Baseball Men - The Historian

Our "Baseball Men" series continues with Peter Golenbock, author of bestsellers on the Yankees, Cardinals/Browns, Dodgers, Red Sox and Cubs.

It's rare for a historian to make some history of his own, but Peter Golenbock has managed to do just that over the course of long and very successful career in letters.

 

In 1974, when Golenbock published a ‘Dynasty' chronicle of the 1949-64 Yankees, he presented one of the first books in which players describe their lives and times in their own words. ‘Dynasty', the very first oral history to focus on a specific baseball team, became a runaway hit, as did the author's subsequent histories of the Brooklyn Dodgers (‘Bums', 1984), Red Sox (‘Fenway' in 1991, with an expanded ‘Red Sox Nation' in 2005), Cubs (‘Wrigleyville', 1996), the Cardinals/Browns (‘The Spirit of St. Louis', 2000), and Mets (‘Amazin'', 2002).

 

After the ‘Dynasty' landmark, Peter Golenbock's second book had a similarly oversized impact. As Sparky Lyle's collaborator and co-author on ‘The Bronx Zoo', Golenbock produced an unforgettable inside perspective on the 1978 Yankees' World Championship, one that still stands with Jim Bouton's ‘Ball Four' as one of the most hilarious, truthful, and insightful diaries in baseball's literary catalogue.

 

As with the oral histories, Golenbock managed to follow up his ‘The Bronx Zoo' collaboration with more well-received projects over the years. They include Billy Martin's ‘Number 1' (1980), Graig Nettles' ‘Balls' (1984), and Davey Johnson's ‘Bats' (1985). Golenbock's most recent project, Johnny Damon's ‘Idiot' (2005), has been only the latest addition to a string of New York Times bestsellers.

 

As notable as Golenbock's literary achievements have been, they were the products of a solid personal background and education. Born in 1946, the future author grew up in suburban Connecticut watching some of the legendary New York teams and players he would later revisit in his books. As an undergraduate in Dartmouth, he served as a prolific sports writer/editor for the daily campus newspaper as well as a correspondent to The New York Times and Boston Globe.  When Golenbock's 1967 college graduation was followed by a 1970 degree from NYU Law, a passionate baseball fan boosted his resume with a first-class education.

 

Over the last 30 years, Peter Golenbock's baseball books have racked up millions in sales, allowing him to stand as the game's most popular historian. On October 4th, a particularly enthusiastic, bright gentleman discussed his own past and his thoughts on the challenges and joys within baseball historiography.

 

 

 

When did you first get interested in baseball?

 

That's a hard one. I think I was born with a baseball gene.

 

When I was growing up in Stamford, Connecticut, we had three baseball teams, the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants. They were all great teams less than an hour away, with that old argument over the best centerfielder - Mickey [Mantle], Willie [Mays] or the Duke [Snider]. Me and my friends could watch three good teams, and we did. We became knowledgeable fans from way, way back.

 

As for my favorite team, every year the Yankees seem to win, so it wasn't particularly hard choice to follow them.

 

Did you have any favorite baseball writers when you were younger?

 

My heroes were guys like Frank Graham, but I also liked Arthur Daley of the Times. Like Red Smith, he'd go into the clubhouse and write about what the guys were saying to each other. I just loved that.

 

There were many, many great writers. Jimmy Cannon, I used to collect his columns. There was another guy, a grumbly, rumpled old b------. He ran for mayor once. What was his name?

 

Jimmy Breslin?

 

Jimmy Breslin, I loved reading his stuff for its bite, its sharp point of view. Over the years, I read a lot of stuff from Robert Lipsyte, who became a good friend of mine.

 

Later, I really liked Frank Deford, as a magazine writer. He can still go to an event and put it into perspective and give you information in such a way that you look at it and say, ‘I'm in the wrong business'. You could just see what a smart guy he was.

 

Were you a very good ball player in your younger days?

 

When I was 12, I thought I was going to be Mickey Mantle. That was, until I saw a curveball that fell off a table, and that was the end of my baseball career.

 

I wasn't very good but there are a lot of kids who want to be on a team just to be part of something. I was one of them. I still feel that way, as a matter of fact. I'm still playing softball and coaching at a local high school.

