The skill for asking the right questions strengthens Brunt’s work.
Noting the longevity of Mr. Hockey’s career — from 1946 to the early ’80s — Brunt asks the questions all of us should ask if we were narrating the video: “How did he do that? How did he mess with time?”
Interspersed with vintage game footage of the Detroit Red Wings icon, Brunt also points out that he had “a mean streak a mile wide.”
There’s no sugar-coating that description. It works in helping paint a powerful picture about the way the rough, rugged Howe played the game.
While words, ideas, sounds and images work in harmony to tell meaningful stories in this multimedia age, Brunt remains a classic journalist in one sense. The Ontario, Canada, native admits he has no interest in using Twitter.
The longtime former Globe and Mail sports columnist was asked to explain why. He prefaced his answer discussing how readers used to interact with the media, how they could make suggestions before the social media age we now live in.
“I’m not on social media, so people could email me through the newspaper and I guess through Sportsnet, and back in the old days they used to write letters, which I always kind of liked, because even if they were nasty, you had to spend some time on them, right? You actually had to invest in them. But I made a conscious decision to stay away from Twitter because I’ve seen too many people just get consumed by it, for better or for worse,” Brunt said in a recent phone interview.
“And it’s a mean world, and it’s a cheap world, and I don’t want to react. And part of it is — again it’s kind of old school — (but) the stories I write are not me, they are separate from me. They are something that I produce, and people can react to that, but that’s not reacting to me. They are reacting to the work I produce, and I want that separation.”
While others boast about their gazillion Twitter followers, the 59-year-old Brunt, who penned the thoughtful 1999 book “The New Ice Age: A Year in the life of the NHL,” is grounded by his principles.
“The work is not me,” he said. “And I think that’s healthy. (On Twitter), I think that’s where you become the product, and it’s not my cup of tea. I know it works for some guys, and it certainly can boost your profile and your brand, but it’s disposable, and it’s reactive and it’s angry.
“I like to keep (a separation) — even back in the day when they started opening up comment sections on newspaper websites, where you can kind of interact with readers. I said I don’t want to interact with readers. I want readers to react to what I wrote, but that’s not me.
“And I’m happy for people to say they loved or hated what I wrote, and that’s good and I pay attention to it, but again I like that one degree of separation between me and the work.”
By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (June 7, 2018) First in a series
For decades, Stephen Brunt’s thought-provoking commentary has been a staple of Canadian sports journalism. He’s penned highly acclaimed books, including “Facing Ali: 15 Stories 15 Fighters,” “Gretzky’s Tears,” and the No. 1 Canadian best seller “Searching for Bobby Orr.” And he’s also provided radio listeners with engaging, informative sports talk throughout his successful career.
Now 59 years old, Brunt is a versatile, valuable member of the Sportsnet team, not unlike the variety of work that some journalists do for ESPN. He writes long features on a wide range of subjects. He works on TV documentaries (a topic to be explored in greater detail later in this series), too.
Above all, Brunt understands the power of words and employs them with great effect to deliver memorable stories.
Asked what me most enjoys about being behind the camera or producing copy for a broadcast, Brunt responded by saying, “It’s really different than writing (for print). I still think of myself as a writer, primarily. I do a lot of writing still, but the biggest difference for me is that it’s collaborative. You work with other people. The story’s in their hands as much as it’s in yours. It’s different than working with an editor as a writer.
“Like the visual people, these editors we work with, these producers, they have skills that I don’t have. They can do things that I can’t do, and they are super talented. A lot of them are really young, which again not like the newspaper business, which was getting pretty old at the time I left (in 2011). So I really like being able to think in a different way when you are working visually, and learning how to write a script versus writing a magazine piece or a column. Technically, it’s a different kind of writing. I like the learning part of it, and I really like the people that I get to work with. They are crazy talented.”
That talent creates an enjoyable work atmosphere and beyond, whether in the studio or on location in Canada, Los Angeles, the Dominican Republic or elsewhere.
“I’m having as much fun now as I’ve had at any point in my career,” he said in a recent phone interview. “It’s as satisfying as anything I’ve ever done, and it’s as much fan as anything I’ve ever done. So it’s great. I’ve been at this for a long time and it’s great at this stage … but it’s been a really different phase for me and it’s exciting. I like getting up in the morning and going to work. Its fun.”
Globe and Mail readers saw Brunt’s byline in the sports section from 1985 — he became a columnist in 1989 — until his departure in September 2011, when he joined Sportsnet on a full-time basis, providing content for its magazine, as well as video essays and columns and features for the website. He got his start at the paper in ’82 as an arts intern, then moved to the news department, where he reported on elections in 1984 . (This February, he became a part-time Prime time Sports co-host for an afternoon drive time 5-7 p.m. talk show with Bob McCown and Richard Deitsch. The show is heard on Sportsnet 590 The FAN in Toronto.)
When Brunt made the move to Sportsnet in September 2011, Rogers Broadcasting president Scott Moore was quoted as saying, “Adding Stephen full-time will strengthen all of Sportsnet’s platforms. Stephen is truly one of the most gifted sports columnists in Canada. His video essays are a great example of the type of storytelling we aspire to.”
Brunt commutes from his home in Hamilton, Ontario, to Toronto to go to work. Without traffic, he says it takes about 45 minutes, but it can take two hours. “It’s like driving in any big city,” he noted.
In 2007, he was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame as a reporter. His biographical section on the Hall of Fame website begins this way: “Stephen Brunt is the very best trombone-playing, fly-fishing, Hamilton Tiger-Cats loving national sports columnist to have covered the Canadian Football League (CFL).
“Known for his literary style, as well as his penchant for fine dining and expensive wines, the Hamilton-born Brunt has written about the CFL for The Globe and Mail for almost 20 years and never once lost his enthusiasm for the three-down game.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Brunt was asked what was the first sports book he read that left a memorable impression on him.
“I read hockey books as a kid. I don’t know if any of them were any good,” said Brunt, who was born in Hamilton. “I read some of the Scott Young hockey books. I read Bobby Hull’s. I remember buying his ghosted biography, ‘Hockey Is My Game.’ ”
“I read the usual stuff that you would read as a kid as a fan, and I read books about the local football team (Hamilton Tiger-Cats) in the Canadian Football League, some guys (on the team), which would be really obscure for anybody who didn’t live here.”
While Canadian sports teams and individual athletes piqued his interest, Brunt revealed that A.J. Liebling (1904-63), an icon of The New Yorker magazine, got him intrigued about a possible career as a writer.
“The first book as a writer that really made me think about wanting to write about sports was reading ‘The Sweet Science,’” said Brunt of Liebling’s book of boxing essays, published in 1956, which Sports Illustrated called the top sports book of all time in 2002.
“I didn’t start as a sports writer, and it wasn’t something that I ever really aspired to do. But I love boxing and I love the literature of boxing. So then I read everything of Liebling, which is very old school, his essays, and even his food writing. So I think that’s the one.”
He then pointed out that Robert Lipsyte’s “Sportsworld: An American Dreamland,” which published in 1975, was also quite influential.
“He was one of the first guys, if not the first guy, to kind of write about sports in the real world — political, social context,” said Brunt. “He cover the early years of Ali, among other things, but he wrote about sports not in a vacuum. He wrote about it and linked it to what was going on in the world. … And especially in my early days of being a columnist at the Globe, that had a huge influence over me.”
Brunt began reading Liebling’s works while he was attending Western University in Ontario. He doesn’t recall precisely how he first came across his work, though.
“But my guess is I read a magazine story about boxing, or something to do with boxing, and there was a reference to it,” he offered. “That’s my guess that somebody referenced Liebling.”
He went on: “In any number of great magazine pieces about boxing, Liebling tends to come up, right?”
What attracted him to those stories?
“It was great old-fashioned writing and the reporter is kind of as a character,” Brunt said. “Like I’ve never been that. I don’t ever write about myself, but I love the idea of Liebling as this kind of larger-than-life character, and then he references Boxiana, the 18th century books about boxing. There’s a lot of stuff about Boxiana in Sweet Science.
“So then I went out and bought, I’m looking at it now, I’ve got an original copy of the first Boxiana,” he said, referring to a a book of articles penned by British writer Pierce Egan. The first volume was published in 1813. Several more volumes followed.
“I started reading kind of ancient boxing writing and I got into boxing literature in a big way,” he continued. “I’d say even before I wrote anything about it the one kind of library I have are shelves and shelves of boxing books.”
Brunt found his niche with boxing — and not just for coverage of title fights. With Brunt shining a light on corruption in boxing for an investigative series, the Globe and Mail received the prestigious Michener Award for public-service journalism for his series. Here’s how the Michener Awards Foundation summed up that project on its website:
“ ‘Ontario Boxing Scandal’ disclosed that Ontario’s athletic commissioner and former championship boxer Clyde Gray was not carrying out his duties properly and that he ignored rules aimed at making the sport safe for contestants. More than 40 unlicensed boxers were permitted to fight in Ontario along with 52 others with records that should have resulted in suspensions. The series of stories by Stephen Brunt lead to a government inquiry and transfer of the commissioner to another post.”
In his travels over the years, Brunt got to know a number of prominent boxing scribes from numerous places. He said Vic Ziegel, the late New York Daily News and New York Post columnist, had a gift for humor in his commentary and long-form magazine pieces. He met Barney Nagler (“one of the great old boxing writers,” Brunt pointed out), whose byline was carried by the New York Post, Philadelphia Evening Ledger, Newark Star Eagle, New York Morning Telegraph and The Daily Racing Form, among other print outlets, before his passing in 1990, and became friends with Hugh McIlvaney, the Scottish sports scribe who retired at age 82 from The Sunday Times in 2016.
“When I started covering the fights, I started to meet some of these guys who were of a previous generation,” Brunt recalled with enthusiasm. “I was a real acolyte of the older guys. So I was always really, really excited to meet somebody who had covered Joe Louis or covered Rocky Marciano. It was pretty cool.”
Upcoming installments in this series will highlight memorable events in Stephen Brunt’s writing and broadcasting career, the stories behind the stories in some of his most successful books, why he avoids using Twitter, and much more.
By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (March 26, 2018) — Peter Kerasotis’ latest book chronicles Felipe Alou’s extraordinary life.
Some people know a lot about Alou’s decades in pro baseball. But even if you do, there’s a lot of background material that Kerasotis skillfully reveals chapter after chapter that presents greater clarity and thoughtful reflections from and about the former standout ballplayer, coach and and manger. It’s a fascinating and revealing look at the life that the Dominican pioneer has lived.
As a prolific columnist and sports feature writer for Florida Today for decades, Kerasotis produced literary gems and thought-provoking commentary time after time. This gifted storyteller does it again with a convincing argument that Alou’s biography will resonate with generations of readers.”
In other words, Alou’s story needed to be told.
