Gus Stathos, spring training in 1947, and Jackie Robinson

I went to the Old Timers Lunch on Friday in Sacramento, to do interviews for my book on Joe Marty. It was a good day in my life. I did a couple of key interviews and also got to talk to a former Sacramento Solon named Gus Stathos.

Stathos, who I interviewed at the estate sale of former Solons owner Fred David in February, never played with Marty and was a career minor leaguer. The closest he came to making the show was when the Brooklyn Dodgers brought him to spring training at Vero Beach, Florida in 1947. Stathos played that spring with Jackie Robinson, who was weeks away from becoming the first black man in 83 years to play professional ball.

Stathos gave me a few minutes of his time on Friday, and I’ve provided excerpts from our talk below:

On how Robinson cleaned up at ping pong and horse shoes between workouts and games: “What he did, he used to sit around there with a bunch of guys and play horse shoes. You’d turn around, he beat everybody. Ping bong, he beat everybody. Basketball, he was great. Goodhearted guy, very nice, always spoke real good about everybody.”

On a story Robinson told that spring about treatment he got at a hotel in New Orleans: “He went in to check into the room. There was about fifty or sixty guys there, and the young kid who was behind the counter, he says, ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘We don’t take black people here for our hotel.’ So Pee Wee Reese says– he came forward, Pee Wee Reese– and Eddie Stanky came forward says, ‘Well, if he can’t stay here, we’re not going to stay here.’ So Jackie Robinson heard that, he came up, and he said, ‘Hey, you guys don’t worry about it, I’ll go to a black town and get a room, and I’ll see you guys at the ballpark.’ That’s the kind of a guy he was.”

On if he had a good idea if Robinson would break the color barrier that year: “He was a great guy and a great ballplayer. I thought he was great, I really did, I really liked him. Everybody loved him.”

On whether he had other conversations with Robinson: “Well, as soon as he knew I was from California, cause he was from LA you know….”

On whether Robinson had an opinion on Stathos’s hometown, Sacramento: “I don’t think he even knew where Sacramento was, to be honest with you.”

On Robinson as a player: “I just loved the way he ran. He was pigeon-toed, you know, and he could run– and he could run. He had a lot of guts. He’d steal every base there was and… I thought he was a great ballplayer, I really did. And I’m glad that he made the Hall of Fame, I’m glad he did what he did, and I can say that I was at spring training with him.”

About five years overdue: I join the Society for American Baseball Research

I did something today that I have wanted to do for the past few years and joined the Society for American Baseball Research. For those who don’t know, it is a research society for people who like to read, write and talk about baseball (I like to do all three.) I attended a lunch meeting in Sacramento on my birthday in 2004 and was home. Never before have I been in a room with so many fellow baseball geeks, intimidating though it was when a trivia quiz was given early in the lunch, and I finished in the middle of the pack. I’m used to being the guy who amazes my friends and co-workers by knowing things like who won the World Series in 1961 and Babe Ruth’s career batting average. To a SABR member, such knowledge is equivalent to $100 questions on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Since attending the 2004 meeting, I’ve wanted to become a  SABR member, but for the most part, have been financially constrained or otherwise distracted. I’m starting to get above water with my new job, though, so I decided to take the plunge today. It took five minutes to fill in my credit card info on the SABR Web site, and I am now a SABR member through December 31 of this year. It only cost me $45, since it’s already April and I’m under 30, which qualifies me for some discounts.

The membership should get me connected with other baseball lovers, a good thing since I tend to isolate left to my own devices. I signed up to be in a research group on minor league baseball and elected to be in two chapters: the Lefty O’Doul one in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, as well as the Sacramento group, since I’ve begun research on a book about a player from there, Joe Marty. I will also have access to a wealth of SABR research materials online, which are restricted from non-members, and I’m hoping I might be able to get this blog indexed on the SABR site.

Anyhow, expect more SABR-related posts as I begin to attend meetings.

Belated post-mortem on my chance to interview Will Clark

I have been remiss in posting the outcome of my opportunity to interview Will Clark at an awards dinner in Florida a couple of weeks ago.  As some may have surmised, I did not attend the event or interview Clark, even by phone.  I have not written about this until today partly due to my disappointment with how things played out, though the experience itself bears mention.