 

When did you first start thinking of writing as a future career?

 

As a freshman [at Dartmouth], I became an eager member of the daily newspaper. I reveled in it; it was something I just loved. Apparently I was pretty good at it, because they asked me to be the campus correspondent to the New York Times and Boston Globe. I was paid $5 per article to phone in campus sports stories. Basketball, hockey, crew, baseball, dozens and dozens of games.

 

I can still remember being amazed that they would pay me to do this, something that I loved doing anyway. Maybe it was $25 per week, but I felt like one of the richer guys on campus for those three-and-a-half years.

 

When you were in college, you came across an old Yankee, one from the 1930's. What was it like meeting Red Rolfe in those days?

 

It was funny - when I was a student a lot of people saw Red, the university Athletic Director, as this old man, this dinosaur. To me, he was a legend. A legend. I had read Frank Graham's book, ‘The New York Yankees', so I already knew he was - the third baseman for those championship teams with Ruth and Gehrig and Dickey and DiMaggio.

 

So I'd sit with him, just talking, just talking about his experiences in those times. I was transfixed. It was one of the happiest moments of my life, to talk to a guy who had actually played and lived with these Hall of Famers. Red was such a smart baseball guy - he even ended up as a Tigers manager for a few years in the early 1950's.

 

I loved the guy. He was a grandpa, just terrific. One of my favorite pieces in The Dartmouth was a two- or three-part feature on Red, based on our interviews.

 

I didn't realize that was the start of something I'd be doing for the rest of my life, but it did make sense, just because I enjoyed doing it so much.

 

Was Lawrence Ritter's ‘The Glory of Their Times' an influence for you as well?

 

That came out, I believe, in 1966, when I was still in school. I was still the paper's sports editor and the publisher sent it to me.

 

It was the Rosetta Stone. I read it and said, ‘This is the greatest thing I've read in my entire life'. I probably read it 100 times. I couldn't stop reading it. To listen to Sam Crawford talking about Ty Cobb - how can you beat that? That was just fantastic.

 

What was it that struck such a chord?

 

Larry's work was almost perfect in that he cared more about the people than the games. I felt the exact same way. If you want to read about the games, you go back to the newspapers, you can read about them. I wanted to know about the people who made it happen. 

 

It certainly had an influence on my work. I wanted people to say, you know, ‘He's almost as good as Ritter'.

 

How did you come into publishing after graduation?

 

After I graduated from Dartmouth and then NYU Law, I quit my job as an assistant at a tort law firm. A three-year legal education turned into about a six-week law career. I was realistic about it; I just wasn't good as a lawyer. I simply didn't care about it, and it's kind of hard to be good at something you don't care about.

 

My next job was at Prentice-Hall, where I was a writer for these weekly legal reports. I was assigned to write about President Nixon's wage and price controls and that was fun for about three days. I left that job after about six weeks, too.

 

The interesting thing happened in the interim, when I came across this catalogue of Prentice-Hall's trade books during lunchtime. I thought to myself, ‘Hey, maybe they'll want to publish this book I want to write about the Yankees'. The trade book editor not only let me in, he gave me a contract.

 

Those who know publishing can testify how rare that is.

 

Oh, all the luck in the world was on my side. The editor, Nick D'Incecco, happened to be the second-biggest Yankee fan in the world. The initial outlay of $2,500 wasn't a lot of money, but, heck, but a new writer's getting a contract for any amount of money, it's just about impossible.  

 

Was archival access a problem for you as a first-time writer?

 

I lucked out in that, too. I ran into Marty Appel, who was the assistant to Bob Fischel in the Yankees' P.R. department around then. Marty was just this young kid, too, and he didn't know me from Adam. Because no one knew me from Adam.

 

I said to him, ‘If I get a contract to write a book about the Yankees, will you let me spend time in your archives, researching the team from old newspaper articles?' Marty later told me that he only said yes because he didn't think there was a snowball's chance that it would actually happen.

 

He was probably right, for just about anyone else.  

 

Yeah, that's right. Later on, Marty, who's still a good friend of mine, told me that Leonard Koppett had previously tried to get a book contract to write about the Yankees, but he couldn't. Marty figured if this guy from the Times, the author of ‘The Thinking Man's Guide' or whatever, couldn't get a contract, how could this kid, Golenbock, get one?