Kerasotis recognized that years ago.
Or as he told me: “I knew this man had a book in him. I knew there were gold nuggets there. I didn’t realize until I got into his story that it was a gold mine.”
Days before this memoir, “Alou: My Baseball Life,” hits bookstores (official release on April), Kerasotis looked back on this major chapter, this major undertaking, in his own life over the past few years, what the work entailed and how it all came together.
This wide-ranging interview explains why the 82-year-old’s story needed to be recorded for the public.
First and foremost, what message do you hope the public takes from this book?
I hope people come away with a new, or perhaps a deeper, appreciation for how Felipe Alou was the Jackie Robinson of the Dominican Republic, how he opened the door for a country that now produces more MLB players than any other country outside the U.S. He was the first to go from Dominican soil to Major League Baseball, the first Dominican to play in the World Series and the first Dominican manager.
And here’s the kicker: he didn’t want to play baseball for a career. Felipe was at the University of Santo Domingo studying to become a doctor. He was offered 200 pesos to sign, but his parents refused. The second time he was offered the 200 pesos, all he could think about was how he knew his father owed the grocer 200 pesos. As the oldest of six children who grew up in a 15×15-foot shack, he signed so his father could pay the grocery bill. His reward was to experience the kind of racism in America he knew academically, but couldn’t fathom until he experienced it – racism from both white America and black America. Coming from a white mother and a black father, he wanted to quit and return to his studies. But he felt an obligation to live up to the contract he signed for 200 pesos and a desire to make a name for himself and his country. He certainly accomplished all three of those things, because two years after signing for 200 pesos he was playing in the outfield alongside Willie Mays.
When was the first time you met Alou? Do you recall any specific details? What were your initial impressions of him at that time?
Working as a sports columnist in Brevard County, Florida, I approached Felipe before a spring training game in March 2000, when he was the manager of the Montreal Expos. I knew he had started his career about 10 miles up the road in Cocoa, Florida. So I asked him if he remembered anything about that first season in the Florida State League in 1956.
Well, he remembered everything. Details. Statistics. Names. Anecdotes. What a mind, I remembered thinking immediately. He was thoughtful, engaging, enlightening. And such a regal, distinguished man. He had a presence about him.
The next couple of years, during spring training, I knew he was an easy column. I knew I could go to him with a topic and get my notebook filled with thoughtful, insightful opinions backed with facts.
I knew this man had a book in him. I knew there were gold nuggets there. I didn’t realize until I got into his story that it was a goldmine.
And what were your impressions of him in the years before that, watching him as a sports fan?
I knew that he and his brothers, Matty and Jesús, were very good major league players. I saw all three of them play as a kid – Jesús when he used to spring train in Cocoa, Florida, which is not far from my Merritt Island hometown, and Felipe and Matty late in their careers when they played for the Yankees. I knew he had some managing chops, as witnessed by the 1994 Expos. I also knew that for a Latino to get a major league managing job he had to be significantly better than the next guy. Obviously, I also knew about his son Moisés, an intense player whom I covered when he played for the Marlins.
Did you approach Felipe about this book idea, or did he reach out to you and ask you to tell his story? Or was it more of a mutual agreement that you two made a good match to work together?
I approached him through my friend Bruce Bochy, the manager of the San Francisco Giants. Felipe agreed to do the book and then backed away. This went back and for almost five years before Bochy and Felipe’s family got him to agree to the project. I’m glad they did. Felipe’s glad too. That I live about 3 hours from Felipe helped us, although working around our schedules dragged this project out to over two years.
How appreciative are you that legendary pitcher Pedro Martinez, a Latino sports icon, wrote the foreword for this book? How helpful is this in adding additional gravitas to the project for promotional purposes?
Pedro was agreeable to do the foreword but an absolute nightmare to try to get a hold of, or to get to return a phone call – and not just my phone calls, Felipe’s too. We were not without big names to do the foreword and give the book that gravitas that you mentioned. In fact, we were about to go in a different direction and names like Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and David “Big Papi” Ortiz were discussed. Finally, I got Pedro on the phone, but only for a quick 15-minute conversation. I knew right then that he was the guy to do the foreword. Of course, it took me almost a half year after that to finally pin him down. I love his foreword and a lot of people have mentioned it favorably to me. I’m glad we were persistent in getting him to do it. As it turned out, Torre, La Russa, Buck Showalter, Reggie Jackson, Bob Costas and Tom Verducci provided endorsement blurbs for the book.
From start to finish, how long was this project in the works?
The day after I got laid off as a sports columnist (from Florida Today), on August 12, 2011, I was at a Giants-Marlins game in Miami, sitting in Bochy’s office. He was really upset that I’d been laid off. I told him it was OK, that I was ready to move in other directions. That’s when I mentioned to him that I always thought Felipe Alou would be a good book. He looked at me and said, “You know he’s here.” I didn’t know it at the time, but Felipe lives in South Florida and works as a special assistant to the general manger. All of this is in the book’s acknowledgements. Long story short, Bochy texted me 15 minutes before the game to tell me that Felipe is interested. Thus began years of back and forth with him before late in 2015 when Bochy intervened. That’s when Felipe called me and said he was going to do the book and he wouldn’t back out. We met shortly thereafter at his home and began the process. After that it took us a couple of years, working on it on and off.
Did you visit the Dominican Republic as well, seeing Alou’s childhood surroundings? If so, how did that experience enrich your reporting and the overall narrative of the project?
We talked about visiting the DR with him, but we never could coordinate it. I wished I could have. I still hope to do so.
On the surface, people know Alou as a talented player and astute manager for decades. What are a few details, a few revealing nuggets, that hammer home these facts in your writings?
This guy has a mind and a memory like few people I’ve ever run across. Steve Spurrier is the same way. Felipe was doing analytics and sabermetrics in his head long before it came to computers. One of his daughter tells me he over-thinks things, and that can be a downfall. But for a field manager in baseball, it served him well. There is a whole chapter in the book about his managing philosophy and it’s fascinating. Pedro’s foreword also touches on Felipe’s baseball acumen. I have a friend, a retired college baseball coach, who tells me he learned a lot from just Pedro’s foreword and Felipe’s chapter on his managing philosophies.
How did writing a book with longtime Orlando Magic executive Pat Williams (“Extreme Winning: 12 Keys to Unlocking the Winner Within You”) help shape the approach you took for this project? Were there many similarities in the way you did the research and how you mapped out the interviews and writing? Or was a much different methodology the way you got the job done?
I’m thankful for the experience with my friend Pat Williams, because it was a good exercise in writing in someone else’s voice. That’s not easy to do. A couple of people who’ve already read the Alou autobiography have told me, unsolicited, that they felt as if they were listening to him. That really warmed my heart. Getting into someone else’s head, and voice, is not easy to do.
Another similarity is that I had to catch two busy men with brilliant minds whenever I could, and I would maximize my time with them, probing with questions, getting anecdotes, details, etc. That’s the beauty of a project like this. You really get into a person’s head and heart and life and no question is really off limits. You get to ask about things you’d never think to ask about at a polite dinner party.
Who were a few of the key sources that filled in the blanks on the lesser-known and well-known aspects of Alou’s life?
Felipe’s the kind of guy who doesn’t like to impose on others or ask any favors. As such, he didn’t want to call guys and ask them to be interviewed. The fact that he has an incredible memory sure helped. It’s not as if I needed someone to fill in the blanks.
He did, however, sit me down with Willie Mays a couple of spring trainings ago in Scottsdale, Arizona. Willie wasn’t very helpful – chatty, but not helpful – except for one nugget. When the three Alou brothers historically played in the same outfield together, it was Willie who facilitated it. Late in the game, Jesús replaced Willie McCovey in left field, which meant Willie as the center fielder was flanked by Jesús in left and Felipe in right. Between innings Willie told me he went to Giants manager Alvin Dark and told him to take him out and put Matty in center. “It was history,” he told me. “I told him to put Matty in center field because it was history being made by three brothers.” Willie was right. Never before or since has that happened. Felipe didn’t know Willie had done that, so that was a nice nugget to add to the narrative.
Did some of the game’s biggest legends of Alou’s era – Mays, Hank Aaron and Giants stars Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey – regal you with story after story about Alou’s career? How about his managerial counterparts?
Again, I think that was a real nugget from Willie Mays. Bochy, Torre and La Russa have incredible respect and admiration for Felipe. They love the man. I never talked to Leyland. I briefly met Cepeda but not McCovey. Buck Showalter tells a great story about how Felipe would deke him when they were both Class A managers. Most of those guys spoke in generalities, not so much anecdotally.
Was there an ordinary routine to when and where you would interview Alou for the project? Did he like to be interviewed at his home, for instance? Did you meet him, say, once a week for 3 hours of interviews? Did you see him many days in a row for long interview sessions? Was a lot of the interview material new from the 2010s? Did you also supplement a lot of it with your reporter/columnist archives from past decades in and around the game? Or did you want a fresh approach — that is, mostly new material — and new interviews after Alou retired, giving the book a reflective tone with Alou looking back at his baseball life?
Once he was committed to the project, I began driving down to his house in Boynton Beach, Florida, and spending the day, sometimes more than one day. It was like my Tuesday’s With Morrie sessions. Really. Felipe’s the kind of guy you’d climb mountains to get to, just to hear him espouse wisdom.
I never used a tape recorder. We just talked and I’d write things down on a legal pad and then come home and type out my notes. My mind works better that way. During that process I’ll jot down side notes of how I want the chapter to flow. Then I’d start writing, finishing a chapter and then having him read it. At that point, in Felipe’s editing process, it usually jogged some more details out of him, which was good. He was very hands on. Every word in that book passed through his eyes multiple times. Sometimes he’d call me and say that a word in a chapter we’d finished several weeks earlier wasn’t the right word he wanted to use. He was amazing that way.
Because he has such a busy schedule, traveling for the Giants, there was never any set times. When he was in town, I’d go spend time with him.
Most of my research beyond that was Googling him and reading magazine pieces. I read about a half-dozen other books from his contemporaries and such. Felipe also did a book for a religious publisher in the mid-’60s, which I read twice, the second time with a highlighter.
I kept a lot of notes compartmentalized into chapters. There were often times, in our discussions, when he’d reach back in his memory and touch on something from a period of time we had already covered. That would have me going back into a chapter to add another anecdote, which I never minded.
It was toward the end of the project, when we’d blown past the publisher’s deadline (always arbitrary, by the way) when I’d spend two, three days with him at a time, then staying at a nearby hotel so I could furiously write that night. I also spent a week with him during spring training in 2016 and 2017, living with him in his villa. That time was invaluable, not just for the information and work, but the bond it created.
