I don’t remember the first time I met Dayn Perry but it must have been about five years ago now. This was back when he was writing for Baseball Prospectus in addition to Fox Sports. We hit it off immediately and have remained pals ever since. Dayn’s got that easy Southern charm that makes for wonderful company. When he told me that he was writing a book about my boyhood hero Reggie Jackson I was more than somewhat eager to see what he’d come up with. We spoke about Reggie and the writing process often while he was working on the book and Dayn went so far as to mention me in the acknowledgements.
The book, Reggie Jackson: The Life and Thunderous Career of Baseball’s Mr. October, drops today. Dayn and I caught up recently to chat about all things Reggie and what it was like writing a biography.
Bronx Banter: There are two big biographies out this spring, one of Willie Mays and the other on Hank Aaron. Both books are well over 500 pages and aim to be the definitive work on their subjects. Your book is leaner at 300 pages. What was behind your thinking in making this a trimmer rather than an exhaustive narrative?
Dayn Perry: Part of it was that the publisher wanted me to stay as close as possible to 100,000 words. The initial manuscript I submitted was about 20,000 words longer than the final product, so I undertook some heavy editing toward the end of the process. On another level, though, I wanted a brisk, readable book that included all the important events in Reggie’s life and aspects of his character. My hope is that we’ve achieved that.
BB: You wrote this book without Reggie’s participation. Was that because he didn’t want to talk with you?
DP: On a couple of occasions, I spoke with Reggie’s business manager and requested an interview, but I never received a response. My understanding is that he didn’t want his cooperation to detract from the book he was working on at the time with Bob Gibson and Lonnie Wheeler. That’s understandable, of course.
BB: What, if any, obstacles did it present?
DP: It made it easier because I much enjoy the solitary aspect of writing, and the more of that I’m allowed the better my work is going to be. I still conducted 50 or so interviews for the book, and they made it a better work, I think. But I think of myself more as a writer than a reporter, so the nuts-and-bolts writing–the craft aspect–is the most fulfilling part of the job. Also, I think cooperation with the subject can sometimes lead to a varnishing or leavening of the work, even if it happens unconsciously. Obviously, I had no such concerns. It’s an honest, fact-based account, but I didn’t have to worry about satisfying him at every turn.
BB: Did Reggie prevent anyone from speaking to you?
DP: Not to my knowledge. A number of former teammates of his declined to speak with me once they learned Reggie wasn’t cooperating with the project, but so far as I know he didn’t actively work to undermine my efforts.
BB: There has been so much written about Reggie, particularly during his years in New York. What does your book offer that is new?
DP: My book sheds new light on the Mets’ decision not to draft him and covers his Angels years and retirement for the first time. Some people are going to be familiar with his Oakland years, and even more people are going to be familiar with his New York years. But so much of that time is forgotten or neglected by history. I think the totality of his life–the scope of his life–is something most people haven’t grasped yet.
Good long piece by Hillel Italie in the Huffington Post on Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and cooperative biogrpahies:
“Before I got to Aaron, the best advice I got was from David Halberstam, who wrote a book on Michael Jordan without getting Jordan and a book about Bill Clinton without getting Clinton,” [Howard] Bryant said of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist.
“He said to me, `The strategy was very simple – for every day they didn’t talk to me, make three phone calls to other people.’ You have to work around obstacles. It was the best piece of advice anyone’s given me.”
After Bonds overtook Aaron, in 2007, Aaron opened up to Bryant.
“When Henry and I finally spoke, he was tremendous, he was unbelievably gracious,” Bryant said. “He was even somewhat embarrassed someone was taking an interest. He didn’t ask for any money. He didn’t ask for any review copy of the book. He could have made the one phone call that every author dreads – which is to call all of his people and say, `Hey, this guy is writing a book about me. Don’t talk to him.'”
Earlier this week, Allen Barra gave his take on Bryant’s book:
Just when it seemed as if all the great baseball subjects had been done, Howard Bryant checks in with this biography of Henry Aaron, which, amazingly, Mr. Aaron had to wait 34 years to get.
Mr. Bryant, author of “Shutout,” the definitive study of race in baseball, and “Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball,” is a great writer for a great subject. Mr. Aaron’s story is the epic baseball tale of the second half of the 20th century, in many ways the equal to Jackie Robinson’s.