I’ll rewind for anyone who hasn’t heard the earlier iterations of this story.  Back in November, I learned of a Hitters Hall of Fame at the Ted Williams Museum in Tampa, Florida.  I also learned that this Hall of Fame honored players like Dale Murphy and Fred McGriff, but not Honus Wagner or Jackie Robinson.  Curious, I called a listed number for the museum and reached the cell phone of the executive director, David McCarthy.  After I subsequently sent McCarthy a link to my post, he emailed feedback and invited me to the annual awards dinner for the museum, set for February 13.  At the time in November, I had just quit a sales job and had lots of free time but little income.  I told McCarthy I would have to get back to him and figured, since I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, that I wouldn’t be able to afford the trip to Tampa.

The decision to pass became tougher, though, when I learned in January that my all-time favorite baseball player Will Clark would be honored at the dinner, along with Darryl Strawberry, Bert Blyleven and Dave Dravecky.  As one of the stipulations for being honored is that a player attend the dinner, I figured I could interview all four men if I went.  I contemplated asking my parents for the money, but a man I go to for advice stressed the importance of being self-supporting, and I couldn’t argue.  I let McCarthy know in January of my financial uncertainty, and he said I could still come to the dinner, even with last-minute notice.

In the end, it wasn’t meant to be.  The $350 I needed to make the trip remained an elusive pile of money that never materialized, simple as it sometimes seemed it should be.  If I’d had a job last month or even a few weeks ago, I may have been able to justify going, but in this economy, work has been hard to come by.  Granted, I’ve had some income from freelance writing the last month, but it didn’t seem right to commit funds to a trip when I couldn’t guarantee my next rent.

In the eleventh hour, I tried some last-ditch maneuvering to interview Clark by phone but that didn’t come off either.  I spoke with the sports editor of the San Francisco Chronicle two days before the event and pitched a freelance idea about it.  He passed.  The following day, I inquired with McCarthy about doing a phone interview with Clark.  McCarthy said Clark’s travel arrangements had been delayed by the bad weather in the South and that a phone interview looked uncertain but that he probably could have set something up in-person.  At that point, I gave up.

There’s been a Catch-22 in all this.  Had I not quit my job, I would have been able to afford making the trip, no question; but I probably wouldn’t have had time in the first place to interview McCarthy and build a relationship.  The silver lining in all this, I suppose, is that McCarthy has essentially given me a standing invitation to the event.  Mark McGwire may be on the bill next year.   I hope I can make it.

Baseball coma

I spent much of yesterday transcribing my interview from Saturday with the 96-year-old former big league teammate of Joe Marty, who I’m interested in writing a book on.  While transcribing yesterday, between being held in some kind of spell — a baseball coma, if you will — I got further affirmation of what had already struck me on Saturday: I got some gold.  The old ballplayer’s memory was wonderfully clear, and he was a better quote than some of the managers I talked to in my time covering baseball.  I probably transcribed for 4-5 hours yesterday and got a couple thousand words of quotes between the man and his son, lots of great anecdotes I didn’t even ask for really.  I think there’s definitely a book here.

Two days on, I’m still amazed to have talked to someone who played in the majors with Marty, who was there from 1937 to 1941.  Like I’ve said before, this man is one of three teammates still living, all in their nineties.  I definitely want to turn my attention now to getting the other two men on record, though I know not to expect anything.  The approach of calling a family member, sending a list of written questions and then waiting for a callback seemed to work well, though.  Generally, I’m not the kind of journalist to provide questions prior to an interview, but I’m happy to make an exception here.

A larger task will be tracking down the men Marty played with on the Sacramento Solons in the Pacific Coast League, between 1946 and 1952.  Some are still in the Sacramento area and meet for old-timer lunches on a monthly basis.  I’ve interviewed a few of these men in years past, for different projects, and my guess is that, all told, there could be a few dozen ex-Solons from these years still living.  It’s harder to verify than with ex-big leaguers, particularly since Sacramento was something of a way-station then; that being said, I may call on the Sacramento chapter of the Society of American Baseball Research and even contact archives associated with the PCL.