What was Alou like in interview settings for a book? Did his mood bounce around from super serious to playful to introspective? Was he humorous? Long-winded (in his answers? A natural storyteller, remembering precise details of games and life moments) in 1965, 1975, 1985…up until his final days in an MLB dugout? Did he give you an “open book” on his life without restrictions on topics, questions, follow-up questions?
He was cautious at first, and then as a bond developed he relaxed more. He has a good sense of humor, but it’s not a dominant quality of his personality. He took the project seriously. He read and reread everything we did. He’s very intelligent, very literate and has a unique way of explaining and communicating things. Almost poetic at times. As the former reliever John Wetteland says, “He speaks in parables.”
There were tangents, there always is, but not long-winded. Sometimes he’d tell me a story and then follow it up with, “But that’s not good enough for the book.” And he was right. He has an incredible memory for detail, which as a writer I loved. For the most part I had an open book. But there were stories he told me that I wanted in the book that he refused. Or, perhaps, he’d allow them in but watered down. We had some battles. But there is a lot of raw emotion and searing anecdotes in this book. All in all, he really opened up about his life.
I often tell subjects like this, for a project this extensive, to turn on all the lights, don’t let me bump into furniture or guess where the couch is. Turn on all the lights and then we can dimmer the switch back on what they’re comfortable letting the reader see. Felipe’s mind-set is that he had no problem telling stories about himself, even if it cast him in a bad light, but he was reticent to draw other people into his life story. Those stories were usually the battles. I’d like to think I won most of them.
One of the things he said when he was going back and forth about doing the book was this: “If I do it, I’m going to do it right. I’m going to do it 100 percent. But I know if I do it that way it’s going to hurt people.” I found that to be very true as we got into some of the family history and the violent history of his country under the dictator Rafael Trujillo. I have no doubt or hesitation that what Felipe told me in our sessions was total truth, honest, genuine. Sometimes he’d tell me a story and then say, “No, no, I haven’t told you the whole story. Let me tell you the rest.” And he would. I think anybody who reads this book will quickly immerse themselves into his life, and find it incredible.
Who else did you interview for the book?
I did no other interviews. It’s his autobiography, not a biography, told through his eyes and memories. I got close to his one daughter, Maria, Moisés’ oldest sister, and she filled in some family history gaps for me. For the most part, it was almost entirely Felipe – live. The only time we worked on the book over the phone was to make some corrections or massages with a section in the transcript. Light stuff over the phone. No heavy lifting.
Through your writing and reporting, I’m curious how Juan Marichal views Alou’s impact on baseball in the Dominican Republic? I suspect they share a real mutual respect as Dominican trailblazers in the sport.
I never talked to Marichal, although in my research I read his book and Cepeda’s book. I also read several other books, including Willie Mays’ and Alvin Dark’s. I feel bad for Marichal and Cepeda, because their books are badly written, and they both deserved better. There is a bond there. Marichal in his book talks about how it was Felipe’s sisters who introduced him to his wife Alma, a girl who lived next door to the Alous.
I can tell you that Marichal, Cepeda, McCovey and a whole slew of black Americans and Latin American ballplayers – as well as white ballplayers – absolutely revere Felipe. Torre calls him a mentor. So does Bochy. Pedro Martinez speaks of him like a second father. It’s something to see when you see how they interact with him. When I was talking to ESPN’s Pedro Gomez at the MLB Winter Meetings last December, he pointed to Felipe as he was walking away from us and said, “That man walks on water.” That’s the way a lot of people view him.
How close were Roberto Clemente and Alou? They shared a tight bond, didn’t they? And how impressed was Felipe with Roberto’s career and the humanitarian deeds that ultimately marked the end of his life?
They were very close friends. Kindred spirits. There is a whole chapter about his close friendship with Clemente. In it is a beautiful story about the night they met and how they talked and talked and talked for hours, well into the night. The chapter ends with Felipe hearing on the radio that Clemente had died. He didn’t believe it until he heard it again. That’s when he pulled off the road and wept. And this is not a man who cries easily.
Alou made his MLB debut in 1958, only two years after Jackie Robinson’s retirement. And so, shortly after one colossally important chapter in the game’s history ended, another began. Did he draw some inspiration from Robinson?
Yes, he did. When he was a kid he actually saw Jackie play in the Dominican. Jackie’s first year with the Dodgers, they spring trained in the Dominican to get away from the glare of racism in America, and postpone it as long as they could. That’s when Felipe saw him. Growing up, Felipe understood racism academically, but Jackie helped him to understand it in a tangible way. He recalls seeing a picture in the newspaper in the Dominican that showed Jackie sitting in the Dodgers’ dugout, all alone, with all the white players sitting separate from him. That had an impact. Keep in mind that Felipe came from interracial parents, which is not a big deal in the Dominican, but in America, when Derek Jeter came on the scene 40-plus years later, it was a big deal. So in many ways the DR is way ahead of the U.S. as far as race relations are concerned. It was the racism that almost drove Felipe back to school and his dream of becoming a doctor.
Did Alou open up about his thoughts on post-(Fidel) Castro Cuba and the nation’s future in baseball and stronger ties with MLB?
Yes. This book has a lot of political elements to it – about his country, America and Cuba. Being a Dominican citizen means he can freely travel to Cuba, but he never has. His thought process is that if Cuban people can’t freely travel to and from the island, he won’t either. It’s a very noble mind-set that he has. In this way he believes he’s honoring Cuban baseball players. He also hosted a series in the Dominican for the Cuban players after Castro came into power, defying the orders of MLB commissioner Ford Frick in doing so. He wanted to help the Cuban players, who were now exiled because of Castro. Frick fined him, but he refused to pay the fine and refused to allow the Giants pay the fine. There is a lot more in the book about that Caribbean region, things I never knew, like when President Lyndon Johnson sent upwards of 42,000 U.S. troops to occupy the Dominican Republic, fearful that the island was going to elect a communist leader. I have to laugh sometimes when people complain that Russia might have meddled in U.S. politics. Unprovoked, the U.S. occupied Felipe’s country and even occupied his parents’ home, turning it into a military base, causing his parents to flee. This is a part of U.S. history you don’t read in our history books, but it’s very much a part of Dominican history.
As you describe his life, does Alou feel honored that he was a trailblazer for the great collection of Dominican ballplayers that followed him in MLB? Is he overfilled with pride about this? Or quiet humble, only discussing it if it’s brought up in conversations with him?
He’s proud, but it’s a quiet proud. In his house you’ll find very little that hints at a long and distinguished baseball career. He was also careful to acknowledge Ozzie Virgil Sr., who is not really a full-blooded Dominican, but who was born in the Dominican Republic and mostly grew up in the Bronx, NY. So while Felipe is the first to go from Dominican soil to Major League Baseball, he wanted us to make sure to mention that Ozzie was the first Dominican-born player to make it to the major leagues. He has a strong measure of pride, but not ego, if that makes sense.
Are you able to converse at a fairly decent level in Spanish? If so, how helpful was that in gaining access to a broader range of sources on Alou?
Felipe is bilingual. I’m not. He’s also well-read and very literate. His accent can be heavy, so I didn’t like to do work over the phone. But face to face we rarely had any trouble communicating. I have, however, found myself learning more and more Spanish.
How much of an impact has Alou made as a special assistant to Giants GM Brian Sabean, especially in the success of the organization during its recent string of three World Series titles?
He is not a figurehead. Not in the least. Sabean and the brain trust rely on him heavily to evaluate their own players as well as players they might be looking at via trade or free agency. They’d be foolish not to tap into him in that way. And Brian Sabean is anything but foolish. Felipe does a lot of teaching and coaching. It’s something to see when he holds court. Players flock around him to hear what he has to say. Felipe wears a World Series ring, and believe me it’s earned.
By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (March 11, 2018) — Fifty years after Jackie Robinson’s first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Major League Baseball honored the historic day in American history on April 15, 1997. It’s one of my all-time favorite days in sports history, even if the Hall of Famer wasn’t alive to observe this special day.
Since then, Robinson’s legacy as the man who broke MLB’s color barrier continues to be honored and discussed.
Other sports figures, of course, helped pave the way for the racial integration of college and pro sports in the United States. One of the most important individuals was former Vanderbilt University basketball player Perry Wallace, who was the first black to compete on a Southeastern Conference basketball court. The native of Nashville, Tennessee, did so from 1967-70. (In 2004, his No. 25 jersey was retired by Vandy.)
In a recent interview, Andrew Maraniss, author of a fascinating and important biography, “Strong Inside,” on Wallace looks back on the project, provides great insights on Wallance’s remarkable life and the strength of his character and deep moral convictions.
Maraniss exhibited admirable dedication and persistence in completing the project. It took him eight years to research and write his first book. By doing so, he joined his father, legendary journalist and biographer David Maraniss, as a published author.
Wallace passed away on Dec. 1, 2017. He was 69.
Maraniss delivered the eulogy for his friend, hero and mentor in February.
In his life, Wallace shattered stereotypes about ex-athletes. For the U.S. Department of Justice, Wallace worked as a trial attorney, and became a law professor at American University. Maraniss’ book captures the essence of Wallace’s life and offers insights about his intelligence, courage and common decency, among other attributes.
Above all, how has Perry Wallace shaped your outlook on life?
I knew Perry for nearly 30 years and he changed my life in so many ways it is impossible to list them all. He was like a combination of a mentor, brother, father, and favorite professor, not to mention the subject of my book. He was a remarkable person whether or not he ever made history as a sports pioneer. That’s been one of the challenges of explaining STRONG INSIDE to people. The quickest and easiest way to describe it is that it’s a biography of the first African-American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference. Ho hum. But Perry was so much more than that. He was the kind of person who quoted Othello when making a point. He sang opera. He spoke multiple languages, including fluent French. He was the rare law school professor who had been drafted by an NBA team. He loved martial arts. He had witnessed the lunch-counter sit-ins first-hand as a 12-year-old kid in Nashville. He met and spoke with civil rights figures in the ’60s such as Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, Fannie Lou Hamer and Robert F. Kennedy. He served in the National Guard and was an attorney for the U.S. Justice Department. He was the first black basketball player ever to play at Ole Miss or Mississippi State, tremendously dangerous places to be in 1967. He had uncommon wisdom on race, racism, and race relations. He also had great advice on fatherhood. He turned down scholarship offers to colleges that offered him cash and cars and told him he didn’t have to go to class. He traveled to Nigeria to help save the life of a woman sentenced to death. He testified before the United Nations. He could throw down a reverse slam dunk and jump so high he could pick up a quarter off the top of the backboard. His last words to me were to look for ways to create opportunities for women. Think about all this. One man! It’s incredible. In every possible way, he was an inspiration. As one of his law school colleagues at American University said, he was the best in all of us, the best side of any one of us, our best selves. The rest of us fall so far short, but Perry was the real deal.
