Peter Kerasotis details the enjoyment and challenges of writing Felipe Alou’s memoir

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Peter Kerasotis and Felipe Alou

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.

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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.

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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.

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The author and Felipe Alou

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.

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Felipe Alou and Barry Bonds

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.

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Felipe Alou managed in more than 2,000 MLB games with the Expos and Giants. CC-BY-2.0

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.

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Felipe Alou, circa 1963 PUBLIC DOMAIN

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.

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Further reading
Here’s my interview with Peter Kerasotis from November 2013 about his journalism career: https://edodevenreporting.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/getting-to-know-peter-kerasotis-2/

Follow him on Twitter: @PeterKerasotis

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Andrew Maraniss reflects on an eight-year labor of love (writing a biography about SEC basketball pioneer Perry Wallace)

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Photos courtesy of Andrew Maraniss

 

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Andrew Maraniss

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Andrew Maraniss is making the rounds speaking about Perry Wallace, the profound impact Wallace made on his life, and the book they collaborated on.

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.

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Perry Wallace (No. 42, third from right in back row) and the Pearl High School basketball team.

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?

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Perry Wallace signs autographs for Vanderbilt basketball fans during his playing days.

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.

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Students have been inspired by Perry Wallace’s life story. Andrew Maraniss has spoken at numerous schools and civic organizations to talk about the book and about Wallace’s incredible story.

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.

 

 

 

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Perry Wallace in a game against SEC rival Alabama.

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.

Vanderbilt coach Roy Skinner shakes hands with Perry Wallace.

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.

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Follow Andrew Maraniss on Twitter: @trublu24

Visit his website: andrewmaraniss.com

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The Wallace family: Gabby, Perry and Karen.

Distinguished broadcaster Jeremy Schaap reflects on Jerry Izenberg’s legendary career in sports journalism

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Jan. 30, 2018)

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.

Jerry Green on Jerry Izenberg: ‘One of the icons in our fading business’

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.

Remarkable.

“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.”

Others agreed.

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.”

It worked.

“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.”

 

A conversation with Aram Goudsouzian, author and historian: insights on the Civil Rights movement, Bill Russell, Sidney Poitier, and more

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.

∗ ∗ ∗

goudsouzian-booksellers

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.

 

A conversation with Aram Goudsouzian, author and historian: insights on the Civil Rights movement, Bill Russell, Sidney Poitier, and more

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.

∗ ∗ ∗

goudsouzian-booksellers
Aram Goudsouzian

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.

 

A look back at ‘the magic of the 1958 season’ and Steve Bitker’s engrossing, well-crafted book on the original San Francisco Giants

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KCBS sports anchor Steve Bitker seen in a promotional photo. Credit: ED JAY

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Oct. 17, 2016) — Steve Bitker grew up with the San Francisco Giants, attending his first Giants game during the team’s first season in California. That led to a lifelong interest in baseball and the team and, eventually, a career in sports media.

Decades later, the longtime San Francisco Bay Area morning sports anchor for KCBS Radio researched that team and penned a fascinating book, “The Original San Francisco Giants: The Giants of ’58.” It consumed nearly five years and featured interviews with, in his words, “30 of the 32 surviving members” of the team.

In a recent interview, Bitker reflected on the project 18 years after its publication and generously shared a lot of background about the stories behind the stories.

His enthusiasm for the project shined through during our email exchange and he brought to life, and greater clarity, the cast of characters that played, managed and coached for the Giants in ’58, the same year the Los Angeles Dodgers began their stay in California after decades of existence in Brooklyn.

For Bitker, who worked at the English-language JCTV (Japan Cable Television, Ltd.) as a sports/news anchor in Tokyo for three years before joining KCBS in 1991, it all started at Seals Stadium, before Candlestick Park and before the Giants’ current home, AT&T Park.

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What sparked this book project to begin? Was it in the back of your mind for many years? Or was it more of a sudden idea that popped into your head one day – perhaps a realization that this was a topic that really wasn’t represented in print, especially in books?

What initially sparked this book project was the fact that my dad started taking my brother and me to Giants games at Seals Stadium in S.F. in 1958, when I was just 5 years old, and that was accompanied by me being an avid first-time collector of Topps Baseball Cards. This was back in the day when very few games were televised, so for young kids like me, the images on the Topps cards were often times the first time I actually had a close-up look at the players, through those cardboard images.

