Monthly Archives: May 2009

Ballplayers I have interviewed

I majored in journalism in college at Cal Poly, with an unofficial focus on sportswriting, and between my time on the campus paper and freelancing and interning for various publications, I got to talk to some pretty cool people. The following are baseball players I have interviewed:

Ozzie Smith: My first big interview, done my sophomore year at Cal Poly. Smith gave the morning and afternoon commencement speeches at graduation that year, as an alum of the university. I met Smith the day before graduation, when a statue of him was unveiled at the baseball field. I had researched Smith in the preceding weeks and learned he had mentioned his Cal Poly coach, Berdy Harr, in his Hall of Fame induction speech. As Harr died in 1987, I rhetorically asked Smith who he would have if he could have anyone at the statue ceremony. He almost teared up answering Harr. The following day, he gave two lovely commencement addresses and the outgoing student body president did a back flip in his honor.

Dom DiMaggio: I’ve recounted the story of this interview before, but to recap, I got to interview the Boston Red Sox great at the start of my senior year of college.

Nick Swisher: I interned for the Davis Enterprise in the summer of 2004 and part of my duties included covering the Triple A team for the Oakland Athletics, the Sacramento River Cats. Their best player that year was a jovial outfielder from West Virginia on the fast track to the majors, Swisher. I don’t know if I ever actually used a Swisher quote in print but I talked to him at least once or twice and the guy was pretty funny, always quick with a lighthearted quip.

Hideo Nomo: Another guy I interviewed for the Enterprise, Nomo came to Sacramento toward the end of his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers for an injury rehab start. Nomo only went a couple innings and needed an interpreter afterward to talk to reporters. He didn’t have much to say even in Japanese and the most interesting thing about this interview was the gaggle of Japanese media that was on-hand exclusively for Nomo and departed right after he was done.

Rollie Fingers: I also freelanced for the Enterprise in 2005 and got to interview the former A’s closer that summer, after he made a promotional appearance. I appreciate him giving me time and his handlebar moustache was cool, but Fingers seemed somewhat aloof, saying he had never heard of Huston Street who had just broken one of his records.

Jose Canseco: My most recent professional clip, I interviewed Canseco in April 2008, when he came to Oakland for a booksigning. I was worried I’d get blown off by the former Bash Brother, who has come across as something of a jerk over the years, but Canseco was surprisingly polite to me, answering all my questions (though he did mention in jest that I could take a bullet for him.) With that said, I asked a bunch of softball questions and wrote a pedestrian story. Thereafter, I kept reading shit about Canseco elsewhere that I’d missed: He was writing a book on cloning; his house was getting foreclosed; he was going to take part in a mixed martial arts fight; he thought he was addicted to steroids; he regretted writing his tell-all bestseller, Juiced. This was a good learning experience, I suppose. On a side note, Canseco is freaking huge in person.

(UPDATE: I remembered a couple more of these.)

Willie McGee: Technically, I didn’t interview McGee, but it’s worth a mention anyway.  The uncle, by marriage, of a former Cal Poly point guard named Kameron Gray, the St. Louis Cardinal great showed up at a Cal Poly game my junior year of college.  McGee didn’t agree to my interview request, saying something to the effect that he was just there for his nephew.  He had the droopiest eyes.

Carney Lansford/Robin Ventura: I group these guys together because I interviewed them at the same Cal Poly-Cal State Fullerton baseball game my senior year of college.  Lansford was at the game because his son Josh was playing third base for Cal Poly at the time.  In Ventura’s case, he grew up in the area, attending Righetti High in Arroyo Grande.  Both players graciously let me interview them during the game, though I had to fight back the urge not to ask Ventura about his infamous 1993 fight with Nolan Ryan.

The 10 best baseball players not in the Hall of Fame

1. Pete Rose: No surprise here. The all-time hits leader is easily the most-talented (and charismatic) player who doesn’t have a plaque hanging in Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, New York. Rose was banned from baseball in 1989 for sports betting, a shame, considering racists like Ty Cobb and Cap Anson are in Cooperstown.

2. Joe Jackson: Babe Ruth is said to have modeled his swing off “Shoeless Joe,” who owns the third best batting average all-time, .356. Alas, the Chicago White Sox great was also banned for gambling, in the wake of the infamous 1919 World Series that he helped fix.