Perry Wallace and Andrew Maraniss
How significant, or perhaps how touching is it for you that iconic journalist Bob Woodward delivered the following message about your book?: “In a magnificently reported, nuanced but raw account of basketball and racism in the South during the 1960s, Andrew Maraniss tells the story of Perry Wallace’s struggle, loneliness, perseverance and eventual self-realization. A rare story about physical and intellectual courage that is both shocking and triumphant.”
This was indeed very touching. Mr. Woodward has been a very close friend of my parents ever since my father joined The Washington Post in the mid-1970s. I met him for the first time when I was 6 years old. I remember he was the first person to ever show me a Sony Walkman! When I put the headphones on, I was stunned nobody else could hear the music. He also brought me and my sister some 45-rpm records one time when he visited our house. I remember Safety Dance was one of the songs! So to know him as a child on top of all the respect I have for him as such a significant journalist and figure in American history, it was indeed a great honor to know that he read STRONG INSIDE and had kind things to say about it. As a first-time author, it helped develop some credibility. I also remember how great it felt when I received an email from Frank Deford with his blurb for the book. He’s not someone I had known previously. Given his stature as an iconic sports journalist, that was very meaningful to me as well.
As you make visits to schools and civic organizations to speak about your book and Wallace’s life experiences, how would you characterize the general reaction from students about your message? Have you been touched and inspired by their questions and their overall curiosity about your project and Wallace?
This has been the most amazing part of my experience as a new author, and one that I hadn’t anticipated. I really love traveling around telling Perry’s story, and it has been touching how very disparate audiences have reacted to the book. I’ve been to 19 states, and the audiences I’ve spoken to have been incredibly diverse: from civic clubs in rural Tennessee to a school for the deaf in Texas to a program for Latino and African-American high school young men in New York City to a boarding school in Chattanooga to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis to a book festival in Des Moines and many, many more. I’ve spoken to four-year-old pre-school students and at retirement homes. I’ve spoken in a maximum security prison and in a few churches. The reaction has been very, very gratifying. It’s no surprise that people are drawn to Perry’s story of perseverance, grace, and wisdom. He was a very special person and people recognize and appreciate that — no matter their background. It’s not uncommon for me to see people crying. A couple of schools in Nashville have used the book for “all school read” projects. Vanderbilt has required incoming freshmen to read the book each of the last two years.
A few other things come to mind:
When Perry Wallace was a freshman, he began attending a white Church of Christ across the street from campus upon the recommendation of a teammate. Perry said that growing up in Nashville, he never would have considered going to a white church, but that this was what pioneering was all about: doing things that hadn’t been done before. So he starts going, but around the fourth Sunday, some members of the church pull him aside and tell him he can’t keep coming anymore. They say older members of the church have threatened to write the church out of their wills if they allow Perry to keep attending. So he’s kicked out. Fast-forward to this year and a Church of Christ middle school in Nashville, Lipscomb Academy, selected STRONG INSIDE as it’s required read for all of its students. These are the literal and figurative descendants of the people who kicked Perry out. It was amazing to see the way these kids fell in love with Perry and embraced his story. Two of Perry’s sisters visited the school for an assembly and they received a standing ovation and a long line of hugs from the students.
A group of special students in Cleveland, Ohio, read STRONG INSIDE and decided to come all the way to Nashville to visit the important sites in Perry Wallace’s life. What makes this all the more remarkable is that these young people have Downs Syndrome and Asperger’s and other exceptionalities. Their teacher told me that Perry has become a real inspiration to her students, who are battling various challenges every day. When they encounter hard times, they ask themselves, “What would Perry Wallace do in this situation?” And she said they always remind themselves that what he would do is remain “strong inside.” Incredible.
Last year, I had a chance to meet all the first-year international students at Vanderbilt the night before classes started. One young man from China came up to me and said that he had read STRONG INSIDE before making his decision whether to come to Vanderbilt. He said that after reading the book, he had decided that if Perry Wallace could make it at Vandy, he could, too.
Perry and I spoke at the Maret School in Washington, D.C. two years ago. The students there loved him. This year, I saw a girl on campus wearing a Maret T-shirt. I asked her about it and she said that she was a freshman and that after hearing Perry talk at her school, she was inspired to apply to Vanderbilt.
I spoke to a third-grade class in Nashville yesterday. It was “Super Hero Day” and all the kids were dressed up in cute costumes. One little girl was dressed up like a pilot, but she told me she had read STRONG INSIDE 10 times and that Perry was her hero.
Originally, did you have the intention of making a Young Readers edition of Strong Inside? If so, why was that an important goal after the first version of the book was produced? If not, what prompted you to make the new adaptation of it in 2017?
I didn’t have that vision when I wrote the original edition of STRONG INSIDE. It was not something that had ever occurred to me over the entire eight years I spent working on the book. I have two amazing women in Nashville to thank for the inspiration to do it. One is Ann Neely, a highly regarded professor of children’s literature at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody School of Education. Ann is someone I’ve known for more than 20 years, dating back to the time I was the sports information director for the Vanderbilt basketball team and she ran the academic center in the athletic department. After STRONG INSIDE came out, she suggested it would make a great story for young people. Then there was Ruta Sepetys, a best-selling author of historical fiction for Young Adults. Ruta was sitting in a coffee shop in Nashville doing a newspaper interview to discuss her book “Salt to the Sea” when the reporter, Keith Ryan Cartwright, introduced the two of us. Ruta is not only a fantastic writer, she’s the nicest person in the world. She interrupted her interview to talk to me for 15 minutes about my book, and by the end of the conversation she had offered to send a copy of STRONG INSIDE to her publisher along with her endorsement. Within just a few weeks, I heard back from the editor at Philomel (Penguin Young Readers Group) saying he wanted to adapt the book.
An eight-year project from start to finish shows discipline and dedication and persistence. Were there times during that period that you honestly thought you wouldn’t finish writing Strong Inside? Are there a few voices of inspiration you’d like to mention who kept you focused and striving to get it done during those years?
I was fortunate to be very naïve about the process of writing a book when I got started. Ignorance was bliss! I had no idea when I got started in 2006 how long it would take to complete the project, and honestly I didn’t care. Because I didn’t have an agent or a publishing deal, I wasn’t under any sort of deadline pressure. The entire time I worked on the book, it was a side project outside of a regular “day job’”at a public relations firm in Nashville. For the first four years, I didn’t write a word; it was just research and interviews. I loved that aspect of the project. I’m very happy scrolling through microfilm. This was the period, however, where the book seemed more like a dream than an actual tangible product. There would be weeks or entire months where I wouldn’t get much done. As I completed the research and began writing, the biggest mental hurdle I had to overcome was the idea of writing something so long. I’d never written anything longer than a magazine article. STRONG INSIDE turned out to be around 200,000 words. Once I had written one chapter, I just said to myself, “If I can write one, I can write two.” And then it was, “If I can write two, I can write four.” I convinced myself that all I had to do was stay disciplined and patient and eventually I would complete the book.
One of the things that kept me going was Perry Wallace; both my incredible respect for him and also just his own story of perseverance. If he could overcome all the challenges he faced in his life, there was no excuse for me to feel overwhelmed by simply trying to write a book. Beyond that, my wife, Alison, my parents, David and Linda, and my in-laws Doug and Cathy were constant sources of support.
Do you recall when you first met Perry Wallace? Where was it? Was that initial encounter significant for you in pursuing this project? Or did living in Nashville and attending Vanderbilt, being immersed in a place where his history was so alive, contribute greatly to your decision to write a book on him?
The first time I met Perry Wallace as in Atlanta at the SEC basketball tournament in 2004. But that wasn’t the first time I talked to him. My initial interest in him and the first time I spoke to him came in 1989, when I was a sophomore at Vanderbilt. This also happened to be the year that he was invited back to campus for the very first time since graduating in 1970. A student a year older than me, Dave Sheinin (now an outstanding writer at The Washington Post) wrote an article about Perry for a literary magazine at Vanderbilt. He described the first game Perry ever played at Mississippi State as a freshman, and how scary that experience was in Starkville, Mississippi in 1967. As a sports nut and a history major taking a course in African-American history, I was hooked. I asked my professor, Dr. Yollette Jones, if I could write a paper about Perry. I thought she’d say no, that sports wasn’t a serious enough topic. Thankfully, she said if that’s what you’re interested in doing, go for it. Back then, of course, there was no Google or email so I found Perry in the phone book. He was a professor living in Maryland. I called him out of the blue and introduced myself and he spent two hours talking to me about his experience as a pioneer. So, I wrote my paper and Dr. Jones gave me some really nice feedback. I felt like I was on to something. The next year, I wrote another paper about Perry for a similar class. I became sports editor of the student newspaper and wrote some columns about Perry, introducing him to my generation of students.
After I graduated, my first job was as the publicist for the Vanderbilt men’s basketball team. That gave me an excuse to stay in touch with Perry, nominating him for various anniversary awards. But again, that was all done over the phone.
Finally, in 2004 I was in Atlanta for the tournament just as a fan. Perry was being honored as an SEC legend that year. I was leaving the Georgia Dome one day and saw him waiting for a shuttle bus. So I went up and introduced myself. Two years later, I was standing in my future in-laws’ kitchen in Nashville. I declared that I wanted to write a book, but didn’t know what to write about. My future father-in-law said, “What about Perry Wallace? You’re always talking about him.” And that was the Eureka moment. I said, yes, that’s it, and I got started the next day.
Back to part of your question: the truth is that Perry’s story wasn’t all that alive in Nashville. As I mentioned, he graduated in 1970 and wasn’t invited back to be honored as the Jackie Robinson of the SEC until 1989. The reason for that is a story that still resonates today: essentially, he was told to “shut up and dribble,” just like the FOX talking head Laura Ingraham told LeBron James. The day after Wallace’s last game in March of 1970, he gave an interview to the local newspaper where he talked about his experience as a pioneer. It was an honest interview, and he discussed the racism and isolation he experienced on campus. He suspected that people weren’t going to want to hear this difficult truth, but he felt he had a moral obligation, as a pioneer, to tell the truth for the benefit of the people that would come behind him, and for the benefit of the university.
After the story ran, Wallace was labeled as “angry” and the university kept its distance for almost two decades. One of the most gratifying things that happened over the last decade of Wallace’s life was the complete turn-around in his relationship with Vanderbilt. The school embraced him and he welcomed that. He used to say that “reconciliation without the truth is just acting,” and he felt that this was a real reconciliation, one where the truth was accounted for and appreciated.
Was he eager, excited, intrigued by your book project? Did he approach you about writing it? Did you approach him? Was it a mutual idea you both sort of came up with after being around one another for X number of hours over the years?