As I got older and older, the magic of that 1958 season never left me. I still have the entire 1958 Topps set. Segue to the early ’90s, and I’m having lunch in SF with a media colleague named Rob Gloster — an AP sportswriter — who is working on a book about his father’s favorite ballplayer, outfielder Pete Reiser of the Dodgers. I’m fascinated listening to him describe the task of finding a publisher, and his own research, and his passion for writing this book, for his father as well as for himself, when it finally hit me: Wouldn’t it be GREAT if someone would write a book about the 1958 Giants?!? And that’s when Rob told me that if I really want to see someone write that book, I’d better do it myself, because if nobody’s tackled the project by now, chances are that nobody ever will. So I more or less decided on the spot, that this was something I wanted to do. I wanted to write the book as a tribute to the men who first brought major league baseball to SF, and I wanted to personally meet them all, and to learn much more about their careers, and what kind of people they were, and what they did after playing ball, etc. So I was going to write this book for them, as a contribution toward preserving the memory of that first season of big-league ball in SF, and I was going to write it for myself.

 

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Front cover of Steve Bitker’s book.

In your best estimation, how long did this project take from start to finish? How many interviews were conducted? How many miles were traveled? How many states and locales did you visit to meet with the Original Giants and other key sources?

This book project took about five years to complete. I started by going through microfilm in the Oakland Public Library of San Francisco and New York newspapers from the mid-1950s, when talk began in New York that the Giants and Dodgers might be considering a joint move to California, through the entire 1958 season. I went to the library four or five days a week for several weeks, for 2-3 hours a day. Once I had finished that part of the project, and making copies of many articles, and taking many notes, I was ready to start contacting former players, who played for the ’58 Giants. The Giants organization was very helpful in providing me with phone numbers to several players, along with some addresses, and I chased down contact info on my own. I interviewed 30 of the 32 surviving members of the team (excluding catcher Bob Schmidt and shortstop Andre Rodgers), in addition to their manager, two coaches, one of their newspaper beat writers, their one surviving radio play-by-play announcer, one batboy and the Giants’ longtime clubhouse manager. I traveled to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands to interview three key members of the team, and interviewed most of the others here in the Bay Area, several who live(d) here, and others who visited SF as guests of the Giants.

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Back cover of Steve Bitker’s book.

Who did you interview in St. Croix (U.S. Virgin Islands) for this book? What was unique about that experience compared to some of the others?

Valmy Thomas, the first native of the USVI to play in the majors, was the Giants’ opening- day catcher in 1958. He picked up my wife and me at the island’s small airport, and spent several hours with us, driving us all over the island to see the sights, taking us to lunch, and showing us (unintentionally) that he was one of St. Croix’s most famous and revered residents!

“Everywhere we went, people called out to him, from little kids, to senior citizens. As I subsequently learned, he was well known not simply for being a former major league ballplayer, but also for his work in education and recreation affairs, in broadcasting, and for the sporting goods store he opened many years before, initially as a side business when he was still playing baseball.” – Steve Bitker reflecting on his observations of people’s admiration for Valmy Thomas in the U.S. Virigin Islands

Was there a certain standard style for most of the interviews with the Original Giants? Did you have a basic list of questions for each of them? Or did you try to tailor each interview with certain specific questions?

The one standard part of the approach was to ask each of them about their experiences moving from NY to SF, living in SF, playing at Seals Stadium (known as perhaps the most beautiful minor league ballpark in the country, and the Giants’ home for their first two years in SF), etc. Otherwise, I tailored each interview with questions related to their overall careers playing baseball (I did my homework, in advance, of course, so that I knew many specifics about their careers before interviewing them), from childhood through their retirements, and what they did for a living after playing baseball. I was also curious about social/racial issues, in so far as how they affected the Giants’ black players in particular, as well as their foreign-born players from the Caribbean, the Bahamas (technically NOT part of the Caribbean) and Venezuela.

Did you conduct the interviews at regular times – one a week, one a month –  or was it more irregular or compact in nature, done, say, mostly during the baseball off-season?

There was no consistent schedule of interviews, because while I was able to schedule some of them rather easily, it took me many months (and even years) to track down some of these former players. It was never tied to the baseball season, because these former players were no longer playing ball. So I did the interviews whenever I could schedule them, and I was always well-prepared with a list of questions for everyone.