 

How did the ‘Dynasty' project evolve?

 

At first, I just spent every day for ten months at Yankee Stadium, taking notes from those old newspaper articles. It was two-man P.R. department in 1972, so if Bob or Marty had to go out and do something, they told me to answer the phone. It was kind of funny, I'd be at my notes and the phone would ring and I'd say, ‘New York Yankees'.

 

Anyway, I eventually worked through the archives, amassed this gigantic pile of writing, and it occurred to me that I truly didn't know any more about these ballplayers than I did  when I had started. I can't say it was a waste of time, because I gained a lot of knowledge, but I simply didn't know about the players as people.

 

At this point, I got my nerve up, called Nick D'Incecco and said, ‘I need another $2,500. I need to interview the old Yankees'.

 

That must have been an interesting conversation.

 

Peter, if he had said no, my career would, literally, have been over right then and there. There was no way to write a halfway-decent book based strictly on my stuff from Yankee Stadium, and if I didn't write any book . . .

 

Nick, though, didn't blink an eye. Immediately, he said, ‘Sure, come in and get it'.

 

What was your motivation in doing the interviews? Did you want to finish the book, did you want the history preserved before these old ballplayers died, or did you just have a personal desire to talk to guys like Red?

 

Oh, most of all, I wanted to talk to them and hear their stories for myself. And I never felt the least bit bad about that - I figured, if I'm like the average baseball reader, they'll love it, too.

 

It's funny that you mentioned Larry Ritter before. Larry is another guy who became a friend of mine and he told me that it was personal for him, too.

 

The way it happened, he had gotten divorced, and he wanted to take his son around the country to meet these athletes. Larry told me he had no intention of writing a book - he was a professor of economics at NYU, and he wanted the camaraderie with his son, more than anything else. He left the tapes aside and these old guys would call him up and say, ‘When is the book coming out?' That's the only reason why he decided to actually do the work and transcribe the tapes. 

 

In reading that book, and your later works, it's amazing what you got out of those old ballplayers. In your debut, for example, you have a guy like Elston Howard talking about dealing with racism and Roger Maris talking about his battles with the team's front office. They'd never talked about that before. Why were they so open with you?

 

Darned if I know.

 

If I had to hazard a guess, it might have been because I had done a certain amount of sociology study back in college and, apart from that, I had already done my homework and knew baseball. They could tell, I suppose, that I was sincerely interested in the things like civil rights and social experiences.

 

I think, basically, they could see how much I still loved them. They were my childhood heroes and wanted to be fair, always, with them. I knew they were imperfect, but that only made me appreciate them more.

 

Why did you still care about them? I mean, they might have been retired for decades by the time you talked to them. The majority, you'd never seen at all.

 

That's true, but, to me, they were like the Gemini astronauts - the elite of the elite. For them to do what they do, and beat out everyone else on the planet, that seemed to me, inherently worthy.

 

Have you ever interviewed a ballplayer who's regretted becoming a Major League player, as opposed to some other line of work?

 

No. I very much doubt it.

 

You have to remember something - for me to interview a ballplayer, he had to have been successful enough to stick around for at least a few seasons in a fairly important way. To do that, they had to love the game. No one can achieve that kind of success without a deep love for the game.

 

Not with today's level of competition…

 

Not ever. Not yesterday, or the day before yesterday, or 30 years ago. It's a game that you play every single day. If you don't love it, you'll never make it to the top. I believe that to my bones.

 

Maybe it was because they knew you cared enough to do the research beforehand, too.

 

If you start your questions, your first two or three questions, with something kind of arcane and esoteric, it sends a message right off the bat - you're not just winging it. If you've done some work, they'll generally give you their best answer, because you deserve it. That's kind of the way it works.

 

From what I understand, ‘Dynasty' took more than two years and 27,000 miles of travel to complete. I think you could have been forgiven if you wondered if it would be worth it in the end.

 

Not for a second did I doubt that this thing would turn out fabulously, and that goes for all my books, histories included. Once I started interviewing people, I found myself interested, and it was such a small step to get the readers interested on the material on the page.