When I emailed Perry in 2006 to re-introduce myself and let him know that I was interested in writing a biography about him, he was very supportive. He remembered me and the paper I had written about him, and I think he also respected my father’s work at The Washington Post. I’m sure there was some doubt in Perry’s mind initially about how serious I was about this, would it really happen, etc., but he was always very, very supportive. He was the subject of the book but also a mentor to me in many ways. And even though it took me eight years to complete the project, he never became impatient. It was a wonderful experience. The bonus of it taking so long was that I got to spend so much more time talking to him. I would fly to DC to see him or he’d come to Nashville. We’d also talk on the phone, and sometimes I’d email him a set of questions and I’d be so excited to see his name in my inbox with his responses.
How instrumental has your father’s work as a prominent journalist who has reported on history and historic figures been in steering you in this path, in influencing you about how to approach this project? And was he a real critical eye in critiquing your work along the way, or more a listening board whom you bounced ideas off of to get some clarity and focus?
I grew up reading my dad’s stories in The Washington Post and also reading other great writing in that paper, so that was a huge influence in my life and my writing style, really without even being aware of it. It was more like through osmosis that I was learning how to write just by reading great writing. My dad wrote his first book after I had graduated from college. On a few of his projects, such as for his biography on Roberto Clemente and his book on the 1960 Olympics, I had the opportunity to do some research for him or conduct some interviews. Those were great learning experiences for me. Just as a reader, the types of books he writes are the kind I’m most interested in. I’m sure that’s no coincidence. Narrative non-fiction is my favorite style. I learned from him the importance of doing the real work, meaning the research and the interviews and traveling to important places in the book. He was more of a sounding board and big-picture guy when it came to my book. My mom was more active in providing line edits and that sort of thing.
What are the biggest journalism principles he bestowed upon you? Does one stand out above all the others?
Avoid clichés. Avoid unnecessary words. Do the reporting. Unpack the story. Go there (as in travel to important places in the story). Illustrate the universal through the particular. Pay attention to leads and kickers. They were all important lessons.
Since Wallace’s days as a collegiate player ended, who are a few college and pro players whose skill sets and on-court ability and impact closely mirror what he brought to Vandy?
There aren’t many 6-5 centers in college or the NBA these days! Perry was a fantastic rebounder, shot-blocker and dunker (until the dunk was banned in college basketball prior to his sophomore season). He wasn’t a great shooter, but he worked on his shooting tirelessly. By his senior season at Vanderbilt, he was the one the coach selected to shoot free throws on technical fouls, and he was very proud of that. Someone like Charles Barkley comes to mind as an undersized rebounder, but Perry was a better leaper and not quite as much of a wide-body. This is a good question and one I wish I had asked Perry – who reminds you of yourself?
You cited Jackie Robinson and the question of what if no one had written a book on him on your website in the trailer for Strong Inside. Now that two editions of Strong Inside have been produced, what’s the general feeling you have about what the book has accomplished for both sets of audiences? Is there a persistent satisfaction in knowing the book can and will educate folks and also change some people’s minds in terms of stereotypes about so-called “typical” athletes?
I like listening to a light-hearted podcast where the hosts follow-up every self-serving statement by saying, “not to brag.” So, “not to brag,” but I was very proud that STRONG INSIDE received two civil rights book awards, the Lillian Smith Book Award and the RFK Book Awards’ Special Recognition Prize. To me, this was evidence that the book was taken seriously as far more than a sports book. And then the Young Readers edition was named one of the Top 10 Biographies for Young Readers in 2017 by the American Library Association. Again, evidence that even for kids, this was more than a sports book. And all of that is to say that I have been very happy that people have recognized Perry Wallace’s impact well beyond the basketball court.
I’ve spoken to adults and seen contemporaries of Perry’s crying in the back of the room. I’ve listened to elementary school kids talk about how they can’t comprehend the racism Perry endured. So, yes, this is satisfying to see the emotional impact of the book, and perhaps to have people think about race in a way they weren’t expecting when they picked up a biography of a basketball player. Most of all, I’m pleased that Perry’s story is known. I talk to kids about the movie Hidden Figures, and how there are so many other hidden figures out there, people who have done important and interesting things whose stories haven’t been told yet. Any one of us can be the person to unearth those stories and tell them to the world. I feel very fortunate to have been able to write about Perry and introduce his story to people who had not heard of him.
In addition to Wallace, who are some other absolutely invaluable sources for the book? According to a 2014 news release, you interviewed more than 80 people for the project. Did you travel far and wide to do that?
I ended up interviewing around 100 people for the book, and that was one of my favorite parts of the whole project. I really enjoy preparing for and conducting interviews, and there’s nothing like the feeling when someone starts telling you an interesting, colorful, detailed anecdote that you know is going to make a great scene in the book. I traveled some to conduct interviews and also did quite a few over the phone. I was also lucky that most of the book takes place in Nashville, where I live. So many of the people I needed to interview for the book live here. Some of the most fascinating interviews were with Godfrey Dillard, who was Perry’s only African-American teammate during his freshman year. Dillard ended up transferring before playing a varsity game, and his experience at Vanderbilt provided an interesting contrast to Wallace’s in many ways. I was also fortunate that Perry’s college coach, Roy Skinner, was still living when I started working on the book. He was the first person I interviewed. I also had the great pleasure and honor to interview John Seigenthaler, who was the editor of the Tennessean at the time Wallace was in college. Mr. Seigenthaler was a staunch supporter of civil rights and had served as a special assistant to Robert F. Kennedy during the Freedom Rides.
What was it like interviewing Wallace for his life story? Was he very forthcoming and quick with details in interview settings? Did you throw out a general topic and just let him recollect about it for a while? Was there a lot of very specific questioning?
I tried to be very prepared for our interviews, but I also went in with an open mind and tried not to stick too closely to a prepared script or list of questions. Perry was such a brilliant person that it was not difficult to interview him at all. He was a great observer of people and situations and had the ability not only to recollect details, but also to put anecdotes into a greater context. He not only helped you envision a scene from 1968, for example, but would place a particular story into the context of the times. He had such wisdom when it came to race relations. So, many times we’d start a conversation and I’d just sit back and listen. The biggest mistake I could make was getting in the way. With someone like Perry, just let him talk. And really listen, so that you can ask good follow-up questions. That’s an interesting insight you make about him being a lawyer and using precise language. That is true. But Perry was also precise with his language well before he went to law school. I found a transcript of remarks he made to the Vanderbilt administration in the summer of 1968 and it was expertly crafted. Perry was a brilliant person and he took pleasure in disproving stereotypes, even at a young age. Part of that meant being prepared, being precise, being profound.
Did you have regular weekly/monthly interview sessions lined up with Wallace as you formulated the book? Did you often meet him at his home or workplace? A favorite restaurant? Long phone chats? What worked for both of you to get the questions asked and answered? Was it a combination of all of the above?
We didn’t have any sort of regular schedule. We had four or five major in-person interviews at the outset of the project, where we divided his life up into chunks and covered ground in particular areas each time. Some of those interviews were done in Washington, D.C., where he lives and where my parents live, either at his office at American University or at my parents’ house. We did one or two in a coffee shop. Other interviews were done in Nashville. I remember one of my favorite days was just driving around with him all day, and he showed me the houses he grew up in, the parks he played in, the schools he attended. We also did several phone interviews, and eventually his favorite way to do it was over email. I’d send him a list of questions, and then a few days later I’d get a response back. His quiet time at home was around 4 a.m., so that was the timestamp on so many of his replies. Which were always detailed and brilliant, by the way.
How emotional, how challenging, was it to deliver the eulogy on Feb. 20 at Vanderbilt for Perry Wallace? Was it a cathartic experience to share your thoughts about his life and legacy with an attentive audience?
The most challenging aspect was figuring out what aspect of Perry’s life to focus on since I only had three or four minutes to speak. We called the event a “Celebration of Life,” so there was a focus on keeping it upbeat and celebratory rather than maudlin. I decided to talk about a few things: just how a good of a man Perry Wallace was his entire life when there seems to be a lack of good men, at least in terms of public figures, these days. And I talked about how he might use such an event had he been alive: he would turn the spotlight away from himself and use the occasion to try to make life better for other people. It was special to see the caliber of people who not only came to the service, but wanted to speak: the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference and the chancellor of Vanderbilt University, for example. This was important in substance and symbol, and really demonstrated what an incredible impact Perry Wallace had on the university and the South.
Are you currently pursuing a new book project? Or is there a topic that intrigues you that you’d be interesting in writing about in the coming years?
Yes, I am in the final stages of writing a book for Young Readers on the first U.S. Olympic basketball team, which played at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. What I’d like to do is continue to write the kinds of books I would have liked to have read as a student: narrative non-fiction, with a bent toward sports and history.
How did the daily grind of working in sports media relations for Vandy and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays sharpen your focus and self-discipline as a writer and journalist? And looking back, how did that help you as you wrote about Wallace?
That’s a really interesting question I’ve never been asked before. I think of a couple of things. For one, I never worked harder in my life than I did in those days (or for less money!). As you mentioned, it is an incredible grind, day after day. So I learned how to work hard, how to be creative every single day, the importance of accuracy. I had great bosses who were mentors to me and gave me confidence that I could succeed in the business. Obviously working as a publicist for the Vanderbilt basketball team gave me an appreciation for the history of the program, access to former players and coaches, and various anecdotes over the years that helped me with little details for STRONG INSIDE. I felt like I understood the history of the program inside and out. When I was writing the basketball scenes in the book, I felt like my professional background and just my interest in sports allowed me to write with authenticity and credibility.
Is there a greater appreciation of, and recognition of, the incomprehensible challenges that Wallace faced during his time at Vandy and in the SEC since he passed away in December?
I’d say that the appreciation for what Perry endured really began several years ago. Over the last 10 years of his life or so, you began to see the university and the Nashville community reach out to Perry in ways it never had before. A big part of that was thanks to the leadership of people like Vanderbilt chancellors Gordon Gee and Nick Zeppos and athletic director David Williams. They understood that Perry had done more for the university than Vanderbilt ever did for Perry. So you saw things happen like Perry’s jersey retired, he was inducted into the inaugural class of the Vanderbilt Athletics Hall of Fame. Since the book came out in 2014, other things happened like various awards being named after Perry, scholarships established in his name, his induction into various other halls of fame and rings of honor. Vanderbilt freshmen all read STRONG INSIDE the last two years.
With the publication of the Young Adult version of the book, kids all over the country have learned his story and been inspired by it. It was gratifying that Perry got to experience this love and appreciation before he passed away. One thing that’s been interesting to observe is the way that Perry’s own family, especially his wife, Karen, has been able to witness the incredible affection that so many people had for Perry since his passing. He was such a humble and accomplished person he didn’t talk much about his “basketball pioneer days” to his family, friend and colleagues in D.C. There was a whole “public figure” aspect to his existence that was different from the Perry they knew every day: the professor, husband and father who was a regular guy and took out the trash every night.