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Former Giants pitcher Ruben Gomez and author Steve Bitker. Credit: STEVE BITKER

Looking back, who were a few of the best storytellers and anecdote givers to you from that team? Was somebody particularly funny in the way they told the tales?

The best storytellers were Ruben Gomez, Felipe Alou, Willie Kirkland, Leon Wagner, Bill White, and their manager with the ’58 Giants, a man often referred to as “the greatest baseball storyteller of all,” Bill Rigney.

As for humor, it was Ruben Gomez, no doubt about it. He was known as “the butcher of the Caribbean,” when he pitched for the Giants in the 1950s, because of his reputation for throwing at hitters, and inciting brawls, and to be perfectly honest, I was a nervous as a high school freshman, asking the pretty girl in my English class to go on a date, when I finally tracked him down in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I had no idea whether he spoke English well, nor whether he might have turned into an old and temperamental crazy man. Quite the contrary. His English was fine, and he could not have been more gracious, coming to our hotel for the interview, inviting me to play golf with him, and taking my wife and me to his favorite nightclub in San Juan. And his stories were priceless, over a three-hour period, regaling me with tale after tale from his colorful career, including the time his major league career ended when the owner of the Minnesota Twins told him to stop dating his white girlfriend, that he had to choose “the girl or the Twins.” Ruben told him, “I love baseball, but I have more fun with the girl,” so the Twins released him, and he went to pitch in the Mexican League.

Did someone surprise you with his humor, his clarity, his details of that season and its place in the grand scheme of S.F. Giants baseball history?

Again, Ruben Gomez’s humor was priceless, recollecting key events over the course of his career, and telling the stories in a very entertaining way. I remember laughing so hard at times that I had tears coming down my face, which had him laughing as well. Gomez, and several other players had vivid memories of that 1958 season, particularly those who spent the entire year with the Giants, and were regulars in the Giants lineup. Conversely, other players who didn’t play as much, or who didn’t spend the entire season with the Giants remembered far less, and that was OK, because at times like that I let the interview detour from the ’58 Giants and settle instead with another team, in another city, because it was that player’s time in that city, with that team, that left a greater impression on his career.

On the other hand, Willie Kirkland spent the entire ’58 season with the Giants, as a starting rookie right fielder, and yet the one lasting memory he had from ’58 was when the Giants spring training hitting coach Lefty O’Doul screwed around with his swing (getting rid of a hitch in the swing that Willie always had) to such a degree that he could never get it back, and Willie felt it had a lasting negative impact on his career. But Willie had incredibly vivid memories of the six years he spent playing in Osaka, Japan (after nine years in the majors), and his early years in the minors, playing in the Deep South, where he was subject to racial discrimination, including threats on his life from a shady character (and apparent gambler) in an overcoat, at a stadium in Morristown, Tennessee, who told him, during the ninth inning, that if he caught the next ball hit to him in right field, he’d be shot to death.

Felipe Alou and Mike McCormick had very detailed memories from the ’58 season, and from their careers in general.

But, again, the greatest recollection of details from the 1958 season in San Francisco, by far, came from the team’s manager Bill Rigney. He was so good, and so thorough, that Bison Books Publisher, at the University of Nebraska, told me that while they were intrigued by my book project, they were not quite sold on it, unless I wanted to change it from a book on the ’58 Giants to a book on the ’58 Giants manager Bill Rigney. In other words, Rigney was such a great storyteller, Bison Books wanted me to write the book on Rigney. Just Rigney. Looking back, I wish I had done both. But my chapter on Rigney is a gem.

Did Willie Mays prove to be an easy-going interviewing subject or a challenge? Did he have a greater attachment to the team’s New York years than the new beginnings in California?

Interesting that you asked about Willie Mays. I tracked down every surviving member of the ’58 Giants, and interviewed every one of them, except two, who for personal reasons, declined my interview requests. However, Willie Mays is the one player I did not track down directly, even though I knew exactly where he lived (very near where I grew up). In fact, he still lives there. I could have simply walked up to his front door, introduced myself and asked him. But, instead, I went through one of the former Giants’ long-time executives, Pat Gallagher, who was close with Willie, and who handled interview and other business requests that Willie received.

Fortunately, I knew Pat well, so he acted as the middle man, and set up the interview at Willie’s house, where Willie greeted me at the door, invited me into his kitchen nook area, where we sat for two hours, and conducted a seamless interview. Willie was fighting a cold that day, but he was very warm and generous with his time that day, and I know he was that way because Pat set up the interview.