I have no idea of the road I’m embarking on, which will probably be a weekend project for the foreseeable future.  All the same, I feel a sense of purpose, that I’m getting a chance to work on something that’s bigger than me.  That feels good.

Yes, send me all of the baseball books

Had something cool happen yesterday afternoon.

I got a knock on the door from the postman, who had a package for me.  I don’t often get much beyond bills in the mail, so I was intrigued.  It turns out a publisher had sent me a copy of a new baseball book.

I’ll rewind by saying that a few months ago, I requested a copy of a baseball book, Chief Bender’s Burden, so I could review it for this site.  The publisher, University of Nebraska Press, graciously sent me a copy, and yesterday, I received another book from them, Joe Cronin: A Life in Baseball. I hadn’t requested this, though the correlation, I think, is that both texts are about deceased Hall of Famers, written by members of the Society of American Baseball Research (Side note: One of my goals for 2010 is to join this society; I think I more than qualify for membership.)

Anyhow, I am still reading Chief Bender’s Burden but have happily added this new book to the mix.  I’ll say this too: Anyone who wants to send me a baseball book, have at it; I will review anything that’s sent to me, though with that said, if it turns out to be not-so-good, I will most likely make note of that here.

Questions for the 96-year-old ballplayer

I got some questions mailed off to the daughter of the 96-year-old former baseball player I want to interview.  I’m interested in writing a book on one of his former teammates on the 1940 Philadelphia Phillies, Joe Marty, and this man is one of three people still living, all over 90, who played in the majors with him.  The daughter said she will review my questions with her dad and then call when he’s near the phone.  He sounded lucid when the daughter and I spoke last week and he was in the background.

The questions I wrote primarily centered around what life was like on the last-place Phillies that year, his sole season in the majors and if he had any interactions with Marty.  When his daughter and I spoke, I could hear him in the background, correctly remembering that Marty was an outfielder, and I wonder, in general, how vivid his memories are.  A part of my mind keeps circling back to this thought that he will be like the elderly Rose in Titanic, white hair and wide-eyed, self righteously telling Bill Paxton she can remember what the fresh paint smelled like on the doomed, maiden ship.  I like to think we remember the things that matter to us for a lifetime.

But I also know the realities of Alzheimer’s Disease– something like half of all people over 85 suffer from it.  I recognize there’s a 50-50 chance this man has the disease, though with that said, I’ve heard that people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s actually have more intense long-term memories.  They may not remember what they had for lunch yesterday but they can strongly recall details of life from 1924.  The daughter told me her dad had some kind of issue back in August; I suppose I’ll learn more when we talk.

Regardless, I know that old ballplayers love to talk about the past.  One of the best pieces of advice I ever got came from a retired MLB scout from Sacramento who I’ve quoted here before, Ronnie King.  He told me in essence, when I was doing researching for my high school senior project on the Sacramento Solons, that I needn’t worry about getting the old-timers I would be interviewing to talk.  All they needed was the opportunity.  It’s a lesson that’s stayed with me, even if I sometimes have forgotten it.

Anyhow, I mailed the questions Monday evening and am awaiting a call.  The hope is that I’ll enter some sublime time warp with this old man, getting a broad window into his brief life as a ballplayer.  At this point, though, I’m grateful for any insight whatsoever that he can offer.

Looks like my weekend plans are set

I was just looking at my Google Analytics stats and saw I had a spike yesterday in the number of people who read my obituary on former Sacramento Solons owner Fred David, who died in October at 100.  I wondered if the Sacramento Bee had finally written anything about him.  They declined to do a standard obituary, because their obit writer learned of David’s death more than two weeks after the fact.  I talked with one of their columnists after my post ran, and he said he was interested in writing something, though I’ve yet to see anything.