Who are a half-dozen or so authors whose books are must-reads for you again and again?
Bill Bryson, John Feinstein, Bob Woodward, Eric Larson, James Swanson, Howard Bryant, Jeff Pearlman, Ruta Sepetys, Lou Moore and of course, David Maraniss!
In your opinion, who are some of the most important journalists whose articles and broadcasts are pertinent to understanding what’s happening in the world around us?
I will answer this question specifically as it relates to race and sports. First, I’d recommend anyone interested in the subject check out ESPN’s TheUndefeated.com site. It’s fantastic and right at the cutting edge of these issues. People like Lou Moore, Derrick White, Dave Zirin, Etan Thomas, Bijan Bayne, Anya Alvarez, Jemele Hill, Howard Bryant, Johnny Smith and Jesus Ortiz are must-follows on Twitter. We’ve also started a Twitter account at Vanderbilt called @raceandsportsVU that curates this kind of news.
What was the last great book you read?
For the book I’m writing on the first U.S. Olympic basketball team, I just read a German book on those Olympics that was recently released in an English translation. It’s called “Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August” by Oliver Hilmes, and it presents a really interesting look at some behind-the-scenes intrigue in Berlin at the time.
Editor’s note: This column is part of a section from an upcoming ebook on Jerry Izenberg, who is attending his 52nd Super Bowl on Feb. 4.
“He was a thought leader in the world of sports journalism.”
-Jeremy Schaap on Jerry Izenberg
For nearly his entire life, Jeremy Schaap has been aware of Jerry Izenberg’s career. It goes with the territory.
“Obviously my dad knew a lot of the same people,” Schaap acknowledged in 2016.
He followed his famous father Dick’s footsteps into sports broadcasting, which over the years has given him an insider’s look at what makes Jerry tick.
The elder Schaap, a legendary newspaper/magazine reporter, columnist and editor, author and TV broadcaster, passed away in December 2001. Since his passing, Jeremy has continued to establish himself as one of the most thoughtful and resourceful journalists under the ESPN umbrella.
Now 48, Schaap was recently asked to look back on his awareness of Izenberg’s career before his own rise to prominence in the business. In doing so, he also took time to reflect on Izenberg’s place within the pantheon of prominent sportswriters.
“I didn’t grow up reading him on a daily basis,” Schaap admitted in a phone interview. “But I knew his work and then I had the opportunity to work with him side by side for a few years as we did this show called ‘Classic Sports Reporters’ (on ESPN Classic) and we got to spend a lot of time together and it was a privilege in working with Jerry at that time, which was about 15, 16 years ago, late ’90s, early 2000s.
“I came to understand the significance of his work, and Jerry is one of those rare guys who is both a terrific writer and a helluva reporter … and they are not mutually exclusive, but one doesn’t necessarily follow the other.”
So what makes Izenberg a significant figure in sports media?
“I think Jerry’s important in a lot of ways, but the most important thing about Jerry is that before it was popular to be for most of the sportswriting community had reconsidered its retrograde or reactionary opinions of things Jerry was kind of a trailblazer,” declared Schaap, who has written “Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History” and “Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics.”
“Well, when I think of Jerry,” Schaap added, “I think of the way he championed blacks in baseball who did not get the opportunities that whites got, in particular his close friend Larry Doby.”
Schaap recognized that Izenberg remained a persistent voice calling out for racial and social justice for decades. Clearly, that impressed him.
“The dearth of black managers was one of the things, I think, that Jerry wrote about, the mistreatment of the black athlete,” Schaap said. “And he was someone who perceived these things, which now seem obvious, before most of his fellow sportswriters did.
“It’s a different world now. A lot of sportswriters now are guys with liberal arts degrees and they come at things from a more left-of-center orientation. It wasn’t that way generations ago. It was more of a trade and there were fewer guys who were socially aware, racially aware, and Jerry was really in the vanguard, and I think that’s to his eternal credit.”
Dick Schaap edited Sport magazine in the 1970s, seeking out distinguished writers and original voices to fill its pages, including Izenberg.
The NYC-based magazine, which printed its final issue in 2000, was impressive in its heyday, according to Izenberg.
“In its glory years, the magazine had great editors who gave writers freedom and a forum to say things that mattered,” Izenberg was quoted as saying in “Thomas Hauser on Sports: Remembering the Journey.”
“It was an authentic voice that brought out the best in us,” Izenberg said of Sport.”
For Jeremy Schaap, that quality resonates to this day.
“Jerry Izenberg was one of those names growing up in the sports-writing business where I always knew Jerry’s name,” Jeremy pointed out. “I’m sure I saw his name in the best sportswriting anthologies and in Sport and around. … Izenberg was one of the big guys, and I can’t pinpoint where I first heard of him, but I can’t really imagine I time when I didn’t know who Jerry was.”
It’s no secret why Izenberg thrived as a columnist in the cut-throat New York metropolitan media market for decades.
In short, he’s a gifted communicator.
“When I think of Jerry I think of somebody who had a way of communicating with athletes so that he got good stuff,” Schaap said. “These were reported columns. They were reported, they were written.
“When I think of Jerry’s columns, I think of a guy who went out and did the hard work of column writing. He wasn’t sitting there on Sunday afternoon or Saturday night, thinking, like, ‘Jeez, what the hell am I gonna write about this week?,’ because he had done the work, he had the contacts. His entire life had been building relationships, establishing a viewpoint, and that kind of rich column that is hued with historical perspective, with the actual effort, shoe-leather effort of going out and getting it, and more than anything else a guy who isn’t a cheap-shot artist, who isn’t a sensationalist, is someone with a point of view, but it’s all girded by a sense of humanity.
“That’s what I think of when I think of Jerry is somebody who’s interested in being fair, and also interested in taking a strong opinion, but not for the sake of taking a strong opinion or expressing one.
“He takes his work very seriously, he takes the world of sports very seriously, and he understands the impact that sports can have on society at large, and that’s the space that he occupied.”
Perhaps more than most Schaap understands that Izenberg always saw the big picture: that sports aren’t just games, but a microcosm of society.
“A lot of guys kind of bemoan the fact like, ‘Uhh, I just want to write about the games. I don’t want to deal with all the social issues and all of that stuff,’ ” Schaap stated. “Jerry thrives and pries at the intersection of society and sports.”
When Muhammad Ali passed away in June 2016, the massive file of columns and broadcast archives (radio and TV) that occupied Izenberg’s time over the decades entered a new place. It became a primary source of Ali’s life and times.
It also helped remind anyone who wasn’t paying attention how vital Izenberg’s career has been in chronicling The Greatest’s career and much, much more.
“People in the business know Jerry,” Schaap said. “People who have an appreciation for history as sportswriting know that Jerry is a big figure in a big market. ”
As they had done at many marquee sports events of the past few decades, Schaap and Izenberg crossed paths in Las Vegas in September 2015 for the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Andre Berto welterweight world title fight at MGM Grand Garden Arena. The fight, won by Mayweather, provided a recent opportunity for Schaap to observe Izenberg at the top of his game.
“He loves the work. He loves the writing,” Schaap noted. “And to be writing columns for as long as he has, that’s amazing. It’s remarkable and there’s passion for it.”
Earlier in Schaap’s career, before he was a signature name at ESPN and not merely a young up-and-comer with a famous dad, he witnessed the passion that Izenberg brought to every aspect of his work.
Boxing brought that trait under the big spotlight.
“I was always surprised when we did that show Classic Sports Reporters together how passionately Jerry felt things about guys,” Schaap recalled. “We’d get into arguments about, like, Ezzard Charles or Joe Walcott vs. Rocky Marciano, and I was like, ‘Jerry, the fight was 50 years ago. Let it go.’ But he still feels things deeply, and that’s the thing, that kind of enthusiasm is very hard to manufacture. It’s either there or it isn’t — that kind of passion for what you’re doing.
“Most guys by the time they reach their early 70s, or late 60s when I was working with Jerry, that enthusiasm has dissipated and they’ve mellowed. And I would say Jerry’s enthusiasm has not dissipated and he has not mellowed.”
Ali’s close friendship with Izenberg, which lasted for most of the boxer’s life, demonstrated again that the latter was truly unique. And to his credit, it showed that Jerry valued Muhammad as a human being and not just as a famous source to fill space in his column, even when Ali was criticized profusely by many for changing his name from Cassius Clay, embracing the Black Muslim faith and for refusing to serve in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.
“I think when it comes to Ali is that there were Ali champions, there were Ali detractors. Izenberg was somebody again, like he had been on many issues, ahead of the curve,” Schaap said. “And at the time, he might have seemed like an outlier, but eventually history would vindicate him.”
There are parallels in any timeline that charts Howard Cosell’s support for Ali and Izenberg’s. The broadcasting giant, of course, had the bigger forum — and the bombastic personality as well. But that didn’t diminish Izenberg’s moral crusade; in fact, it might’ve kept him more focused in shedding light on the issue with razor-sharp commentary.
“It’s hard to make the same kind of impact writing a column as you do when you’ve got that platform of network television, but I would say that Jerry was on the right side of history again as he was so often,” Schaap said.
“…Certainly it was good for Ali to have champions in the press, to have champions in the white media, but he’s still Muhammad Ali without Howard, and I think he’s still Muhammad Ali without Jerry. But the support was not irrelevant.”
In 2016, Izenberg appeared on Schaap’s ESPN Radio program, “A Sporting Life,” prior to Super Bowl 50. And it was a big reminder of the depth of Jerry’s sporting knowledge and the history connected to the personalities, games, teams and leagues that he’s written about for decades.
“It’s always a win having Jerry on because there’s so much perspective, there’s so much energy,” Schaap said. “I hope when I’m 86 that I have an iota of the passion and the energy and the creativity that Jerry still has. He’s a witness to really the entire second half of the 20th century in sports and of the beginning of the 21st, and he opens this witness for us unto a time when things were very different in many respects and so it’s always fun hearing what he has to say.”
I asked Schaap to state what’s the greatest compliment he can make about Izenberg’s career. Indeed, his answer provided nuance and insight beyond the typical sound bite heard during contemporary political campaigns.
“I would say the best thing you can say about Jerry also happens to be true: that he made an impact,” Schaap said.
“He made an impact because he didn’t follow, but he led. He was a thought leader in the world of sports journalism, and it’s easy to be part of the pack. It’s easy to pile on, and that wasn’t Jerry.
He went on: “Jerry is a fiercely independent thinker and a gifted writer and somebody with a heart and I think all those things that he was able to make an impact in a way that even more prominent writers might not have, because he was concerned with social issues, he was concerned with racial justice issues. He wasn’t the kind of guy despite his age, despite the circumstances of his own life, was going to condemn a (Tommie) Smith and a (John) Carlos as so many did.