UPDATE December 11, 2011: THE 50 BEST BASEBALL PLAYERS NOT IN THE HALL OF FAME, VERSION 2.0VERSION 1.0

3. Dom DiMaggio: Ted Williams had a pamphlet in his museum about why DiMaggio should be in the Hall of Fame. The Boston Red Sox centerfielder was a seven-time All Star, renowned for his defense. The knock was that he had a relatively short career. Then again, so did Sandy Koufax.

4. Dave Parker: This guy’s a Veteran’s Committee pick waiting to happen. If Jim Rice and Orlando Cepeda can get into the Hall, Parker should too. He had better career numbers than those players for hits, doubles, runs batted in, runs scored, and stolen bases. However, just like Cepeda delayed his Cooperstown bid by going to prison for drug trafficking, Parker likely hurt his chances with well-publicized cocaine abuse.

5. Bert Blyleven: The poor man’s Nolan Ryan, Blyleven had 3701 strikeouts and 287 wins over the course of his career. Much like Ryan, though, Blyleven also lost a lot of games, 250 overall to Ryan’s 292. Still, he probably has the best credentials of any pitcher not in Cooperstown.

6. Hal Chase: Yet another great player banned for gambling, Chase made a name for himself with outstanding defense at first base in the early part of the 20th century. However, he was so shameless in his association with gamblers, Ken Burns’ Baseball noted, that fans took to chanting, “What’s the odds, Hal?” when he played.

7. Stan Hack: A solid Chicago Cubs third baseman from the 1930s and ’40s, this Sacramento native had 2193 lifetime hits and a .301 lifetime average.

8. Ron Santo: Much like Hack, Santo was a good Cubs third baseman who may get into the Hall before too long through the Veteran’s Committee.

9. Dale Murphy: If character counts, Murphy should have been a first-ballot inductee. The Atlanta Braves outfielder and devout Mormon deserves a spot on the All-Time Nice Guy squad, being a throw-back player who never drank and instead did things like answer children’s questions in a regular newspaper column. He also hit 398 home runs and won back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards.

10. Dwight Gooden: Were it not for cocaine addiction derailing his career, this New York Mets phenom would have been on the inside track to Cooperstown. As it stands, his 194 victories are better than Hall of Fame hurlers Dizzy Dean and Koufax and all three pitchers had primes that lasted for similar, brief lengths.

UPDATE December 11, 2011: THE 50 BEST BASEBALL PLAYERS NOT IN THE HALL OF FAME, VERSION 2.0VERSION 1.0

Also check out the Tuesday feature, Does he belong in the Hall of Fame?

My interview with Dom DiMaggio

A few days ago, I alluded on here to an interview I did with Dom DiMaggio, calling it a story for another time. As fate would have it, the former Boston Red Sox center fielder and seven-time All Star died early yesterday morning at 92. Thus, I will now tell of the time I sought him out.

As I mentioned before, I did a research paper my junior year of college on the significant number of Italian-American baseball players from the San Francisco Bay Area. After turning my paper in, I spent several months trying to expand it into a magazine piece. Though I never ultimately submitted it for publication, I did a lot of research, making trips to the city and interviewing former major leaguers like Gino Cimoli, who had the first at-bat on the West Coast in 1958. Eventually, my research brought me to a place called Dom’s Dugout.

I had read in The Hero’s Life, by Richard Ben Cramer, that Joe DiMaggio once had a restaurant on the Embarcadero. On one of my trips to the city, in 2004, I ventured in search of it, near Pier 39, and found that the restaurant no longer existed. The top floor of its building had been converted into a different restaurant, and on the bottom, there now sat a memorabilla store– Dom’s Dugout. I learned it was owned by the former player– a savvy businessman in his own right– and that he occasionally made trips from the East Coast to check on his investment. At some point, I learned he would likely be visiting in September of that year.

Thus, I eventually found myself back in the store on a fall day, with a living legend sitting at a card table in front of me. At first, he was hesitant to give me any time, which made sense. His older brother Joe was famously reclusive, almost suing Simon & Garfunkel after they referenced him in their song “Mrs. Robinson,” and neither DiMaggio agreed to be interviewed for The Hero’s Life. Nevertheless, Dom acquiesced for me and allowed my request for ten minutes.