After seeing the statistical spike, however, I wondered if the column had finally run.  Instead, I did a Google search on David and found this Craigslist ad from January 30:

We will be liquidating the Estate of longtime Sacramento Businessman and owner of the Sacramento Baseball Solons of the Old PCL Thursday – Sunday Feb. 4th – 7th. Many items from the old stadium on Broadway will be for sale. Also, the remaining contents of David Candy, including Signs, displays, office, racks, memoribilia. Get on our email list www.schiffestateservices.com to get more information and photos on Monday.

David had a warehouse at 10th and R Street in Sacramento, where he stored many items that he salvaged from the Solons ballpark after it was torn down in 1964.  I had wondered what would become of the memorabilia and had first heard through David’s niece last fall that there would be a sale.  The Craigslist ad doesn’t make the location of the sale clear, but the estate service company Web site said it will be held at the warehouse.

Anyhow, it looks like I now have my weekend plans set.  I was already kicking around the idea of going to Sacramento to see my folks, do laundry and return some library books.  This pretty much seals it.  I have some stuff in the Bay Area I need to do today, but will probably get on the road for Sacramento tomorrow morning and maybe stay through Saturday.  Expect pictures and a full description by Sunday.

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A footnote: While I was writing this post, I received a phone call.  As I have noted here in the past, I am interested in writing a book on a former Sacramento baseball player named Joe Marty.  Marty played in the 1930s and ’40s with the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies and was once thought to be a better prospect than Joe DiMaggio.  That never happened and he wound up running a bar in Sacramento, where he became “his own best customer,” as one old-timer told me.

On a whim last month, I checked the biographies of every one of Marty’s major league teammates (it was a Saturday, I wasn’t doing much, and this totally beats Netflix.)  I found that four of Marty’s teammates were still alive, all in their 90s.  I tried calling all four and didn’t have any luck in getting through and one of the men subsequently died, so I was kind of bummed.  The longer it goes, the greater the likelihood has seemed I won’t get to talk to any of the remaining teammates.

However, I just got a call from the daughter of one of the players.  We talked and I am going to send some written questions which she will review with her dad, who is 96.  She said we could do a follow-up call from there, when her dad is near the phone.  I had called this player’s son a few weeks ago and hadn’t been real encouraged this would lead anywhere, after he gave me the indication his dad is private.  My spirits are lifted now, though.  The daughter asked her dad some questions while we were on the phone, and I could hear him in the background, correctly remembering that Marty was an outfielder.  He sounds lucid.

Technology to the rescue

I interviewed this morning for a sales position with a start-up in Mountain View and got to talking about the upcoming opportunity I have to interview Will Clark upon his induction into the Hitters Hall of Fame at the Ted Williams Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida on February 13.  At this point, I still can’t afford a plane ticket, and I can’t justify taking out a loan or asking my parents for cash.  Thus, my assumption has been that I will probably do a phone interview with Clark, if he’s willing, as well as interviews with the other honorees for the museum this year: Darryl Strawberry, Bert Blyleven and Dave Dravecky.  It would be a major coup for this site, and Clark’s my childhood hero, though I know not to bank on anything.

I got to talking today with my interviewer, though, and she suggested I do a WebEx video conference or Skype video conversation with Clark.  I hadn’t considered those possibilities, and I have to admit it sure beats an interview over my Metro phone.  I also have a friend who works for WebEx and might be able to get me set up technically.  The catch would be getting Clark in front of a web camera, though that might not be impossible.  At the very least, he would have a way to see me during our talk.

Best case scenario, of course, is that I come up with the necessary funds, board a plane to Florida, get six or ten posts for this site out of the event and maybe even cover it for the San Francisco Chronicle.  At least to me, in a perfect world, this is how things would play out.  But I’m open to talking to Clark in any way possible.

Anyone who has ideas I haven’t mentioned is welcome to contact me, asap.

Possible spin-off?

One of the guys who oversees the network of sites my blog belongs to emailed me today, wanting to get my thoughts on creating a San Francisco Giants blog.

He wrote, in part:

I know its your favorite team and you would have no problem writing about them…  I also think you would get more traffic as well since I think its easier to get a fan of a team to come back once he has read your blog.  Since baseball past and present can be so general it can be hard getting people to come back.  Also, it is much easier to get links from sites that index team blogs as well.

