Monthly Archives: February 2015


A Walk in the Woods

A Walk in the Woods book cover

Click cover to purchase

by Bill Bryson
Broadway Books (1998)

Okay, before you run for your walking sticks and take a vicarious, hilarious, and educational stroll up the Appalachian Trail with Bill Bryson, you should know that this rave has nothing to do with the fact that the author mentions me early in the second chapter.

Well, not by name but certainly by category.

That category being idiot!

You see, before Bryson makes this magnificent trek—with his hefty friend Katz puffing along at his heels—to prepare for the 2,100 mile hike (give a step or three) he grabs a few books just for reference, one being Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, wherein he learns that the black bear, that furry “friend” might feed on any passerby stupid enough to fail to realize that these Yogis and Smokeys aren’t cartoons but dangerous man-eating (under the right/wrong circumstances) animals. Read More »

Catch ‘Em While You Can

No need for a show of hands here, but how many of us have heard ourselves say, “I wish I’d have done that?”

Right to the point here.

None of us are getting any younger and the older members of our families have our history between their ears.  While these memories are still functioning our job is to record these recollections.

It’s our last shot at our family’s history, the story about our past to be passed on to future generations.

Now, just to let you know that I have practiced what I’m preaching here, I did this with my family but I’ll also refer to my books, Pen Men “Baseball’s Greatest Bullpen Stories Told By The Men Who Brought The Game Relief, “ and V&Me “Everybody’s Favorite Jim Valvano  Story.”

In writing those oral histories—equipped with my hand-held recorder—I interviewed several hundred people.  Of those hundreds at least fifty are no longer alive.

From V&Me, well Dean Smith just passed away last week.  And the week before we lost Don Shea, my old friend the WTVD TV sports reporter, who became one of V’s business partners.  Yesterday it was Jerry Tarkanian, the UNLV coach.

Like the voices of Pen Men these folks’ stories (in many cases), had I not captured them, would have been gone forever.  If my premise had no merit the National Baseball Hall of Fame wouldn’t have asked (and received) all 72 cassette tapes of the voices of Pen Men.

Oh, pardon the transition, but that said, how many of us have living memories of WWII in our family?

Better get them!

Okay, point made.  Now let’s get busy.

  • Purchase (should you not have one) a hand-held recorder and a number of mini-cassettes. There are some excellent digital recorders (which I use as well) but sometimes the recordings get lost in the technology and so I’d recommend the use of tapes—which you can label and keep—that’s what the Baseball Hall of Fame now has in their archives—-my cassettes labeled with each announcer, player or baseball guy’s name.
  • Okay, if you’re looking for a hand-held recorder (good old Amazon), click here. If you’d rather use a hand-held video camera that can work as well but bring the recorder as a backup because some people (“Oh, how do I look? Etc.) clam up when the little red light comes on.
  • Identify the oldest and most lucid members of your family, the folks who know the stories and have the history. Shake your family tree until the names of these people fall like acorns. They don’t have to be elders; any of us might have stories that have been passed along over the years.
  • Make a list and add to this list when Cousin Mary says (during your interview), “Oh, you have to talk to Katherine, she has the best stories.” For the most part you’ll get and enjoy important, meaningful pieces of your family history.

Who knows, Katherine may even come up with something as fun and as trivial as this!!!!

My uncle Chub (90) told me this one last year and now Chub and I are the only ones who know the story about my Grandfather Roop who, as the town’s butcher and saint, fed the little mill town of Union Bridge, Maryland, through the Great Depression.  “So, on Halloween his son Johnny (my uncle who was later killed heroically in the Pacific in WWII) hooks a manure spreader to a pickup truck, waters down his load and as he’s fertilizing main street with the town cop on his tail, Johnny slams on the brakes, the cop rear-ends something that came from, well a rear-end and tears up the front end of the police car.  When the officer arrives at my Grandfather Roop’s meat market he hands Grandy a bill for $265 for damages done to the car.  My grandfather calmly walks to the huge basket where he kept the town’s IOUs pulled about a dozen of the cop’s unpaid bills and counting them out says, “Here you go, Donnie, this should cover it!!

