?
MK: The piece I did on Jimmy appeared in the Daily News in June 2006. A year before, Rosemarie called me and told me Jimmy would like to talk with me. So I drove out to Warminster to see him, no strings attached, just a chat. If for whatever reason he did not want a story written, I promised him that that would be the end of it. We met at a diner and talked for four hours. I knew then that he had a compelling story to share, but I could also see that he was bound up in fear. He seemed to think if he went public, he would end up in jail as an accessory. Or, perhaps even worse, that he would be shunned in the community for participating in an act that the Catholic Church looked upon as a sin.
BB: He was tortured.
MK: Yes. He was so overwhelmed by his fears that he called two weeks or so later and declined to proceed. Another year passed before he decided to move forward. Contrary to the apprehensions that had held him back, the community embraced him with compassion. I received dozens of letters from readers who opened up their hearts to him. To the extent that the book had a genesis, it could be found in those letters—this sense that what Jimmy experienced had universal overtones. In fact, I had an aunt who lived in a vegetative state for 10 years, so I had some fairly strong personal views regarding self-determination.
BB: Did you share any of the letters you received from that second article with Jimmy?
MK: I did. I dropped a pile of them off at his house one day. I think it was a revelation to him, that there were people who supported what he had done, even if they did not approve of Dr. Kevorkian or what he stood for. They understood that what he had done had been an act of compassion on behalf of his brother.
BB: When Jimmy got cold feet, how did you react to that?
MK: Disappointed, of course, yet not entirely surprised. As we spoke, I sensed that he was backing away. And yet he continued to talk, as if by doing so he was expelling a large burden he had been carrying around. Sometimes I have had story subjects who could not bring themselves to follow through. I understand it. This is deeply personal stuff, and it is not easy to expose your inner world to someone, particularly a stranger who proposes to share your story in a public forum. In this case, there was also an added obstacle that came into play. Nationally, the big story in the news in early 2005 was Terri Schiavo, the young woman who had been in a vegetative state and became the focus of a heated debate on euthanasia in America. I had a sense that that spooked Jimmy.
BB: Can you talk about the difficulties that you face as a writer when you get to know a subject and like them? And was there a difference between the connection you had with the family during the two articles you wrote and then the book?
MK: Initially, my relationship to the Mileys was cordial but not one that I had any sense would endure. They were lovely people, yet the necessities of turning around fresh ideas seemed to preclude any deeper connection. Once a story is published, there is always this sense of closure, that both the subject and I had attained what we had set out to accomplish and would part ways. A book is different matter altogether. To go to the depths one has to plumb in order to piece together a narrative non fiction of any length, it is essential to establish a level of abiding trust and transparency. What I found is that you have to give of yourself in order to have any expectation of any return. The Mileys were helpful in this regard. They assured me, “This is your book.” And I assured them that I would observe the same sensitivity in writing about them as I would my own family.
BB: In what way do you give of yourself? At one point in the book, you bring yourself in the picture by sharing some of your personal history. And you do share that you and Buddy were the same age. Is this what you are referring to?
MK: By “giving of yourself” to a subject, this quite simply means that you have to be something more than an interrogator. You have to connect with them at a human level and create an environment of safety. I remember when I interviewed Karen in Alabama, I asked her to look up “Forgive Some Sinner,” if only to give her a sense that I understood what was involved with letting go of old demons. I think by reading it she came away with a better sense of who I was and became more relaxed with me. As far as Buddy was concerned, I included some personal history only to underscore the passage of years. In the 23 ½ years Buddy had been paralyzed, longer by the way, than he had been ambulatory, time had not stopped for me as it had for him.
BB: Buddy fell in love with Karen while he was in the hospital. At what point in the process did you track her down?
Buddy Miley and Karen Sheilds on Graduation Day, 1974
MK: Karen emerged very early in my reporting. At some point while I was preparing the piece on Jimmy for the Daily News, he told me that women had always loved Buddy. Some had passed in and out of his life, but there was one in particular that Buddy had a special affection for. He told me she was living somewhere in the South, Florida or Alabama. He said he had her telephone number somewhere. Once the Daily News story appeared and I began to draft a book proposal, I asked Jimmy to give her a call. He did, and Karen and I later spoke on the phone. That was in 2006 or so. When I finally got a deal, I flew down to Alabama and spent a few days with her.
BB: That’s a huge get on your part.
MK: By the end of those interviews, it became clear to me that she would be an essential character to the book. I remember I told her, “I need you to help me tap into the heart of this story.” And so she did, beyond what I could have imagined.
BB: Was there anything new or surprising that you learned about the Mileys writing the book?
MK: Nothing “new” or “surprising,” but I did develop a deep appreciation for what lovely people they were. None of them shied away from any of the questions I had, although their memories in some cases had dimmed. I remember asking Rosemarie Miley if she would share with me the letters she exchanged with her husband Bert during World War II. I asked her a few times offhandedly, but she always said no, that they were private. It was not until my final interview with her that, out of nowhere, she asked me if I would like to see one of them. “Of course,” I told her. She excused herself from the table and came back with a hand-written love letter that Bert had sent her from the Pacific near the end of the war. Quietly, she read part of it aloud to me. It was as if I had come across a missing piece in an elaborate puzzle: beneath the stony exterior that Bert exuded beat the heart of a man with the same dreams his paralyzed son had had.
BB: The story is so sad in many ways and dramatic. How did treat that story without becoming melodramatic?
MK: From the beginning, I knew I had to find some way to lighten the emotional load. So humor had to be a critical element of the story. Jimmy provided more than enough in this area. As the youngest of the seven Miley children, he had been a fine athlete, perhaps better than Buddy, yet he had been immature and always falling over himself in one way or another. It was not until he tapped into his courage and helped Buddy that he ascended into manhood. Karen, as a character, also allowed me to step away into a love story, even if that love story would ultimately have tragic overtones.
BB: And it was an unusual, complicated love story, too.
MK: Karen weaves in and out of the book. They were supposed to go on their first date after the game in which Buddy was injured. Karen began visiting him in the hospital and they became close – indeed, they fell in love. In the book there is a wonderful picture of the two of them on the stage at graduation. In any event, Karen moved away at that point with her parents, but not before Buddy assured her that when he was able to walk again, he would find her and sweep her off her feet. It was pure fantasy – Buddy would never be able to walk again – yet Karen became a projection to Buddy of the normal life he longed for. As the years passed, Karen went on to have a life of her own, with a husband and children, yet a part of her remained connected to the boy whose heart had touched her so long ago. Buddy contacted her two years before his death with the help of a private investigator. During this period, the deep feeling between them reemerged, and continued until Buddy called her from Michigan to say goodbye.
BB: You had this story with you for a long period, yet had addressed it only in short form. What entered into your thinking as you expanded to 70,000 words instead of 5,000?
MK: Good jockeys have a clock in their head, which is to say they have a sense of pace that enables them to know precisely where they are at any given point in a race. I had that ability here. Originally, the contract called for 80,000 words. Before I signed it, I sat down with a legal pad and worked up a very loose outline, just to get a sense of how far this material could be spread out. What I came up with during that exercise was what appeared to be a 70,000-word book, so we had the contract amended. And the book I turned in came to 70,400 words. We ended up trimming perhaps 1000 words from that during the editing process.
BB: Damn, that’s nothing.
MK: With the help of my wife, Anne, who attended the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and has a sharp eye for errant prose, I did some rewriting on certain chapters as I went along. Some of our editorial sessions were tense.
BB: Oh, I can only imagine.
MK: But when I looked at what she suggested with a cooler head I was always deeply grateful, not just for her direction but the patience and love with which she offered it.
BB: Did you show your editor any early drafts?
MK: No, I just showed George Witte, the editor in chief at St. Martin’s Press, the completed manuscript when I was finished with it. I had a good sense of where I was going. And there is no point eliciting a partial score. George got back to me within a week with a lovely acceptance note. At that point, there were only some very minor revisions.
BB: That sounds so tidy. And you would have never been in this position had you not written about your father. “Forgive Some Sinner” really gave you a leg up on writing “Like Any Normal Day,” is that fair to say?
MK: In so far as the deep diving you have to do with certain subjects, I would say yes. I came away from “Forgive Some Sinner” with a better understanding not just of Dad and myself, but of life—even under ideal circumstances, it is a muddy affair. In a certain way, I cleared the land of the underbrush with that piece, which enabled me to enter the world of Buddy and Jimmy Miley in an unobstructed way. And I had discovered that “Forgive Some Sinner” helped me develop some previously unengaged creative skills, perhaps which in the final analysis can only come with experience. I remember whenever I had self-doubts as a boy, Dad used to remind me again and again: “The race is to the steady, not to the swift.” I can still hear him say that: Hang in there.
MK: Well said. Along with whatever talent you can scrape together, you have to have an iron ass. Buddy sure as hell had it. For 23 ½ years, he hung in here until he could not do it one more day. The pain that would shoot through him was so severe that it would leave him gritting his teeth. And yet I think he was ennobled by his suffering, not embittered by it. That’s a remarkable thing, really. Buddy had a big heart, and he shared it with whoever walked into his room and sat down with him. It was because of that heart that he stepped away from his struggle, if only to enable his mother Rosemarie a few years of peace in her advancing years. So he and Jimmy stole away to Michigan. Buddy was the personification of endurance, which is why I will always treasure the piece of memorabilia that Jimmy gave me that had belonged to his brother: a signed Cal Ripken jersey. Somehow that seemed so perfectly fitting.
You can order “Like Any Normal Day” here and here. And check out Kram’s website, here.
[Photos provided by Mark Kram Jr. Additional images via Elevated Encouragement. Author pictures taken by Mary Olivia Kram. ]
This one, according to Haddad, is “classic Vin, weaving in a story between pitches, and then he gets caught off guard and does a great, unorthodox (for him) home run call. He’s talking about Mets’ reliever Neil Allen’s desire to wear number 13, back when wearing such things was considered “bad luck.” This Pedro Guerrero homer happened in the 8th inning on May 15, 1981. It tied the game and the Dodgers won it in the 9th. My 15-year-old self sets up the action, rather blandly.”
This was in Game 6 of the 1981 World Series. “It was still a close game when Nettles made this great play to rob Derrel Thomas in the 6th inning,” says Haddad. “But by the time the inning was over, the Yankees were down, 8-1. Anyway, this play is what I’ll always remember of Nettles in the World Series, just always leaving you flabbergasted. This also is an example of Vin sharing the booth for a postseason game – in this case, Sparky Anderson.”
“OK, this last one is sort of a wild card,” Haddad said. ”It’s Vin admonishing home fans in left field who were pelting left fielder Jose Cruz as it became apparent the Astros were going to cruise into the playoffs by clobbering the Dodgers in the one-game tiebreaker in 1980. During this clip, Vin makes reference to the Yankees and the “zoo… the animals” that the Dodgers thought inhabited the place! This goes with my notion that Yankee Stadium was scary to me, even from afar.”
Meanwhile, I had the chance to chat with Paul about his book. Enjoy.
BB: We don’t have anything like Vin Scully in New York. Can you talk about what he meant to you as a kid in the context of life in L.A.?
Paul Haddad: Vin Scully is the main reason I got into the Dodgers. My Dodger obsession was just as equally a Vin obsession – they were intertwined and you couldn’t imagine one without the other. Fans in 1976 already knew this, naming Vinny the “most memorable personality” in Dodger history, and this from a team that’s had no shortage of iconic players or big personalities. My parents were not baseball fans, but growing up in Los Angeles, Vin’s voice was ubiquitous, like the smell of night jasmine, or smog. You would hear his warm baritone emanating out of storefronts, car windows, gas stations, parking lot booths, even people walking down the street clutching a transistor radio. So really, all those years of hearing this magnificent voice around town lured me into becoming a Dodger fan.
Beyond the spell of his voice and impeccable delivery, I think Vin’s continuity – he’s entering his 63rd year as the Dodgers’ broadcaster – is a big factor in why he’s cherished by so many generations. I work in television, and last year I executive produced a cool series for Cooking Channel called “The Originals,” in which chef Emeril Lagasse visited historic restaurants around the U.S. and hobnobbed with kitchen staff who have been part of these eateries for 50 or 60 years. In New York, we visited places like Keens Steakhouse, Peter Luger, Il Vagabondo and Katz’s Deli. The stories from customers were all the same – I come here to feel a connection to the past and so my kids can experience something that’s real. Vin is a lot like these iconic restaurants – timeless, classy, comforting. He’s an original.
BB: You mention Vin being heard everywhere. I have a sense of what that means in a city like New York. You can walk down the street and see a playoff game on the TV in the bars and know people are following it. But L.A. is so vast and spread out, you never seem to be falling over each other out there, if anything, I always get the sense that people want to be left alone. Can you explain Vin’s connective power in place that seems so disconnected?
PH: Yes, well put, Alex. Because Los Angeles is so spread out and is such a car culture, it lends itself to isolation, and it can be a very lonely place if you don’t have a good social network in place. I think people here do want to connect with other people, it’s just harder to do. And that’s what Vin brings to the table. You don’t hear his voice wafting throughout the city nearly as much now, as it’s become more diverse and baseball’s – especially the Dodgers’ – hold on the city wanes (this is a Laker town now). But as a kid, his radio broadcasts cut through all socio-economic boundaries and it got people talking to each other. A guy in a business suit could walk into a hardware store after work, and he’d bond with the cashier, who had the radio on. Dodger broadcasts allowed for meaningful exchanges between Angelinos who might not otherwise connect with each other.
BB: Did Chick Hearn have the same kind of impact that Vin has had?
PH: He did, in different ways. You could say Chick’s impact on the sport of basketball is even more profound than Vin’s on baseball. Chicky Baby contributed so many phrases that we now take for granted, like slam-dunk, dribble-drive, air ball, finger roll, no harm/no foul, and on and on. From a personal standpoint, I got into the Lakers around the same time as I did the Dodgers, and that was largely because of Chick. Even at 11, I knew brilliance when I heard it, and Chick sucked me in with the way he described the action. He was also funny. When the Lakers got sloppy while showboating, the “mustard was off the hot dog.” If Magic duped a defender, he “put him in the popcorn machine.” And of course, when he felt a game was out of reach, it was “in the refrigerator.” It’s interesting, while I was digging up my old audio tapes and digitizing them, I came across a couple spots where I randomly recorded Laker games so I could rehear Chick during the off-seasons. But ultimately I think I gravitated more toward Vin because the nature of baseball allows for more storytelling and less flash, which was more appealing to me. He was just more comforting to listen to, especially coming out of a transistor radio under your pillow at nights. So if forced into a Sophie’s Choice of Local Broadcasters, I’d have to say I enjoyed Vin and what he brought to the table just a little bit more.
BB: I’ve always wondered, does he have a nickname or is he just known as Vin or Vinny?
PH: Vin is simply known as Vin or Vinny to fans. On air, when he slips into self-deprecating mode, he’ll say, “Nice going, red.” But only Vin seems to call himself “Red.”
BB: Vin is such an icon, do you have any sense of what he’s like as a man? Does that matter to you?
PH: Vin is famously private and modest. He has refused all calls for an autobiography. I know what most people know through the few books and articles on him. You can often glean things about him through his broadcasts. His love of Broadway tunes, his adoration of children, his Catholic schooling with the nuns putting him in his place. I know he’s ferociously patriotic. Every June 6, you can count on Vin to gently reprimand younger viewers for not remembering D-Day, and then explaining its significance. He’s like Johnny Carson was – a very public figure leading a guarded life out of the spotlight. I always admire and respect people like that.
I met Vin one time, in 1996, when I was a TV producer for E! Before the game, I got to visit him in the press booth, and up rose this redheaded man with a crooked smile and sparkly eyes, greeting me like an old friend.
BB: That must have been a thrill.
PH: Meeting him was surreal. As he said hello and shook my hand, I couldn’t believe I was pounding flesh with a living legend. My mouth went immediately dry. The analogy I use with friends is, imagine the animatronic Lincoln coming to life in the “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” exhibit at Disneyland (I’m not sure they even have that exhibit at Disney World).
What I took away from it was Vin’s famed work ethic. Here’s how I describe it in my book:
As we were leaving to head over and interview organist Nancy Bea Hefley, I asked my contact, “So was that a radio ad he was voicing?”
He rubbed his chin. “Mmmmm . . . I think he was practicing.”
“For the ad?”
“For the game.”
The game wasn’t going to start for at least an hour and a half.
But even after almost fifty years, there was Vin, getting his game on, still living by the credo passed down to him by mentor Red Barber from their Brooklyn days: be there early, and be prepared.
BB: Has Vin always worked alone calling Dodgers games?
PH:Since moving to Los Angeles, at least, Vin has always worked alone on Dodger broadcasts. As he explains, it’s not an ego thing… it’s merely so he can connect directly with listeners. Putting another man in the booth changes that dynamic. All you have to do is listen to the radio duo of Rick Monday and Charley Steiner giggling at each other’s jokes to realize that. I wish more announcers worked alone, but the trend these days seems to be to pair people up, which is a shame. There’s a constant yammering. One of the great things about Vin on radio was how he clammed up after a Dodger hit a home run, to let the listener soak in the home crowd’s cheers. In my book, I actually time out how long those silences were after certain home runs.
Now, of course, Vin did pair up with people like Sparky Anderson or Brent Musburger for CBS Radio’s national baseball broadcasts, and everyone remembers him and Joe Garagiola doing the Games of the Week and three World Series in the ‘80s for NBC. But these were exceptions to the rule to accommodate a national audience. Vin ably acquitted himself, and the other announcers gave him room to maneuver, so it never bothered me.
BB: Do you still listen to old Vin broadcasts?
PH: Every once in a while, I’ll break out the old Vin broadcasts. They instantly teleport me back to that time, which usually leads to other imagery from my childhood that has nothing to do with games. They’re like a portal to my memory bank. So I’ll often start listening to them to revisit a call, but they end up having a residual effect beyond the call.
BB: Do you have a favorite story or call that he made?