“He was somebody because of the circumstances of his own life who also understood the issues facing America, and he was part of that generation, as my father was, who grappled with and wrote about and I think came to understand the significance of the black athlete,” Schaap concluded.
By ED ODEVEN
TOKYO (Jan. 27, 2018) — Last summer, I interviewed Jerry Green, a legendary sportswriter and columnist for the Detroit News. During our conversation, Green offered insights and anecdotes about Jerry Izenberg, the legendary Newark Star-Ledger sports columnist.
Green, now 89, and the 87-year-old Izenberg are the only two newspaper journalists who have covered all 51 Super Bowls, and both men will attend Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis in a few days.
A version of this column will be included in my upcoming ebook on Izenberg.
More than most, Jerry Green knows the significance of the totality of Jerry Izenberg’s sportswriting and his career as a whole.
Green and Izenberg are the only two newspaper writers to cover all 51 Super Bowls.
A fraternity of two.
“We share a survival instinct,” Green, who has written for the Detroit News for decades, said in a telephone interview. “He’s a survivor, I’m a survivor, and I appreciate the fact we’re both interested in each other continuing to cover (sports) because we represent an era that is long gone in American sports media. We covered national events and it would make some sort of reputation for ourselves.”
Clearly, Izenberg was in the right place at the right time early in his career with Stanley Woodward, the New York Herald Tribune sports editor as his legendary mentor, according to Green. And Woodward was a big part of those formative years.
“He came up with a terrific pedigree in that he had associations that other writers lacked being out of the New York area.”
Green gave an example of Izenberg’s important connections, noting his close ties to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, the subject of his 2014 book.
“He really got to know people in depth and a lot about them, and he was able to put that into words,” Green said.
Green believes he first met Izenberg at the 1966 NFL Championship Game at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, where the Cowboys took on the Green Bay Packers.The Packers led 14-0 en route to a 34-27 on Jan. 1, 1967.
Izenberg “had a closeness to (Hall of Fame coach Vince) Lombardi that I did not have because he coached on the New York Giants staff there before he went to Green Bay,” Green said.
Like Dick Schaap, Izenberg also saw the rise of civil rights as an issue of profound importance in the 1960s, and sports was not immune to societal changes that focused on civil rights. Izenberg’s support of Muhammad Ali’s right to protest set him part from the vast majority of his newspaper peers.
“He was in Ali’s camp right from the beginning, I would say, from the time Cassius Clay changed his name.
With decades spent reading and writing what appears on the sports pages of American newspapers, Green developed a keen understanding of what has made Izenberg an effective sportswriter.
“There’s clarity and there’s depth in his writing,” Green said, “and I think he’s very analytical.”
Green’s nimble mind unearthed a classic example from Super Bowl II: Izenberg’s reporting on an “in-the-trenches showdown” between Packers offensive guard Gale Gillingham and Raiders defensive tackle Tom Keating. As Izenberg watched the action unfold before his eyes, according to Green, the combatants on opposite sides of the line of scrimmage became a compelling slice of the game’s overall drama.
“He got into that,” Green said of Izenberg’s analytical writing, “just the way they beat up on each other. He talked to both of them … and I don’t think there was any other sportswriter in America at that time in those early years (of the Super Bowl) who would do something like that.
“Jerry was able to pick up this battle in the trenches, providing a fresh perspective on one of the game’s pivotal matchups.”
Other journalists focused on Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr or Lombardi’s last game as Packers coach or running back Jim Taylor or the NFL’s dominance of the AFL, Green said.
Izenberg’s coverage set him apart from the masses.
To this day, “he has perception,” Green added.
In February 2017, Izenberg and Green sat side by side in the press box for Super Bowl LI in Houston, watching the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons.
“I knew he was interested in the fumble, which actually was the turning point in the game,” Green said, referring to Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower’s sack of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in the fourth quarter that sparked a remarkable comeback by New England. At the time of the turnover, Atlanta led 28-12.
A key section of Izenberg’s game column focused on the pivotal play.
Here’s a portion of it:
“It was third-and-one on the Falcons’ 36 and here came Hightower from his linebacker position, the honest workman doing his job,” Izenberg wrote. “He zeroed in on Ryan, who — inexplicably to some — had dropped back to throw. Hightower came on like an avenging angel or a giant eraser, determined to wipe clean the earlier mistakes of the embarrassed Patriots.
“The linebacker arrived so ferociously, it was almost a dead heat between him and the shotgun snap, which he jarred loose as Ryan went down. The Pats recovered. He hadn’t lit a spark. He had ignited was a full-scale forest fire. Brady threw four straight completions, starting at the Falcons’ 25 and ending with Danny Amendola cradling the football in the end zone. A two-point conversion kept the flame alive.
“But for all the scoring in this game, it was Hightower who got it going and now there was no coping with the Real Patriots.”
Green penned a more traditional column with a piece about Pats QB Tom Brady.
So when did Green begin to understand that Izenberg possessed a special talent to write about sports?
“The first thing that I really got to admire Jerry for was he came out with a book called ‘The Rivals,’ ” Green said of his 1968 book. “It really captured the flavor of sports,” he went on,” which Jerry always did. He could capture the flavor of a game and games.”
Citing the Louis-Schmeling fistic rivalry, Notre Dame-Army football, Sea Biscuit vs. War Admiral, among others, Izenberg delivered a first-rate treatise on American sports. Summing up the book, here’s the Kirkus review: “With a jovial good humor and a delicate regard for the behavioral eccentricities of athletes under fire, Mr. Izenberg recalls, in a lively and original style, tournament traumas of the not-too-distant past. Classy showing on a well-run track.”
Izenberg demonstrated how to use a wide range of cultural and historic references to complete the task. “Mr. Izenberg decorates his combat commentaries with delectably apt quotes-from Job and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Alfred Shotgun Foley,” Kirkus stated.
One book, of course, didn’t cement Izenberg’s legacy in journalism, but it gave a glimpse into what he’s able to do in this arena of human (and equine) drama.
“I think he’s prolific and I would say he is a national sportswriter, and the way our business is going we don’t have that many anymore, so he’s a throwback to the Red Smith era,” said Green, who served as a U.S. Naval press officer in Asia in the 1950s before returning to New York and, in ’56, pursuing a career in journalism.
In 1955, Green penned a column on a Sugar Ray Robinson fight that he had listened to while still stationed in Japan, then distributed the column at the Foreign Sports Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo. The Asahi Evening News, a now-defunct English-language newspaper, printed the column.
“The first time I read Jerry Izenberg he was working for the (New York) Herald Tribune (from 1958-62), so he was working with Red Smith,” Green said.
Describing that era’s prominent talent, Green said the group of distinguished journalists included Jimmy Cannon and Jack Murphy.
“They were older than Jerry and I were, but we would look at them and admire them and … try to emulate them.”
“I would say maybe he’s the 21st century Red Smith,” Green commented.
In his own right, fueled by his work ethic, talent and intellect, Izenberg made a name for himself in sportswriting.
“I would go to an Ali fight or a Super Bowl and realize that he is one of the icons in our fading business,” said Green.
Green isn’t shy about pointing out why he and Izenberg continue to concoct relevant columns, even as they move closer to their 90th birthday.
“One of the best things about him and myself is we have a perspective of history,” Green explained, “and we can take current events such as the Super Bowl and go out and write about Vince Lombardi and bring it up to the current situation.”
What’s more, Izenberg’s all-around abilities as a journalist turn his prose into a work of art.
Being a skillful observer of every detail in front of him, including how and what is said in individual and group settings, helped propel Izenberg to the top of his profession.
“Yes, he was able to pick out statements and dramatize them and analyze them and use that analysis directing him to the game’s final outcome, which is a rare ability,” Green said. “It takes special insight as a journalist to be able to do that.
“He has superior insight to other sportswriters and sports columnists of our era,” added Green. “He’s a serious journalist, the kind of journalist you’re supposed to be, and few people attain that level of competence that he has plus for the output that he has had.
“I’ll say this: He’s ambitious because he’s still writing books deep into his 80s. It’s something I noticed in him and something I admire in him, his motivation.”
By Ed Odeven TOKYO (Jan. 4, 2017) — Aram Goudsouzian has two very interesting, interconnected jobs. He’s the chair of the history department at the University of Memphis, and he writes books that examine historical periods and figures, important events and iconic personalities. Dr. Goudsouzian has written “Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith […]
By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Jan. 4, 2017) — Aram Goudsouzian has two very interesting, interconnected jobs.
He’s the chair of the history department at the University of Memphis, and he writes books that examine historical periods and figures, important events and iconic personalities.
Dr. Goudsouzian has written “Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear,” “King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution,” “Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon,” and “Hurricane of 1938.” (He and Randy Roberts are editors of the “Sport and Society” series, which is published by the University of Illinois Press.)
He earned his Ph.D. in history from Purdue University in 2002, and has taught four courses at Memphis: United States History Since 1877, The Civil Rights Movement, The U.S. Since 1945 and African-American History.
The range of material that he has written and lectured about about piqued my interest. Also, I wanted to learn a bit more about how a historian views an author’s work.
What follows is a recent interview with Dr. Goudsouzian conducted by email.
∗ ∗ ∗
What sparked your interest in history and sports and books as a focal point of your career? Was there a defining moment, a seminal moment, or theme from your childhood that you look back on as instrumental in setting you on this career path?
I think that both sports and history were paths to an American identity for me. As an Armenian and a child of immigrants, I am sure that I was seeking ways to fit in among my Irish Catholic and WASP friends. History was always my favorite subject: it brought order to the mess of human existence, and it told great stories. And like a lot of kids in suburban Boston in the 1980s, I loved sports.
I devoured the sports page of the Boston Globe, when the newspaper was in its heyday and the city’s teams were so interesting and successful. I also connected to people through sports – my young days were filled with pickup football, basketball, and wiffleball, and I have played soccer my entire life (I was once adequate and still stubbornly strive for mediocrity.)
But I had no idea that becoming a history professor lay in my career path. When I was in college, I had no clue about my future. I loved my classes, but I figured that whatever I did, I would be happy. I was wrong. When I graduated I took a job as a customer service representative for a mutual fund company. Within a few weeks, I was thinking about graduate school in history. My interest in sport history was a driving force in my life – it was what brought me to study African American history, as well.
What best sums up the role the Sport and Society series, published by the University of Illinois Press, has had in chronicling this vast subject for academics and general readership?
For many years, most academic historians turned their noses up at sports history. They considered it unworthy of study even as it consumed mass attention and shaped important elements of our culture. A pioneering generation that included Benjamin Rader and Randy Roberts – the founding editors of the Sport and Society series – changed that perception through their first-class scholarship. The Sport and Society series now provides the premier outlet for academic sports history. When Dr. Rader retired, I joined as the series co-editor, and it has been a terrific experience to help usher along some outstanding books.