Somehow ten minutes became two hours of sitting with him while he signed autographs for customers and chatted with them. I’ve interviewed a number of ballplayers and I must say that next to Ozzie Smith, DiMaggio may have been the kindest. He autographed tirelessly, talked with fans about his life experiences and even called one guy’s son up via cell phone, after the man said it would make his day. DiMaggio also was nice to me. Diminutive and bespectacled and still lucid, he graciously answered my questions.

It’s been almost five years now, and I’ve always felt guilty for never writing of my experience, though it’s nice to relate it now.

On a final note, decades before, when the building was the DiMaggio family restaurant, it had a famous patron. Detroit Tigers great Ty Cobb helped Joe DiMaggio negotiate one of his early contracts with the New York Yankees, advising him on how to successfully hold out for more money, and as a thank you for this service, Cobb got to eat free for life at the restaurant. For all I know, Dom DiMaggio and I sat in the same spot where Cobb once dined.

(Postscript: For anyone who’d like to read more about Dom DiMaggio, Sports Illustrated published this nice story on him in 2001.)

My top five baseball books

Anyone who reads this space consistently will find that I make a lot of references to baseball books in my writing. Most of these are in fact books that I own. I’m proud to say I have a pretty decent personal baseball library that I’ve been accumulating since childhood. For whatever reason, baseball is a sport that lends itself to wonderful, poetic writing (along with boxing and horse racing I’ve heard) and today, I offer five essentials, the five baseball books I’d want to bring to a desert island were I ever stranded there:

1. The Boys of Summer, by Roger Kahn

This is actually the latest book that I’m reading, and I’m only about 100 pages in, though already it’s wonderful. Kahn offers an autobiographical look at the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s, drawn from his days as a young beat writer for that team. Lots of former players are interviewed, including Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider.

2. Summer of ’49, by David Halberstam

This takes somewhat of a similar approach to Boys of Summer, with lots of interviews of former players, though this time, it’s the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees of the 1949 pennant race who are chronicled. A Harvard graduate and former Vietnam correspondent, Halberstam offered a book full of depth and insight. He ends with a nice quote from Ted Williams, though on an interesting side note, Joe DiMaggio refused to participate in the book.

3. The Glory of their Times, by Lawrence Ritter

Possibly the very best baseball book out there. The book is an oral history of the early days of baseball, comprised of interviews with about 20 ballplayers whose careers spanned the beginning to middle of the 20th century. One of those books that also provided a public service, it’s no surprise that the original tapes Ritter made interviewing the players are now in the Hall of Fame. In fact, a number of the players profiled here later were inducted into the Hall, possibly because the book brought awareness to their careers. Ritter later wrote another great book, The Lost Ballparks, about demolished fields.

4. Ball Four, by Jim Bouton

This one broke ground when it came out. A diary of the 1969 season by Bouton, an acerbic relief pitcher, the book exposed players as drunks, amphetamine users and philanderers. Though comparatively tame today, the book violated the unwritten code of clubhouse privacy and shook baseball. The San Diego Padres burned a copy of the book before a game, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn had a meeting with Bouton in an attempt to coerce a retraction, and Pete Rose taunted “Fuck you Shakespeare” from his dugout. Incidentally, the book is also funny, intelligent and just vulgar enough to be charming.

5. Baseball, by Ken Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward

This was released in conjunction with Burns’ epic 1994 documentary of the same name and is basically a written account of what aired on PBS. Filled with pictures, oral histories, essays and anecdotes, this is probably the finest chronicle of baseball history among the several that I own. I hope Burns offers an updated version at some point.

I could recommend a whole slew of other titles, though I’ll keep this short today.

Joe DiMaggio’s boyhood home

I found an old notebook this weekend that reminded me of a cool story I haven’t written about before: About five years ago, I got to go inside Joe DiMaggio’s boyhood home. It happened like this:

Starting in middle school, I often wrote about baseball for term papers. First, in eighth grade, I decried Pete Rose’s banishment from the game and got an A-plus. For my high school senior project, I copiously researched the Sacramento Solons, a former Pacific Coast League team from my hometown. Then in my junior year of college, I wrote about the inordinately large number of Italian-American major leaguers who grew up in San Francisco. These players included New York Yankees stars Tony Lazzeri, Lefty Gomez and, most famously, Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio.