 

I didn't realize it at the time, but ‘Dynasty' turned out to be an almost perfect template for me. It was almost a perfect way for me to do it; I wanted the subjects to be on the stage. If you're a fan of the Yankees, you're reading to hear what Mickey Mantle has to say out of Mickey Mantle's mouth. That just seemed, to me, only common sense. As long as I helped that along, I figured I'd be alright.

 

What did you do in cases when an interview subject might give you an inconsistent or incomplete answer?

 

You might have an event where you interview five different people, and they'll give five different versions of that event. All I try to do is give the people I interview to give their version, and if their version is so different from the established facts, I make a separate note about that. As a historian, it may be corny to say, but all you're trying to do is get at the truth.

 

In writing that first book, and all the bestsellers since, were you thinking about making the project commercial for the marketplace?

 

No, no, no. I didn't think about the sales one way or the other.

 

You have to be sure that the material is good, because that's the only control you're going to have in the entire process. You can't control what the publisher is going to do, or advertising and promotion, or the public; you can't control any of that. You can only control one thing - the text between the covers. If you give that 100% and do your best ... let the chips fall where they may, as the cliché has it.

 

Well, after you published ‘Dynasty' and it turned out to be a huge success, when did you start thinking of a collaboration like ‘The Bronx Zoo'?

 

The thing you have to understand, that first one was the only book I really intended to write. I never thought of myself as an author; I thought of myself as a guy writing about a team he loved, and I did it. I always thought I'd be a newspaper editor in the long term and, if it wasn't for Billy Martin, I probably would be doing that right now.

 

After I finished the book's manuscript, I worked at a weekly paper and then the Bergen Record. I felt it was a very interesting place to work, a wonderful time. I met my future wife around that time, around the time I was learning how to be a working reporter, copy editor, and assistant night editor.

 

I'd talked to Billy for ‘Dynasty' and wrote that Billy Martin was as important to those teams as Mickey Mantle or Whitey Ford. I was convinced that was true then and I still feel that way. He was the one demanding excellence of everyone, the guy who stood up to a second-place team in late 1955 and said, ‘Hey, you're messing with my World Series money'.

 

Billy's agent must have read that, because he called me and said he was interested in having me work with the other one of his two clients, one Sparky Lyle.

 

What did you think?

 

(laughs) ‘Who wants to write a book about a relief pitcher?' was my initial thought.

 

The agent says, ‘Hey, you're freezing your butt off over there in New Jersey. Come down to Fort Lauderdale for Spring Training, go meet Sparky, and then you can decide.

 

Did you know him beforehand?

 

No. He'd won the Cy Young and I had seen him on TV, but you don't really get a sense of a person from that. It's just TV.

 

What persuaded you to do the book, then?

 

Well, there I was sitting in the 1978 Yankees' clubhouse, I'm looking around and there's Billy over here and Reggie Jackson over there and Graig Nettles over there. And Sparky, Thurman Munson, Ron Guidry. And the real ‘straw that stirred the drink', George Steinbrenner.

 

That's when it occurred to me that a diary might be a really good idea. I knew there was a certain amount of personality and tension there, and that always makes for good stories.

 

What was it like working with Sparky Lyle?

 

Initially, it wasn't all that easy.

 

Sparky said that he'd take a tape recorder on the road, then come back and play his tapes. I didn't think that was going to work, but I said ‘OK, let's try it'. After a few days, Sparky gets back to me, really glum, and says ‘I guess we're not going to do this book'. I said ‘Why not?'. He said, ‘'Cause the tapes are blank. I didn't know what to say'. Now this is coming from Sparky Lyle, who always had something to say.

 

I said, ‘Tell you what - let's try it my way this time'. I'd prepared about a million questions already, and we sat down that day. After that, I would go over to his home in Demerest, New Jersey, about 10 minutes away from my place in Englewood, and we'd go through my questions on my tape recorder. We really got to look forward to those sessions and we got to become really good friends.

 

Were you worried about the potential controversy that could be generated in the book? As you know, throughout the book, he's complaining about different teammates and his salary status.

 

Well, the only thing Sparky was upset about was the fact that Goose [Gossage] had taken his job. That he was really unhappy with.

 

From my point of view, an unhappy ball player isn't necessarily a negative. At least he's willing to tell you what he thinks. It made for interesting reading.