Unfortunately, unless Willie knew you well, he didn’t trust you, and that’s fairly understandable, I suppose, because of all the people over the years that invariably wanted a piece of Willie’s time. So he was very guarded, very suspicious, and sometimes he could come across as fairly rude. Thus, I decided, in advance, that I’d be better off going through Pat, and I’m very glad I did. Otherwise, it would not have been an easy interview, I’m certain, nor as long.

To answer to your specific question, yes, he had a very strong attachment to his years in NYC, in part because he was not immediately welcomed with open arms when he arrived in San Francisco. First, there were white residents who objected to him buying a home in their neighborhood. Second, the fans in San Francisco took more of a personal liking to Orlando Cepeda, who was a wide-eyed, charismatic rookie in ’58, and had the kind of infectious personality that endeared him right away to SF Giants fans, who adopted him as one of their own, as they did with Willie McCovey when he was a rookie in ’59, and with Juan Marichal when he was a rookie in ’60. Mays, to them, was a NY Giant, and somewhat stand-offish. Eventually, the SF fans came to love Mays as much as any Giant, because he was such an incredible player, but the personal connection was never as tight with him, as it was with Cepeda, McCovey and Marichal.

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Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, the 1958 NL Rookie of the Year, and announcer Steve Bitker are seen during a radio interview. Credit: STEVE BITKER

Similarly, can you offer brief explanations of what it was like talking to Orlando Cepeda, Felipe Alou, Johnny Antonelli and Bill Rigney?

It took much more time than I imagined it would to nail down an interview with Cepeda, even though he was among the easiest to find, because he worked in Community Affairs for the Giants, so he was always at the ballpark (Candlestick), but every time I tried to schedule something, he always had a reason to blow me off, even though we always had an easy time talking with each other. Finally, I scheduled the interview, and it took place DURING A GIANTS GAME, inside an office, with the Giants game on TV in the background — I remember Daryl Strawberry hit a homer for the Giants during that interview, distracting Orlando enough, that the interview was put on hold for a minute or two. The interview lasted only 45 minutes to an hour, in contrast to the 2-3 hours I spent with Mays, Gomez, Kirkland, Alou, McCormick, Wagner, Thomas, Rigney, etc. Orlando’s answers were good, but not terribly deep or reflective. I always had a feeling that he was in a hurry to get it done.

Alou was fabulous, just fabulous. I met with him at the Montreal Expos’ hotel lobby, in downtown SF, several hours before he had to get to Candlestick for a night game. He was warm, detailed, thoughtful, passionate. He told me about growing up in the Dominican Republic, and about his love of fishing, which he continued to enjoy when he played for the Giants — in fact, he enjoyed fishing off the coast of Candlestick Point, very near where the Giants future home was going to be built. In fact, when he first heard that the Giants planned to build a stadium there, he couldn’t believe it! He said all the fisherman in the area knew that the wind was calm in the early morning hours, but that by about 10:30 in the morning, the wind would pick up steam, and make it a very uncomfortable place to fish…and a very uncomfortable place to enjoy a baseball game. How right he was.

Antonelli was wonderful, too. Like Alou, a strikingly handsome man (both still are!), with some very mixed emotions about his days pitching for the Giants in SF, at Seals Stadium, where the wind wasn’t as notorious (in reputation) as it was later at Candlestick, but where the wind blew out toward left field (at Candlestick it blew in from left, and out toward right). In fact, when Antonelli lost a critical home game to the Dodgers during the final week of the ’59 season (a three-game sweep that cost the Giants the NL pennant), Antonelli ripped the windy conditions in a post-game session with the press, because it blew what would have been a routine fly ball over the left-field fence, costing him the game. Well, the provincial SF press went after Antonelli, for having the gall to criticize San Francisco, suggesting he should go back to NY! The truth was that Antonelli really liked SF, as did his wife, but he honestly felt that the press targeted him from that point on, and it got so bad that it affected his pitching, and (he said) helped convince him to retire prematurely in 1961 at the age of 31!