And in the Village Voice, Barra praises Bryant’s frank handling of the relationship between Aaron and Mays:
Bryant argues that “so much of the relationship between Mays and Aaron was perceived, often rightly, as tense if not acrimonious, stemmed from their personalities — the self-centered Mays and the diplomatic Aaron.”
There’s no doubt, says Bryant, that “Mays exemplified the rare combination of physical, athletic genius, and a showman’s gift for timing. What went less reported and, as the years passed, became an uncomfortable, common lament was just how cruel and self-absorbed Mays could be.”
…Bryant cites a first-hand account from 1957, a United Press/Movietone News reporter named Reese Schoenfeld, that Mays ragged on Aaron from the sidelines while Henry was being interviewed in front of a TV camera: “How much they paying you, Hank? They ain’t payin’ you at all, Hank? Don’t you know we all get paid for this? You ruin it for the rest of us, Hank! You just fall off the turnip truck?”
While Aaron became more and more agitated, Mays laid it on thick: “You showin’ ’em how you swing? We get paid three to four hundred dollars for this. You one dumb nigger!”
According to Bryant, “Henry’s reaction for the next fifty years — to diffuse, while not forgetting, the original offense — would be consistent with the shrewd but stern way Henry Aaron dealt with uncomfortable issues. The world did not need to know Henry’s feelings towards Mays, but Henry was not fooled by his adversary. Mays committed one of the great offenses against a person as proud as Henry: he insulted him, embarrassed him in front of other people, and did not treat him with respect.”
Say Hey: fight, fight!
One last thing about the Aaron book that’s interesting to me is that it was written by a black man. So many sports biographies of black and Latin players, from David Maraniss and Larry Tye, to James Hirsch and Brad Snyder, are written by white guys. That’s not a knock just a fact. And it’s not to say that race is enough to judge the merit of the final product. Reporting and writing is what makes a great book no matter if the author is white or black, man or woman. Bryant wasn’t magically granted access to Aaron’s inner circle because he’s black, he did so because he’s an ace reporter who has paid his dues.
Still, I can’t help but wonder what kind of sensitivity and empathy he brings to the subject that a white writer might not. For instance, when I was writing about Curt Flood, I had to imagine what it was like to be a black kid playing ball in the deep south in the mid-1950s. I was earnest, no doubt, but it was largely an intellectual excercise, one where, through reporting and research, I attempted to intuite something beyond my experience. That’s a distance Bryant doesn’t have to cover. It doesn’t necessarily mean his writing will be better, but it’s sure to be palpably different.
Moreover, I think great biographies often tell the story of the subject and in some way, even if it is largely subconscious, the story of the author as well. My Flood book was no great biography, it was a first book, but when I look back on it, I see that I was drawn to it for several personal reasons too. The first was to learn more about Flood (and to learn how to write a book) and share his story with a YA audience. But I think my attraction to him had everything to do with my relationship with my father. Flood was talented and troubled, alcoholic. My need to find out more about him, to appreciate his accomplishments, and forgive his failings, was directly related to how I felt about my Old Man.
“Clemente,” the new book by pulitizer prize-winning author, David Maraniss, hits the shelves today. It is a fine appreciation of Roberto Clemente, who is undoubtedly one of the most charasmatic players of the post-War era. Although Clemente was a key member of two World Championship teams, he played in relative obscurity in Pittsburgh during the 1950s and ’60s, and was overlooked for his much of his career. Until, of course, his monumental performance in the 1971 Serious, and his untimely death in December of 1972. His legend and reputation have grown ever since.
As my pal Steve Treder put it to me in an e-mail recently:
Clemente was actually slightly underrated until the late ’60s, and especially during the 1971 World Series when he suddenly got noticed by the national media. At that point they all suddenly seemed to think he was better than he actually was, after years of being overlooked. His early tragic death soon afterward froze his image in time. Had he lived, and had a few years of decline phase at the end of his career, his reputation probably would have balanced out about right. As it is, many casual fans seem to think he was the equal of Mays/Aaron/Robinson/Mantle, when in fact he wasn’t nearly as good as any of them.