PH: Three calls from 1981 come to mind, all featuring Fernando Valenzuela. Fernando was Vin’s muse, and inspired the artist to new heights. That April 27, 1981 game that caught Fernandomania at its peak (mentioned earlier) remains a high point because he was truly a master at the top of his game. I also love his call on May 14 when Pedro Guerrero hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to help Fernando go 8-0. This is the homer that he dedicated to Fernando, saying, “It’s gone, Fernando, it’s gone!”
And finally, after El Toro sweated and bluffed his way through that 147 pitch complete-game outing in Game 3 of the World Series, 5-4, Vin was summed it all up with a succinct, “Somehow, this was not the best Fernando game. It was his finest.”
BB: Obviously, he’s gotten older but what, if anything, has changed about Scully’s broadcasting over the course of your life?
PH: That question requires a measured response, because to suggest Vin may not be at the top of his game in Los Angeles brands you a heretic! But I think even Vin himself would say he’s slowed down a bit, much like Chick Hearn did. There’s a snap, a verve to his voice when I listen to those late ‘70s, early ‘80s games, whereas now it’s more grandfatherly and in some ways, more soothing. When the Dodgers hit a clutch home run nowadays, he doesn’t register the same excitement in his voice at 84 that he did at 54. But his insights and storytelling remain sharp, and he still seamlessly weaves narratives between pitches without missing a beat. Vin is like baseball itself – just when you think you’ve seen or heard it all, he surprises you every game with a turn of phrase, a story, an observation that makes you think or smile. I wish he did exclusively radio for a few innings, where I feel his genius is really allowed to flourish. Since Fox regional started broadcasting the games, Vin does a simulcast for the first three innings, with the final six on television. This means Vin is always calling a game for a television audience, which is a different experience than listening to a game on the radio. Time that could’ve been spent working in another anecdote is spent, say, commenting on a slow-motion replay. But the impact of That Voice… that still cuts through any medium.
BB: I know that the ’77 and ’78 loses to the Yanks were brutal for you. Which was worse?
PH: Well, 1977 was bad because, at 11 years old and new to baseball, I was ill-prepared for the emotional onslaught that overcame me when Reggie hit his 3 home runs to knock the Dodgers out of the World Series. His casual “Hi, Moms” in the dugout and the seeming effortlessness with which he hit the homers before swaggering around the bases were like kicks in the gut. It reminded me of my older brother and his show-off friends humiliating me, and to know that baseball too had that sort of destructive power on my psyche was a rude awakening. But 1978 was even worse. This was supposed to be the Series in which the Dodgers exacted their revenge. Going up 2 games to none only heightened the expectations. Once the Series switched to the Bronx for the middle three games, it was like living through a nightmare. For one thing, even 3,000 miles away, Yankee Stadium scared me. I was a SoCal kid raised in the sunshiny ‘burbs. My impressions of New York were formed by dark and dangerous movies like “Serpico” and “Taxi Driver,” which I caught many times on Z Channel (a movie subscription channel only in L.A.), and the willy-nilly mob that flooded the playing field at the end of the ’77 Series. Even the “Utz” potato chip sign prominently displayed in right field inexplicably disturbed me. We didn’t have those in Los Angeles, and it spoke of a foreign thing whose pronunciation I couldn’t quite figure out.
My memories of Game 3 are defined by third baseman Graig Nettles and play like a video loop of him making great play after great play after great play. I remember screaming “It’s not fair!” at the TV. He saved at least four runs that game. Game 4 of course was the infamous “hip and run” play by Reggie Jackson. It was one thing for Reggie to beat us fair and square the year before – I couldn’t begrudge him that. But that little hip-jut of his on the basepaths to deflect Bill Russell’s throw… that was downright cheating.
This is what made this Series so painful. Reggie’s ploy told me that if someone could cheat that openly and get away with it in a sport with clearly defined rules, then there was no justice in this world. (Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that rules are open to interpretation, and no one ever promised there was justice in this world!) I have almost no memories of Games 5 and 6. Everyone knew the momentum had shifted the day before and the Dodgers would lose the Series. The Dodgers seemed to know it too, getting outscored 19-4 in those last two games.
BB: What is your worst memory? Reggie’s three homers, Reggie interfering with the ball or Reggie’s revenge homer against Bob Welch?
PH: Definitely the non-interference call on Reggie Jackson. To my earlier point, it differed from the others in that it involved a player being duplicitous and getting away with it. And I hate to draw another negative analogy to my older brother – these things shade our perceptions of things as kids, so it’s hard not to – but it reminded me of something my brother would do. Michael was notorious for cheating at board games. During Monopoly, I would often catch him slipping an extra $200 for himself whenever he passed “Go!” while playing the “banker” – a role we all eventually banished him from taking. But just as my brother and I are now close, years later I grew to really respect Reggie Jackson and what he brought to the game. When he signed with the Angels in 1982, I remember being excited that someone who went to any lengths to win a game was now on a local team.
BB: Can you describe the ’81 season, the impact of Fernandomania, Rick Monday’s homer, and the Series win against the Yanks–especially in light of how they trailed 2-0?
PH: Relief. Like those Rolaids commercials. That was the biggest emotion I felt when the Dodgers finally beat the Yankees after the debacles of ’77 and ’78. And especially once the Dodgers went down 2 games to none in ’81. It was hard to shake that unmistakable “here we go again” feeling. I was also happy that a magical season – despite the players’ strike that shut the season down for 50 days in the middle of summer – did not go to waste. That magic, of course, was led by Fernando Valenzuela. You simply cannot describe the kind of excitement he brought to Dodger Stadium. One of my favorites is the last out of an April 27 game at home that sounds like it’s the last game of the World Series. You had 50,000 rabid fans clamoring for Fernando to strike out the last Giants batter so that he could capture his third shutout in only his fourth big-league start. Vin puts on a clinic – it’s the best I’ve ever heard him and it still gives me goose bumps. In my book, I devote four full pages to this 3 ½ minute at-bat alone. You can hear how much Vin is also swept up in Fernandomania – he even starts trotting out phrases he’s learned in Spanish!
Rick Monday was an enigmatic player for the Dodgers in that he was sort of a bust since coming over from the Cubs in 1977, streaky and often injured. But then in 1981 at age 35 (he looked 45), he finished really strong. As a part-timer that year, he averaged one homer every 11.8 at-bats, which was just a hair behind home run leader Mike Schmidt’s one for every 11.4. So the notion that Rick Monday came out of nowhere to hit that home run that put the Dodgers in the World Series is a bit misleading – he was their hottest player in the second half. As for hearing the actual homer, I was stuck in math class with an unsympathetic teacher named Mr. Bland who would not let us listen to the game (it was played on a Monday afternoon since the day before was rained out). My friend Andrew and I tried to listen to the game on radios that we smuggled into our backpacks and laid on our desks, passing notes back and forth when the teacher turned his back. But Bland busted us. Shortly after we were instructed to turn our radios off, all the other classrooms erupted in deafening cheers, whoops and hollers. They were all listening to the game, courtesy of their teachers! I was seething with resentment – I knew it had to be some kind of momentous home run. Luckily, I had set up a timer to record the game off the radio at home, but hearing it later obviously wasn’t the same thing as hearing it live. Just talking about this now still makes me angry!
I was 15 ½ years old when the 1981 season ended. I knew instantly after they won the World Series that I would not continue recording their games. Really, after finally beating the Yankees, the team had nowhere to go but down! Turns out I was right – they’ve appeared in (and won) only one World Series in the 30 years since 1981. In the five years I documented them, they got in three times! Who knew after experiencing such heartbreak, we would all look back at those times as the glory years.
“Damn Yankees” is a winning new collection of essays about the Bronx Bombers. Edited by Rob Fleder, it features an All-Star lineup and is a must not just for Yankee fans or baseball fans but anyone who appreciates good writing. I recently talked to Fleder about the project. Here’s our chat. Enjoy.
Rob Fleder at Yankee Stadium
RF: We’ve been catching up the TV series “Friday Night Lights.” I don’t really watch much TV but it’s great, just so well done. If you summarized the plot line, it would sound like cliché after cliché, but that never occurs to you because it’s great story telling, it’s so well executed. It makes me think of Colum McCann’s piece in the book. We’ve all read some version of that story. If you’re a Sports Illustrated editor you’ve seen it a hundred times—and almost none of them have worked. It’s very rare that someone can pull it off, and he did spectacularly. I think it’s a fantastic piece.
BB: It’s the father-and-son piece, the outsider-coming-to-baseball story.
RF: Right, but you don’t even think about reducing it to those terms because it’s so beautifully done.
BB: I think it’s one of the best pieces in the book. Now, when you approached Colum, did you know that was the piece he was going to write?
RF: Yeah. Even before I got in touch with him, I knew from Dan Barry that Colum had a son and that he’d come to baseball through his son. He has lived here for many years but he’s still an Irishman too. His kids have grown up here. I’d read “Let The Great World Spin” and some other things by him and loved his work. I thought if anybody could do this kind of story, it’s him. What’s cool is that because he didn’t grow up in a baseball culture, I think he was more or less oblivious to the fact that he was doing something that many other people have tried, usually without much success.
BB: There is no guile or irony in his story.
RF: That’s right, and it’s an enduring theme in baseball, fathers and sons—except that he does turn the whole thing on its head, in a way. He’s coming to the game through his son, and that process takes him back to his father and grandfather. It’s great when someone is artistic enough to take material is familiar and seems predictable in some ways and does something truly original with it. That’s the magic—to take something that’s right in front of the readers eyes and to dazzle him by revealing something he never saw. That’s what good writing is about to me.
BB: The other piece in the book that I think took a familiar theme and did a nice job making it work is Will Leitch’s essay, which is really a Babe-in-the-Woods story. It’s funny, and I think he really got the tone right.
RF: Very much so. I hadn’t met Will, but he’s a friend of my friend Dave Hirshey, who’d edited him at Harper Collins. So Dave said, let’s go get a drink with Will Leitch. And when I started this whole project, my son, Nick, a deeply knowledgeable sports kid, said, “Oh, you’ve got to get Will Leitch, he’s really funny and a really good writer.” We sat down at a bar and we connected immediately. He had an idea for the book, and I was like, “Yeah, Huckleberry Finn comes to New York, that’s it.” And he ran with it. Again, a hard one to pull off, but he did a great job with it. His piece is laugh-out-loud funny but it’s also sincere. The irony in it doesn’t create distance, it does just the opposite.
BB: Going back for a minute, how did this book begin?
RF: Roy Blount was in some ways the genesis of the whole book. Dave Hirshey reminded me of this, because I’d forgotten. There is a charity dinner I go to every year where Roy is a featured guest, and he’s always hugely entertaining. So I mentioned to Hirshey that I’d been to this dinner and Roy was telling all these great old Yankee war stories from his days writing sports. I don’t know how the subject came up but Roy had all these great stories. I mentioned this to Hirshey in passing and he called me the next day and said, “Do think there’s a book in this? The best writers you can think of, writing about the Yankees?” At the very least, I thought, it’d be a lot of fun to think about, and that’s how the whole thing started.
BB: Did you know what you wanted each writer to do before you approached them or did they have an idea in mind when you first talked to them? Or did you say, I want Leigh Montville, I want Richard Hoffer, and they’ll figure it out?
RF: Some had specific idea, and some didn’t. I tried to have several possible ideas for each writer I called, things I thought might appeal to them and they might be especially good at, but I always wanted to hear the writers’ ideas first—if they had anything specific—before I suggested possible topics for them. But I did want them to be aware of the range of possibilities, so I would tell them the sorts of things other writers were doing.
BB: You do have such a wide range in the book, not only of writers but of takes on the Yankees. I mean, you’ve got Dan Okrent and Frank Deford who are classic Yankee haters.
RF: Plus, there is a little cluster from Boston, Charlie Pierce and Leigh Montville. Montville, of course, had written a big biography of the Babe as well as one of Ted Williams, and Jane Leavy had written about Mickey Mantle. And these are big books—-not just “big” as in best-sellers, but deeply researched, substantial volumes that cover a lot of ground. So I asked, “What’s the best thing that didn’t make the book?” It took Leigh a while and of course he drew on material that he’d used in the book, but his take was new, and I think what bubbled up for him with passage of time was a new perspective, a fresh insight about Ruth. And Jane just went out and did a whole lot of new reporting. She had a situation with Frank Sullivan, the old Red Sox pitcher, where she mistakenly pronounced him dead in her Mantle book. Sullivan contacted her and wondered when she planned to announce his rebirth—or something like that. It was very funny. She was mortified by her mistake, but he had a great sense of humor about it. So she dug into it and—typical of her—she did more reporting and came up with a terrific piece. So sometimes I went to people who’d already written about subjects involving the Yankees and other times I went to people who were just writers I admired who I knew had some feeling for baseball, though I didn’t know what their feelings were about this team.
BB: Who were some of those guys?
RF: I knew our friend Dexter watched every Yankee game. And as much as I’ve talked to him about the Yankees over the years—even gone to Yankee games with him—it’s never clear what Pete’s going to come up with, how he’s going to land on a subject. That’s true with anything that he’s going to write.
RF: The book report, he called it. Exactly. You’ve read his columns and magazine pieces. That’s part of Dexter’s genius—-you never know where he’s going to be coming from on a particular subject, or where he’s going to land.
BB: Were you amused then when in typical Dexter fashion he chose Chuck Knoblauch, of all people, to write about?
RF: Well, Pete had been very sick a few years ago, very nearly died, as he writes about in the piece. Then it took him a long time to come back and there was a stretch where he felt seriously damaged by his illness, where he couldn’t write. And it was awful. And it was during that period when he landed on the idea of Chuck Knoblauch, a guy who had done something as well as anyone in the world, had done it every day of his life, and then woke up one day and suddenly couldn’t do it at all. Pete had a personal connection to that story, something you couldn’t have predicted. I mean, I knew about Pete’s illness and its aftermath, but I never could have predicted that he would connect it to that Yankees by way of Chuck Knoblauch. And you look at it and it’s a brilliant, funny piece about the awful things that went wrong for him and for Knoblauch. Nobody else could have written that piece.
BB: You’ve known and worked with Pete for a long time. You edited “Paper Trails,” his collection of newspaper columns and magazine pieces. How much editing did you do with him on his piece, and with the other writers too, for that matter? Did Pete give you a final draft and that was it or did you actually work on the piece with him?
RF: It varied with each writer how much editing it took to get from the first draft to the final. In Pete’s case, it’s hard for him to let go of what he’s writing. He’s a perfectionist. He will rewrite everything until you badger him to give you a peek at it. He sent a draft and it was late in the process of the book’s production—meaning I was feeling the crushing weight of a deadline. The piece was brilliant, it was fall-out-of-your-chair funny but he kept working on it. He was just getting back up to speed for himself. A week or so later he sent a draft that was completely different. He tried to come at the same subject from a totally different direction. It was written like a mock children’s book, and it might have been one direction too many. He sent me about half or two-thirds of it. He’d written the whole thing and then lost the original version on his computer— he was having technical difficulties as he sometimes does. It was like “Paris Trout”—
BB: Jesus. That’s when he lost more than 100 manuscript pages somewhere in his computer back in the mid-‘80s and then took a baseball bat to the machine and had to start over from the beginning.
RF: Right. The second version of his Yankee piece was still funny but I liked the earlier way he did it better. So he did a third version, which was recreating the first version, different and better. That was classic Dexter.
BB: You talked about Pete not wanting to let things go and being a perfectionist, does there ever come a point where a writer can cross a line and keep hold of something too long?
RF: I think it happens to writers all the time, and usually they know it and can see that they’ve pushed it too far or changed directions once too often, and will go back to the sweet spot that was working before. For instance, Pete bounced the second version of his piece off me, and by the time I got it and read it—we don’t work electronically with Pete, it still comes the old fashioned way, on paper, by Fed Ex—he’d already gone back to his first version, or what he could remember of it, and finished it that way.
BB: Is he the only writer in the collection who works like that?
RF: In technological terms, Frank [Deford] was like that for a long time—he was the last guy I worked with who used a typewriter—but he moved decisively into the electronic mode a long time ago. But there were other writers who were as meticulous as Pete, who worked on things until the last minute and wanted to see every draft, every galley, every version. It’s a matter of style, I think—some writers work one way, some work another. It doesn’t mean that someone like Frank or Jim Surowiecki or Roy Blount, who file pieces that are virtually finished the first time you lay eyes on them, are any less meticulous or aren’t perfectionists. Their process is different—at least, that’s the way it looks from the vantage point of an editor—but I think they’re all trying to make their words as good as they can possibly be, one way or another.
BB: I’m sure for some writers it’s never going to be good enough, even when the book is published they’ll still look at their piece and want to tinker with it.
RF: Yeah, Bruce McCall is a very meticulous writer who found things he wanted to fix in his piece until the very end. And when the book was about to close we shot this little video, and Dan Okrent left the shoot with a copy of the galleys, which were outdated by that point, and by the time I got home from the video shoot I had a message from Dan saying that there were two mistakes in Bruce’s piece. And Bruce is a careful writer. We were able to correct the things Dan found at the last minute, even though the book was already at the printer. I know there will be other things that we missed—it’s inevitable—but you do the best you can in the time that’s allotted.
BB: That’s agonizing but at some point—
RF: You have to let go. And the writers do the same thing. Some writers sent me drafts that were virtually perfect.
BB: Was Richard Hoffer one of those guys?
RF: Actually Rick and I worked on it because he was worried in his first draft of the piece about making it baseball-y enough. I always think of Hoffer as a great essayist. He’s always been one of my favorite SI writers.
BB: So understated and yet he’s not humorless. There’s a strong sense of wit in his writing. It’s just dry.
RF: Very much so. He’s extremely skillful and has a distinctive voice. And he has truly original thoughts in a world that I think is filthy with group-think. A Hoffer piece is never just the same old thing.
BB: And you don’t think of him as a baseball guy especially.
RF: No, but Hoffer’s one of those guys that I want to read on anything. I had an idea that I thought would make a perfect Hoffer essay, but at first he did much more of a narrative history piece without much of the essay component. He said to me as we were working, “I have two gears: this one and the other one.” I told him that I was envisioning a piece that included more of the other one, so he wrote a draft that was almost pure essay and left out much of the great historical narrative, all these great details. So we took both versions and put them together and I think it worked out beautifully. I love the piece. And I think it’s quintessential Hoffer.