 

Did it occur to you that Sparky Lyle might get traded after ‘The Bronx Zoo'?

 

It did occur to me that, since he was unhappy, he would be better off somewhere else. He was a friend and I would have preferred that he stayed with the Yankees.

 

It comes down to writing the best book you can. You ask good questions, get truthful answers, try to tell an interesting story, and try to stay invisible.

 

Jump forward to 2005 and Johnny Damon's ‘Idiot'. That book entirely reflects Johnny - he's someone who loves his teammates, his owner, his general manager, his team. That book completely reflects his particular situation. It's different from ‘The Bronx Zoo', but there's nothing disingenuous about it, either, and I think it works for that reason. 

 

People talk about ‘dishing dirt'. That doesn't make sense to me. Either something happened or it didn't happen, it doesn't have anything to do with dirt. It's history. People can make their own judgments if it's authentic, if you do your best to tell the truth as you know it, then it's up to the readers to decide.

 

There's another thing, and that's ‘ratting out' players. My thought is, that's the player's choice, not the collaborator's choice. It's about what they want to reveal.

 

The interesting twist happens when a player like David Wells apparently changes his mind about what he wants to reveal, where he might argue that he was misquoted in his own autobiography.

 

With Billy's book [‘Number 1' in 1980], I taped every conversation, transcribed it, and made sure he signed off at the end of every chapter. That way I had some insurance that, Billy being Billy, wouldn't say ‘This other guy, he made it up'.

 

What about the opposite problem, a case where your collaborator doesn't have much to say about personal issues?

 

Then you write about the events.

 

I'd say the book I did with [Mets manager] Davey Johnson was a good example of that. Davey wasn't a storyteller, but he was a very astute manager, one with a comprehensive understanding of the game of baseball. So I tried to fill our book [‘Bats', from 1985] with an appreciation for inside strategy, game situations, and players.

 

‘Davey Johnson on Baseball' wasn't colorful like the ‘The Bronx Zoo', but for what it was, I think that one worked out very nicely. It was different because of the different personality. The key, always, is to write something interesting, something that hasn't been written before.

 

Do you polish the language from the interview transcripts?

 

Not really. The one thing you don't want to do is embarrass your collaborator. The one thing I'll do, sometimes, is change a ‘he don't' comment to a ‘he doesn't' in the text. Depending on the circumstances. It just reads better.

 

Do you regret anything you've ever written, especially in light of later information?

 

No. Not a one. If I didn't believe in my projects completely, I wouldn't have turned them in to my publishers.

 

Out of all the interviews, does any handful stand out in your mind as particularly memorable?

 

Anyone who sits down and gives you their time to tell you what really happened in baseball, you're indebted to them forever.

 

I guess I particularly enjoyed the old-timers. I mean the real old-timers, the guys in their 90's. I had a chance to interview Woody English, the captain of the 1927 Chicago Cubs. The guy was fantastic. In my St. Louis book, Ellis Clary was an absolutely fascinating guy who told me why the players hated Pete Gray so much and why the Browns should have won the pennant in '45.

 

There was another guy, in ‘Fenway' - Gene Conley. ‘Why did you and Pumpsie Green decide to get on a plane and go to Jerusalem?' That was a story that wasn't really told before - the fact that he was going through a nervous breakdown, that he was drinking quite a bit too much.

 

There was Bob Elston, explaining why the Cubs' ‘College of Coaches' didn't work in the early 1960's. There was Johnny Blanchard, a wonderful, humble guy who told me how he couldn't believe how lucky he was to play on a team like the '61 Yankees. There were a lot of great old ball players.


The other side of that are not-so-wonderful people. Do you remember any negative experiences in putting together your projects?

 

There are always people who don't treat you well. Part of what you do in this line of work is to understand why people feel what they feel and, unfortunately, some people won't let you close enough to do that. I try I try not to hold it against them.

 

One time, when I was doing some local broadcasting in St. Pete, I wanted to do a little five-minute pre-game interview with Jim Rice, who had been retired a couple of years at that point. I'd never met him before in my life, so I went up to him and said, ‘I'm the pre-game guy for the Pelicans, can I talk to you on air for a few minutes?' He spits out, ‘I don't do interviews', looks at me like I'm poison, and stalks off.