I received another A on the last paper, and afterward, I got this idea that I could expand it into a magazine story. It never went anywhere, though over the course of several months, I did a lot of research and interviewed a number of former major leaguers, including Joe’s brother Dom DiMaggio, a great player in his own right (that’s a story for another time.) I also made several trips to San Francisco, hoofing it around the Italian quarter, North Beach, and other parts of the city. Among the places I visited were a bar where I learned the staff kept Pabst Blue Ribbon on-hand for when Joe would visit– the bar didn’t sell it, though apparently it was the Yankee Clipper’s favorite beer. I also visited the DiMaggio family home on Taylor Street.

I had learned of the house from Richard Ben Cramer’s biography Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life, which showed a picture of DiMaggio as a toddler outside the dwelling, but didn’t provide its exact address. Instead, I went to the street on one of my trips to the city and had an elderly man point the house out to me. When I knocked on the door, I found three 24-year-old girls living inside. They let me in and were very friendly, with one of the girls, Katie, telling me the house had been in her family for three generations. There wasn’t any kind of marker or plaque outside, and Katie said her dad had told her of DiMaggio’s past residence when she moved in. It had been remodeled since DiMaggio’s time, with linoleum now on the floor, a marble counter and fluorescent lights. There were two tiny rooms and one big room, though I heard that one of the bedrooms had extended out to where the kitchen presently was. According to this article, nine DiMaggio children somehow lived inside.

Apparently, the city of San Francisco had never approached the owners about making the building a landmark, though I suggested the girls hold some kind of party to commemorate the Yankee great. To this, one of their neighbors who was visiting at the time remarked, “Oh dude, we’re having a Joe DiMaggio party.”

I just hope they had plenty of Pabst Blue Ribbon on-hand.

The Aloysius Travers of wiffle ball

On May 15, 1912, Ty Cobb went into the stands in New York after a crippled heckler and set up for the one of the more bizarre games in major league history.

As recounted in one of my favorite books, Ken Burns’ Baseball, the Detroit Tigers immortal earned a suspension from organized ball after going into the stands for Claude Lueker, who had taunted Cobb as a “half [racial epithet].” Georgia-native Cobb was a legendary racist, with longtime baseball writer Fred Lieb speculating in his autobiography Baseball As I Have Known It that the Tigers great moonlighted as a Ku Klux Klan member (Lieb also wrote that Rogers Hornsby, Gabby Street and Tris Speaker told him they were members.) A disabled newspaper reporter, Lueker commonly berated Cobb at games, but when he shouted the racial epithet, in the third inning of a Highlanders-Tigers game, Cobb had enough. Page 109 of Baseball captured what ensued:

Cobb vaulted the railing, knocked down his tormentor, and began stomping him with his spikes. When someone shouted that the man was helpless because he had just one hand, Cobb answered, “I don’t care if he doesn’t have any feet,” and kept kicking him until a park policeman pulled him away.

(For his part, Lueker may have gotten off light– toward the end of his life, Cobb reportedly told biographer Al Stump that he killed a would-be mugger in the street that same season.)

Following the assault on Lueker, American League President Ban Johnson suspended Cobb without a hearing. However, the rest of the Tigers sympathized with Cobb because of the nature of Lueker’s taunt, given that it was 1912, and what followed was the first player’s strike since 1890. Detroit management scrambled to fill a roster to avoid a forfeit for its May 18 game. According to the 20th Century Baseball Chronicle, among those recruited were amateur players, former major leaguers and even some fans.

For a pitcher, Detroit turned to a seminary student named Aloysius Travers, who would go down in the record books. Travers set major league marks that still stand for runs and hits allowed as the Tigers lost 24-2 to the Philadelphia Athletics. Subsequently, Johnson reinstated everyone, including Cobb, and just like Moonlight Graham in “Field of Dreams,” Travers’ career ended after one game.

So why do I bring this all up? This past weekend, I got to be Aloysius Travers.