BB: You were at Playboy and Esquire and SI as an editor and have worked with many of the writers featured in this collection. How many of the writers had you not worked with before?
RF: I can count them. I didn’t know J.R. Moehringer or Nathanial Rich or Jim Surowiecki. Pretty much everybody else I was at least acquainted with or had worked with directly. I met Will Leitch in the very early stages of the book. I’d been introduced to Colum McCann at Dan Barry’s book party, but that was the extent of it at that point. I’d admired Mike Paterniti’s work for a long time and tried to get him to write for me at one magazine or another, but can’t say I really knew him.
BB: What about Bill James?
RF: Bill James I’ve known since he was sending out his Abstract on mimeograph. I met him when I was a fact checker or a baby editor at Esquire. Okrent introduced Bill to us at Esquire, and in some sense, Esquire introduced him to a wider audience. It was great. Okrent wrote the first big piece about Bill that I remember and I worked on a little piece Bill wrote for an Esquire baseball package one year, and he was obviously an original thinker and, I thought, a terrific writer. I touched base with him every so often over the years and followed his ascension. I’d write to him from SI and say, “I don’t know if you remember who I am but would you be on a panel to pick the greatest all-time team…” or whatever. And he always remembered our connection from way back and was always generous with his time. So I called him for this book. He works with the Red Sox but is still as clear-headed about baseball as anyone I’ve ever read, and he’s a funny, quirky writer. I had no idea what he’d write about and neither did he, as it turns out. One day, late in the process, I got an e-mail from him in which he said, “I’ve been thinking about Yankee catchers….” And he was off and running.
BB: And it’s really a perfect kind of Bill James piece. It’s smart and irreverent.
RF: Analytical and full of all his digressions and humorous asides and deep baseball knowledge.
BB: That’s one of the things I noticed about the book, you’ve gotten kind of a quintessential piece from so many of the contributors.
RF: That’s the ideal—what you dream about as an editor. You pick writers of this quality and then you hope they get into it and just do what they do.
BB: I also like the variety. There are humorous pieces, memoir pieces—Sally Jenkins’s piece that is so evocative of New York City, historical stories, analytical pieces.
RF: I’m glad it hit you that way. My big picture idea was to have a bunch of voices that I really like to hear on the subject of the Yankees, more or less directly. In some cases I had specific topics in mind, like Jane Leavy on Mantle or Tom Verducci on Jeter. I told every writer who some of the other contributors were, so they knew who else was playing, and I just hoped all the writers would bring their game. As it turned out, they did.
BB: I’m forever grateful for Charlie Pierce’s piece if only because he punctured that horseshit Seinfeld routine, which has somehow become celebrated, that rooting for a sports team is like rooting for laundry.
RF: Charlie is another one you can count on to come up with something unpredictable.
BB: Right, because he starts there and shifts gears in the middle of the piece about growing up and what the Yankees meant growing up in Boston.
RF: He does lay waste that whole Seinfeld bit about laundry. But in a much larger context he also writes about what baseball’s tribal experience means to people who come to this country from somewhere else, and he does it in a way that is immediate and on a human scale. Charlie’s piece has a lot of common ground with Column McCann’s, but they are totally different essays.
BB: Taken as a whole were there any surprises in the collection, a theme, or a player who jumped out as somebody that appeared in more than a few of the pieces?
RF: There are some threads that run through the book, yeah. And I was aware of them when I was figuring out the order of the pieces and was conscious of spacing them out so that they didn’t come together too quickly. Catfish Hunter comes up more often than I would’ve anticipated. And he’s the focus for Mike Paterniti, who wrote just a beautiful piece.
BB: The book ends with Steve Rushin talking about Catfish, too.
RF: And I was aware that. I’d really admired Mike’s classic Thurman Munson piece in Esquire. When I spoke to him, he mentioned that he’d seen Catfish Hunter near the end of his life and had written a quick remembrance of him in the early days of Esquire.com. He sent me the little post he’d done and he went back to that and really dug in. So I knew that Mike and Steve were going to touch on some of the same ground, and Rushin wrote a gem of a piece in which he gets the last word in the book, which is fitting. And Catfish also comes up again in Bill Nack’s amazing story about the Bronx Zoo Era Yankees. There’s a different focus and context in each of the three pieces in which Catfish appears.
BB: Also, what a beautiful guy to come up. A guy with a sense of himself and a sense of humor about the Yankees and how crazy George was even though he was the first big free agent. Yankee fans love him but also probably saw himself as being apart from that too.
RF: And there was another surprise in the book. Steinbrenner comes up, obviously, over and over again. But Jim Surowiecki, the financial writer for the New Yorker, who is another really original thinker, did a revisionist analysis of what Steinbrenner did with the team economically—a totally fresh take on Steinbrenner’s ownership .
BB: I also like that there are a few essays on the modern Yankees. Verducci on Jeter but also Steve Wulf on Robinson Cano, which is important I think—to talk about a Latin star.
RF: As the book was taking shape I knew Tom was going to do Jeter but I thought it’d be good to have a piece on a player who represented the future. I think of Steve as the guy who first wrote about Dominican baseball, about Dominican shortstops. I remembered his piece from the ‘80s, and I thought Cano was the guy for this book. He is a monstrously good player and will be the center of gravity when Mariano and Jeter are gone. Steve took it and ran. He’s been an editor at ESPN for a while now, but he was a great baseball writer at SI for a really long time and knows the game as well as anyone. It was a perfect match of writer and subject.
BB: And it’s an important piece because for so many years the Yankees didn’t have Dominican players, certainly not stars, despite playing a stones throw from Washington Heights.
BB: Which is great because the Mike Burke, CBS years were covered.
RF: The last thing you think of is the Yankees as underdogs.
BB: Celerino Sanchez.
RF: “Poor Celerino Sanchez,” is a little refrain from Dan’s piece, which is both poignant and very funny. And he had a deeper connection to that team than I expected before I talked to him. Then there’s Roy Blount, who I knew had Yankee stories to tell, but the nature of a Blount piece—the beauty of a Blount piece—is that you have no idea how he’s going to get at his subject and can’t possibly predict where he’s going to go with it.
BB: Then you see writers like Moehringer, McCann and Dexter and you think, I wonder what those guys have to say about them?
RF: J.R. Moehringer had an intimate connection with the team through his grandfather, who was a key figure in his life. “The Tender Bar” is J.R.’s great memoir about growing up with an absent father, and his grandfather is in that book. But what J.R. has done here is an element of the story that wasn’t in his book.
RF: I contacted him and he said that he wanted to write about the Yankees from a Mets fan’s point of view. And I already had Nathaniel Rich doing that. In fact, I had Nathaniel’s story already, and it was terrific, extremely amusing. So I told J.R. that I had that piece but that I really wanted him to write for this book. At that point I suggested a couple of topics, but he had something else he wanted to try. And after a while he sent me what he said was a really rough draft of something that was well on its way to being this piece. He’s another one who goes back to his copy over it over and over again, making it better and then going back to it again. It’s a wonderful piece about how he connected with baseball. It’s amazing.
BB: Plus, watching the games on TV and listening to the Scooter. You needed to get the Scooter in there.
RF: Had to. And he’s another thread. He’s also gets a prominent mention in Rushin’s piece.
BB: Yankee fans will obviously be interested in the book but there are enough of the writers in the book who are Yankee-haters that I suspect you want to draw readers that aren’t Yankee fans, too.
RF: Yeah, I think anybody who is interested in reading good writers is the potential audience for the book. The natural audience is Yankee fans, baseball fans. They are a team that people have strong feelings about: people love them and people really love to hate them.
BB: This is the book you want to read.
RF: That was the hope. The plan, insofar as I had one, was to get the writers I want to read on a subject I want to read about. Beyond that I didn’t really know where it would go. I wanted to be surprised and delighted, and by that measure I think the book is a real success.
“The Whore of Akron” is a funny, personal, and moving story, a must-read. Scott and I chatted recently about writing, the book, and LeBron James.
BB: You’ve been writing for decades yet “The Whore of Akron” is your first book. Before we get to that, I’d like to talk about your career. Loved the piece you wrote on your blog a few months ago where you talked about what it takes to be a writer. About endurance being a talent.
SR: I talk to people half your age who start whining that they don’t have time to write and I say, ‘Don’t worry about it — you’re obviously not a writer.’ They don’t like hearing that. They actually think they’re entitled to some kind of pity, self- and otherwise. It’s the weirdest thing in the world to me, not because I think I have any big answers but if you really find yourself saying, ‘I don’t have time to write,’ and you’re not feeding four mouths…It’s not like I knew Ray Carver, but from what I know about him the reason he wrote short stories is, first he wasn’t ever sober, but he also had two screaming youngsters and so he’d write in his car. Either you find a way or you find something else that seems more doable. But endurance is a talent.
BB: This blog, Bronx Banter, helped me fight a sense of entitlement. I set it up in such a way that I was forced to show up every day.
SR: And anyone who doesn’t think that’s a huge part of it is deluding themselves.
BB: Showing up every day.
SR: Yes. Putting one foot in front of the other. It took me decades to learn this. And that’s fine. If you don’t learn that, it doesn’t matter how talented you are, because without this talent, of endurance, what difference does it make? Nobody finds you at the soda fountain; it almost never happens. And the journalists it does happen to, like Stephen Glass, Ruth Shalit, Jayson Blair — these are people who, after early success, couldn’t follow through. They didn’t have the chops. They made shit up and committed career suicide.
BB: Is there a difference between talent and intelligence?
SR: Certainly intelligence is a tool, a crucial tool. You have to take in large amounts of material, including human material, and construct some sort of narrative. That requires focus and intelligence. But if you are missing endurance, again, it doesn’t matter how intelligent you might be. In the wake of the LeBron book, I’ve dealt with so-called journalists who have told me, ‘I don’t have time to transcribe a tape so I’m going to send you questions via e-mail.’ They say, “You have until Friday,” and so I say, “Then you have until Friday to transcribe a fucking tape.” I’ve also heard, “I don’t have trustworthy recording equipment.” Then you’re not a real journalist, so don’t waste my fucking time.
BB: When did you start writing pieces for magazines?
SR: I started at GQ in ’92 and got my first contract in ’93. David Granger was a GQ feature editor then. Granger was my big break because he was the one editor in New York who was willing to assign long stories to writers who hadn’t already published long pieces in magazines in New York. So Granger was exactly the right guy at exactly the right time for me. I was still selling columns for $40 to a weekly—when they wanted them—and I was almost 41 when I signed that first contract with GQ. I was never a newspaper guy, I was a creative writing guy.
BB: And you had written fiction at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, right?
SR: I’d published fiction. I had a literary agent. But I wasn’t prolific and wasn’t some young Phillip Roth or William Faulkner. I was a solid fiction writer with problems. Lifestyle problems. And it turns out I needed the structure that a relationship with an editor provides.
BB: And early on with Granger was he doing macro editing with you or micro stuff like line edits?
SR: Alex, if you need line-editing help you don’t ever get a contract. I mean, seriously. If the relationship with the editor is based on line editing—
BB: –You’re screwed.
SR: You don’t even get there. Why would a guy like Granger waste his time with that stuff? I hate to sound grandiose, but at that level it’s about relationship, and envisioning stories, about building trust that you’ll deliver the goods and you won’t fuck the editor in terms of expense account bullshit. It’s business, basically. But it’s also has a strong therapeutic connection in terms of the mentor-mentee relationship for me. Not because I was wet behind the ears but because I didn’t understand what the whole process was.
BB: If part of what you have know to be writing for a major magazine is how to maintain expense accounts and the business end of things, how were you able to do that when you were so fucked up on booze and drugs at the time?
SR: I’m trying to put this the right way…
BB: Is it a matter of being what they call a functioning alcoholic?
SR:Look at your dad. People can do enormous harm to themselves, those who depend on them, and their careers and still function at a really high level. I was a high-hopes-but-low-expectations guy. When you grew up the way I grew up, when you come out of Cleveland State, there weren’t high expectations. I got into Iowa when I was in my thirties and I knew it was really important. I didn’t into the program at Stamford and I didn’t get into the program at Irvine so when I got into Iowa I went in with a strong sense of affirmation and ambition. It never occurred to me that I’d be a magazine writer. I just wanted to compete against the kids that went to school with me. They weren’t from Cleveland State. They’d gone to Sarah Lawrence or Yale.
BB: You were older than a lot of your classmates but did you have an inferiority complex?
SR: You could say that but I don’t think I’m the most accurate judge of that. I know I was very nervous but it wasn’t skittish nervous it was more like I knew what a tremendous opportunity I had. I don’t think I ever operate out of the sense of mastery or security but I don’t know anybody else who does either. I don’t think of it as an inferiority complex. I don’t think that I ever looked at writing for Granger as anything less than a total miracle. That doesn’t imply an inferiority complex; I think it implies a firm grasp of what was going on. All of a sudden you meet a guy who wants you to write in your own voice and wants you to do the kinds of stories that don’t feel safe to most magazine editors and it was like, “Wow, this is the greatest thing in the world.” People ask me if I still write fiction. Of course not. I work really hard at trying to be good at writing what I’m writing. If fiction were that important to me I’d find time to do it. I think fiction is harder and I don’t mean that what I’m doing is easy; to me, it’s not. But writing fiction you have to supply almost everything and the payoff is not so good both in terms of numbers of readers and money. I’ve always looked at meeting Granger and what followed as being beyond my wildest dreams. So things like fudging expense accounts to make a few hundred dollars more seemed absurd to me. No matter how far gone I might have been in terms of my lifestyle, I wasn’t that stupid and greedy.
BB: So when did the idea for this book—
SR: Yeah, I thought we were going to talk about the book.
BB: I know you started working on it during LeBron’s final year with the Cavaliers.
SR: I started after they lost to Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals. For many years at Esquire I wrote a column, didn’t even have my name on it, where I answered questions, general questions. A guy wrote in and asked, “Is it illegal to flip off a cop or just stupid?” Turned out this guy worked for the Cavs. I wasn’t thinking about doing a book when I got the e-mail; I was thinking maybe this guy could get me tickets. I reached out to him—I was going to do his question anyway because it was good for the column—but it was clear after a couple of games in the Orlando series that it wasn’t going to end well for the Cavs. And that was the Cavs team that I really thought could and would go all the way. I got really bummed out. But I figured that they’re going into the next season with Lebron in his walk year, the coach and the general manager in their walk years, with an owner who doesn’t mind paying the luxury tax — it was all or nothing and I thought it would make a fascinating book. They ended up winning 61 games that year. They’d won 66 the year before. They lost in the second round to the Celtics and then Lebron declared free agency.
BB: So you didn’t know that the book would extend into the following season?
SR: No, no, I was looking to write the happy book.
BB: And was part of that happy book your experiences as a Clevelander and Jew?
SR: Not at all. That wasn’t even part of it after Lebron’s decision to go to Miami. Honestly. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I sit down and start writing. I don’t plan things out. I don’t go in blind, of course. But with the Cavs, after the Decision, after the book deal, I thought that the book would be full of interviews, a collection of a lot of Cleveland voices, and that’d be the spine of the book. I wasn’t thinking of that in a hard and fast way but I had whole lists of people to talk to.
BB: Like the wonderful scene of you in the black barbershop.
SR: Well, I needed a black guy to talk with about LeBron and race. And I asked some prominent black guys. I didn’t know Jimmy Israel very well but we were Facebook friends. I knew I couldn’t avoid the subject of race. That didn’t feel honest to me. But the other black writers I asked didn’t know me; some of them didn’t bother to reply and the ones who did said no. I realized, from talking to the guys who did turn me down, that what I was asking of them was essentially unfair. They didn’t know me. I offered them editorial control but the title of the book was already “The Whore of Akron.” As one guy put it to me, “You’re basically asking me to participate in a witch hunt.” That was a legitimate objection. Jimmy’s a Cleveland guy, a great writer, and he taught me a lot.
BB: So in the course of Lebron’s first season in Miami, you’re down there, writing about what’s going on for Esquire, you’re tweeting about what’s going on, were you also writing the book?
SR: I started going to Miami in September of 2010 and started writing the book a few months later, in January 2011. It was not clear to me at that point where the book would be going. I had a deadline and I needed to start getting stuff down but I hadn’t figured anything out at that point.
BB: When did you figure out the structure of the book, where you go back-and-forth between what’s doing with Lebron and the memoir stuff develop?
SR: It was organic. It’s not as conscious as it might seem. In addition to working on the book I also had a big 9/11 piece for Esquire closing in the summer. So I had to de-stress about the book. I don’t often use inspirational slogans but I did use one while I was writing the book. It came from Bob Wickman, the fat closer the Indians had for a couple of years. He said, “You gotta trust your stuff.”
BB: That’s like in “Tender Mercies” the Robert Duvall character says, “Sing it like you feel it.”
SR: That’s right. By the time July rolled around I took a place in the city and moved in for a month. I would go to the HarperCollins office in the morning and revise the manuscript starting at the beginning using the notes I got from my editors, David Hirshey and Barry Harbaugh. Then I would go back to the place I was staying at and work on the ending. Part of me looks at what I do as a plumber. A tradesman with a craft. And at some point in the process an editor realizes that you know what you’re doing. Structurally. So their notes were extensive and important but there weren’t structural issues. There were tonal and practical ones. There were points where I would start pontificating, especially about racial aspects of the story, and there were whole swaths of material that just had to go. I never had a problem with that. I’m really coachable as long as I trust the editor.
BB: One of the first reactions I had when I was reading was to a couple of jokes about Art Modell. Where you had these rim-shot putdown jokes. And I wondered if that was going to be what the book was, more and more outrageous gags.
SR: That’s a legitimate concern.
BB: I didn’t know if you would end up humping one note but then it didn’t go that way. You talk about tone. Did you have sensitivity that on some level you were coming across as being outrageous and not to overdo that at the risk of maybe losing some of the readers?