It is no insult to say that Clemente wasn’t as great as Mays, Aaron, Robinson or Mantle. They are all legends. Fortunately for Maraniss, off-the-field, Clemente was more interesting than most. And between the lines, Maraniss points out, Clemente had a terrific, inimitable style.
There was something about Clemente that surpassed statistics, then and always. Some baseball mavens love the sport precisely because of its numbers. They can take the mathematics of a box score and of a year’s worth of statistics and calculate the case for players they consider underrated or overrated and declare who has the most real value to a team. To some skilled practitioners of this science, Clemente comes out very good but not the greatest; he walks too seldom, has too few home runs, steals too few bases. Their perspective is legitimate, but to people who appreciate Clemente this is like chemists trying to explain Van Gogh by analyzing the ingredients of his paint. Clemente was art, not science. Every time he strolled slowly to the batter’s box or trotted out to right field, he seized the scene like a great actor. It was hard to take one’s eyes off him, because he could do anything on a baseball field and carried himself with such nobility. “The rest of us were just players,” Steve Blass would say. “Clemente was a prince.”
Thanks to Mr. Maraniss and the good people at Simon and Schuster, here is an excerpt from “Clemente.” This section is less about Clemente specifically and more about the conditions that Black and latin players encountered in the early 1960s. But it establishes the backdrop that is essential to understanding Clemente’s story. Enjoy!
BOOK EXCERPT: From “Clemente”
By David Maraniss
“Pride and Prejudice”
[Clemente] arrived at Pirates camp to train for the 1961 season on March 2, a day late. He and Tite Arroyo had been delayed entry from Puerto Rico to Florida until tests came back proving they did not have the bubonic plague, a few cases of which had broken out in Venezuela during the tournament.
On the day he reached Fort Myers, free from the plague, a story ran on the front page of the New York Times under the headline: NEGROES SAY CONDITIONS IN U.S. EXPLAIN NATIONALIST’S MILITANCY. One of the key figures quoted in the story was Malcolm X, the Black Muslim leader, who in the Times account was referred to as Minister Malcolm. Interviewed at a Muslim-run restaurant on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, Malcolm X said the only answer to America’s racial dilemma was for blacks to segregate themselves, by their own choice, with their own land and financial reparations due them from centuries of slavery. He dismissed the tactics of the civil rights movement as humiliating, especially the lunch-counter sit-ins that were taking place throughout the South. “To beg a white man to let you into his restaurant feeds his ego,” Minister Malcolm told the newspaper.
This was fourteen years after Jackie Robinson broke the major league color line, seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the separate-but-equal doctrine of segregated schools, five years after Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. led the bus boycott in Montgomery, four years after the Little Rock Nine desegregated Central High School in the capital of Arkansas, one year after the first lunch-counter sit-in in Greensboro. Year by year, the issue of race was becoming more urgent. The momentum was on the side of change, but the questions were how and how fast. In baseball, where once there had been no black ballplayers, now there were a hundred competing for major league jobs, and along with numbers came enormous talent, with ten past and future most valuable players among them. Yet every black player who reported to training camp in Florida that spring of 1961 still had to confront Jim Crow segregation. Even if their private emotions were sympathetic to Malcolm X’s rage at having to beg a white man to let you into his restaurant, the issue in baseball was necessarily shaped by its own history. Having moved away from the professional Negro Leagues and busted through the twentieth century’s racial barrier, black players did not view voluntary resegregation as an option, and separate and unequal off the field was no longer tolerable.
Wendell Smith, the influential black sportswriter who still had a column in the weekly Pittsburgh Courier but wrote daily now for the white-owned newspaper Chicago’s American, began a concerted campaign against training camp segregation that year. On January 23, a month before the spring camps opened, Smith wrote a seminal article that appeared on the top of the front page of Chicago’s American headlined negro ball players want rights in south. “Beneath the apparently tranquil surface of baseball there is a growing feeling of resentment among Negro major leaguers who still experience embarrassment, humiliation, and even indignities during spring training in the south,” Smith wrote. “The Negro player who is accepted as a first class citizen in the regular season is tired of being a second class citizen in spring training.” Smith added that leading black players were “moving cautiously and were anxious to avert becoming engulfed in fiery debate over civil rights,” but nonetheless were preparing to meet with club owners and league executives to talk about the problem and make it a front-burner issue for the players association.