  • Back on task. Place these names of potential interviews (or anything you ever heard these relatives relate at reunions, etc.) on a note pad in preparation of your interviews. For instance (me talking to my older sister here about our grandparents) “E.A. I have a vague memory of Popa and Nana’s Georgetown town house, in Washington, DC. I know the address was 2733 P Street and I remember staying there in the late 1940s—there was a little cafeteria nearby, where we walked down a flight of stairs to eat. I remember the kitchen in the town house had furniture painted a bright green and that Nana had a fox stole that we called, ‘Na Nya!’ but that’s all I recall. Oh, except that from their bedroom window we could see a red light flashing off in the distance and that it was atop the Capital. Tell me everything you remember about 2733 P Street and our visits there.”
  • It’s time to turn on that hand-held recorder, and with pen in hand open a loose leaf tablet, and to sit back and listen. If the storyteller triggers another memory that you might have or even one that isn’t in your notes, make a note and then use that note as a follow-up question. “You just mentioned our trips to the Smithsonian when we visited, I don’t recall that at all. Any specific stories from our trips there?”
  • If you have old family photographs (may not even know who the people are) bring then along for the interviews as they make a wonderful catalyst for conversation.
  • Okay, say your great aunt Sue lives in California and you’re here in North Carolina. How do you interview her? Through a series of phone calls or e-mails arrange to carry out the interview on the phone. There are neat little ear pieces for your recorders that make this possible. I interviewed Goose Gossage, the Hall of Fame pitcher, at three in the morning from his apartment in Japan where he was playing at that time. Ryan Duren, the great Yankee fastballer, the one with the thick wire rimmed glasses talked to me via the phone from a bathtub somewhere in Wisconsin.
  • Oh, look for surprises. That’s one of the many joys of this process. I was talking to Mace Brown, the man who threw one of the most infamous pitches in baseball history, the one where Gabby Hartnett took a Mace fastball into the dark of the night costing the Pirates the pennant. It was called The Homer in the Gloamin’ I was prepared for this story, knew it down to the pitch count. And when Mace gave me it from his perspective he suddenly turned to his wife who was washing dishes and said, “Hon, do you remember that little movie camera I bought you that you used to film Babe Ruth’s last home run?” And then he told the story of the Babe’s last three in Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and how after he’d hit the last one (Ruth was with the Boston Braves then) how the Bambino touched home plate and came right to the Pirates dugout to go down the runway to the Braves locker room. Then just as he was ready to make his exit, he suddenly plopped down on the bench next to Brown, a rookie Pirates pitcher, looked down the bench at the Bucs players and said, “Boys, that last one felt good!”Now, that’s history and thanks to Mace Brown we know what Babe Ruth said after hitting his last home run. You may not have any Babe Ruths in your family but trust me you will, through this process, record some home runs.
  • When you’ve interviewed everybody and anybody (it doesn’t have to be family, it can be close friends or neighbors) there are technical ways to take the spoken word and put it in writing.
  • I sit at my computer and type every word that’s said into a document, going back and forth with the recordings—rewind, type, rewind, type. This is a very tedious task but it pays dividends in the end because by the time you’ve finished—although a great deal of the conversation may be unusable—you know what was said. Trust me repetition is a tremendous teacher.
  • So you have it word for word transcribed. Now, don’t be shy about this, when necessary edit the heck out of it. Don’t change it; just make it make sense conversationally. Let one story lead to another to another until you have a “chapter” called, again for instance, “My Sister E.A Remembers Our Family.”
  • When the identifying, the questioning, the recording, the transcribing and the editing is done, read each piece carefully and if you see anything that might merit a follow-up question (again, sometimes a phone call will do) go for it. You want the gathering to be complete!
  • The presentation of this oral history is the easy part. Any and every printer or printing store—KINKOS—can take a disc of your work and present it to you in bound copies that will look like you’ve been published by Random House.
  • About those old family photographs. Drop them into the copy. It will only enhance the history.And, hey, the finished product makes a great gift but the gift we’re talking about here isn’t limited to a package being opened by your great aunt on Christmas morning—it’s the life story of your family, something to be enjoyed and appreciated for generations to come.

Growing Up

Growing Up by Russell Baker book cover

Click cover to purchase

by Russell Baker
Signet (1984)

What we have here is a page turner from the past that happens to be one of my all-time favorite memoirs. I say this with apologies to my grandfather Preston Baile Roop who set out to tell his life story by dictating it to my grandmother, who lovingly wrote his memories long-hand with a #2 pencil in a yellow legal pad.

Grandy’s life story took him from his trapping days as a young man in Maryland through a hardscrabble life, one that would (along with his loving wife Muddie) raise nine children, off-spring he supported (sending all six girls through college) by laboring as a farmer, a huckster, a butcher, a moving man, and finally in the end as a real estate agent.

Grandy’s life was memoir worthy. It was filled with tragedy (the oldest son, a Marine leading his men across a river into machine gun fire, killed heroically in the Pacific, another living day-to-day hospitalized for his teen years with life threatening osteomyelitis, the third a teen-aged alcoholic). There was, through the years’ drama, sickness, depression, laughter and more love and generosity than one can imagine—enough of a life to fill up 50 legal pads. Read More »

Here Comes the Judge!

We’re living in an age where TV shows—American Idol, The Voice, Dancing with the Stars, You’ve Got Talent, etc.—make one a bit jaded when it comes to the selection of their winners.