I replied that I was definitely interested, but that I would want to write in tandem with other writers, to maintain my primary focus here.  Creating a good blog is actually a lot of work, I’m finding.  I generally need to write for an hour or two every day, minimum, to allow enough time to craft content that will attract and keep the niche of readers that find my site, the older, educated, affluent crowd hungry to devour baseball history.  If I could afford it, I would reserve three to four hours for writing here. In fact, if I were so situated, I would do little else but write.

I’m also starting to realize that I really should take 30 minutes or an hour a day, in addition, to comment on other blogs, syndicate my content and try to build links to my site.  I’ve taken a minimalist approach with SEO and advertising since I started writing here, with hopes of building a grassroots following simply by writing well, though I’m starting to view my promotional inertia as missed opportunity.  Baseball, past and present, can be a harsh mistress.  I’d hate to be lagging on two blogs instead of just one.  But that’s where others can help.

Thus, I told my friend here that I would contact a few fellow sports journalists I knew at Cal Poly.  I am waiting to hear back from two of them and got a polite no from my former editor Jacob Jackson, who is busy with family life.  I also sent queries to a guy I clerked with a few year ago on the sports desk of the Sacramento Bee and one of my best friends’ wives, who likes baseball, is a great writer and served as sports editor of her college paper.  My friend’s wife also has a co-worker, Brian Milne, who is one of the best writers I personally have known and someone I definitely want to talk to about this.  I would welcome any other solid writers to contact me as well.

Because of my education and writing experience, I actually know a number of good writers, people I’d look to if I ever had my own publication.  I’ve spent much of today excited about the possibilities that may exist with this new venture.

Let's get a credential

A couple months ago, I decided one of my goals for 2010 would be to get a press pass for a San Francisco Giants or Oakland Athletics game.  I used to get media access all the time as a journalist and have had passes to Arco Arena for a Sacramento Kings game, AT&T Park for a college football All-Star contest and Raley Field in Sacramento for maybe two dozen Triple-A baseball games.  There’s a certain feeling that having a press pass around one’s neck grants, that special knowledge of getting to hold up the plastic shield and go somewhere others aren’t allowed.  It’s been a couple years since I last had a press pass.  Call it ego, but I miss that feeling.

So I decided in December to try for a pass this year, for this Web site.  My thought was that I would get a credential for an A’s game, when they play the Yankees so that I could interview Nick Johnson, who went to my high school in Sacramento, McClatchy and is married to the sister of a woman I grew up with.  Then I got to thinking I may as well request a pass from the Giants too, as they also have a former McClatchy player in their organization, Steve Holm.  I figured I would see about a Cubs-Giants series, when a great baseball player from Sacramento, Derek Lee, would be in town.

Thing is, my search engine ranking wasn’t great at the time I had this idea.  There is a Web site, Alexa, which ranks every site on the Internet according to total number of visitors and page views.  Google is ranked #1, Facebook #2 and Yahoo #3 and so on.  I have an acquaintance that founded a popular guitar Web site that’s ranked 20,000th roughly and that’s awesome– he’s able to make a living with that sort of ranking.  Personally, I’ve been ranked as high as 1.3-millionth (which probably wasn’t accurate, since it came early in the life of this site) but in December, my ranking was maybe 3-millionth.  Now, it’s 7-millionth.

I don’t know what’s going on, because I’ve tripled my number of monthly unique visitors since I quit my job in November and am starting to approach a thousand, but my fear has been that any Giants or A’s employee looking to grant me access would see my ranking and think, “Okay, who the hell is this guy?  Next!”  And I don’t know if I have an especially compelling reason for needing a pass.

Nevertheless, I impulsively picked up the phone a couple of weeks ago and touched base with members of both teams’ credential departments.  Each representative gave me instructions on what to do next.  The Giants employee emailed me some paperwork to fax in and said he hoped to see me at the ballpark.  The A’s rep told me a specific person to contact with the Yankees and gave me his email address, saying the decision would be up to them and that it might be hard to get a pass for the first game of the series.  I haven’t taken any action since then and don’t know where this will lead, but for some reason, I’m feeling slightly hopeful at the moment.