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.

***

Follow Andrew Maraniss on Twitter: @trublu24

Visit his website: andrewmaraniss.com

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The Wallace family: Gabby, Perry and Karen.

A conversation with portrait artist James Fiorentino

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Yogi Berra/JAMES FIORENTINO

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (May 30, 2016) — Before he graduated from high school, James Fiorentino had already become a prominent painter. When he was 15 years old, Fiorentino’s work, a painting of slugger Reggie Jackson, was featured at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, a distinction that made him the youngest artist to be showcased there.

It was a sign of things to come. Over the past few decades, Fiorentino has produced a portfolio that’s made him one of the most prolific American painters.

His depictions of sports stars, past and present, are brilliant.

He has an unbelievable eye for detail and a rich range of colors are used in his art.

His love of history shines through in his work as well.

Fiorentino explains his approach to art on his website, saying, “Sometimes, I step back and wonder if what I am painting will be remembered the way I want it to be when I am finished, but when I am finished, the painting looks exactly the way I imagined it. I don’t concentrate too much on painting a flawless image. I let my eyes and hands do the work.

“Just as a poet expresses himself through words, I express myself through paint. I feel fortunate to be able to use my art as a means of communication.”

Fiorentino was an all-state shortstop for the Middlesex High School baseball team in New Jersey and college baseball at Drew University, where he started all four years as shortstop. In between, he established himself as a rising star as an artist.

Consider the following:

*At age 17 Fiorentino landed a job creating an iconic baseball project. “…Ted Williams commissioned a portrait of himself surrounded by 19 of the other greatest hitters in baseball for a limited edition lithograph sale,” the Newark Star-Ledger reported.

*At age 19 he joined the New York Society of Illustrators, the youngest person to do so.

*In a 2015 interview, curator David Wagner spoke about Fiorentino’s talents. “His painting of John Ford Point in Monument Valley (Arizona) is stunning,” Wagner told the Newark Star-Ledger, a New Jersey newspaper. “It looks like a still from a classic Western. He has a great feel for perspective and composition.”

I recently spoke to Fiorentino at his home studio in Flemington, New Jersey, to gain some insight into his work, his influences, his passions, his current and past projects and future goals.

* * *

fiorentino.Yankee.legendsSince it’s Monday, the start of another work week for most folks, can you spell out what you have planned for work this week?

I get the opportunity to do a variety of things. Right now I’m working on painting a farm in New Jersey for a client … and it’s a nice mix. But I try to keep it a 9-to-5 job just like everyone else. Wake up, go through my email, (plan) the day. I’ve got a 6-year-old and a 2-year-old, so it’s that kind of stuff. …

I get very busy towards summer time.

Do you primarily work in your studio? Or do you find yourself more productive if you paint in different places, like, in a basement, an attic, a barn? Is it best to be in one place most of the time?

Yeah. So I have a studio and a gallery , which is obviously for private clients. But I do have a studio that’s attached here to the house, which is nice because it enables me to be around my family a little more. But it does give me privacy…

All my work is done in watercolor. …

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James Fiorentino and Buzz Aldrin

In my studio I have everything from reproductions of (astronaut) Buzz Aldrin and (former Soviet Union leader Mikhail) Gorbachev to (former New York Giants baseball player) Bobby Thomson, who was a friend. There’s sports stuff and a brush that Norman Rockwell used,,a lot of my wildlife paintings. So I get to kind of be in my studio, which is great, and listen to the radio or have the TV on. …

He mentioned that his studio is also filled with “museum-style baseball paintings” he has collected over the year, including one of Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams, and other sports memorabilia.

Do you advertise very aggressively to get new clients? Or is a case of your name growing in prominence, so clients are looking for you instead of you looking for them?

Yeah, that’s a great question. It’s a little bit of both. I’m very lucky because I’ve been doing it for like 20 years, which is kind of crazy and I’ve really built a great reputation. I’m definitely one of the top artists in the country.

But I don’t aggressively pursue a lot of different projects. … I am lucky that I’m always doing projects for clients, and like any kind of business you’ve built it up, so there are guys that I still have from when I was 15, so that’s kind of cool, and they’ll still want stuff.

But then I’ll put stuff together. I’ll think of ideas, like this Jackie Robinson idea* (the 70th anniversary of his joining the Montreal Royals in 1946, a season before he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers).