Can you say popularity contests?

Hell, my wife has a friend who speed dials Dancing with the Stars, casting her votes for cute guys who dance like Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes.

And when it comes to sports, don’t get me started.

Major League Baseball awards the home team advantage in the World Series to the team that wins its annual mid-summer All-Star game. And the All-Star position players are selected by beer swilling ballot stuffing fans.

Then there’s the most prestigious induction of major leaguers into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Here members of the Baseball Writers Association of America earn a Hall of Fame vote from its organization by simply having maintained 10 consecutive years on a baseball beat.

Problem! Some of these scribes are long since retired and haven’t been to a major league game since the last time a grandchild dragged them kicking and screaming (without their freebee credentials) through the stadium’s turnstiles.  Others, for instance, who may have covered the Yankees wouldn’t vote in a Red Sox player if you slipped them a Pulitzer.

Now, all that said, when I was asked to be one-of- three judges for the 2014 Annual Casey Award, the competition that selects Best Baseball Book of the Year, I was indeed flattered.

In my defense I knew the reputation of the people doing the asking. Spitball: The  Literary Baseball Magazine has been at this business of bringing just recognition to authors and publishers of baseball’s best books since 1983. The CASEY was the first award of its kind and widely recognized as the most prestigious that a baseball book can be given, with past winners that include the icons of baseball literature—from Roger Kahn and Leigh Montville to Bill James.

So when Mike Shannon, Spitball’s editor (a man who has written more than his own share of excellent baseball books), came calling I thought for a second or two and said, “Mike, I’d be honored!”

Again, no contest, a competition with no formal submission process and no fees attached. Publishers simply send a review copy. Then Shannon and his competition staff—-based on their perception of the book’s merits—narrow the field to ten final participants. These ten tomes arrive at the three judges’ homes rapid fire during November.

This year (lucky judges) there were so many good books that Shannon and crew expanded our task from ten reads to twelve. The due date for our ranking was January 16, 2015.

Okay, Mr. Mike bring them on. Hell, I’ve been reading baseball books since John R. Tunis introduced me to The Kid from Tompkinsville in the 1950s. The fact that I’d written numerous baseball articles and published both a baseball novel and non-fiction gave me . . . well, I should know a good baseball book when I read one, don’t you think?

Shannon posted this list of the finalists on his web site (www.spitballmag.com) and as short-pantsed UPS and Fed-Ex drivers made their drops at my front door I perused this impressive gathering.

  • Brooks: The Biography of Brooks Robinson * Doug Wilson * Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press
  • The Chalmers Race: Ty Cobb, Napoleon Lajoie, and the Controversial 1910 Batting Title that Became a National Obsession * Rick Huhn * University of Nebraska Press
  • The Fight of Their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro Turned Baseball’s Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption * John Rosengren * Globe Pequot Press
  • Jackie and Campy: The Untold Story of Their Rocky Relationship and the Breaking of Baseball’s Color Line * William C. Kashatus * University of Nebraska Press
  • Johnny Evers: A Baseball Life * Dennis Snelling * McFarland
  • Mover and Shaker: Walter O’Malley, the Dodgers, and Baseball’s Westward Expansion * Andy McCue * University of Nebraska Press
  • A Nice Little Place on the North Side * George F. Will * Crown Archetype
  • Nolan Ryan: The Making of a Pitcher * Rob Goldman * Triumph Books
  • Outsider Baseball: The Weird World of Hardball on the Fringe, 1876-1950 * Scott Simkus * Chicago Review Press
  • Pete Rose: An American Dilemma * Kostya Kennedy * Time Home Entertainment
  • Rickey & Robinson: The True, Untold Story of the Integration of Baseball * Roger Kahn * Rodale
  • 1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever * Bill Madden * Da Capo Press.

Oh, the listing came equipped with a note reminding us that The 32nd CASEY Awards Banquet would take place on Sunday March 15, 2015, at Crosley’s Sports Bar & Eatery in St. Bernard, Ohio.

Again, working independently (I don’t know the other judges), we would rank the books from “least best” to “best” in an effort to identify the book which makes “the greatest contribution to baseball literature,” literature being defined in its broadest sense.  Five criteria would guide us though our task: literary quality, informational content, analytical content, originality, and artistic appeal. The amount of emphasis to place on each of this criterion was left up to us with a gentle reminder that we should not be influenced by previous books written by the nominated authors as The Casey is not a “lifetime achievement” award.

This, thank God, sounded nothing like a popularity contest at all. This was clearly a competition and the work of the objective. To facilitate the process I set up a Casey File on my computer, listing each read by title, author and publisher. Each of the five criteria would be awarded up to ten points with a (up to) five-point bonus at the end for—in my humble opinion—the contribution the book made to baseball literature.

