My great-grandmother lived to be 92, dying when I was 11. Gigi, as my family called her, spent the final few years of her life in a nursing home in Ripon, California about an hour south of where we lived in Sacramento, and my mom took me and my sister to visit her almost every week. The general pattern was to pick Gigi up and go for food, Mexican or Chinese in Ripon, McDonalds or Olive Garden in nearby Modesto, and there’d usually be time to talk.
I’ve loved history, particularly primary source history as long as I can remember, and with Gigi being born in Oakland in 1902, I knew she had a wealth of stories. I wish I’d been old enough to ask her more about her memories of standing on the East Bay waterfront in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, watching the city burn. Still, even her small, inconsequential stories of growing up and raising my grandmother during the Great Depression enthralled me. It was like having a window into another world.
Maybe that’s part of the reason I’m drawn to baseball history, why I can talk at length with men who knew Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, or Willie Mays. I started research on a book two years ago on a man named Joe Marty who played in the majors from 1937 to 1941. At the time I set out on my project, four of Marty’s big league teammates were still living, and I got to interview one of them. I can’t describe how surreal that phone conversation was, the wonder I felt hearing this man, who was 96 at the time and has since died, tell me first-hand anecdotes about Marty, who died in 1984 and has otherwise been challenging to research. How I welcome the opportunity to cut through myth and get a glimpse of the realities people lived.
In this spirit, I got to do an email interview this past winter with founding Sports Illustrated editor and longtime baseball writer Robert Creamer. I’m still amazed by the experience. Creamer, who died at 90 on Wednesday, gave an enchanting, beautiful interview. The man who wrote the definitive biographies on Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel took almost three weeks to answer my questions, offering more than 4,000 words and a lifetime of baseball knowledge in response. Creamer wrote of watching Babe Ruth hit home runs, of being at the Polo Grounds in 1951 when Mays hit his first career home run and again in 1954 when the Say Hey Kid made his famous catch in Game 1 of the World Series.
I’ve done many interviews, and they often go well. My subjects are usually interesting people, often baseball writers I admire or former players, and I also believe everyone has a story. I’ve found it’s generally a matter of asking good questions, helping a person feel comfortable and listening. All this being said, I knew before Creamer was halfway through my questions that he was offering something remarkable. There’s a part in the foreword to John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Confederacy of Dunces where novelist Walker Percy remarks of his reading the manuscript for the first time and having thought, “Surely it was not possible that it was so good.” I felt a little like that each time one of Creamer’s emails came in with another question or two of mine answered.
For instance, I asked Creamer about his favorite baseball memories. His reply so struck me I read it aloud to my mom. Creamer began:
This is a very tough question to answer, first of all because some of one’s most treasured memories have nothing to do with the big leagues but with personal experience. I remember when I was about nine around 1930 being in our backyard with my grumpy old grandfather. I was throwing a rubber ball against the back of our neighbors’ garage and trying to field it. Suddenly Pop asked me “You like baseball?” I said “Sure!” He said “What position do you play?” I said,”Shortstop,” which was simply a nine-year-old’s dream back before Little League and organized kids sports. He said, “I used to play shortstop,” and I was astonished. This cranky old man had played baseball? Had played shortstop?
That’s all I remember of the conversation, but some time later the local daily ran a sentimental Look-Back issue, reprinting pages from an 1890 newspaper, and there was a story about the Mt. Vernon All-Stars beating the Wakefield 200, and there in the boxscore was my grandfather’s name — Fred Watts, ss. — and he had a hit! And my uncle John Brett played right field. It wasn’t until years later that I realized it must’ve been a picnic-type game for a barrel of beer, but for a kid, seeing his grandfather’s name in the newspaper playing shortstop for the “Stars”– that was a thrill I still remember. There are a lot of non-pro things I can recall and which meant then and still do now a great deal to me.
Creamer gave a powerful, touching interview, something that could’ve and probably should’ve run somewhere much larger. I was lucky to get to share it here.
Creamer and I kept up for a few months after the interview. He was fun to email with, witty, helpful and always kind to me. I’ve undertaken two projects on my blog since I interviewed Creamer, and I invited him to write for both of them. When he said no for the first project, he told he’d been having some health woes and that it was difficult for him to write much of anything, even short emails. I didn’t realize the gravity of Creamer’s situation, that he might have anything like the prostate cancer that ultimately took his life. Creamer was still gracious enough from his sickbed to put me in contact with one of his former SI colleagues, Walter Bingham, who contributed a piece on Casey Stengel that I linked to in April for the first project. Creamer also offered encouragement for my writing and even wrote me a letter of recommendation on April 25. Regrettably, it was the last I heard from him.
Creamer turned 90 on July 14, and I organized a birthday card of sorts through this site. My goal was to have people leave comments saying how Creamer touched them and to put a smile on his face and help make his birthday special. I’m wondering now if he saw the post. I wouldn’t expect it, though perhaps this piece can be sent to Creamer’s family. I’d like them to know how grateful I was for the opportunity to talk with him, what a wonderful man and baseball writer that he was. He set a fine example for me and, I’m guessing, countless others. I’ll cherish my association with him.