 

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Jackie Robinson (30) is seen on deck, waiting to bat for the Montreal Royals in his pro baseball debut in April 1946. JAMES FIORENTINO
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Montreal Royals player Jackie Robinson crosses home plate after hitting a home run and shakes George “Shotgun” Shuba’s hand in Jersey City, New Jersey, in April 1946. Shuba later became Robinson’s teammate on the Brooklyn Dodgers. JAMES FIORENTINO

This summer for the first time in a while, I’ll be publicly out at the National Sports Collectors Convention (in August in Atlantic City, New Jersey) … and get an opportunity to meet a lot of guys that collect my work and meet new people. So that’s kind of a nice way to see new clients. So it’s kind of a little of both.

A lot of people come to the website. A lot of people email me, and then obviously old clients, but then I’m still pursuing new people, which is nice.

Describing the upcoming NSCC, now in its 37th annual convention, Fiorentino raved about the sheer volume of items that will be on display. “It is literally I fee like miles and miles, probably a couple thousand dealers, I think. It’s all from sports memorabilia and cards to auction houses, to trading card companies, over 60 athletes, which are Hall of Famers from every sport. So it’s a really cool show and it’s tens and tens of thousands of people. I’ll have a booth there with my artwork, showcasing stuff. The National is such a good (event) that I’ll even end up walking around more than even sitting there.”

*Before his April 20 show in Jersey City, New Jersey to commemorate Jackie Robinson’s first professional hit at Roosevelt Stadium, I asked Fiorentino what he had planned for that event.

This is nice where I had an opportunity to paint a couple pieces, so that’s the 70th anniversary of Jackie’s first hit as a pro. He got the home run in the second at-bat against the Jersey City Giants. I met with the city council and we’re doing this really cool show that will be up for a month. The opening’s April 20th and the mayor of Jersey City (Steve Fulop) will be there along with other special guests to speak about that day, one of which is my friend Ed Lucas, a really great guy. A blind baseball reporter. … So we sort of have a little interaction of guys to talk about Jackie and the field, which has been torn down now, and my artwork will be, I’m going to say, around 20 pieces, primarily New York-related baseball guys from going back to the Brooklyn Dodgers and obviously the Yankees and Mets and what we’ll do is well have the paintings up for a month. And then the paintings I did specifically for the show, I have painted three Jackie Robinsons: a portrait of him on the Dodgers and the other two are of him as a Montreal Royal. And one specifically is a famous shot of him coming home when he hit that home run in Jersey City at Roosevelt Stadium. It was kind of cool to have done that one.

Speaking to Fiorentino recently, George “Shotgun” Shuba’s son had this to say about the historic moment, according to Fiorentino: “George is not recognized properly — that in the home run that Jackie hit when he came home both players on base went back to the dugout and the third-base coach turned his back, so the only person to greet Jackie at home was George.” Fiorentino told this reporter that the scene was “an amazing moment in history.”

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Yankee Stadium/JAMES FIORENTINO

Did you look at old historical film reels or pictures from books to figure out how you wanted to recapture that event?

Yeah, I get to research this stuff. So whether it’s through the Baseball Hall of Fame Library or photo houses, I found a wider image, where you see more of the stadium. … I talked to guys who had been there. So you kind of get that historical accuracy and feel for it.

Even since I was like 12, 13, I love history so maybe that’s probably why. I was just fascinated by (Joe) DiMaggio and all these guys I didn’t see before. So when I found out last year that this year was going to be the 70th anniversary, I was thinking, my God, I didn’t even realize that Jackie was here and played in New Jersey, and hit a home run and came to find out that the Dodgers played 15 regular-season games at that field. So it was kind of cool to find all that out and incorporate a baseball art show with it. We are raising some money, I think, for the Little League of New Jersey. So it’s kind of a nice all-around feel to it.

Do you have a certain type of music you listen to while you paint … a certain kind of music that relaxes you or puts you in the frame of mind you want to be in to be productive?

I don’t really listen to much music when I paint like I used to when I was in college. Mainly, I listen to Howard Stern in the morning, and then after I hear that I watch a lot of “SportsCenter,” and I watch “First Take,” and I’m listening, and then obviously when baseball season comes on I’m such a baseball fan that I’ll actually watch spring training games…

Back to the process of creating your paintings, are you a guy that outlines a lot of stuff on paper, like the idea, the theme, the characteristics or things you might want to show or describe? And do you also collect a lot of photos of things maybe related to that type of project that you think will help you with your research to come up with the basic idea?