Rigney was the best. We did our interview during an A’s game at the Oakland Coliseum, because he was employed as an A’s adviser at the time. The interview started in the first inning, and it didn’t end until the seventh or eighth. I have absolutely no idea how that game turned out, and Bill probably didn’t either, because both of us were so into the interview. Bill loved talking baseball, loved telling stories, and loved talking with anyone who was as passionate about the game as he was. He was often referred to as a “civic treasure,” and there was no greater ambassador for the game of baseball than Bill Rigney, and nobody with a greater recollection of specific players and anecdotes covering more than 60 years of professional baseball, including his days with the NY and SF Giants, his time as manager of the expansion California Angels in 1961 (when they played at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, the former home of the PCL’s Hollywood Stars, as well as the home of the 1960 TV classic, “Home Run Derby,” and in ’62, when the Angels finished 86-76 (astounding for a second-year team).

Eighteen years after its publication, how do you think the book has gained, and can gain, a deeper appreciation from a younger generation of readers and also those with a nostalgic desire to revisit the Giants’ first year and era as a West Coast franchise?

I really have no idea how many of the younger generation of readers that this book has touched. I would like to think that many have read it, but I’m also wise enough to know that the younger generation, in general, is not as interested in history as its counterparts in other cultures. Every now and then, I run across a young fan who read my book and loved it, because he loves reading about Giants’ history, but I know from all the book signings I did that my book appealed mostly to Giants fans who remember those days when the Giants settled in SF, and remember the players who first introduced big-league ball to SF.

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Brothers Alan (left) and Steve Bitker, seen circa 1959 at ages 8 and 6, respectively, outside their Woodside, Calif., home. Credit: STEVE BITKER

What can you recall from attending your first Giants game at age 5 at Seals Stadium? Are there certain highlights from that game that remained in your mind’s eye for decades?

Unfortunately, I cannot remember my first game at Seals Stadium, which has always frustrated me. Most of my friends remember their first major league game, because it happened when they were 8 or 9, but not 5, as I was when I attended my first game. However, I remember many things about Seals Stadium, which I’m very happy about, since my entire experience of Seals Stadium happened when I was 5 and 6 years old. I remember exiting the auditorium-like concourse at Seals Stadium, and exiting through an open door to our right, and seeing the most beautiful field of glistening green grass and bright white bases, basking in sunshine, with the Giants wearing their white flannel uniforms. Instantly, they were my heroes. They were the guys whose faces I memorized on my Topps trading cards. I remember the Hamm’s Brewery’s flashing beer mug, high behind the stands behind home plate. The glass would gradually fill with beer to a foam-covered top, flash on and off three times, then start the process all over again.

Many years later, I discovered I wasn’t the only one fixated on that Hamm’s beer glass. Don Drysdale, who lost the first big-league game played on the West Coast, 8-0 to the Giants in SF, on April 15, 1958, said many years later that he didn’t remember much about the game itself, but he remembered that beer glass filling up and flashing three times, over and over and over again. And I also remember that when the games ended, the scoreboard in center field would open up, and fans were allowed to walk down to the field, and across the outfield grass to their parked cars, and to the surrounding neighborhood streets.

Did you attend the game with your parents, classmates, a large group? Was it a special day in the season – perhaps for your birthday?

Since this question pertains to the first game I ever attended, which I don’t recall, I can tell you that I did celebrate many birthdays at Giants games, since I was born on April 3rd, and that as long as my grades were good, my parents would always let me skip school on Opening Day. That was such a treat. My mom would drive my brother and me to the game, and my dad would join us from his office in downtown SF. Always a special day.

Did you became a die-hard baseball (and Giants) fan at a young age?

Yes, I did. I became a die-hard baseball fan, and Giants fan, beginning in 1958. Going to the games was a huge contributor. And, again, so were the Topps baseball cards that I collected. Those were my direct connections to major league baseball, as well as listening to the games on the radio. My folks were great about taking us to 10-12 games a year, sometimes more. They even took us to the 1962 World Series. My dad bought two tickets, so my mom took me to game one, my dad took my brother to game two, my folks went to game six, and they let my brother and me (ages 12 and 9) go to game seven.

Did the 1958 Giants, and the team in the general in those early years in San Francisco, plant the seed in your mind that a career in sports media was your goal, your dream? Or did something else lead you on this path? Can you reflect on that?

I’m sure that the ’58 Giants, and their successful years in SF that followed throughout the 1960s, into 1971, were instrumental in planting that seed. I remember checking a book out of my junior high school library, titled, “So You Want to be a Sportswriter?” I actually got hired as a part-time sportswriter for the Redwood City Tribune when I was 16, at which time I was also sports editor of my high school newspaper, near Stanford University. And I got into news and sports radio in college, at both San Diego State and at Cal. My full-time post-collegiate career actually began as a radio news anchor/reporter, from 1976 to 1989, at which point I moved into sports, where I’ve been a morning sports anchor for the last 27 years, the last 25 at KCBS.