One of my good friends is getting married in June and for the bachelor party, we went camping this weekend. I suppose a lot of bachelor parties involve strippers, gambling and drunken debauchery. We played sports. On Saturday, my friend’s best man organized a day of games that began with soccer, kickball, and ultimate frisbee. We started around 10 a.m. and by 3 p.m. everyone was pretty beat, including yours truly. Thankfully, by this point, we were onto our final game, wiffle ball, and because we had an odd number of players, I volunteered to serve as all-time pitcher.

When I played Little League, one of my dreams besides hitting a home run was to pitch. I got an idea this weekend of why that dream never came to pass. Over the course of seven innings, I probably allowed 20 runs between both teams. In vain, I experimented with several different wind ups, debuting the wiffle ball equivalents of Juan Marichal (kick windup), Hideo Nomo (back to the mound) and Dan Quisenberry (submarine), among others, to no avail.

My dad used to do a great job of this kind of pantomime in epic, front driveway wiffle ball games we had when I was a kid. He had a whole lineup of players he impersonated, including the sluggers Mail Murphy and Mickey Mammoth, the all-purpose spray hitter Tito Fuentes, the soft-tossing pitcher MacGregor and my nemesis, the flame-throwing hurler Nelson (for my part, I came up with Silly Mays.)  I often whiffed against Nelson’s overpowering fastball, though my dad was sometimes merciful and kept his star pitcher out of games with the excuse he was in jail.

I wasn’t nearly as menacing this weekend, and my friends teed off on just about everything. In fact, my more elaborate offerings seemed to be belted deeper into the outfield. I honestly didn’t know wiffle balls could go as far as some went. Granted I struck out a few guys, including the groom-to-be (which is kind of messed up, come to think of it.) Still, the next time we play ball, I reckon I’ll be back in the outfield where I spent the bulk of my Little League career.

Either that or, just like Travers, it’s off to the seminary for me. I’m just glad none of my friends chose to impersonate Ty Cobb.

Batter up

I have been urged by my friends– all of whom mean well– to begin writing in this space without introducing myself, as if I have been standing here all the while only you haven’t noticed.  But I don’t think I’ll do that.  I think I’ll start off by telling you a little about myself and what I believe in.  That way, we can start to fight right away.

With those words, published February 12, 1961, Jim Murray began his career as a sportswriter with the Los Angeles Times.  Over the next four decades, Murray would set the bar for excellence in his industry, winning sportswriter of the year 14 times and a Pulitzer Prize in 1990.  Along the way, he lost a wife to cancer, a son to a drug overdose and nearly went blind, though he kept writing until the day he died in 1998.  He influenced a generation of sportswriters and as one of them, Rick Reilly, wrote in Sports Illustrated after his death, “Murray could write anything; sports just happened to get lucky.”

As the great Murray did, I will begin here by telling a little about myself.

When I was eight years old, my grandfather gave me a 567-page book, the 20th Century Baseball Chronicle.  Covering every season from 1900 to 1990, the book listed World Series winners, award recipients and everything else needed to recapture nine decades of America’s past time.  My grandfather has since told me he hoped I would apply myself to something by reading it and so I did.  It took nearly three months, if I remember correctly, but I read the book from cover to cover.  I was an odd child, I suppose, and some things never change.  I can still name most World Series winners along with seemingly mundane trivia, like the year Dizzy Dean died (1974.)

It’s been almost 20 years now since I first read that book, and my relationship with the game has transformed.  As a kid, baseball for me was all about playing Little League (I struck out a lot) and trading Kevin Mitchell, Jose Canseco and Darryl Strawberry cards with my friends.  Players to me, past and present, were larger than life heroes, more myth than men.  Somewhere between the 1994 strike, the dawn of the Steroid Era, and my own coming of age, my perspective changed.  I rarely have the patience to watch an entire game on television anymore and it’s been a long time since I cared about a team as passionately as the Will Clark-led San Francisco Giants of the early Nineties.  I am rarely enchanted by contemporary players and am in fact skeptical that most of the good ones are probably on steroids.

Nevertheless, I still love stories of when the game was great and support players these days who seemingly capture the spirit and ideals of bygone eras.  A new season has begun and Ken Griffey Jr. and Derek Jeter are still playing.  There are others like them.

This space shall ostensibly be about the best of baseball, past and present.  Perhaps the heroes of my youth never existed but in my imagination, though I will do my best to evoke what I love of the game and bemoan what I think is lacking today.

That way, we can start to fight right away.