Designating a well lamped chair in the corner of my pool room I stacked the finalists neatly on both sides of the overstuffed. A tray, within arm’s length contained reading glasses, Visine, sticky notes and a pen.

Let the fun begin.

Oops! Slight problem. Shannon’s guidelines failed to define fun! As I turned the first page of the initial finalist I was reminded that I was clearly not a speed dialing reality show voter or in fact a beer swilling drunk stuffing the MLB All-Star ballot boxes. I was a baseball writer, someone who had experienced what the production of one of these books might entail—from the often relentless pursuit of interviews, the tedium of research and editing to the exhausting task of filling the pages with words that—in the end—make good and informative reading.

I was judging (a word I hate) my fellow writers and would now have to slug through twelve baseball books—page for page—with a most responsible and experienced eye, one that in the end I would hope—for their sakes and mine—made the right call.

I can not reveal my ranking of the books but I can say this about the experience. It was trying, exhausting, tiring, rewarding, entertaining, educational, and in the end a most enjoyable project. And in the end I was quite satisfied with The CASEY’s outcome.

Although the squibs below in no way bring justice to the depth of the works or their gift to baseball literature perhaps they’ll serve as hors d’oeuvres by offering up tidbits I learned about the Grand Old Game.

  • Brooks: The Biography of Brooks Robinsonfeaturing one of my favorite players— among other new insights, informed me that the gold glover was also a hell of a basketball player and recruited by the University of Arkansas to play hoops.
  • In The Chalmers Race: Ty Cobb, Napoleon Lajoie, and the Controversial 1910 Batting Title that Became a National Obsession, I learned as much about the “objectivity” of scorekeeping as I did baseball as I followed Ty Cobb and Napolean Lajoie (with the prize for MLB’s batting average a fancy ride called a Chalmers) as they battled for what became an incredibly controversial batting title in 1910.
  • Reading The Fight of Their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Rosoboro Turned Baseball’s Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption, I was made aware of how their fight impacted their futures and how it helped them, in the end live better lives and do so as friends.
  • Jackie and Campy: The Untold Story of Their Rocky Relationship and the Breaking of Baseball’s Color Line is a candid account of how and why the two men didn’t care much for each other and why—Robinson saw the race/integration issue as an opportunity to draw a line in the dirt and fight while Campy’s attitude differed in that he thought the best way to make way for other great African American players was NOT to make waves.
  • Johnny Evers: A Baseball Life sheds light on a career that has been all but ignored and in many cases undervalued.
  •  Mover and Shaker: Walter O’Malley, the Dodgers, and Baseball’s Westward Expansion is a hefty tome wherein the author most even handedly gives us a picture of the man who not only moved the Dodgers to LA but had a side to him that could be quite moving. And may move even the most diehard Dodger fan a step closer to forgiving O’Malley.
  • A Nice Little Place on the North Side not only celebrates Wrigley Field’s 100th year, it ties a ballpark to a city, its politics and populace.
  • Nolan Ryan: The Making of a Pitcher will bring applause for a career that lasted a major-league record of 27 years while confirming that talent and longevity equal Hall of Fame.
  • Outsider Baseball: The Weird World of Hardball on the Fringe, 1876-1950 not only gives the reader a tremendous un-told look-see into the teams and players that were the game’s building blocks (from 1876 to 1950), the author devises a one-of-a-kind grading system that allows us to compare and contrast major leaguers to great players—from African-Americans to overlooked minor leaguers—who weren’t (during those times) afforded the opportunity to suit up in the Bigs.
  • Pete Rose: an American Dilemma addresses the paradox of Pete Rose’s persona and after weighing these pros and cons, enables us to think or rethink the Hall of Fame issue.
  • Rickey & Robinson: the True, Untold Story of the Integration of Baseball is just that: the real story of the two men whose lives—clearly examined by a reporter who covered and knew them both—made America and its national pastime better for all.
  • 1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever tells the stories of these players while underlining the fact that for all Jackie Robinson did to integrate baseball a round of applause is also well overdue for the likes of Larry Doby, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks.

Several weeks ago, on the very night I’d finished reading the final book, I staggered upstairs and plopped in front of the TV. Through weary eyes, glancing at the screen, I noted a young singer take the stage on a re-run of The Voice. Pretty soon Blake Shelton—one of the judges—was going on and on about the merits of the kid’s effort. And suddenly I heard myself say something that probably shocked my wife. It sure as hell surprised me!

“Alyce, I used to think this kind of praise was crap. But you know, that kid doesn’t just have a great voice, that was a very creative interpretation of that song. He pushed the envelope on that one . . . really pulled it off. If I were one of the judges, I’d give him an eight just for creativity, maybe a ten for artistic appeal!”