 

I found Willie Mays was like that, too. I don't know why Willie was so bitter and unfriendly. Frank Robinson was another one. Maybe it had something to do with the black experience. I've never had white guys who treated me that way; it was always guys who had to endure something.

 

Do you have any favorites among your projects?

 

They're my kids. My favorite is always the next one that's coming out.

 

Do you have any recent favorites among other writers' baseball histories?

 

Have you read ‘Moneyball'? That was fantastic, absolutely fantastic.

 

I'd agree, but some would say that it isn't really a history.

 

It is. Absolutely. It's a history of the last few years, clearly. It's current history and baseball history lives every single day. It's written every single day, by beat reporters at first.

 

Oh, and there's another one. There's a wonderful writer up in Boston, who works for the Herald…

 

Howard Bryant?

 

Howard Bryant. ‘Shutout', that history of the Red Sox, was one of the great, great books. And there's Jane Leavy's book on Sandy Koufax.

 

There are plenty of great books to be written, there's no question about it.

 

Are their any projects you'd like to take on in the future?

 

One of the books I'd always wanted to write was on the black experience in baseball. It's always been on my mind that it was very different than the white experience in the game.

 

I always wanted to write a book with Bill White, a great Cardinal. He gave me a glimpse of his thoughts in ‘The Spirit of St. Louis', but he had a varied career, as Assistant to the Commissioner and National League President.

 

I remember him on old Yankee broadcasts, when he was sort of a straight man to Phil Rizzuto.

 

Oh, Bill was wonderful with the Scooter. And he's a guy who's so intelligent, but I've never met anyone so battered and bruised by racism, to the extent that he's pretty much decided to isolate himself in retirement over in Pennsylvania. I'd like to find a way to understand how someone can deal with that in his life.

 

Apart from that, I'd like to do more of these team histories. To my great sorrow, I don't think publishers will let me.

 

Why not? I always thought you could, for instance, do the Giants.

 

Oh, I'd love to do a book on the Giants and Dodgers. We're coming up on the 50th anniversary of their move to the West Coast, in ‘08.

 

I have no idea why they've been so resistant. Or, maybe I do. You're still dealing with New York publishers with New York sensibilities, who don't take much stock in regional interest because Barnes & Noble, as a monolith, wants two books per store in every one of 10,000 stores across the country. They sell 80% of the books, which makes it harder to pitch a book, even a baseball book, that might have particular interest in one area.

 

That doesn't make much sense. I mean, everyone has their home town and team loyalties, but fans seem to love baseball above and beyond that. Most fans, they seem to enjoy good baseball book, period.

 

I know; it's a shame.

 

Unfortunately, having already covered the big markets - New York, Brooklyn, Chicago, Boston, St. Louie - publishers seem to think the team history market's tapped out.

 

Some have said that changes in game, especially in the last 20, 30 years, have made for a greater discontinuity with baseball's past. Steroids, in particular, are mentioned in that connection - the charge is that they separate out the modern era from the others. How do you feel about that charge?

 

As for the different eras, it's always been that way.

 

In the 1800's they had pitchers pitching from 50 feet. They moved it back to 60 feet, six inches. They had soft, beat up baseballs. They changed that and the game changed. Until 1947, you couldn't have Josh Gibson and Judy Johnson and other great black ballplayers. They let them play and that changed everything. After 1968, they lowered the mound to encourage more hitting. It goes on.

 

The point is, eras always change. It's no ‘taint' in it. Was it a taint when Jackie Robinson started the move for integration? I mean, that was the biggest discontinuity of them all, if that's your big worry. Within two months, he proved that the game could be different and better.

 

Having done all those studies in baseball history, from the 1800's to the 21st century, which one is your favorite?

 

Right now, right now. Right this minute. This wild card thing, for example, is so exciting, with 15 teams fighting for playoff spots in the middle of September.

 

After more than 30 years, several hundred interviews, and several thousand pages in print, how do you feel about baseball? Are you more of a fan, less of a fan, or do you have mixed emotions?

 

Peter, I don't have any mixed feelings at all. None whatsoever.

 

The fact that I've been able to do these books is kind of miraculous. Baseball's the greatest game there ever was.

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