SR: I’m not sure. I know I lost a few people. Mostly, it’s been well-received but there are certainly people who thought—whether it was the Modell stuff or the Lebron stuff—that it was overdone. I wasn’t hyper-conscious of it. I’m not that conscious of readers. I’m conscious of editors; I want to please them. But it’s an internal process. It’s just a subject—Cleveland sports—about which I feel the kind of passion that I don’t really feel about almost anything. I don’t mean my family. But my relationship to those teams defines me in the same way that being a Jew defines me or being a man defines me. It’s at a profound level. I remember doing a piece on David Cone in the late ‘90s, fun guy, smart guy, and he told me—not that he was the first guy to say it—that “You’ve got to learn to take a few miles an hour off the fastball.” If you try to throw harder in a pressure situation it backfires. You want to change speeds. So I’m conscious of that, not in particular relation to the book but in general.
BB: You reminded me of Mel Brooks in the book. I mean that in the best way.
SR: Even if you meant it in the worst way I’d be honored by that comparison.
BB:I was never offended by your outrage. I accepted it, like I do with Mel Brooks. This is what it is, it’s over-the-top. This is the shtick. And for all of the outrageousness there is also a sense of restraint in this book. And it made me wonder if you would have been able to do that, 15 or 20 years ago.
SR: I couldn’t have done it. It goes back to David Hirshey, my senior editor at HarperCollins. Nobody was excited about the prospect of the Happy LeBron Book unless I could deliver the impossible, which was access to Lebron. Once that season ended with the loss to the Celtics, I said to my wife, “That was a fun year at sports fantasy camp, I spent a few grand, but I had a great time. There ain’t going to be any book, and I’m okay with that.”
I was more upset that Lebron left. So I was blogging the countdown to free agency for Esquire.com and Deadspin was also running it simultaneously. Then Hirshey got in touch with my agent, David Black. I’d never met Hirshey but he was willing to give a book deal to a guy who’d never written a book, wasn’t going to get access to the subject of the book, and was writing these venomous blog posts about LeBron. How many book editors would do that? I was at the right place at the right time. Again.
BB: Well, if you’re not going to get access you’re the perfect guy to do a story because you don’t give a shit. Was there any time during the process that you were afraid that LeBron, or one of his people was going to walk up to you and punch you in the face?
SR: That was one of my mother’s concerns. But that’s really movie-script stuff. Can you imagine what the results would have been? Obviously, it could have, and still could, potentially happen, I suppose. But: please do. I truly don’t give a shit. It has nothing to do with courage. I grew up reading National Lampoon magazine and they were brutal. And Hunter Thompson was filing for Rolling Stone and he was brutal. I didn’t think of either as role models, I just thought of them as great reads. A lot of my attitude toward LeBron or the media relations at the NBA or the Heat was like, “Fuck you, I don’t give a shit.”
BB: So you didn’t feel any shame or have any reservations about calling the guy out as a scumbag?
SR: I understand that if you’re working for a newspaper and you’re on a beat and you’re tweeting something like that a guy you’re going to get fired. I get that. I had to dial it back because I wasn’t thinking about the reflection on Esquire. It’s not as I didn’t make my share of mistakes, but they didn’t involve plagiarism or putting off the record stuff on the record. Professional breaches by today’s standards, yes. Ethical breaches? No. And we’re not talking about weapons of mass destruction or climate change or the corner grocery selling tainted meat. It’s a fucking basketball player. There were some people who thought I was stalking him because their understanding of reporting is that dim. I don’t cheer in the press box. I don’t get in a beat guy’s way. Ever. I’m very aware of protocol. And also very aware that if a magazine or book writer comes off like if he’s a big shot, he’s an asshole. I consciously try to avoid those kinds of behaviors.
BB: Is there ever point where your persona as the outraged Cleveland sports fan becomes a put-on?
SR: No. Isn’t that weird? A lot of the stuff that got taken out of the book was removed because it was violent. You know, stuff like seeing LeBron at media day and wanting to fracture his skull with one of the folding chairs. I’m the guy who wrote the book; I’m not just the guy in the book. There is a difference. But it’s only germane when you’re talking to another writer; it has nothing to do with putting on that costume of the outraged Cleveland fan. I am a totally outraged Cleveland fan.
BB: And yet you do put it in perspective.
SR: When you get a certain age, you realize that when you are feeling that inflamed by something outside of you, there’s something inside you going on. The other part is I had a lot of people call me a hater. That’s a very popular word now. How could I not be a monster if I was wishing a career-ending injury on a fine young athlete? There are a lot of answers to that. But I took the question seriously and tried to figure it out in the book.
I talked to Dwayne Wade on Media Day for a fashion spread in Esquire. And afterward I saw LeBron at the podium with Wade and Chris Bosh and responded viscerally to that, and then went to a family bar mitzvah and wondered, “Why am I so furious, why does it get to this level with me?” Part of what I realized—and it didn’t crystallize until I was doing the writing—was that at a fairly young age I shut down in terms of family. I didn’t like my people, I didn’t trust my people. I was angry and I felt abandoned. Nobody was paying attention to my pain, and on and on and on. Cleveland was a great city then. I wasn’t a sinkhole of despair, it wasn’t a joke. The Browns, in particular, were very good. They weren’t quite the Yankees, but from the late ‘40s through the mid ‘60s, they were a paragon of consistency and excellence. The city and those teams replaced my family in my heart.
BB: You also tap into something that goes on with every fan. When I watch the Yanks play the Red Sox, and I’m heated, I want each hitter to line a ball of Josh Beckett’s leg and send him to the hospital, even though I know that’s completely irrational.
SR: If you want to call yourself a fan by my standards, of course you felt that, even if you never wrote it. I don’t think it’s unique to Philly, Cleveland or New York. I’ve been in stadiums elsewhere where the home fans cheer their own player getting hurt because they just don’t want to see him fucking up on the field anymore.
BB: As far as realizing that at a point if you are getting that enraged over a sporting event do you feel, well, this is just the way I am or do you say, I don’t need to be this way anymore?
SR: There is a real chasm between intellect and emotion. Thinking or realizing something isn’t the same as actuating it. But the fans I understand the least are the people who don’t have a team to get worked up about. I get it, but I don’t get it. Why do they bother? It’s the other side of the insanity of being over-committed. I’d prefer the self-destruction to not caring much about a team.
BB: I like the quote you used from Viktor Frankl. That sums up why you do root for a team. Because something can happen. And you having a hope for it happening means you are alive — not necessarily the victory.
SR: I would like the victory, Alex. It’s like at the end of “The Unforgiven” when Clint Eastwood tells Little Bill, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” Apparently not.
BB: Talk to me about “Dayenu” for a second because I’ve been singing the song in my head for days now.
SR: It’s one of those things where the repetition and melody of it can transport you. You sing praise to God that if he had merely freed you from Pharaoh’s bondage that would have been enough. If the Cleveland Indians of 1954 had set the record that stood until the Yankees of 1998—they won 111 out of 154 games and then lost 4 straight to the Giants in the World Series—and won the Series, it would have been awful enough. The Drive. The Shot. The Fumble. The Browns moving. Each would have been bad enough alone. Each of the Cleveland franchises have built teams that were good enough, at least in paper, to win a championship. Any of those happening would have been heartbreak enough. Which is the inversion of the Dayenu thing.
BB: The other thing that occurred to me as the book went on is that it wasn’t just a tirade against LeBron, it wasn’t flip, but a very moral book in a lot of ways.
SR: I totally agree with you, but it came as a big surprise to me. And I’m not trying to be coy. I didn’t know where it was going. I think it’s an odd book. It’s like a Swiss Army Knife kind of book.
BB: It sounded like you even had pity for LeBron.
SR: I do have pity for the guy and it’s not disingenuous. There’s a certain point between fathers and sons when things are nice. I had that with my dad before my parents split up. You think all is right with the world because you’re in the presence of this all-powerful, all-knowing guy. I was old enough to feel that with my father. LeBron had none of that. Nothing. And that’s something to really feel pity for. Because you can miss the shit out of that and it can hurt a lot, but LeBron never even got that. Everyone remembers when LeBron said they weren’t only going to win seven or eight rings but in the same clip he also talked about how easy it was going to be, so easy that Pat Riley could come back and play point guard. Dwayne Wade is sitting next to him, looking sideways at him and Wade was not smiling. Have you ever heard any athlete in any sport or anyone in any profession talk about easy it was to get to the top? It’s insane. Most of us, even poor black guys without dads, have at least had someone in our life saying, “You are going to have to work for every fucking thing you get. I don’t care how good you are. You’re going to have to be a whole lot more than just good.” Maybe James gets it now. But that piece really seems to be missing in him.
BB: Did you have an awareness of being critical of yourself if you were going to be critical of James?
SR: It’s not conscious. I’m not paragon of 12-step sobriety, but part of trying to live a more honest life is self-examination and not just throwing stones at other people.
BB: Cause then you would come across as a hater. If you were only ragging on him.
SR: Of course.
BB: Another thing I liked is that you didn’t over-examine some of the game action, which came as a relief. That stuff can be deadly to read.
SR: And to write, Alex.
BB: By the end of the book, the fact that your boy gets sick is more important so as a reader, the book shifts to you as much as it is about James.
SR: I care deeply about what I do, about putting one word after another, and I think it’s a miracle that the book turned out as well as it did, or that I had such a good time with it. With a magazine piece, I usually want to keep tinkering with it, change the lede over and over, but I didn’t have the time here. So it’s a fucking miracle. I’m not a big fan of my stuff. I rarely go back and read my stuff, because I see places where I needed to do better work. I haven’t had time to go back and read the book, but I knew that when I was writing it that it was going to be good. I was happy with it because there was no way that I could have spent six more months on it and made it better. I only would have made it worse. Despite the weirdness of dealing with interviews and publicists and trying to sell copies, the feeling is still great and I’ve never felt anything like it.
BB: Probably because you don’t hate yourself.
SR: No, I don’t. And it’s funny how it all came together. If LeBron declares free agency the way every other star declares free agency there’s no book deal. It’s a strange series of events — amazing, really.
BB: He stays in Cleveland you don’t write the book that you wrote, you don’t write a loving tribute to Cleveland sports fans or write about yourself. So in a way, LeBron is the gift that keeps giving.
SR: That’s absolutely true. Irony can be cheapened in all kinds of ways but in this way it was kind of pure.
BB: I have to ask because this interview will appear on a Yankee-related site. You wrote an Esquire story on Alex Rodriguez that is famous for causing a rift between Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. How is Lebron different from A Rod?
SR: Alex is a much more self-aware, savvy guy compared to LeBron. As brilliant as Alex was at an early age, he was not anointed the Chosen One by Sports Illustrated when he was sixteen. He didn’t have Michael Jordan flying him to camp when he was a teenager. If you look at Alex’s post-season numbers career-wise they are in line with his regular season numbers. I think it’s perfectly fair, especially as a Yankees fan, to point the finger at him. He’s fair game. But I’ve never seen an athlete of Alex or LeBron’s caliber do what LeBron did last year in the Finals. James single-handedly cost the Heat the title last year. Before the games, there was LeBron giving the pre-game speech to his team after tweeting about how he couldn’t sleep. It’s so different from anything A-Rod has ever done. And LeBron’s performance was bizarre. In an elimination game, he was throwing passes to Mario Chalmers and Juan Howard. He’s the most unstoppable force in the game, but the Mavericks were totally inside his head. Being the Clevelander I am, I kept expecting LeBron to realize that he’s playing with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh—who played very well—and I was sure the Heat were going to wake up and smack the Mavericks down. I was amazed that even with Nowitzki shooting horribly in Game 6, the Mavericks looked nothing other than supremely confident. The Heat never looked like anything but scared rabbits.
BB: Well, as a true Clevelander, even if it didn’t happen last year don’t you think that whether it is this year or next year, eventually LeBron will get his act together and he’ll win that championship?
SR: That’s one of those head or heart questions. Eventually, sure, he’s young enough. But he’s also got a lot of miles on him. And I don’t think he truly cares and I know he doesn’t work as hard as he says he does. Kobe Bryant does. I remember sitting with Shaq once and he told me about how obsessive Kobe was about working. And Shaq admits that he himself was never that way. Kobe is willing to work relentlessly. That certainly was true of Michael, too. I think Alex Rodriguez is fanatical too. He’s driven. But I don’t think that helps him come playoff time. But LeBron is better at talking about this stuff than actually doing it.
BB: LeBron is having a great year so far. Do you think he’s turned the corner, learned something since last year? Or is that something that can only be answered come June?
SR: What corner? He’s a two-time league MVP, and he should’ve won it again last season. He’s the best pure basketball player I’ve ever seen, an other-worldly talent, and he has become a complete head case in the post-season. He always had an issue with managing pressure when he was on the Cavs, and he’s fallen apart as a crunch-time player if the other team doesn’t just fold up and surrender. And everyone in the NBA knows it now. We won’t find out until June if LeBron has found a heart.
Bronx Banter: Your father was a career military man and you grew up all over the world. Did you follow boxing at all as a kid?
George Kimball: Aha, so this is going to be one of those psychological-minded interviews. My wife Marge would like that. She’s a shrink and says I’m the least psychological-minded person she knows. Sure, I watched the fights on TV with my father (and with his father) from the mid 50s on. It was a revelation to me at the live readings we did on each coast last year for The Fighter Still Remains to learn how just many of the people involved in that book had initially come to boxing the same way, as a sort of connection to their fathers at a time when there might not have been much else that did connect them.
Beginning in late ’57, which is when we moved to Germany, I followed boxing quite avidly in the papers, or really, paper. (There was an English-language weekly called The Overseas Family that covered our high school games but not much on a global scale.) Stars and Stripes, on the other hand, was a daily that carried pretty extensive coverage of both the important professional bouts (Robinson’s and Patterson’s in particular) as well as the military ones that took place in Europe, which were considered a pretty big deal, particularly as we edged toward the ’60 Olympics, which were going to be in Rome. So I’d have certainly known who all the professional champions and most of the contenders were, as well as the top Europeans (like Laszlo Papp, for instance). I don’t recall that we attended any of the bouts on the bases where we were (my father was stationed at Bamberg and Bayreuth, and I went away to the American school in Nurnberg), none of which harbored any of the really promising service amateurs, but I monitored the progress of “our” boxers – the Army guys stationed elsewhere in Europe – as they all fell by the wayside on the road to Rome with one notable exception, Sgt. Eddie Crook, who wound up being one of three U.S. boxing gold medalists in Rome. (Cassius Clay and Skeeter McClure were the others.) I liked Clay even then, since he was from Louisville, my mother’s hometown.
I don’t know that I regarded it as crushing at the time, but the Rome Olympics actually coincided with our move back to the states. I watched a lot of the Games at the home of one grandparent or another as we spent a few weeks visiting both after having been out of the country for three years. I don’t know that I’d have been able to attend had we stayed in Europe even a few weeks longer, but I had gone to Rome the previous summer, so it wouldn’t have been out of the question.
I played football and basketball at Nurnberg, and ran track in the spring. Summers I played in an AYA baseball league made up of towns that had bases. The football away games were same-day trips, but in basketball every other weekend there’d be a road trip – like you’d play a game in Munich or Heidelberg on Friday night, stay overnight, and then play in Augsburg or Mannheim on Saturday afternoon and bus back to Nurnberg on Saturday night.
The Army also had a really top-flight league of post teams that played a regular schedule, mostly, I think, on Sunday afternoons. The teams were open to everybody stationed there, so what you wound up with at a relatively large post like Bamberg was virtually a college all-star team. Everybody used to turn out to watch the home games, and I watched a lot of those on weekends when I went home. (They even used to broadcast a game of the week on AFN.) Eddie Crook, by the way, was the quarterback for the Berlin team, which was all the more unusual because most of the guys in his huddle would have been officers. He was the first black quarterback I’d ever seen, at any level.
BB: What was it like following sports when you moved around so much?
GK: My father followed the NFL avidly, or at least he did after we came back to the states in 1960 when there was football on television every Sunday no matter where you lived. We were in San Antonio my senior year, and also got the AFL games on TV. My old man had played both football and baseball at UMass (when it was still Mass State) and followed both sports. I remember sitting up with a couple of my classmates in the dorm in Nurnberg, charting the Colts-Giants overtime game off the radio broadcast. That was pretty exciting even on the radio, believe it or not.
Even moving around, you maintained your allegiances. I was a Red Sox and Cardinals fan and religiously followed both teams, even though in some cases the news and box scores were two days old.
That year in San Antonio I was working for nights 75 cents an hour, first sacking groceries and then, once I got my license, delivering prescriptions for a pharmacy, and without telling anyone saved up enough to buy two tickets to the first AFL championship game in Houston. Once the tickets came in the mail I still had a problem, because Houston was three hours away and I needed the family car to drive there with my date. When I finally worked up the nerve to ask my father his solution was that sure, I could borrow his car – as long as he got to use the other ticket. So I ended up at Jeppesen Stadium in Houston watching that game with my father.
BB: Were you tight with your siblings?
GK: Probably less so than would have been the case with an average family, simply because of the circumstances in which I grew up. My brother Tim, who is just a year and a half younger, only spent one year at Nurnberg when I was going there, and apart from my senior year in Texas I really didn’t live year-round with my family after my freshman year in high school. I was quite a bit older – six years older than the next-closest sibling – and my youngest brother wasn’t even born until I was in my second year of college. The age gap tends to shrink with the passage of time, so I’m probably more in contact with, and closer to, most of them now than I was when we were growing up.
BB: Did you read any sports writers as a kid?
GK: I think one of the early sportswriters I read avidly must have been Earl Ruby, of the Louisville Courier Journal. I also came across a collection of Furman Bisher’s pretty early on. I was reading constantly, absolutely haunted the library, but probably didn’t read a hell of a lot of sports books per se, and wasn’t much exposed to the great ones unless they were already dead and collected, like maybe Grantland Rice or Ring Lardner. I couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven when I read a collection of Irvin S. Cobb that my mother owned. But I don’t think I even began to form an idea that great sports writing could also be great writing until I started to pay attention to Sports Illustrated, which would have been the fall of 1960. I don’t know that we ever saw SI in Germany.
BB: Sounds like sports played an important part of your childhood. What about the arts? Was their music in your house as a kid? Movies, radio? What about books?