I also spent 17 years announcing baseball games on the radio, the first six for the minor league Sonoma County Crushers, of the independent Western League, in Rohnert Park, Calif., from ’95 through ’01; and then 11 years as the backup radio voice for the Oakland A’s, from ’01 through ’11, announcing an average of 10-15 games a season.

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Seals Stadium. Credit: MLBcathedrals

Also, did you focus quite a bit on the differences between playing at Seals Parks and then just a couple years later at Candlestick and how the team performed differently at both venues?

Seals Stadium was a much nicer park than Candlestick, both aesthetically, and weather-wise. Despite Johnny Antonelli’s experiences at Seals Stadium, the wind there wasn’t anywhere as oppressive as it was at Candlestick. They were at Seals for two years — despite fielding a very young team, full of rookies and second-year players, the Giants were in first place on August 1, 1958, before sliding to third at the finish; and they led the NL by two games with eight games remaining in ’59, before sliding to second. They were at Candlestick for 40, with a mixture of great success and not-so-good years. They were a perennial contender in the ’60s, had some lean years in the ’70s, they lost 196 games in the ’84 and ’85 seasons, and they came back strong after that, winning the NL pennant in ’89, and winning a franchise-record 103 games in ’93, before moving to Pacific Bell Park (now called AT&T Park) in 2000. As oppressive as it was to call Candlestick home, the Giants often tried to gain a psychological edge playing there, by minimizing whatever discomfort they felt there, knowing full well that opposing teams hated playing there, and often complained openly about it.

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Seals Stadium. Credit: SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

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Who were a few of the key primary sources – print journalists and authors – you relied on for your research for this book? (Perhaps it was more general – such as all of the local newspapers and a lot of microfiche from the library.) Or was your primary research more driven by oral history and the spoken word by those who witnessed the season, such as announcers and others around the ballclub and the NL at that time?

I did all the background research myself. The book is a combination of detailing the background of why and how the team moved from NY to SF, the Seals Stadium experience, the 1958 season in great detail, virtually day-by-day, and then finally, an oral history from the former Giants (and media members), chapter by chapter. I did get invaluable assistance from local sports journalists Marty Lurie, Bill Arnold and Tom Stern, in proofreading my manuscript, so by the time I sent it to the publisher, it was a finished product.

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The author Steve Bitker. Credit: WILLIAM PASSERO

What is the biggest compliment you have received about this book?

The biggest compliment I got from this book came from the longtime SF Chronicle baseball beat writer who covered the Giants for more than two decades, Bob Stevens. He and several former Giants players sent me letters, thanking me for writing the book, but Stevens’ letter stands out:

“The Original San Francisco Giants format and substance is stunning in its originality and art. Each interview had its moments of realistic drama, offered by man who clearly and honestly, sometimes with ego, sometimes with wrenching anger, sometimes with almost tears of their own, candidly take their readers through their successes and failures.

“I’m reading each page slowly, Steve, as I want to absorb it all as it is; like once again re-living a life I still regard as magic. You have done one helluva job; you have the words, they are beautifully crafted, your research is thorough and beyond question, and–well, Steve, as I read your paragraphs recalling your visit to the Caribbean, interviewing Ruben Gomez, Valmy Thomas, etc., and Eddie Bressoud, and Willie Mays, and Daryl Spencer, Leon Wagner — oh, all of them. I was deeply touched. Honest, Steve, I at times had to stop and wipe away tears produced by memories that gave me, and still do, the genuine thrills to a life I’ve lived so gratefully and so fortunately induced by the greatest game ever invented.

“Thanks again, Steve, for including me in a book of indelible memories that I insist made possible my career of never having to work a day in my life.”

In your view, what is the legacy of this book?

The legacy is a detailed and first-person account of the Giants’ first year in San Francisco, with personal stories and anecdotes, and photographs, thus preserving the memory and accounts from all the players (and more), who made it all possible.

Was it one of the more satisfying tasks you’ve accomplished as a sports journalist/broadcaster?

YES! It’s the single-most engrossing and satisfying career project I’ve ever completed. Since then, I’ve been approached by my publisher, wanting me to write other specific books, but I’ve always declined, because none of those suggestions thus far has come anywhere remotely close to providing the inherent passion I had for this book, from start to finish. I am immensely proud of it, and so relieved that I took on this project, and conducted the interviews when I did, because, not surprisingly, many of the ’58 Giants whom I interviewed have since passed away.