Yeah, more for my wildlife artwork or landscape scenes I would do more types of sketches. For a lot of the sports stuff, because you have to be so historically accurate, I have a real extensive collection of books, images, ball images, catalogues, and obviously today with the Internet you can pretty much find really interesting pictures.

For instance?

He spoke about a painting he came across of Jackie Robinson on deck when he played for the Montreal Royals.

I don’t even know where the heck this is. It’s almost like a barnstorming-looking type of town, it’s just so cool-looking. You know, I love painting these images of black and white water color. And so I’ll look through a lot of images and sort of find what I like as a collector and what I find interesting as a baseball enthusiast.

For example, we’ll look at Jackie Robinson and I’ll have maybe 20, 30 shots of Jackie Robinson here I’ve collected over the years and I kind of find out what makes sense, what looks good.

Fiorentino.portrait
James Fiorentino at his home studio in Flemington, New Jersey.

 

So being a collector but also a connoisseur of art kind of helps?

Yeah, I guess the nice combination of probably why this all came together was the fact that I’ve always been painting since I was little. As an artist, it’s always was in me. I painted every day … others sports and baseball. And so, all of a sudden, I’m sitting there doing all these paintings and actually I remember people telling me — I’d show my art work at shows when I was younger — keep painting landscapes and flowers.

I’d paint little images of Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs and Don Mattingly and sell them for 10 bucks and they’d say stop doing this. I would tell ’em I love painting baseball guys.

When I was 14, that’s when I had that DiMaggio painting at a show. And then when I was 15, I was, like, wow, this is definitely so cool that so many people are seeing my work, and basically why I just kept continuing to do it.

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What impressed you about Norman Rockwell’s overall body of work? As a fellow artist, what would you say about his legacy?

Well, he was definitely very prolific. The guy who painted that long and all those covers and in the national spotlight and just how incredible he was and recognized he was, and obviously all that he could do. I think obviously he was one of those guys that when he was gone now they recognize him as a master. When he was painting he was nothing but like an illustrator. Now he’s a museum-quality master, which I believe everything from portraits in sports to everything. He was just tremendous. I always loved him as a kid, and I love every art from comic-book art to Italian Renaissance to modern art to a guy like Rockwell. I really feel like a guy like Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) is one of my big influences in my wildlife work and landscapes…

Fiorentino told me he recalled taking a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in upstate New York, when he was 10 or 12 and visiting an art gallery there had a Rockwell original. “It just blew me away, and I remember saying, oh my God, imagine if I could got my artwork here some day, and a couple years later I had a painting in there.”

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If they were alive and working today in this age of the Internet and social media, how do you feel like the public would perceive artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci and how they would talk about them and dissect their work?

I guess that’s like anything. We sort of live in a new world today, like you were mentioning with everything being so quick. I don’t know.

You could attribute that to anything, even like sports. How would Babe Ruth be perceived today? How would Michelangelo be (viewed)? I don’t know. … In art you have to be great at it, but you also have to be great at selling it and people have to like you. It’s important that all that kind of comes together.

Art no matter what will always be subjective. It will always be someone’s opinion. Not everyone’s going to love it. There are people who wants wildlife or portraits done could care less about baseball, and guys who love baseball could care less about other stuff that I paint. So it’s really what someone enjoys and likes.

I’ve always seen the beauty of, like, a Michelangelo’s as much as a Rockwell or any of these guys. It’s incredible.

But in today’s day and age … I’m more old school. But I primarily just do that for my business.

For your work, how valuable a tool is your personal website?

There’s no question that having a website (helps). Before you would literally have to mail your stuff out or be at somewhere where your clients would be. Today, they can just Google (my name and business). Like I had someone interview me about a month or so ago, an Italian production company, where it would mainly be shown in Rome. And I said, how the heck did you guys find me? (He was told), oh we just Googled (you).

We’re so connected now. You’re in Japan. It’s just amazing. So I think that’s just made it easier for business for people to see your stuff, and also that creates a lot more competition. There’s a lot more guys doing it now.

Is LeRoy Neiman one of your artistic heroes?

Absolutely.

I had the opportunity to meet him three times at least. One time at a lunch at New York City with only a few of us, which was amazing. I went up to him and he said, “James, I admire your work.” …

He was definitely one of the most well-known sports artists, that’s for sure.

Was that because the paintings were so realistic? Did he bring the action to life on the canvas?