GK: That was always pretty important to me. When we were in Bayreuth I used to go to the Wagner festival with my mother because my father hated opera. I think my parents liked musicals even as much as I did, so that was there from an early age. I played the trumpet for a while and liked a lot of jazz. My parents had some jazz records, but I was the one, at probably age 15, who brought Charlie Parker into the house, and who introduced them to Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, and Chet Baker. Of course I listened to early rock, as did my contemporaries. Everybody listened to that, but only a few of my contemporaries were as into jazz as I was, and the number that listened to Broadway musical scores was even smaller, so when I listened to Rogers and Hammerstein or Mario Lanza, a lot of times it was alone in my room. Didn’t listen to much radio at all, that I can remember, apart from in the car.
I pretty much lived in the library, even in Germany. I’d even take dates there. No matter what else I was doing I was probably reading at least a couple of books a week for almost as long as I can remember. Movies were important during the years I lived in Germany. The new films would eventually get there, so we didn’t feel cheated that they’d been out for a few months in the states, and I can’t remember whether they cost 15 cents or a quarter, but they were certainly affordable. We had one night a week in Nurnberg where you could sign out for an early film, and then on weekends I’d usually see one too.
BB: I know you are a fan of musicals. I think Kiss Me, Kate was the first long-playing record my dad ever bought—he was six or seven years older than you.
GK: I first saw Kiss Me, Kate performed at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in the Alps, in 1959. Went with my mother because my father didn’t want to go. I think we had all of the early Rogers and Hammerstein cast recordings at the house when I was growing up – Carousel, Oklahoma, South Pacific and The King and I, and I eventually saw all of those done in New York, in London, in regional theatre, what have you. Even saw Kiss Me, Kate on Broadway about ten years ago. I think the Rogers and Hammerstein led me back to their earlier collaborators like Lorenz Hart and Jerome Kern and their spiritual descendants like Lerner and Loewe, or Frank Loesser. I think there was a definable Golden Age that began in the late ‘20s with Show Boat and ended probably fifty years ago which was marked by a greatness that’s never been achieved since, which is why I enjoy the revivals more than most new musicals. I saw the Lincoln Center South Pacific nine times in three years, I think (and a few weeks ago I took Danny Burstein to DiBella’s boxing card at B.B. King’s.). At their best there were others in this era like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin who could be great but I thought both inconsistent. Annie Get Your Gun, for instance, is brilliant (despite a notably dumb book), and right up there with the best of Rogers and Hammerstein, but Berlin wrote some shows I wouldn’t want to even sit through. I think the symbiosis of great lyricists and composers is what defined these. I love West Side Story, for instance, but never warmed to some of Bernstein’s film scores, and I think Sondheim did his best work on that one when he was a lyricist, period. I like some of his stuff, and hope to go see Danny and Bernadette Peters do Follies at the Kennedy Center in May, but I don’t see Sondheim as an heir to the tradition.
BB: What about Gilbert and Sullivan?
GK: Gilbert and Sullivan is an acquired taste I guess I never acquired. It’s cute, but I don’t think especially good musically, and it makes you work to get the lyrics, which isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. I don’t think I’ve ever walked around with a Gilbert and Sullivan song in my head, for instance, but with some of these other classics, especially Rogers and Hammerstein, it happens all the time. Some of the movie recordings of Rogers and Hammerstein were quite good even if the movies themselves weren’t. John Raitt was the original Billy in Carousel, around the time I was born, and I met him years later when I had dinner with him and Bonnie.
Bronx Banter: Are all of the images that are in the book ones that also appeared on the blog?
Michael Popek: I don’t remember the exact ratio, but I believe that 60 percent of the items in the book are exclusive and haven’t appeared online. I wanted to reward the loyal readers with lots of fresh material and at the same time give new fans a look at some of the best stuff from the site.
BB: How did you choose which ones were fit for the book?
MP:It wasn’t easy deciding what to choose; when I was working on the manuscript, there were more than 600 entries on the blog and I had a collection of more than 1,000 unpublished items. I tried to pick the strangest, the funniest, the most poignant; items that might make a reader think about the time and place, the history of the bookmark. I also wanted to offer a good variety, so I tried to keep an even number of photos, letters, postcards, notes, etc. In the end, a few items had to be dropped because of copyright issues, but I don’t think any of those items take away from the entire collection.
BB: Do you save the books, along with their bookmarks? Or do you still sell the books and save the bookmarks?
MP: I save all of the bookmarks, and many of the books. As a bookseller, however, the nicer titles need to be on the shelves so I can’t afford to keep them around forever.
BB: When my dad died I went through most of his books and found random things–a voter registration card from 1977, a dry cleaning bill from the 1960s. You can let your mind wander and try to piece together a story from these fragments even though the randomness means that it can’t really tell you about someone. Have you built stories in your mind from your found bookmarks?
MP: Absolutely, I think all of us do – it’s part of the fascination with found items. It’s easiest with the old letters I find, my mind immediately creates a voice, like I would if I was reading a novel. I can instantly picture the letter writer’s face, the way they position their hand as they write, the items on their desk, the weather outside their window – I can’t help it.
BB: There is an element of voyeurism in found items. Have you ever felt uncomfortable with something you’ve found in a book?
MP: One of the most interesting things I found was just too personal to post online. It was a suicide note from the 1930s, and although there were no names or places mentioned, the emotion was too much. Being this kind of voyeur is often a lot of fun, but that’s something I wish I hadn’t seen.
BB: Wow, that’s heavy, man. On the other hand, have you sound something so intimate that you found it to be beautiful?
I cannot believe what a slime you are. What I ever saw in you in beyond me. Sarah’s mind must be warped – I love her but how she managed to spend 2 years with a manipulative sadist like you is incredible (yes she told me.)
BB: How did you arrive at the format for the book, a small, handsome hardcover, as opposed to a glossy picture book?
MP: That was up to the publishers, for the most part. I had stated in my book proposal that I wanted to produce something that was vivid and in full color.
BB: I think the design of the book is ideal. I think a big, glossy book would spoil the flavor of these hidden treasures.
MP: I think producing a big coffee-table book might have been a bit risky for a first-time author like, those volumes cost a lot of money to print. In the end, I’m very happy with the way it turned out, the pages really come to life.
BB: As a bookseller I’m sure you spend most of your time looking through collections of books. How deep has the bookmark project seeped itself into that process? Do you feel disappointed when you come across books that are “clean,” and does your heart skip a beat when you initially see a bookmark?
MP: It has completely changed the way I sort through books. I cannot let one go without checking every page for lost treasures. It has certainly reduced my sorting efficiency, but I think it’s worth it. The feeling I get when I find something good and juicy is as exciting as it was when I first started this treasure hunt.
BB: It reminds me of the feeling you got as a kid opening up a pack of baseball cards. Guess it’s more like a box of Cracker Jack, waiting for the surprise, right?
MP: Nah, I like the baseball cards metaphor better. You may get a Mattingly, you may get a Dale Berra – but in the end, at least you got some gum, or in my case, a book. All the Cracker Jack prizes were awful.
BB: I like the idea of a treasure hunt. I was talking to my cousin the other night. He grew up in L.A. and now lives in New York and when we first started hanging out in the ’80s, he’d come to town and I’d take him to used bookstores. He never goes to them anymore, not that there are many left. Nowadays, I don’t go to them as much as I used to, heck, I buy my books from you. But one of the charms of your book is that it brings back the accidental pleasures of hunting. Can you talk about that and how vital your business is these days?
MP: As long as there are books still around, there’s going to be someone like me selling them. Sure, the digital revolution in publishing is underway and showing no signs of slowing down, but that’s OK. E-readers can’t replace a signed copy. There are no first edition e-books. And most importantly, you can’t buy a used digital copy – yet. I’ve done my best to adapt to the new marketplace, and the shop has done pretty well. I always like to think about the success of the good record shops still around, and they give me hope for used book shops everywhere. They are both about the hunt, the browse, the discovery. Digging through the shelves is a lot like digging through the stacks, you may have wandered in looking for some Dionne Warwick, but you walk out with some Elvis Costello.
BB: I love Baseball-Reference.com, it’s an amazing tool, but you lose something from opening up the encyclopedia and finding names by mistake. I find the same thing with reading newspapers on-line. You don’t run across a stray article in the same way. I have a friend who runs a record shop and they don’t do very much business on line–consciously–and the store is a meeting place for a community of record heads. Do you have anything like that at your store? I assume you do a majority of your business on-line now.
MP: The local paper ran a story about it, since then there have been a lot of people in asking to see some of the stuff. Before that story, I don’t think there were a lot of local readers. I’ve had a few of fans of the blog make their way into the shop, one from as far away as California, but to be fair, in was in the area for a family wedding. Most of our sales do come from online venues, but I like to think that our success there allows keeping an open brick and mortar store. I really enjoy interacting with customers, and there is the collection of usual suspects that come in every few days. I have seen a few friendships blossom from encounters here; two older guys coming in looking for Vietnam books end up discussing their service days.
Bronx Banter: What was your approach in selecting the material for this book? My first impression was that it seemed thin, but then I checked and it is almost 800 pages, anything but thin. Then again, I grew up reading Kael and have all of her books. Is the ideal reader for this book someone who is unfamiliar with her work?
Sanford Schwartz: My first aim in selecting Pauline Kael pieces was to give the range of her thinking and sensibility. As a kid of shadow story, I wanted the selections to give a rough sense of movie history during the years she wrote. I wanted there to be representative pieces on the actors and directors who meant most to her. So there are a number of reviews on Altman, Godard, Scorsese, and so forth. I hoped that the anthology would engage people who already knew her—but unlike you didn’t collect all her books over the years—and also people who, in their twenties and thirties, don’t know who she is. It is always a surprise to run into people who have never heard of her, and I have found that most young people haven’t.
BB. Kael was close to fifty when she started reviewing movies for the New Yorker though she’d been writing for some time. How do you think this influenced her voice as a writer, as opposed to other critics who get their start much earlier?
SS: I’m not sure that it meant a lot. Her having waited so long and absorbed so many movies along the way obviously couldn’t have hurt when it came to writing with authority and conviction. But that certainty was evident in her letters from the late 1930s and early 1940s, when she was in her early twenties—except that her subject was still unclear to her. And it was fortuitous, her coming into the field when she did—an art form was being revitalized.
BB: What did Kael bring to movie criticism in the 1960s and ’70s that set her apart from her contemporaries?
SS: Kael made reading movie reviews a more intimate and personal experience than it had ever been before. Little criticism of any kind conveyed a comparable sense of there being such a powerful, funny, opinionated, scarily shrewd, and common sensical voice there, talking to you. You wanted to know what she thought about everything. You don’t feel this with most journalists, whether they are reviewing an art of doing a political column.
BB: One of the quirks that Kael was famous for was only watching a movie once. She’s been criticized for that over the years, that it suggests a lack of reflection or the possibility that a work of art can change for you. What is it about watching a movie only one time that informed the way she wrote about it?
SS: First off, it should be noted that there were times when she saw a movie more than once. I saw a number of movies with her when it was her second time. But then it was usually because she was checking something. I think she joked about falling asleep during Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” both times she saw it. How many times she saw a movie was conditioned, actually, by her generally tight writing schedule; she usually didn’t have the time to see a movie twice. But the deeper point with this issue concerns the importance of instinct for her. She believed our truest response to a movie (or any art) was our first one, and she wanted to catch that. It was also a matter of temperament. She had on-the-spot judgments about many things. That was how she operated. Movies for her, even the great, complex ones, were about the senses in a way that books were not, and in seeing a movie once and trying to recapture its immediate impact she was, in her thinking, being true to the experience it offered.
BB. Did you re-watch any of the movies whose reviews you included in the collection?
SS: I saw some again, and initially I thought it would be good to re-see many of them. But my sense if that going back to films I loved years ago is hazardous. You re-see Truffaut, Satyajit Ray, or “The Leopard” and part of you must confront ways that the movie, and you, have changed—and altogether the event is more about time than the movie. How movies age is an interesting topic. Kael talked about it in “Movies and Television.”
BB: You’ve included her most famous reviews, ones she was chided about for over-praising like “The Last Tango in Paris,” “Nashville,” and to a lesser extent, “Casualties of War.” How do you think her takes on those movies stand up?
SS: I can’t say how her reviews of those movies hold up because I haven’t seen them recently. My hunch is that she did go overboard on them. I probably felt that then. But of course the reviews had to be in any anthology of her work. They were major pieces for her. They are statements of her belief.
BB: Kael has been ridiculed for her enthusiasm for those movies, but her take on other “classics” of that time period, particularly two “Godfather” movies or “Mean Streets” or “Shampoo” seem spot on. Are there any particular movies that she loved where you feel that her writing is especially sharp?
SS: I wasn’t that interested in whether she was, as you say about some of her reviews, “spot on.” In reviewing an art, reasoning and descriptions count for much more than opinion. As to what I think she was especially sharp on, I hope “The Age of Movies” provides an answer. Are there many more pieces that might have gone in? For sure.
BB: I like that you’ve included her major essays like “Trash, Art and the Movies,” “Why Are Movies So Bad? or The Numbers,” and the long one on Cary Grant, “The Man From Dream City.” And especially an early on, “Movies, the Desperate Art.” But you did not include her celebrated essay on “Citizen Kane.” Is that because it was just too long or because you feel it doesn’t hold up as representative of her talent?
SS: No, the Kane article, as I say in the Introduction, is too long to be included.
BB: One of Kael’s first memorable articles was “Circles and Squares,” a harsh take on fellow critic Andrew Sarris’ ideas about the auteur theory. Why did you not include that one?
SS: I didn’t include the Sarris essay because it is too long for the points it makes. It would have hogged space from livelier writing—writing that meant more to Kael. There are good words in it on what criticism meant for her. If I had excerpts in the anthology I probably would have excerpted those passages. I felt also that readers for whom “auteur” issues mater would already know Kael’s piece, whereas for the wider audience that she wrote for at The New Yorker, and for whom “The Age of Movies” is intended, her deflating this theory—it is really a set of opinions—is not a very engaging issue. And while I think she nails Sarris and the whole approach, she doesn’t do it in a way that opens up the topic to the general reader. Unless you are already familiar with the auteur line, her essay is rather confusing, especially at the beginning. It isn’t an essay that had much long-term meaning for her; she never could take that stuff seriously.
BB: Kael’s review of the documentary, “Shoah,” was famous because she panned it but it’s not here.
SS: I didn’t have a powerful reason to skip the “Shoah” review. Probably, it was a matter of space and also the sense that the reasoning and attitude on display there was already clear from other articles. It is certainly a strong one, though.
BB: During the ’70s, Kael shared her position writing “The Current Cinema” at the New Yorker with Penelope Gilliatt. As a result, there are some classics from that time that she never reviewed properly like “Annie Hall,” “Dog Day Afternoon” (though she does mention this one in a notes column), and maybe especially, “Apocalypse Now.” Were there any movies that you missed her reviewing?
SS: Even with her half-year schedule in the beginning, I believe she managed to encompass the major films of her era (but a movie historian might have another view of this). If a movie was taken seriously or touched hot issues for people—and it came out when she was off—she generally managed to find a way to her her verdict in somewhere. The long articles she periodically wrote during the time she was off let her do just that. She used a piece ostensibly about actors to acknowledge “Jaws” and she let people know where she stood on “2001” in “Trash, Art, and the Movies.”
BB: Kael had her favorites—Peckinpah and DePalma, to name just two—and those who she was famous for blasting, like Kubrick and Woody Allen. But she actually took each movie as it came, and I like that you’ve included “Lolita,” which she adored and as well as “A Clockwork Orange,” which she hated. Same goes for the early Scorsese hits, “Mean Streets,” and “Taxi Driver,” again, which she loved, and “Raging Bull,” which was the first in a long line of his movies that turned her off. Even though she was famous for her prejudices do you feel that she always gave a new movie an equal chance?
SS: Oh, yes. That is one reason I included her review of Bergman’s “Shame.” The piece shows her wrestling with the fact that a director with whom she was often at odds made a movie she had to call a masterpiece. She could always say when someone she admired—Altman, Godard, Bertolucci, Huston, even Renoir—came out flat. Her subject was the film at hand, not someone’s reputation or the credit they might have built up. She didn’t much like Robert Duvall, but after she saw “The Apostle,” which he directed and wrote as well as starred in, she said something like, “You’ve got to hand it to the bastard.”
BB: Kael once said that she never wrote a memoir because, “I think I have” in her reviews. She brought her life’s experience to her reviews, from what she knew about music and books and the theater, but also from what she knew about being a mother, having her heart broken in relationships, everything. Do you think you the story of her life can be found in her work?
SS: Yes, if the story of her life is constituted by her awareness and judgments. I don’t think she was the kind of artist whose life experience mirror or can be seen as a counterpoint to their work. For Agee and Farber, yes; their movie reviews tell us things about each man’s total contribution that we might not know otherwise. Kael, though, put most of what counted in her life in her reviews.
BB: She also once said “In movies, judgment is often not so important in a critic as responsiveness to what a movie feels like, and where it’s heading and what its vision is.” She was very tuned in to the reaction movies had on audiences, especially during her heyday in the early ’70s. Was there any other critic during that time, or any other time, that was as invested in how movies were received by popular culture and what it all meant?
SS: I believe you need a movie historian to answer this one. My feeling is that she got more of the ramifications of movies—their relation to the wider culture and society in general—than most film writers.
BB: This collection is spare toward the last 10 years of her career. Is that because the cultural moment of the movies had passed by the mid ’80s or because you were running out of room? Even though the pieces in her final two collections, “Hooked,” and particularly, “Movie Love,” are terse compared with her earlier writing, I think they had a lovely, compact quality. Were there any reviews that were hard for you not to include?
SS: Kael herself said that her strongest collections were those that covered the films of the 1970s. The movies were richer then. They brought out more of her. And she was first luxuriating in all the space The New Yorker gave her. It is possible that if she had first started reviewing in 1980 her pieces might have been longer and more nuances—even considering the quality of the movies. As it was, by the mid-1980s she had already put forth in some detail her aesthetic and social positions. I agree with you, though, about the “lovely, compact quality” of her reviews of the eighties.