Reflecting on your four previous books — Down to the Crossroads, King of the Court, Sidney Poitier and Hurricane of 1938 — can you offer a basic explanation of the unique challenge of each project? Were these topics in the back of your mind as things you simply wanted to learn more about and felt they would be timely books, as well as subjects that would have a broader, longer value as contributions to the American history?
For my three “big” books, one project has fed into another, in some form. The biography of Sidney Poitier grew out of my interest in how popular culture has fed our political debates over race – Poitier’s super-respectable image was groundbreaking and controversial in the late 1950s, embracing a liberal consensus in the early 1960s, and an object of derision among radicals by the late 1960s. Bill Russell, by contrast, was so interesting because he refused to fit any political category: while leading the interracial Boston Celtics to eleven NBA championships, he was also defying the conventions expected of black athletes. While writing those biographies, I was also reading a lot of the cutting-edge work on the civil rights movement for context, and that fed my interest in telling the story of the Meredith March Against Fear, a 1966 civil rights march that introduced the slogan “Black Power.”
The book on the Hurricane of 1938 is definitely an outlier. In the early 2000s, I had sent my Poitier manuscript off to the press when a colleague offered me an opportunity to write a short book for a local history series. At the time I was scraping together courses as an adjunct at various schools in Boston, and I had no plan for what was next. I also thought the hurricane was particularly interesting – it is largely forgotten, yet at the time it was the costliest natural disaster in American history.
Living history, as some say, is perhaps more vivid in certain places, and maybe that’s true in Memphis, where the music history (Elvis, R&B, soul; and nearby country and other genres in Nashville) and civil rights history and reminders of tragedy (MLK Jr.’s assassination) are omnipresent. That said, do you view living and working in Memphis as ideal for someone who does what you do?
For sure, the past is always breathing in Memphis. It is a city that both banks on its history and is haunted by it. As a birthplace for rock and roll, it possesses an attractive mystique. But like any city that trades on its place in the civil rights movement, that legacy is fraught with ambiguity. For years I lived across the street from the National Civil Rights Museum, which was built into the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated. People arrive at that site from all around the world, and it compels so many different reactions. The city helped draw me into a tale of the “classic” southern civil rights movement. If I did not live in Memphis, I am sure that I never would have written Down to the Crossroads, which tells the story of a march that started in Memphis and traveled through Mississippi.
Is Bill Russell under-appreciated by a majority of Americans for his contributions to the Civil Rights movement, race relations and progress?
I think many sports fans understand Russell as part of that pioneer generation of outspoken black athletes that included Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Curt Flood. But Russell was a particularly thoughtful and complex man, which gets lost sometimes. He can get simplified as a great winner who overcame prejudice. The thickest thread running through King of the Court is Russell’s insistence on his individuality, on his identity as a black person who was both liberal and radical, on his manhood.
In recent years, it has been interesting to see Bill Russell return to the public spotlight more and more, and also to observe Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s growing role as a commentator, columnist and pundit. Indeed, Kareem is seen more on TV and in broadcast media. But what insight and analysis of life and America in 2016/17 do you believe Russell would be most articulate about if he had the same platform?
Interestingly, Russell wrote a semi-regular (weekly) column for the Seattle Times in the late 1970s and early 1980s, after his coaching stint ended with the SuperSonics. He was not the best writer, but he was not bad. He tackled all sorts of subjects, from national politics to marijuana legalization to the lives of prisoners. Some columns were light, others quite hard-hitting. He almost never mentioned basketball. As with Abdul-Jabbar, who has grown into a fine writer, we might understand Russell’s column as a form of resistance – not just against prejudice or political developments, but also against the notion that he is a big black beast, placed on earth just to perform physical feats for our entertainment.
From Russell or those who reported on what he said and did that you came across during your book research, can you recall what was most profound when he spoke about Wilt Chamberlain’s greatness as an athlete?
Russell and Chamberlain had such a fascinating relationship. In the 1960s, when their on-court rivalry consumed the basketball media, Russell struck up a friendship with Chamberlain, often hosting him at his home. While many were vilifying Chamberlain as a selfish egotist, Russell was defending him. But when Russell retired in 1969, he blasted Chamberlain as a loser. It was as if he had maintained the friendship only for a psychological edge that was no longer necessary. The two proud men stopped speaking to each other. And yet, over time, they found peace with each other, and when Chamberlain died, Russell spoke with eloquence about his great friend and rival.
What’s your assessment of the remarkable Russell-led Celtics dynasty?
Russell is, without question, the greatest winner in American team sport. He won eleven NBA championships in thirteen seasons with the Boston Celtics. We might think of this as one basketball dynasty – I would say instead that it was three different dynasties, linked by Russell. During the first group of championships in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Celtics were an offensive firepower, anchored by Russell’s revolutionary shotblocking. By the mid-1960s, as players like Bill Sharman, Bob Cousy, and Tom Heinsohn retired, the team revolved around its defensive identity. And then, in 1968 and 1969, he won two NBA championships as a player-coach! That is somehow the least appreciated element of his remarkable career.
Also, he won an Olympic gold medal in 1956. And before that, he led an unknown program at the University of San Francisco to two NCAA titles and a record-breaking win streak. There is no one else who even approaches this legacy as a winner.
In your close following of American history, did the rise of Donald Trump en route to the presidency surprise you? What are your general views on the tactics and rhetoric used by him and his team during the campaign and transition period while he’s been the president-elect? And what are your greatest fears and concerns for the Trump administration?
I was as shocked as anyone else that Trump won. Like most people, I trusted the polls and the establishment media. That was a rational response, based on recent elections. It turns out there was nothing rational about the 2016 election.
There is not much I can say about Trump that has not been said. He flouts the principles of the Constitution, exhibits an open racism and xenophobia, lies without remorse, has a brittle ego, and acts more like a pampered celebrity than the leader of the free world.
I have great respect for the American political tradition, for the consistent and peaceful transition of power from one party to the other. I appreciate rational differences of political opinion. But once again, there is nothing rational going on here.
Do you see a natural connection between being a scholar and book author? Is there an overlap in skill sets for the jobs?
For me, the two are intertwined. I always sought to write for an audience beyond my fellow historians, even when I was in graduate school, or still when I am writing articles for scholarly journals. Scholars have to express their ideas in a clear and compelling fashion over an extended piece of writing, which is the mark of a good book author.
Who are some of your favorite writers, regardless of the genre, that you turn to for enlightenment and enjoyment?
In my formative years as a historian, I was most inspired by the great journalists who emerged in the 1960s: David Halberstam, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and others. They all had different styles, but they shared certain skills as writers, in their telling details and compelling characters and narrative arcs. More recently I have developed a great admiration for the work of Rick Perlstein, who is narrating the rise of the New Right in a series of long books filled with insight and humor.
My adviser in graduate school at Purdue University was Randy Roberts, the author of many terrific books, including biographies of the boxers Jack Dempsey, Jack Johnson, and Joe Louis. Randy taught me many things, but especially how to think about narrative history. Right now, in the field of civil rights history, there are a number of academic historians who are writing books that speak to a broader public, including Tim Tyson, Danielle McGuire, Ibram Kendi, Peniel Joseph, Johnny Smith, and Heather Thompson. Check out their books!
How do you consume news and current affairs? Do you read several newspapers, magazines and online articles on a daily/weekly basis? Are you an avid TV news watcher or radio listener?
I used to read the newspaper over breakfast – then I had kids, which apparently means I cannot sit and read quietly for more than twenty seconds at a time. Now I tend to get my news more in snippets – sometimes over social media, more consistently through the “News” app on my phone.
From a research and scholarly perspective, is there a comparable value in fiction work as a research tool for an understanding an era and its trends to nonfiction work? Can you offer an example of how fiction work has augmented your research and study of subjects to enable you to lecture on it and write about it?
I used to read fiction before falling asleep – then I met my wife, which apparently means that I cannot read in bed any more. I wish I had more time for fiction now. A great novel sweeps you into a story, makes you care about characters, and illuminates important themes. Those are all good lessons for historians.
Writing for QZ.com about Muhammad Ali’s life and legacy, your closing passage was an apt conclusion. In part, it read: “He became a global icon of goodwill, a transformation completed by his dramatic lighting of the Olympic torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. His trembling silence was broken by lightning flashes of the old magnetism. He let us see the best of ourselves in him.” Was that something that you thought about for a long time before writing? Or was it penned more on adrenaline and in the moment?
An editor at Quartz asked me to write the essay upon reports of Ali’s bad health, which was a few months before he died, so I had some time to formulate my thoughts. I had to acknowledge the near-universal admiration for Ali, but more important, emphasize that for much of his life, most white Americans feared and hated him. His image transformation says more about us than about him.
What are vital traits to be a successful historian?
When I teach introductory-level surveys of U.S. History, I tell my students that they are historians. A good historian works hard, thinks critically about the evidence before them, speaks and writes clearly, and learns to approach the world from multiple perspectives. These are the same skills that foster success in any field.
What are you writing about now?
I am currently working on two projects. One is a collection of essays on the African American struggle in for freedom in Memphis, which I am co-editing with my friend, Rhodes College historian Charles McKinney. Memphis is an important and under-appreciated site for black activism – in the national narrative, it often gets boiled down to the sanitation workers’ strike and the King assassination. Charles and I have solicited essays from a number of our colleagues, and we have sent the draft off to the publisher with our fingers crossed.
My other project is writing a short history of the presidential election of 1968. It has been covered extensively, as it includes many dramatic events: the surprising challenge by anti-war Democrat Eugene McCarthy, Lyndon Johnson’s surprise decision not to pursue another term, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the violence at the Democratic National Convention, and the election of Richard Nixon, which signaled the beginning of a slow shift in the political center from Left to Right. My own book is designed to reach undergraduate students; each chapter revolves around the experiences on one candidate, so that they might appreciate how the past informs our current political situation.
In the long history of motion pictures in America, how influential and important would you say Sidney Poitier was? What is his legacy as an actor? In terms of talent, charisma, looks, etc. would he be on any top 10 list of movie actors for the 20th and 21st centuries you would make?
Poitier’s most important legacy is that he was the sole black actor consistently wining Hollywood roles as a leading man from the late 1950s through the late 1960s. He was an actor of prodigious talent, able to convey a wide range of emotions, while emitting a strong presence. But race limited his opportunities. He carried an enormous burden as a representative of black dignity and justice. He often played a liberal fantasy of a black man – sacrificing for his white co-star, containing his anger, sidestepping sexual contact. But the political shifts wrought by the Civil Rights movement changed the meaning of his image. He negotiated these shifts with grace, but no one actor could satisfy all the demands wrought by a race-torn nation. His story still resonates today – if we expect all black people to be as perfect as the Sidney Poitier icon, we are denying the possibility of a more genuinely equal society.