People talk about the electricity of a heavyweight title bout, the spectacle of the Super Bowl, or the madness of the NCAA basketball tournament, but for my money there is no greater championship than baseball’s World Series. In those years when we’re lucky enough to see the game’s two best teams engaged in a closely fought series, we witness a battle which stretches out over more than a week as the Series lives and breathes with context and texture unmatched by any other sport’s championship. Because of this, the greatest of these Series live etched in our memory, and even those which were merely good become the subjects of books.
We all remember the ecstasy and the agony (not to mention the Mystique and Aura) of the 2001 World Series; we know the significance of Burt Hooton, Elias Sosa, and Charlie Hough; we’ve mimicked Carlton Fisk’s frantic waving from 1975; and we’ve seen the grainy newsreel footage of Mazeroski’s clinching home run in 1960. Because we are fans of the Game, we feel like we know all there is to know – or at least all we’re supposed to know.
But what if we don’t? Enter Mike Vaccaro and his latest book, The First Fall Classic: The Red Sox, the Giants and the Cast of Players, Pugs and Politicos Who Re-Invented the World Series in 1912, an engaging look at a World Series you’ve never heard of. As he describes the Hall of Fame players and personalities on both sides, as well as politicians and gamblers lurking on the sidelines, Vaccaro argues that this was the series that gave the World Series its place in our national psyche. He was kind enough to talk with me about it for a bit recently. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did. (Note: As I opened the book, I had no idea of how the Series eventually turned out, and I enjoyed this added suspense. In order to preserve this for any readers who might like a similar experience, the author and I did not discuss the outcome. Where indicated, some of the links will give the result.)
Bronx Banter: Have you always been a baseball fan? Did you play as a kid?
Mike Vaccaro: Yeah, absolutely. Baseball was always a pretty important part of my childhood, and now it’s an important part of my adulthood. I played through high school and was never terrible, but never terribly good. Always just enjoyed it. I like to stay close to the game.
BB: So what teams and players did you follow as a kid?
MV: I was a Mets fan growing up. Most of my childhood they were awful and then later on they kinda gave us a nice shining moment in ’86, so that was my team growing up, for sure. I was a big Tom Seaver fan, as I’m sure almost all kids of my age were.
BB: I suppose for a lot of your life you were probably hoping for a career playing baseball. At what point did you decide on a career in journalism?
MV: When I realized that I not only couldn’t hit the curveball, I couldn’t throw the curveball, I could barely identify a curveball. If I was gonna do anything at all in terms of professional experience, it would have to be from the sidelines in some regard. Writing was something that I enjoyed, so it was a natural marriage.
BB: Here’s a question that I always look forward to asking journalists: are you still a fan? Can you be a fan – not just of the game, but of the Mets, for example – and a journalist at the same time?
MV: I’m a fan of the Mets in the sense that when they play well it’s a lot more interesting story to cover, I think. I do think that the occasional train wreck is also an enjoyable story for people to read, but let’s face it – Mets fans would prefer to read stories that have to do with the Mets doing well, just as Yankees fans do also. So I do think that it’s probably fair that when you’re working the press box you root for good stories first before you root for teams or anybody, but I do think they go hand in hand. And I do try to look a little bit through the prism of a sports fan, even though that’s hard to do. You do obviously have access fans don’t have, and so therefore you have to take advantage of that telling your own stories, but I like to think I understand what sports fans bring to the game. I try and have that color my writing. I don’t believe in the complete detachment of emotion when it comes to writing. I know a lot of people like to say, “I hate the games, I don’t like the games, I don’t care about the games,” but I think if you do that, that really informs your writing and I think it really lessens it as well.
BB: I think I’d agree with that. So with this book, what was your research process like? Where did you get your information, how long were you researching, and when did you sit down to write?
MV: It was actually a fairly swift process. I suppose one of the good things about writing a book in which all the characters are dead, is that you’re kind of on your own schedule, not anybody else’s schedule. (Laughing.) So it was just a matter of getting my butt to the library, to the archives, to the Hall of Fame, and all these places where you could find the information that I wanted to find. It’s interesting. In a lot of ways it was easier to write a book about that era than it even would be about the 50s or certainly today, because there were so many newspapers, there were so many stories written, there were so many of these players that were first-person reporters in their own right for all these newspapers. It was almost… I won’t say there was too much information, but there was certainly enough there to be able to weave a tale out of it. From the first moment I arrived in the library with a blank notebook trying to start taking notes, to turning in the final manuscript was probably about nine months, start to finish. And the funny part about book publishing is that it actually was longer between turning in the final manuscript and publication than the actual book itself. That’s partly because instead of having a release date earlier in the year they decided on one to coincide with the playoffs, which was a smart marketing decision, I think.