BB: I recall Kael once writing with admiration for the discipline it took Altman to achieve a style that appeared casual and loose. I often think about that when I consider her writing—it is conversational but don’t you think it must have taken a lot of discipline to achieve that effect?
SS: Kael was almost always writing with a deadline, so the words had to come fast, and by nature she was suited to spilling her feelings. But she had to do a lot of work to get the reviews in shape. She could be making substantive changes right to the last minute.
Well, the auteur theory originally meant something quite different from what people understand it be mean now. What it originally said was that a director conferred value upon a film—that if a director was an auteur, all of his films were great. I think the public never understood that, and neither did most of the press. It was an untenable theory, and it fell from sight. It’s now taken to mean that we should pay attention to who directed a movie, because a director is vital to a film, and of course this is true. But it’s something that everybody has always known. I mean, everybody knew that Howard Hawks was terrific. We went to see “To Have and Have Not” and “The Big Sleep” the day they opened, and there was an excitement in the theater, because we all knew that these movies were special. They were smart, and we loved the work of smart directors, because lots of movies were so dumb…But the auteurists considered all of his movies to be wonderful by definition, because he was an auteur. It reached a point where they were acclaiming the later movies of directors who had ceased doing good work years earlier. Hitchcock’s later movies were acclaimed, and they were stinkers—terrible movies. And many routine action movies were praised because they were the work of certain directors.
It’s sometimes discouraging to see of a director’s movies, because there’s so much repetition. The auteurists took this to be a sign of a director’s artistry, that you could recognize his movies. But for all of a director’s movies to be alike in some essential way can also be a sign that he’s a hack.
We both loved movies. We had that in common, and I enjoy reading him as I enjoy reading very few critics. He has genuine reactions to movies, and many critics don’t. He picks things up and points things out…The big difference between us is that our taste in movies is so radically different. He really likes romantic, classically structured movies. He had very conservative tastes in movies; he didn’t love the farout stuff that I loved. He’s a man who likes movies like “Waterloo Bridge,” movies that drive me crazy with impatience. It’s funny that he should have been at the Voice, and the voice of an underground paper. I think I would have been much more suitable to the Voice, yet for years I got dumped on brutally by the paper. That always amazed me, because I thought, I’m praising movies you should love, so what’s going on here? He and I were at the wrong places—it’s one of those flukes of movie history.
Also this on eroticism in movies and not being able to review “Deep Throat” for the New Yorker:
It wasn’t a good movie. But I very badly wanted to write about it, because for all that was being written about it, nobody was really dealing with what was on the screen. I think half of the reason that people become interested in movies in the first place is sex and dating and everything connected with eroticism on the screen. And I felt that not to deal with all of that in its most naked form was to shirk part of what’s involved in being a movie critic.
I’d love to have written about more eroticism in the movies. I think it’s a great subject, and I dealt with it a little bit in my reviews of “Last Tango in Paris,” “Get Out Your Handkerchiefs,” and a few other movies. Bertrand Blier I loved writing about, because he dealt so much in sexual areas. But it was tough to write about it all with [New Yorker editor, William] Shawn. I had a real tough time with him when I wrote about “Tales of Ordinary Madness,” The Marco Ferreri version of Charles Bukowski, about a girl who’s virtually a mermaid, with Ben Gazzara as the Bukowski, more or less. It’s an amazing movie, with some scenes that are quite erotic. I had to put up a terrible fight to get it in. Shawn wanted to know if the critics for other magazines were covering it. I said that shouldn’t be our standard for what we covered at The New Yorker. But it was hard to convince Shawn that I wasn’t pulling some sort of swindle by sneaking material into the magazine that he felt didn’t belong there. He felt he was holding the line against barbarians, and to some degree I was a barbarian.
He made it very hard to write about certain aspects of movies. Nobody, really, has done a very good job of writing on a sustained level about the way movies affect people erotically, and about the fact that they became popular because they’re a dating game. People love movies that reason, because they excite them sexually. They go to them on dates, and they go to learn more about how to behave. I never got a real crack at writing about that.
Mandate: Why do you hit so many nerves among the common readers? Why do you stir up such antagonism as well as such passionate devotion?
Kael: In my writing, I was trying to get at what I actually responded to at the movies, and I couldn’t do in formal, scholarly language. I worked to loosen my style—to get away from the term-paper pomposity that we learn at college. I wanted the sentences to breathe, to have the sound of a human voice. I began, for example, to interject remarks—interrupting a train of thought, just as we do when we talk, and then picking it up again. And when I began to feel the freedom to write as easily as I spoke, the writing itself became pleasurable.
Maybe part of the resentment I stir up among critics who suffer when they write is that they can tell I’m having a good time. My guess is that just as my slangy colloquial style appeals to some readers because it is sometimes enables me to get right at what I think the emotional substance of a movie is, it turns off other readers, who prefer more literary, distanced criticism. For example, I’m frequently disparaged as ‘opinionated’—I think what this comes down to is that often I don’t share in the consensus that builds up on certain movies. Sometimes, it builds up even before the critics have seen a picture, as it did on “Sophie’s Choice”—I suspect that a lot of readers are snowed by big themes and advance articles in the New York Times. And then, if they read me making fun of the picture, they’re outraged and think I’m irresponsible, and especially so because I don’t couch my review in the language that has come to be equated with ‘objectivity.’
photo by Chris Carroll
And from a Q&A by Marc Smirnoff in the Oxford American (Spring 1992) after Kael had retired from the New Yorker:
Q: Is a person lucky to be a movie critic?
Kael: It is really a wonderfully exciting field to write about when the movies are good. When they’re not good, it’s to despair. The really bad movies you can write about with some passion and anger. It’s the mediocre ones that wear you down. They’re disgusting to write about because you can feel yourself slipping into the same mediocrity and stupidity. And you feel you’re boring the readers and yourself. When you starting falling asleep while you’re writing a review, you know how dull the movie is. The danger for criticism is that people will want to become critics in order to become television celebrities, rather than enjoying the pleasure of writing and the excitement of trying to define and describe what you’ve seen.
Q: Do you miss writing reviews?
Kael: Yes, but I know I’ve got to adjust to it. That’s part of adapting to getting older. You’ve got to recognize that the time for certain things has passed and, I’m not an idiot, I know I would not write at my best if I went on. You know, you start repeating yourself—you write the same phrase, you write the same descriptions. I’ve already had the problem of working on a paragraph that I thought was pretty good and looking up what I said about that director’s work the last time I wrote about him and finding out it was almost exactly the same paragraph. Well, you know, it’s time to quit.
There is at least one thing Red Sox fans can look forward to this fall and that’s the publication of Glenn Stout’s new book. But it’s not just for Sox fans, it’s a story that will appeal to seamheads everywhere. In a review for The Christian Science Monitor, Nick Lehr writes that Stout’s “narrative could have easily become bogged down in a never-ending sequence of truncated game recaps, culminating with the World Series; however Stout’s greatest triumph is his ability to manage the pace of the 152-game season, breaking up game summaries by delving into the lives of the teams’ larger-than-life characters.”
I got a chance to talk to Stout before he lit out for Boston on a book tour. Here’s our chat.
BB: You’ve written about the Red Sox before, many times, most notably in Red Sox Century. But that was an overview of a long period of time. What was it like to tackle a more concentrated narrative?
SG: It’s far more fun to take on a concentrated narrative, but that doesn’t mean that you just get more detailed, or use detail for detail sake. With a big survey history like Red Sox Century or Yankees Century (which, incidentally, is still in print and still selling after more a decade), I have to be very disciplined and contained. Inevitably at times I have had to race over some good stories or just tell them in shorthand, because the focus of those books is a longer sweep of history. There is very limited space to veer off the main highway and follow a story down a side road, no matter how interesting, unless it carries the larger narrative farther along. In a book about single event, or in this case, a season, there is more freedom to follow the stories that naturally occur. Truths can be revealed organically, over a much more natural span of time, rather than all at once. Take the story of Smoky Joe Wood’s 1912 season, in which he goes 34-5. In a book like Red Sox Century there was no space to do much more than cite the details of his season, touch lightly on the famous early September pitching matchup with Walter Johnson, jump into the World Series against John McGraw’s New York Giants, and then boom, the next year he hurts his arm. Wood appears as some kind of comet, suddenly great, then gone.
But the full story is more nuanced, and in this kind of book I get a chance to tell those kinds of stories. In this case I show Wood’s personality, how and why Wood was so much better in 1912 than before, and how and why he improved over the course of the season; his manager made him change his windup with runners on base and injuries to two catchers thrust rookie Hick Cady into the lineup. He was much better defensively and Wood was much more comfortable with him. And Wood’s arm was already going bad in 1912. There are many, many references to that over the course of the 1912 season, and it was no surprise when he was hurt in 1913. In a book like this, I can get to stories that otherwise go untold, or are overlooked, and use those stories to create characters. The history becomes much more layered, immediate and three-dimensional. In that way it is possible to write a book with wider appeal, one for people who love baseball, and baseball history, not just Red Sox fans. Fenway, like other classic ballparks, transcends the fan base of a particular team and I think Fenway 1912 will be a breakout book this holiday season. It’s about a place and an era, not just a team.
BB: There seems to be a cottage industry of sports books that are about a specific season. Your new book is not just about the 1912 season but about the creation of Fenway Park. Still, can you explain your approach to this kind of story? Do you any hard rules about creating the narrative from the facts and maybe stretching some things to fit a dramatic arc?
GS: I just try to follow the facts as I find them, and not create a narrative arc ahead of time and make the facts fit or enhance it. My proposal for this book was one paragraph – to tell the story of the building of Fenway Park and its first season. Beyond that, I had little idea what I would find, but I trusted in the truth – the truth tells the better story anyway. If it doesn’t, that’s because you haven’t done enough research. There’s never, ever any need to put words in anybody’s mouth to make things “more colorful.” Dry history is the fault of the writer, not the event. And by building the story from actual events, rather than trying to use the events to fit a story, you inevitably uncover new information, so that even a place as familiar as Fenway is surprisingly revealing. In this book, I just tried to track the whys and hows of Fenway Park coming into existence, then track it during its first season to see what that told me. I was quite surprised, for instance, to see how Fenway’s personality, the same personality that in many ways is still in effect in the park today, was revealed over the course of the 1912 season and World Series. Even though the game was much different, the personality of the place was already visible.
BB: As a writer how do you avoid clichés when writing about a game? How much of a challenge is it to make a game recap sound fresh?
GS: You have to be vigilant, because there are times you just have to take the reader from point A to B so you have context for something more important you really want to write about – why and how the score is 2-1 entering the ninth inning for instance – and there’s a great temptation to take the easy way out and get lazy. To avoid that I have to think backwards and ask “What does the reader really need to know entering that ninth inning?” Than I have to deliver the game description to that point economically and without distractions, and that’s the argument against clichés – they are distractions. Staying simple is best, just straightforward reporting without reaching to create any false drama or using writing that calls too much attention to itself. It’s far better to be a bit spare than too florid, because florid writing not only takes readers out of a story and restrains the imagination, More spare, restrained writing leaves room for the readers’ imagination to expand and fill in the blanks.
Then, for texture and context, which is always needed, I try to make use of period sports reporting. Something can be said better by a reporter at that time that if said by the omniscient narrator would sound stupid, or hackneyed or forced. I mean, at one point during the Series Joe Wood is in shock after being shelled. But I don’t write, “After being shelled, Wood was in shock.” I use the reporting of baseball writer Paul Shannon of the Boson Post. He wrote that “A place at the right hand corner of the Red Sox bench was taken by a stopped, wilted figure [SWF]. The SWF was Joe Wood.” I loved that. Another strategy I use throughout Fenway 1912 is that I drop appropriate headlines throughout the text, simply to provide that kind of textural change and period flavor. I guess the short answer is don’t try to write like you’re wearing a fedora and chewing on a cigar. That never comes off as authentic.
BB: Is being spare in your prose something that you come by naturally from your background in poetry? Do you arrive at that kind of clear, straightforward prose after many drafts or at this point is it something you achieve early on?
GS: To a degree I guess, because in general I’ve always been more drawn toward plain speaking and work that works when listened to rather than poetry that is more mannered and academic. In prose, I aim for transparency. In many instances I almost want my actual writing to be completely invisible, so submissive to the story that you don’t notice it. I want the readers’ first reaction to be “great story” and then realize that it was the writing that delivered that experience.
BB: Did you read a lot of the other material–not from the period but since then–on the 1912 season and the building of Fenway? Was there anything that you tried to avoid repeating?
GS: There was very little that was worthwhile. It hadn’t been written about much before and so much of that was just factually wrong or incomplete. Obviously, I tried to avoid using information I knew not to be true, even it contradicted prevailing wisdom. In places I even correct what I had written before when I had depended on a secondary source that I discovered was incorrect. Here’s an example. Years ago, when I write the official 75th anniversary story about the park for the Red Sox yearbook, I had used a secondary source that called Fenway’s architectural style “Tapestry.” In this book, I learned that was incorrect – “tapestry” is simply the commercial name for the style of brick used, and after consulting with some architectural historians I was eventually able to identify Fenway’s architectural influences. That’s why you try not to use secondary sources.
Frankly, no one had ever written anything in depth about the beginnings of Fenway Park before, so there weren’t too many misconceptions to counteract. It’s funny, but it has been around so long that I think most people, and certainly most Boston baseball writers, had simply assumed that there was nothing left to be known about the origins of the park so they had never bothered to write about it. Historians, even architectural historian, had never viewed it as an object worthy of scrutiny. In reality, the opposite was true. It was virgin territory.
BB: What is the new research that you are bringing to this book? And, as a former librarian, how much do you enjoy the hunt for new stuff?
GS: I love doing the research. There is nothing better than discovering something new about a subject that everyone thinks they already know everything about. And there’s no trick to that apart from putting in the time. Today, with so much material available online, many history writers don’t bother going beyond what is readily available, but it becomes even more important. Here’s how it can work. I discovered one key document that I don’t think anyone has ever used or even seen in nearly one hundred years. I only found it because, over time, I realized that there were many different euphemisms for ballparks, and for the Red Sox. So instead of just searching “Fenway Park” I literally spent t an entire day searching for material online under different combinations of euphemisms. I was several hundred Google search pages into it when I found one obscure reference in an index dating from 1912 that seemed like it might be about Fenway. Then I had to find out what library holds the publication, and then physically go find it.
BB: Do you have researchers that work for you or do you do the legwork yourself?
GS: I do about 99% of my research myself and use a researcher to a very, very, very limited degree, and then only when my life schedule or location makes it impossible for me to look things up myself. In this case, I spent weeks in libraries looking up things on microfilm, and untold hours doing the same with sources that were available on-line and in books. There’s no substitute for that, because what inevitably happens is that when you are locked in doing research, you find things and make connections that you never, ever would have made if you were just contracting out to someone to do it for you. I recently heard from a writer who has researchers do almost everything, including interviews, and he had questions concerning a subject he had a researcher interview, but the interviewer apparently hadn’t asked all the right questions. The subject has since passed away, so now he will never know. I can’t imagine doing that. I really question the veracity of any book where the writer doesn’t do the vast bulk of his or her own research.
Generally, I’ll only use a researcher when I’m on deadline or toward the end of a project, to fill in blanks I might discover at the last minute. I live on the Canadian border in northwest Vermont and it’s not always possible to run down to New York or Boston – I have a family, animals and responsibilities, and a real long driveway I have to plow in the winter. For instance, there was one point where I was writing about the 1912 World Series when I suddenly had more questions about a particular event took place that. I already had accounts from four or five different papers, but what took place still wasn’t exactly clear. So I asked Denise Bousquet, a young woman from my town up here in Vermont who went to college in Boston and now works at Harvard, to look up some additional accounts for me. She’s done that for my last few books, and she also does some fact-checking, mostly on numbers and stats, because it’s way too easy to trip over those, and even then, stats from various sources don’t always agree. Many people think publishers fact check – they don’t. It’s the responsibility of the author, but there are discrepancies everywhere, even in data sources like Retrosheet and baseballreference.com. A book of this size – almost 200,000 words, probably contains 30,000 different facts. You try as best as you can to get it right.
BB: The mini biographies are always some of the most compelling sections of a book like this. Can you talk a little about the architect of Fenway Park, James E. McLaughlin and the builder Charles Logue? Also, I know you had experience in construction as a young man, and that you compiled an oral history about construction workers at Ground Zero. How much of your personal experience informed how you presented the relationship between McLaughlin and Logue?
GS: Fenway is perhaps the best known sporting facility in the country, yet both the architect and the builder were essentially unknown. McLaughlin and Logue had never been written about in any detail – even architectural historians knew virtually nothing about McLaughlin. Well, I bring them back, and show how both the design and building of Fenway Park was influenced by each man’s personality and philosophy. Both were immigrants. McLaughlin was Nova Scotian and Logue was Irish. McLaughlin’s practical and understated architectural philosophy was expressed in his design of Fenway. Before this book no one had ever decoded the specific architectural influences in the design of Fenway Park, or related Fenway to McLaughlin’s other buildings or to other nearby buildings built in the same era. I do, and that is one of the reasons why Fenway still works today – it fit the city then, and still does. And because I spent a number of years working in the construction industry, specifically working with concrete and reinforcing and structural steel, I understood the challenges that building Fenway created for Charles Logue, and spoke with his great grandson to give some sense of the man behind the name. My construction background was of immeasurable help in translating what would otherwise have been arcane construction and engineering information into English, and experienced how builders and architects interact. I think I make it possible to envision Fenway Park being built, and that in the end the reader walks away with an intimate understanding of the place that simply was not available before. After reading Fenway 1912 the reader will never be able to look at Fenway Park the same way – I guarantee it.
BB: You mentioned having to get rid of details sometimes if they take the reader away from the larger story. Even in this book, where you could afford to be more in-depth than in a general history book, were there things that you liked that had to be left on the cutting room floor?
GS: Only a little. It would have been nice to use another 20,000 words to better flesh out some characters, and perhaps to give those who are unfamiliar with Boston a bit more to hold on to, but I managed to squeeze in almost everything I wanted, either in the main text or in the endnotes, which are substantial.
BB: What was the most difficult part about writing this book?