I think his thing was just like anything else, at the right place at the right time and created a new style of work that nobody had ever seen before, and he got his start doing artwork in Playboy with Hugh Hefner, and just got a name for himself in that and kind of making sport an art form, which a lot of guys weren’t doing yet. So he started making it collectible, interesting and different.

Are there one, two or three painters who are brilliant but overlooked these days?

I’ll give you the name of a friend of mine, an named Benjamin Blackburn*, who does sculptures, bat sculptures, wood sculptures of ballplayers and stuff. He does amazing artwork, and he’s had his stuff in museums and galleries. But I know he’s maybe not going to be as maybe seen as much as my work; it’s just a different medium, but just incredible baseball stuff. …And there is so much competition now with so many guys painting,which I guess is a good thing. I bet at The National I will see a lot of younger guys doing it … and I love meeting these guys and talking to people

*http://baseballart.com/sculptor-benjamin-blackburn-carving-name-for-himself-as-top-baseball-artist/
* * *

How would you describe your friendship and relationship with baseball icon Yogi Berra (who passed away in September at age 90)? And maybe it changed, though, from when you first met him as a teenager to his final years.

I guess it all goes back to when I first met him, which I think was around 15, and I went to a baseball card show and he was doing an autograph signing, and I had him sign probably the first original I had done of him, this portrait of him. He loved it.

I think all these guys really liked it when I was so young, too, painting them and seeing my age. And so I said to Yogi, and I think my mom was there, “I’d love for you to sign if we make prints of these. Would you sign them?” I had never made a print before of anything and he said, “yeah, you know, no problem. How ’bout you come to my house?”

I mean, what guy would do that?

Fiorentino.Berra.photo.age15
As a teenager, James Fiorentino met Yogi Berra.

So we made the prints up and went over to his house in Montclair (New Jersey), and I’m living in New Jersey so it wasn’t that far of a ride, maybe like an hour ride, and (then) we’re sitting in Yogi’s living room, and he’s signing all these things for me, telling me how much I loved it and actually showed me an original art of LeRoy Neiman (1921-2012; leroyneiman.com). And he was really proud to have that hanging in the house.

So that’s when I first met him and then I must have been asked by someone, I don’t remember who, it could’ve even been Ed Lucas when I first him, but I started doing artwork for his golf outing, which was to help the Cub Scouts. And so he would see me every year, a a couple times a year, and he got to know me as a kid, and I would do these originals and donate them.

I had told people there was one time, and you forget about all this stuff, and I was sketching him on one of the holes (during the golf fundraiser) and he hit a hole-in-one. And when we had our show at Yogi Berra’s Museum, the second show I’ve ever had there which was last year, I asked his son and he said that was the only hole-in-one he ever had. So I just remember being there for that….

But I would see him all the time at Yankee Stadium on the field and at other events. He was always good to me. I’d have him sign some stuff before he passed away maybe three or four year ago for my kids. I wanted them to have something from him, and how nice he was to me. The museum’s incredible.

I don’t think people realize how great this guy was as a player. Sometimes when they’re gone, it’s like, wow, this guy was a legend. The guy’s statistics, all the World Series he won (10 times), the fact that he was in D-Day . An incredible life.

fiorentino.mike.trout
Los Angeles Angels superstar Mike Trout/JAMES FIORENTINO

Do you feel privileged that you had the opportunity to interact with Yogi so much and create all this art of him?

Yeah, I really do. I guess I kind of take things for granted, but I’m very humble about it. I’ve been doing it all my life and I never really think about it. I think sometimes now looking back on 20 years, it’s like, wow, doing all this for Ted Williams and (Phil) Rizzuto and all these guys and Yogi and just to have that opportunity and meeting (Mickey) Mantle, it was amazing. And you’ll never get that back. When you think of all that kind of stuff, it is pretty cool and it just goes back to me having a love for history and baseball and I certainly love the current players but I was so into the older guys.

Do you think Yogi helped you gain greater insight into older baseball fraternity ?

Yeah, a little bit. I think Yogi was kind of one of those guys I didn’t have long, long conversations with him. Some of the other players I would have longer conversations with. It depended what I was doing. When I was doing the artwork for the Ted Williams Museum, I remember having long conversations with Bobby Doerr and George Kell and we would talk all about baseball and they would ask me about playing baseball — at that point I was playing in high school. …

Ralph Kiner was also talking a lot about baseball, and actually Ralph was amazing, talking all about Rockwell. He had a Norman Rockwell original.