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Autographs from the 1958 Giants. Credit: STEVE BITKER

In recent years, have you had the urge to write another baseball book?

I thought about writing a book about the unwritten rules of baseball, but a pair of locally-based writers beat me to it.

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“That autographed 1958 Giants ball is something that started with my very first interview,” author Steve Bitker revealed. “And then I took that ball to every subsequent interview.” Credit: STEVE BITKER

As a West Coast-based sports announcer, how special has it been to see and hear the final years of Vin Scully and Dick Enberg’s long distinguished careers in broadcasting?

I’ve always enjoyed Dick Enberg’s genuinely enthusiastic and passionate broadcasting, on a variety of sports, but in terms of baseball, Vin Scully is the greatest ever, and I doubt anyone will ever come remotely close, both in terms of brilliance behind the mike, and longevity on the job, particularly considering that Vin Scully was the voice of one team, the Dodgers, for 67 years.

Do you have a favorite Vin Scully story? A favorite Dick Enberg tale?

My favorite example of Scully’s brilliance (as opposed to a specific story) has been the times when he essentially has done play-by-play of two games at once, and pulled it off brilliantly. Here’s what I mean: In years when the Giants and Dodgers have been battling each other for first place, down to the final days of the season, Vin Scully has done what few others, if any, could pull off. He would do his normal play-by-play of the Dodgers games, while simultaneously mixing in the play-by-play of the Giants games, being played elsewhere, from the information being relayed to him by a producer. For example, the Giants and Dodgers battled hard for the NL pennant in 1971, neck-and-neck in the standings throughout the final month of the season. So, as the days remaining in the season grew fewer, Scully started including as much of the Giants’ play-by-play as he could, when the teams were playing games simultaneously.

So if we were listening that final weekend of the season, when the Dodgers were hosting Houston, we might have heard Vin say, “So Billy Buckner delivers a sacrifice fly to center, putting the Dodgers ahead 2-1, here in the seventh, while meantime, in San Diego, Dave Kingman has just whacked a three-run homer off Dave Roberts in the 5th, to put the Giants ahead of the Padres 3-0. First pitch to Jim Lefebvre is down low for a ball. And as you well know, if the Giants hang on and win that game, they’ll clinch the pennant, no matter what the Dodgers do here tonight. Next delivery to Lefebvre is golfed foul down the left field line, and into the seats….”

I grew up, like many baseball fans from my generation, listening to baseball on the radio. I’d listen to Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons call the Giants games on KSFO, even at night as I was supposed to be falling asleep, and if the Giants weren’t playing that night, I’d often listen to Vin Scully announce the Dodgers games on KFI, which had a strong enough signal to reach the SF Bay Area at night. Even then, I knew Scully was great. He had such a smooth and melodious way of describing a ballgame.

What’s a “typical” week like you for you in 2016? Can you offer a basic overview of what you do and how you do it to help inform and educate the pubic about sports teams and news in the Bay Area and beyond?

I’m up at 4 a.m., and hit the road with Stan, my on-air colleague at KCBS. We live one mile from each other, in Alameda, he goes on the air at 5:30, and I go on at 5:45, so we commute in together nearly every day, leaving Alameda at 4:45, stopping for espresso drinks when we arrive in SF, and reaching the radio studios at 5:10. KCBS is an all-news station, so no talk shows. We have news, weather, traffic, sports, business, 24/7, except for the airing of “60 Minutes,” and a half-hour local news program focusing on a single issue, every Sunday morning. We do regular interviews at the station, and that includes sports. I’ve got twice-an-hour sportscasts, all morning, beginning at 5:45. Those casts last 2-3 minutes each. Within those casts, I’ll invariably include edited interviews, sports sound bites, etc., and write or ad-lib around that accompanying sound, all while telling the sports stories of the day.

I pay close attention to what’s happening in the world of sports, even when I’m not working. It starts when I wake up each morning, and hear the sports headlines. I read several newspapers each day, follow a variety of sports websites, keep an eye on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” at my desk, follow breaking stories on Twitter, etc.

I attend numerous games (baseball, basketball, football, soccer, etc.) always looking for good interview subjects.

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Follow Steve Bitker on Twitter: @SteveBitker