GS: The story, to a degree, told itself, but the research was daunting, particularly in trying to pin down exactly how Fenway was built, and precisely when things took place, because I had to look in multiple newspapers and other sources every day over a six month period, never knowing if there would be a story or a picture that would be useful. Sometimes I’d spend all day and only find a sentence or two of information, but that one sentence could tell me something new. That’s how I found out the groundskeeper supervised the transfer of the sod from the Huntington Avenue Grounds to Fenway Park, which is the scene that opens the book. It took place in October, just after the 1911 season ended and work was just starting at Fenway Park, but I found the reference in a story written in late January of 1912, just a sentence.
BB: I loved your book on Trudy Ederle and I remember talking to you about how you spent long hours alone on a lake in an attempt to have some small understanding of what she must have experienced swimming the English channel. How did this experience, strictly from your writer’s perspective, compare with that?
GS: Completely different. For the Ederle book I had to bring myself up to speed about an experience I knew very little about. I didn’t have to do that for this book because I am very comfortable writing about both baseball and construction work. I already have insight into those subjects – I mean I’ve poured concrete day after day after day, pitched with a torn rotator cuff and from other projects already knew a great deal about the time period and the City of Boston during that time.
BB: Can you talk about the alterations that were made to the park during the 1912 season?
GS: There were two Fenway Parks in 1912. The park that opened and the park that was altered for the 1912 World’s Series. They were radically different. The park that opened was a very Spartan facility – just a small concrete and steel grandstand that barely extended past the dugouts with a tiny, ramshackle press box stuck on the roof, a mostly wooden “pavilion” that extended down the right field line, then a standalone block of wood bleachers in center field. There were no stands in right field at all, just a plain plank fence at the back edge of the property, and no stands down the left field line. In left was the earthen embankment that became known as Duffy’s Cliff and a long plank wall that extended to center field, the precursor to the “Green Monster.” The whole place seated just 24,500 people, that was it.
With the Series approaching, the club realized that Fenway was already obsolete. Overflow crowds that had been allowed onto the field during the regular season had been problematic and the National Commission told them they wouldn‘t allow that during the World Series. So while the Sox were on a road trip in September, in only a couple weeks they built 11,000 more seats, adding wooded stands down the left field line and stands in right field connecting the bleachers to the pavilion, giving the field of play the same basic footprint it has today. Fortunately I have a wonderful drawing in the book that shows those changes. And when the park was renovated and reconstructed after the 1933 season, that same footprint basic was retained.
BB: One of the incredible things about Fenway Park is that it has changed over 100 years, and although it may seem antiquated, the current Red Sox ownership has done a lot to add modern touches without tearing the place down. Can you talk about some of the most significant alterations the place has seen and why it continues to last.
GS: Fenway Park has lasted because until quite recently they never really tried to preserve it. There was little waxy nostalgia about the place until the 1980s. If they needed to change something, they just changed it. In that way the ballpark was allowed to evolve, and, except for the original grandstand, was almost entirely rebuilt in 1933/34 anyway. Significantly, I think, is that despite all the things they’ve done recently, they’ve left the interior footprint of the field alone. That allows fans to imagine they’re in the same park where Ruth and Williams and Yaz played, and where Fisk and Bucky hit it over the wall, and to connect that history. That’s mostly a fantasy, but an effective one. So despite the fact that I find Fenway far too busy these days – there are signs EVERYWHERE, and a constant barrage of noise – in many ways the park more resembles the retro parks that were built in imitation of Fenway more than the original Fenway Park – fans can still have a unique and memorable personal experience. A significant number of fans at any given game are tourists, and tourists will even find cramped seats and posts charming.
BB: Fenway and Wrigley are the only two old timey parts left. Do you think they’ll still be around in ten years?
GS: Wrigley, certainly, and Fenway probably, although at a certain point, particularly now that the 100th anniversary is about to pass, the benefits of Fenway to the franchise may begin to play out. As long as Fenway is full for every game, the park will be retained, but economically, they need it to be full. When it isn’t is when I think you’ll start to hear whispers that it’s no longer financially viable that they can’t “compete,” in Fenway. Then the drumbeat for a new park will start. Yet in this political climate replacing Fenway isn’t real viable either, and ballclubs are loathe to pay for new parks without substantial governmental help. A new ballpark in Boston, including surrounding infrastructure, would be a billion dollar project, and I don’t see that happening any time soon.
BB: Did you visit Fenway at all during the writing of the book or did you rely on your past memories of the place?
GS: I’ve seen some, but not all the changes that have taken place over the last decade because I’ve only been back to Boston a few times since I moved up here, and as you know they’ve made substantive changes to Fenway almost every season. But what they’ve done to Fenway recently is only a very small part of this book, and I was familiar enough with the park from when I did live in Boston for what I needed. I used to attend twenty games or so a year, and for a while had a pretty regular gig on NESN as a commentator on Red Sox history and got to roam around a lot. In the late ‘80s I narrated and did a walk around for a big special they did on the park and got to go all over the place – they showed it during rainouts for about a decade. I’ve covered a few games as a reporter, both in the old and new press boxes, snuck in a few times as a fan, taken batting practice there, and been in the dugouts and clubhouses, on the roof and in the lux boxes, under the bleachers when the batting cage was there, that kind of stuff.
BB: I know if this tangential to the book but you do mention in the introduction your own relationship with Fenway and how a ballpark is more like a civic institution, it’s a landmark for generations of people. Can you share some of your experiences at the park, and also, how you used to read poetry outside of it?
GS: Well shortly after I moved to Boston I decided to do something that would combine my two major interested – poetry and writing. I had collected a fair amount of baseball inspired poetry from Casey at the Bat to contemporary stuff, borrowed a little Pignose amp and microphone from a friend, put on an old baseball uniform, sent out press releases, filled a liter soda bottle with Bloody Mary’s and set up shop about 9:00 am on Opening Day and started reading. Back then, people would line up on Lansdowne Street to but bleacher seats.
It was fun as hell. People wondered what the hell I was doing out there, but no one told me to stop or tried to punch me in the face. A few heckled, but some people would actually stop and listen and every once in a while drop a few dollars at my feet. A couple TV and radio stations covered me, and columnists wrote about me – I met George Kimball that way – he did a story on me one year, and so did Peter Gelzinis of the Herald and Bob Hohler, before he was with the Globe. I met Bill Littlefield of NPR that way as well.
Glenn Stout (in uniform), and behind him (also in uniform), Scott Bortzfield, aka The Baseball Bards
So I kept doing it, and did it for nine years. Eventually my friend Scott, who I now live across the road from in Vermont, joined me out there, and people started expecting us. My Mom even made us old style Boston uniforms, and by the end there would be six or eight of us who would all go to the game together afterwards. One poem I would always read was by Tom Clark, a great poet who also wrote the Charlie Finley bio “Champagne and Baloney, called “To Bill Lee.” Wouldn’t you know it that one year, after we stopped and took our seats in the bleachers, who sits down next to us but Lee – this was only a years or two after he had stopped playing. I told him what I did and showed him the poem, which he knew and said, “That’s a great poem!” Which it is. I’ve met Bill a few times since and he remembers it.
It sounds crazy, but if I hadn’t done that, I might never have ended up writing for a living. Reading poetry in public really empowered me, and convinced me that there was a way to combine my interests in writing and baseball.
You know, I moved to Boston because I wanted to live in a city with an old ballpark, and I write that Fenway Park is the kind of place that can change your life. And I mean that, because it changed mine.
“Perhaps because he decamped to Hollywood in the 1980s, while he was still in his prime, John Schulian has never quite been recognized as one of the last in the great line of newspaper sports columnists that started with Ring Lardner, ran through W.C. Heinz and Red Smith, and probably ended when Joe Posnanski left the Kansas City Star in 2009. This is a shame. On his better days, he rated with anyone you might care to name.”
JS: “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” was born of a mixture of ego and an urge to remind readers of the kind of sports writing they’re no longer getting in newspapers. What writer doesn’t want to have his work, at least that portion of it which isn’t embarrassingly bad, preserved in book form? I got my greatest lessons in writing by reading collections of my favorite sports writers—Red Smith, W.C. Heinz, Jimmy Cannon, John Lardner—so having a collection with my name on it became a goal early on in my career. Because “Sometimes” is my third, I may have exceeded my limit, but I hope people will forgive me when they see that it’s wider in scope than “Writers’ Fighters” and “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods.” I’m not just talking about the number of different sports it touches on, either. I’m talking about the personalities involved, and how open they were about themselves and their talents.
I realize, of course, how rare such accessibility is in today’s world, with athletes wary of any kind of media, protected by their agents, and generally paranoid about revealing anything about themselves except whether they hit a fastball or a slider. I think it was you who told me the change came about in the early ‘90s, which did a lot to shape this book. Suddenly, I knew how to make it more than a vanity project. The key was to make it stand as a tribute to the kind of sports writing that enriched newspapers when guys like Dave Kindred, Mike Lupica, David Israel, Leigh Montville, Bill Nack, Tony Kornheiser, Tom Boswell and I were turned loose with our portable typewriters. It was my great good fortune to work in an era so rich in talent, so full of talented people who were both my competition and my friends. Likewise, the athletes were there to talk to when you needed them. I know I didn’t always get the answers I wanted, but I got enough of them to give my columns and my magazine work the heartbeat they needed. It was a wonderful time to be a sports writer, and I hope “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” bears that out.
BB: I was struck by your piece on John Riggins in Super Bowl XVII. Your starting and closing image is the most famous one from that game. You didn’t get any special access that your peers didn’t have and yet within those limitations the piece is just so writerly. The kind you don’t see today. How were you able to condense a guy’s career into a single column?
JS: It was pure reflex. I forget how much time I had for post-game interviews, but it wasn’t much before I had to get back to my computer. I’m guessing I had an hour or so to write the column. There were some guys who routinely finished in less time than that, but for me, that was a sprint. I still wanted the column to be as stylish as possible. Sometimes that was my undoing, because I spent too much time massaging the language and not enough just saying what I wanted to say. With the Riggins column, though, things fell into place. I’d spent a lot of time around the Redskins during the regular season and into the playoffs, so I was pretty well steeped in his story. As for working with the same post-game material everybody else had, there was something liberating about that. No scoops, no exclusive interviews, just a good old-fashioned writing contest. When you get in a situation like that, if you can get your mind right, everything just flows. And that was certainly the case when I wrote about Riggins. I knew instantly where all the pieces of the puzzle were supposed to go—imagery, post-game quotes, back-story. Then my instincts took over, and I even made my deadline. What could be better than that?
BB: The majority of the stories in the collection were written for newspapers. Can you describe the atmosphere of that business in the post-Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein days when columnists were stars?
JS: The newspaper business became truly glamorous after Watergate. Robert Redford played Woodward, Dustin Hoffman played Bernstein, and Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post’s executive editor, practically became Jason Robards, who portrayed him on the screen. It just didn’t get any cooler than that, and the people at the Post were certainly aware of it, maybe too much so. I noticed the self-importance and inflated egos when I showed up there in 1975, in the wake of Watergate. The Post was a wonderful paper—beautifully written, smartly and courageously edited—but it was still a newspaper. There were still typos and factual errors and the kind of bad prose that daily deadlines inspire. The ink still came off on your hands, too. And there were still desk men with enlarged prostates and reporters who stank of cigar smoke, and one night some son of a bitch stole my jacket. Maybe worst of all, if you looked beyond the Post, you could see the storm clouds gathering. More and more afternoon papers were dying, and there was a segment of the population that hated the Post for unhorsing Dick Nixon and the New York Times for printing the Pentagon Papers. But newspaper people, who can be so sharp about spotting trouble on the horizon for others, tend to be blind when it comes to their own house. No wonder it felt safe and good and even magical to work on newspapers after Watergate. I loved it as much as anybody. And I probably would have liked the dance band on the Titanic, too.
BB: Before we get to the players, let’s talk about the section you have on the writers—Red Smith, A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Mark Kram and F.X. Toole—because it reminds us that the era you cover wasn’t just about the athletes, it was about the writers too. Can you talk about what a remarkable stylist Mark Kram was in his prime?
JS: I don’t think any sports writer ever wrote prose as dense and muscular and literary as Mark Kram’s. He opened my eyes to the possibilities of what you could do in terms of pure writing even though the subject was fun and games. If you want to read classic Kram, you need only turn to the opening paragraphs of his Sports Illustrated story about the Thrilla in Manila. It has to be one of the most anthologized pieces in any genre of writing. I know that it was a mortal lock to be in “At the Fighters” as soon as George Kimball and I sat down to edit the book. Kram had been on my radar since I was in college. He absolutely killed me with his bittersweet love letter to Baltimore, his hometown, on the eve of the 1966 World Series. He was under the influence of Nelson Algren when he wrote it, but I wouldn’t figure that out until years later. All I knew was that he had taken a mundane idea and turned it into a tone poem about blue collar life. Baseball was only a small part of it, and even though I was under the Orioles’ spell—Frank Robinson! Brooks Robinson! Jim Palmer!—I loved Kram’s audacity. He wasn’t afraid of the dark no matter how bright the lights on what he was writing about.
No wonder he was so great when the subject was boxing. When I was in grad school, he did a piece about the fighting Quarry brothers and how their old man had ridden the rails from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to the supposedly golden promise of Southern California. He had LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, and Kram left me with a picture of him standing in a boxcar door as the train carried him toward a future filled with more sorrow than joy. I read the story standing at the newsstand where I bought SI every week, and when I got back to my apartment, I read it again. I would discover A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, John Lardner, and all the other giants of fight writing later, but Mark Kram was the one who lit the way for me. And it began with that story about the Quarry brothers and the image of their old man in the boxcar door.
There are a ton of baseball blogs but few that are truly original. Josh Wilker’s Cardboard Gods is one, Batgirl’s old Twins blog was another. And then there is Flip Flop Fly Ball, by the British graphic artist Craig Robinson. Craig’s site has been a wonder for years but now he’s published his first book, a must-have for any baseball fan. I recently had a chance to rap with Craig about the book, his site, and baseball.
Bronx Banter: You are from England and yet you have a great love for baseball. What are your first memories of the game?
Craig Robinson: I guess the first memories were from movies. You might not notice it in the States, but to us non-Americans, baseball is noticeable because it is referenced so often. Players will be mentioned, TV screens will be showing games, baseball terminology is used. As for an actual first memory, it was being on the subway from Midtown up to the Bronx, being surrounded by pinstripes and blue caps; the atmosphere outside of the ground along River Avenue, and once inside the ground being a bit perplexed by the national anthem being played. (In British soccer, the anthem is only ever played at international games and at the FA Cup Final.) I went with a couple of NY-based colleagues, and as soon as the game began, I was peppering them with questions. My biggest memory, though, was being amazed at how fast the pitchers were throwing.
BB: Which baseball movies did you see?
CR: My favorite is “Sugar.” Really loved that movie. “Pride of the Yankees,” “The Sandlot,” “Bang the Drum Slowly,” “Field of Dreams,” “The Rookie”. They all tend to at some point find their way onto my screen when I’m tired and hung over on a Sunday. The baseball references I remember most are from Seinfeld, actually. Keith Hernandez spitting, Joe DiMaggio dunking his donuts, and George Steinbrenner in general.
BB: Oh, man. So what did you learn about American culture from them?
CR: I think the movie references just show how ingrained the sport is in American life. And on a personal level, the sentimental talk of fathers and sons is something I can never recapture. I missed out on that because my parents fucked without contraception on an island on the other side of the Atlantic. And, although this doesn’t really answer the question, I’ve learned a lot about American people because of baseball. Without doing any real research, I imagine there’s been a love/hate relationship with Americans since soldiers were stationed in the UK during the Second World War. All my life, Americans have often been portrayed as fat tourists in check pants mispronouncing London landmarks. And in recent years as a bully throwing its weight around in the world. And I feel there’s a level of anti-Americanism in Europe. The great thing that baseball has given me is the chance to talk to people from outside of New York. The first non-Yankee or Met game I went to was in Philadelphia, and on the subway platform, I asked a guy if I was on the right side to go to the ballpark. We got chatting, he gave me a can of beer in a brown paper bag, and we had a great conversation all the way to Citizens Bank Park. I’ve had nothing but good experiences with American people in their cities. When they wish me a good time in their city, state, country, they really sound like they mean it, and I absolutely adore that.
BB: Don’t British boys have a father-son connection through soccer or ruby, boxing or cricket?
CR: I guess some must do, yes. Nobody in my family was that interested in sport. Yes, we’d kick a football around, but it wasn’t any passing on of knowledge or anything like that.
BB: Did you follow or play cricket as a kid?
CR: I was terrible at cricket. Couldn’t do the bowling action smoothly at all. It was all soccer for me. I mean, we had to play soccer, cricket, and rugby at school, but I never cared for cricket or rugby. Since the new 20Twenty format came about, though, I’ve gotten a tiny bit more enjoyment out of watching it.
BB: Was baseball made fun of when you were growing up as the men’s version of rounders?
CR: Yes. There wasn’t even the “men’s version of” at the start, a lot of British people simply refer to it as “bloody rounders.” And I quite likely did that, too. I don’t want to generalize too much, or do my countrymen down, but when it comes to American sports, we tend to be quite snobby about it. As soon as the topic comes up, someone will mention the amount of commercial breaks. And fail to see the irony that the sports we watch feature uniforms with advertising on the front. I mainly think, though, that the time difference makes it hard for British people to get into American sports. It takes a willingness to give it a go, and then a willingness to stay up til gone midnight on a Sunday to watch a football game.
BB: What is it about baseball that you found attractive?
CR: The aesthetics plays a big part. I love the uniforms and the ballparks. I love that it’s so simple: whites at home, grays on the road. I love that the game is orderly for the most part. Pitcher throws ball, batter tries to hit ball, fielder catches or throws the ball, while the batter runs. The elegance of a good double play is pretty much my favorite thing in sports. This is also where the Yankee fan in me comes out, but I love how simple both the uniforms are. They’re beautifully elegant. I love that they look like gentlemen in their uniforms, wearing long trousers; not looking like overgrown children in shorts. I love the lack of advertising on the uniforms. The unique ballparks are such a joy, too. It amuses me to think of future civilizations who discover ancient baseball fields and texts, how they’ll be baffled that a game with such a dizzying amount of statistics, everything measured perfectly is played in parks which are of different dimensions. And the aesthetics inherent in the game’s strong ties to its past. Almost from the off, I could read as much about Gehrig or Mantle as I could about Cano or Jeter.