I’ve had so many  unbelievable conversations with a lot of the old-time players, even a guy like (pitcher) Mickey McDermott, who became a friend.

So that interaction has been really neat.

To some people, Yogi Berra was like a cartoon character because of his funny saying and mannerisms, but how do you prefer to describe him and characterize him as a person, athlete and individual who had a great life?

He had an incredible life. He obviously wasn’t born with the perfect athletic body, but was an incredible player. He could hit. He was hitting pitches all over the place. He worked hard. Just a great winner. Obviously he went into coaching. A great leader. He really did care about people … about the game … about the players, the Jeters and Posadas (Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada) and all their teammates, and helping out at the museum. …

But I think if you look at him you say, How the hell is a guy like this hitting? Which probably makes it more amazing.

In 2015, was it a real thrill to have a show at his museum?

Fiorentino explained that the 2015 show at the Yogi Berra Museum was “a collage of his life.”

It was a really neat show celebrating Yogi’s life, and we had Roy White there, for example. And to have it so soon after he passed away was very meaningful, and his son, Larry, was there, which was really nice. And it’s always nice to get compliments from them: saying “Oh James, we’ve seen your work before and this came out beautiful. Or I remember this day.” Or just personal stuff from the artwork I’ve done.

fiorentino.ripken.2131
Commemorating Baltimore Orioles great Cal Ripken Jr.’s record-breaking 2,131st consecutive game and Yankees legend Lou Gehrig, who held the old record of 2,130 games. JAMES FIORENTINO

Fiorentino remembered having three exhibits at the Yogi Berra Museum , which opened in 1998, over the years. The first time featured a Latino sports art show. At the second show, he had a solo exhibition, and Yogi attended the opening. “It was funny. He was hiding in the back,” Fiorentino recalled. “I said, ‘Yogi, you’ve got to come out.’ And he finally came out and saw a couple people…” 

* * *

For some of the historical painting projects that you’ve done, where and how did you paint former U.S. presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton as well as Gorbachev and Desmond Tutu, the South African civil rights activist and now-retired Anglican bishop?

The Gorbachev and Tutu (art) were all painted when I lived with my family, because that goes back to 2001. I was at home with the parents after college, and that was for a charity event in West Palm Beach, Florida. So they were auctioning off the originals and it was pretty amazing. I remember sitting in (Donald) Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate for lunch and all of a sudden, there’s maybe only 30 people in there, Gorbachev’s there and Desmond Tutu’s introducing himself to me, and that kind of stuff is more amazing to me. I’m so used to meeting all the athletes that meeting these political, historical people is amazing.

(Former astronaut) Buzz Aldrin, I met him here in New Jersey, and I’d done that painting in my studio. I had an opportunity to talk to him for a while actually. He was talking all about my watercolors. He couldn’t believe it was watercolors. …

Congressman John Lewis, we presented a painting I did of him many years ago at his office in (Washington) D.C. It was the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement, so to meet him there. I brought my whole family and my two little boys, because one day I can say you were in his office.

He had pictures with all these different presidents around and I remember he had a baseball card framed with like 12 Negro League and famous African-American ballplayers there. The history in that room (was special). So that kind of stuff to me is really amazing and cool to do.

Did Bush, Clinton, Gorbachev, Tutu and other political figures make any memorable remarks about how you portrayed them in your paintings?

Through an interpreter, Gorbachev just told me how much it looked like him.

Tutu came up and introduced himself, and he was really gracious.

John Lewis was so excited that I did this artwork of him. He was so pleased, he couldn’t wait to hang it up. He invited us to come back for lunch. (The painting) hangs in his office in Washington.

* * *
Revealing insight

When Sports Collectors Digest once asked Fiorentino to explain “what sets his art apart,” he responded by saying, “I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. I’m in a great area — to be an artist in this tri-state area with great teams. There are a lot of people who collect and want to buy art. I paint in water color and my water color is very tight and realistic. It looks like oil or acrylic. When artists, professors and professionals see it, they can’t believe it’s water color. So I think there’s something in my painting because of the way I paint with water color. There’s also a lot of emotion, a lot of spirit in my paintings. I think just my passion and my love for sports, my passion and my love for baseball comes out in my pieces. I’m glad that other people really love it.”

Recommended reading: http://www.nytimes.com/1995/09/10/nyregion/artistic-shortstop-makes-hall-of-fame-with-brush-not-bat.html