BB: Other than the uniforms, why the Yankees?
CR: Really, it shouldn’t have been that way. It was an accident of the schedule that they, not the Mets were at home when I was on my trip to NY in 2005. And to come to the game fresh and root for the biggest, most successful team is, I can see, kind of crass. I can try and justify it in many ways. As a European living six hours ahead of Eastern Time, it would’ve had to have been an East Coast team; it would’ve had to have been in a city where I would want to repeatedly visit. But most of all, it’s simply that I fell in love with baseball that night, and on that night, baseball was Yankee Stadium and the Yankees.
BB: Did you ever watch a game before you went to Yankee Stadium?
CR: Only on TV. That was what prompted me to go to a game. I was in NY on business, so caught a few innings here and there of Yankee and Met games on TV. It made no sense, the commentators made no sense, but I was intrigued enough to want to find out what was going on. The first game I saw live was July 27, 2005. Twins 7, Yankees 3. Johan Santana got the win, Al Leiter the loss.
BB: When you started watching games and learning the rules how did you teach yourself what was going on?
CR: I kept notes, and this is how the site started, really, made maps and charts, just to remember things like which teams were where, and where they used to be. It sounds silly, but playing MLB: The Show on the PSP helped a lot too. I had no opportunity to learn the rules by playing the game, but playing a video game version was a decent substitute. Even then, it took me about six months to realize runners had to tag up on sac flies!
BB: Do the numbers, the stats, appeal to you at all?
CR: Not particularly, it just was something that had to learn about to be able to properly appreciate players, and I enjoyed learning about statistics. I’m not really deep into it, I pick and choose what I want to read. I mean, obviously I don’t care about wins, saves, or RBIs particularly. But I’d say I only really look at 10% of what Fan Graphs does.
BB: Can you talk about your interest in the visual arts? What led to your career as a graphic designer? Did you read comics growing up, Judge Dredd and all that?
CR: This is where the father-son connection comes in. My dad was an architect. He wasn’t Frank Lloyd Wright or anything, but he did pottery and even some string art and macramé as hobbies (it was, of course, the 1970s). I always enjoyed drawing as a kid, did a lot of it at school, and then went to art school to study three-dimensional design and university to study jewelrey. I think the things I learned from education were incidental, and mostly, I learned what I didn’t want to do. It was only when, as a working man, I continued drawing, making sketchbooks, and early computer drawings that I realized the greatest talent I have is to kinda do fun stuff. I would love to be Mark Rothko or Yves Klein, but my brain doesn’t work that way. And it was doing the fun, silly stuff in the early days of flipflopflyin.com that lead to me getting a couple of freelance jobs, and then moving to Berlin to work for a web design company. When I left there, I continued freelance illustrating. And still do. I was never really that big into comics. The only ones I read regularly were The Beano when I was pre-teen, and as a teenager, Oink! and Viz.
BB: The sense of fun is integral to your work. Were you a big fan of comedy? Did your father hip you to the Pythons, Beyond the Fringe, or the Goons?
CR: Yeah, comedy is one of those things that I think the British do very well. Monty Python was on TV a lot, and more primetime stuff like The Two Ronnies, Morecambe and Wise, and Les Dawson. When the Young Ones and Blackadder came along, that kinda sealed it for me and I think a lot of my generation. I still notice it in the way people of my age talk, we’re so influenced by the way Ben Elton and Richard Curtis wrote for Blackadder. A whole generation of people who use the word “thingy” a lot.
BB: So saying you like The Goons is like saying you like Charlie Chaplin, right? Hey, did you know that Benny Hill was a very big show over here in the States in the ‘70s and early ‘80s? Used to play it on Channel 9 in NY late night. The Young Ones were on MTV.
CR: Ha ha! I do like Buster Keaton! For me the Goons was just one step removed from where humor was at. I watch it now, and totally appreciate it, but back then, with TYO and Blackadder, things had gotten a bit more, for want of a better word, punk in its attitude. Yeah, Benny Hill’s popularity in the US is one of those weird things that I don’t really understand. I was never really a fan, although I loved the Carry On… films, which were full of smut and innuendo. Proper British silliness. For example:
BB: That’s classic. So, you’ve done your site for several years. How did the book come about?
CR: I was very lucky; a literary agent Farley Chase got in touch with me about a week after the site went online. He liked the site, we had a meeting, and worked on a proposal. I’d also had contact with Pete Beatty, an editor at Bloomsbury, and while the proposal was being put together, he and I separately were having a continual email discussion about all sorts of stuff, mostly baseball, but we got on very well, so it was great that we ended up working together on the book.
BB: What was it like seeing images that you designed for a computer screen on the page?
CR: I’ve kinda gotten used to it over the years. Illustration being my day job, I’m used to seeing computer drawings printed in magazines and newspapers or in a couple of cases, on billboards. I am used to it, but the thrill never goes away. There is something nice about being able to flick through pages and see the colors. And especially for some of the more complex chart, they’d be difficult to fully appreciate on
BB: Did it change the nature of any of them? I know when I’ve done drawings or small paintings and then made bigger versions of them, the change in dimensions alters everything about the picture.
CR: Not really for the infographics, but certainly for the drawings. Especially the drawings made with the Brushes app, a fantastic painting tool for the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. They definitely feel more real printed in the book. I do some pictures by hand, but not that many. Those tend to be more sketchy/doodley. Since getting that app, I’ve found that I don’t really keep a sketchbook with me as much as I used to, cos I can do everything I want to do with my iPod.
BB: Do you ever worry about running out of ideas?
CR: I don’t. Over the years I’ve gotten used to those dry spells, but that’s the joy of the creative rainy seasons: there are always ideas backed up that I’ve not had time to use.
BB: Has the book changed your approach to your work?
CR: I don’t think it changed things that much. It did free me up to do a couple of the more detailed and large charts, because of the restrictions of screen sizes. And, yes, it’d be great to do it more than once, if only because it will mean that the first one was a success!
BB: Sweet. Just a few more, back to baseball. Since you started following it have you gone deeper into the game with each passing season or has some of the appeal worn off on you yet?
CR: Every passing season reminds me of how little I knew the previous season. When friends talk about some 80s reliever or first baseman, I’m at a loss. There’s so much I don’t know, that it hasn’t had a chance to wear off. And the last two seasons have been the first seasons where I have watched a team in the ballpark regularly. I enjoyed getting to know the Blue Jays last summer, and similarly, have enjoyed the Diablos Rojos del México this summer.
BB: Is there a particular period or decade that you are especially drawn to?
CR: Watching the Ken Burns thing, I very much enjoyed the dead ball era stuff, and from an aesthetic point of view, I like the 60s and 70s.
BB: What turns you off about the game? Both historically and currently?
CR: The color barrier, obviously. I don’t enjoy the moralistic outrage about steroids. It’s not just a baseball thing, but I wish homosexuality wasn’t just something that is ignored. The Indians logo, the Tomahawk chop. Taxpayers paying for ballparks is obscene. And, maybe it’s because I’m not American, maybe it’s because I’m not a patriotic person (I don’t see why I should be any more proud of an English person doing something great in sports or life than a German, Mexican, Chinese person doing those things); but the anthem, God Bless America, and militarism makes me a like uncomfortable. And I have absolutely no interest in anything Ty Cobb ever did on the field, because he seemed like what can only be described as a despicable human being. He’s where I put an asterisk. I’m quite sure there were other hideous baseball players, but he’s the one I’ve taken a particular dislike to. I wish MLB and the Hall of Fame would stop seeing themselves as moral guardians. And, quite frankly, a posthumous Hall of Fame entry for Marvin Miller would be disgraceful. They need to sort that shit out now before it’s too late.
George Vecsey, right, with his arm around the wonderful Ray Robinson
I recently exchanged e-mails with George Vecsey, the veteran columnist for the New York Times, who started his career at Newsday under Mann.
Here’s our chat. Enjoy:
Bronx Banter: When Jack Mann took over the Newsday sports department was he influenced by any sports editors that came before him? I’m thinking of someone like Stanley Woodward.
George Vecsey: I don’t know. He came up through the news department at Newsday, had some college, was well read, surely knew about sports editors, but was so much an outsider that I doubt he would consider himself an acolyte of anybody.
BB: How would you describe to young readers what the climate of the press box was like in 1960? And how did Mann and “his Chipmunks” differ from the older writers?
GV: Well, the dichotomy was not as clear as I guess we would like to have thought. It may have been a function of age. But Isaacs and Len Shecter of the Post and Larry Merchant of the Philly Daily News were not children, and were capable of thinking for themselves, with Jack only part of it. The Chipmunks were young and energetic and brash. The split was probably on the same generational lines of the Kennedy-Nixon election – new vs. old (politics excluded). Even in 1960, some of us (me at least) were anticipating the forces of the mid-60’s in style and music and attitude. But we all were pretty traditional, except in comparison to the older writers, who were often hooked into the free drinks of the press room and the party line of the clubs they covered, or so we thought. Sounds pretty simplistic, looking back.
BB: Who else writing for the New York papers in the early 60s were like-minded? I’m thinking specifically of Shecter at the Post. Who else was part of the new breed?
GV: Len Shecter, Isaacs, Merchant, of course. And Stan Hochman A lot of the younger guys were Chipmunks just because we chattered a lot, and hung out together. Looking back, it would be hard to put one label on me, Steve, Maury Allen, Vic Ziegel, Phil Pepe, Paul Zimmerman, Joe Donnelly, Joe Gergen. We (or at least I did) admired Dick Young, who was no Chipmunk, but I knew him through my dad when I was a little kid, and Dick was very gracious to me when I came along as a young writer. I was friendly with older guys like Harold Rosenthal (more acerbic than any of us) and Barney Kremenko (a kind man, a friend), and I learned a lot from Leonard Koppett, one of the great people of the business, and I adored Jimmy Cannon. I don’t know that Bob Lipsyte considered himself a Chipmunk, but he and I hung out a lot in those days, and his excellent early work as a sports columnist (in his first tour of duty, I emphasize) re-defined the genre. So it’s hard to define Chipmunk, at this late date. Every generation has its new look. When I came back to Sports in 1980, there was Jane Gross, Allen Abel, Michael Farber, Jane Leavy, Phil Hersh, all good pals of mine. New faces.
BB: And now, the climate is different from then.
GV: The one difference between then and now was that everybody talked in the press box. Talked about the game. Argued about politics. Bickered about where we were going to dinner. Nowadays, the kids are all hunched over their machines, with headsets on, tweeting and facebooking and blogging and goodness knows what else. Nobody talks in the press box. I miss arguments. I miss human contact. I think we had more fun than the Thumb Generation. But the output in the New York Times is really good, probably better than ever, which is what matters.
Josh Wilker: I guess the series editor, Sean Howe, is a fan of my blog. He contacted me to see if I had any interest in working on something for the series. I wrote him back an email listing several of my favorite movies, including “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training.” Sean liked the idea of me writing about Breaking Training rather than any others on the list, and I was into it, too. (I also would have gotten excited about writing about “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia,” but it’s probably better for my mental health that I focused for a long while on Tanner and Kelly and Ogilvie rather than Warren Oates and a severed head.)
BB: How long is the book–it’s really a long essay, right?
JW: Yeah, it’s not that long, maybe a little over a hundred pages. I just checked the Word doc I sent the editor—it’s about 30,000. It’s got chapters though, which is kind of book-like. I think the idea was for the books in the series to be similar to those in the 33 1/3 books on albums.
BB: I love that this is a pocket paperback. When I got it the first thing I did was see if it fit in my back pocket. There is something so comforting about that.
JW: Right, all books should be that way. Nothing better than heading out the door and not having to carry anything and still have something to read on the train.
BB: What was the first baseball movie you saw as a kid?
JW: “Breaking Training” was probably the first. I’d read a lot of baseball books by the time I saw that movie, but I don’t think I saw any other movies. I guess the first time I saw any sort of fictional baseball on the screen was when Bugs Bunny took on the Balboniesque sluggers on the Gashouse Gorillas.
BB: Why did you chose it over the original “Bad News Bears”?
JW: Probably because I suck. There are lots of other reasons, too, among them that the second movie had a much stronger personal connection to me, and felt more like my own flawed little love rather than a generally acknowledged classic, and also that the second movie seemed to me to have much more potential as a jumping off point to talk about a lot of facets of American culture that fascinate and/or nauseate me, such as the central American myth of the road narrative, the changing ways in which children are raised in America, the malignancy of sequels, the “man alone” myth, etc. But above all that, if I’m being truthful, I don’t see myself as worthy of tackling something canonical. I’m too flawed to be some learned authority shedding light on “Citizen Kane” or “The Godfather.” I relate to the lesser sequel, even love it, and wanted to sing its praises. Maybe it’s kind of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree kind of thing.
BB: When did you see the original?
JW: Unlike my first viewing of “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training,” which I remember vividly, I don’t remember when or where I saw “The Bad News Bears.” In line with a life that has often felt like an aftermath, like I arrive everywhere just after the things that mattered occurred, I saw the sequel first, and it was years before I saw the original. I probably saw it in my twenties, during which I spent a lot of time catching up on all the classic movies from the 1970s. If I were a couple years older, I probably would have seen it in the theater when it came out, and I’d surely have a different relationship to the two films.
BB: What did you think of “The Bad News Bears” when you finally saw it?
JW: It’s a fantastic movie, one of the last great films of the gritty late 1960s to mid-1970s golden age. I don’t recall my first time watching it, as I’ve said, but I’ve watched it many times since then—as with Breaking Training, I own the DVD. Matthau is of course brilliant, and I also like the occasional long reaction shots some of the Bears get to have, those long wordless shots that you don’t see anymore in movies (and which were gone even by the time of the sequel two years later). Jimmy Feldman gets one of these, as does Rudi Stein, in both cases showing a heart-wrenching human kid reaction to Buttermaker getting caught up in a win at all costs mentality. Both of these characters are marginal, so the fact that they each get to have one of these moments lends a sense to the movie that everyone is worth something.
BB: Where did you see “Breaking Training?”
JW: I saw it at the Playhouse Theater in Randolph, Vermont. In piecing together my personal experience of the summer of 1977, I came to the conclusion that my brother and I would have seen the movie during our yearly two-week summer visit to see our dad in Manhattan, but we lost a couple of movie-going days due to the blackout. It was god to see it back home, because I saw it in a theater packed with all the kids I played little league with, which could not have been a more receptive audience. It’s the most alive, enthusiastic movie audience I’ve ever been a part of.
Babe Ruth was clearly the best player in Yankees history, Yogi Berra earned the most World Series rings, and Joe DiMaggio was, well, Joe DiMaggio, but somehow Mickey Mantle still stands apart. He came of age along with millions of baby boomers who curled the brims of their hats to match Mantle’s, imitated his swing, and even limped like he did.
Bronx Banter: Behind every good baseball book, you can usually find an author who grew up loving the game, who grew up playing catch with his father…
Jane Leavy: Ah, ah, ah… Watch that “his,” watch that “his,” Hank!
BB: But I think that’s what I want to get at, the fact that typically most of these writers are men who were boys growing up wanting to be baseball players and then settled for being writers. I was just wondering how much of that was true of you as a child?
JL: Well, I don’t think past the age of probably five I really thought there was much prayer I was going to be a baseball player. I think the inheritance of a passion for a game, whether it’s baseball, since baseball claims a supremacy in that, though certainly I know people whose devotion to the New York Football Giants or the Jets or even, God help us, the Redskins, is handed down along with the season tickets the same way. But baseball certainly has a claim on that matter of inheritance, and yes, I inherited my love of the game from my dad. I don’t think I had any illusion that I was going to be out there on the field with the guys, and that was pretty sad. I could dream, but that’s different. And I do think that that makes a big difference in the way that women write about sports. I’ve often said, and I really do believe this, reporters are supposed to be outsiders. There’s always been a little bit of a competitive thing going on when the guys who wish they could’ve been the second baseman for the New York Yankees are trying, almost, in their question to prove to the interview subject that they know as much and they could’ve been out there with them and the whole nine yards. I don’t think any woman is going to go into a locker room with that same notion. Reporters are supposed to be outsiders, that’s what we are. When you’re a woman in a locker room, that’s what you are. You’re an outsider.
BB: It reminds me of something that I heard Suzyn Waldman once talk about. She said that when a player is traded, a male reporter will immediately think about how it impacts a team, whereas she would always realize that behind that player there’s a family that’s being uprooted, and she felt like her female perspective allowed her to see more of a situation than just what was going on on the surface. It seems like you’re kind of saying the same type of thing, I suppose.
JL: Well, I don’t think you can make the acute generalization that every male reporter is gonna not wonder about how somebody’s nursery school age kids are gonna feel, or how every baseball wife is going to deal with yet another relocation. Not every guy is an insensitive boob, and not every woman is an empathic shoulder to cry on. As a reporter, it’s partly determined not just by personality, but by assignment. If you’re just out there to write the game, whether you’re male or female, it doesn’t matter. For a while, once in a while I would trade bylines with a male friend just to see if anybody noticed. I think I wrote this actually once. When I first started sports writing, the gig was can you write so that nobody could tell you were a girl. You had to prove that it was an okay thing to be. I do believe, and this is what I was saying, there are advantages, though it’s certainly a double-edged sword, particularly early on – but there are advantages to being a woman in a locker room. There are things that guys tell women that are different than what they tell other guys. And there are questions that women may ask that are different than what a guy may first ask. I always use this example. I’ve heard countless numbers of men say to a player, “Well, that slider didn’t do much, did it?” The question presumes that they know exactly what the pitch was. Well, maybe they don’t. Half the time the hitters don’t. But a woman, certainly this woman, would presume nothing. I would say, “What was the pitch? Do you know what that pitch was? And where was it? Where did it go? What was it supposed to do?” That’s what I meant about the competitiveness. I didn’t feel the need to show my bona fides in that way.