An interview with Robert Creamer

He was born when Babe Ruth was in just his third season as a Yankee slugger. He went to his first baseball game when John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson were still managing. His tenure at Sports Illustrated began months before the first issue of the magazine printed in 1954. And recently, I found Robert Creamer, original SI writer and author of celebrated biographies on Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel writing as vividly and beautifully as ever at 89.

I had the pleasure to interview Mr. Creamer (Bob, as he insisted I call him) by email recently. I’ve had good experiences with interviews for this blog from Joe Posnanski to Rob Neyer and others, though my experience this time around exceeded all expectations that I had coming in. It was definitely a most unusual interview. The answers came over a two-week span, one and two answers at a time, with Bob footnoting his lengthy emails with apologies for needing more time and explanations that he couldn’t write more that day because of a doctor’s appointment or trip to the grocery store or just age. I chose to be patient, since it seemed wrong and not in my best interest to demand otherwise, and I’m so glad I did. I’ll almost never say this, but for any baseball historian or aspiring writer, the following is a must read.

Many thanks to Marty Appel for helping set this up.

BPP: What still excites you about baseball?

Creamer: That’s easy– the wonder of ‘What happens next?’

When I’m watching a game between teams I’m interested in, sometimes that wonder — and the fullfilment of it, as in the sixth game of the 2011 World Series — can be excruciatingly exciting, and its fullfilment as you watch and wait can be almost literally incredible. Even in an ordinary game, with, say, the miserable Mets, the team I essentially root for, trying to hold on to a one-run lead in the last of the eighth against, say, the Brewers with Ryan Braun at bat, two out and the bases loaded, can keep me glued to the television set. What’s going to happen next? Is Braun going to fist a two-run single to put Milwaukee ahead, or is this occasionally effective reliever going to get Braun to lift an easy fly to center to get us out of the inning? For me, the wait, the anticipation, is still tremendous

I have occasionally quoted my long-ago family doctor who once said to me, “Baseball is a game of limitless dramatic possibility.” We’ve come close to the limit — Bobby Thomson’s home run 60 years ago, the Cardinals last fall — but we haven’t reached it yet.

A retired scout told me baseball changes too much every ten years to allow for comparisons between different eras. What sort of changes have you seen in your lifetime?

Your baseball scout is right on the money, though I would love to read about the changes he’s been most aware of. Me, I forget what an antiquity I am, not just dating from when I began following big league baseball as a little [boy] but later when I started writing about it and even later when I retired from Sports Illustrated, which in itself is a long time ago.

I first became intensely aware of big league baseball in the summer of 1931, when I was nine. My big brother, who was six years older than I, took me to my first major league game, or games — it was a doubleheader between the old New York Giants and the old Brooklyn Dodgers in the old Polo Grounds on the banks of the Harlem River in New York, below the steep hillside known as Coogan’s Bluff. John McGraw was still managing the Giants and Wilbert Robinson the Dodgers, who were generally known as the Robins. Headlines would sometimes refer to the Robins as “the Flock,” as in flock of birds. I’m not sure if team nicknames were technically formal at that time. If not they soon were. Both McGraw and Robinson ended their managerial careers in 1932, and the Robins nickname soon disappeared as “Dodgers” returned. The new manager was Max Carey, whose real name was, I believe, “Canarius.” One sportswriter, Tom Meany, bowing to Max, suggested the team’s new nickname be the Canaries, but it didn’t take.

Nicknames were just that at the time, nicknames, but they became big business later, as did every part of baseball.

I digress, as I always do. Changes I’ve been aware of…. The biggest I can think of offhand are: 1) night baseball, which in the major leagues started very small in the mid 1930s and kept growing and growing; 2) the arrival of Jackie Robinson and the great black players who followed him (Willie Mays joined the Giants only four years after Jackie reached the Dodgers); 3) the big impact of radio broadcasting of home and, later, away games in the New York area where I grew up, first with Red Barber and then Mel Allen and the others; 4) television coverage beginning small in the late 1940s and early 1950s and then exploding in the 1960s; 5) the great expansion of interest in basketball and football in the 1960s and later, which led to a significant decline in the number of American kids concentrating on baseball; 6) the concomitant expansion of the number of Caribbean and other foreign players in the major leagues; 7) the vastly greater size and much better year-round physical condition of major league players today, a change that progressed year by year or decade by decade and began long before all the attention paid to steroids. Some day compare the heights and weights of, say, the great 1927 New York Yankees with any major league team of the last ten or twenty years.

It’s hard to say which changes were most important – what have I forgotten? — but I’d say the sheer size and physical condition of the players today is the most important factor in the changes in the way the game is played today.

And I haven’t touched on the tactical and strategic changes – most notably in the multiple pitching substitutions during games today.

Is baseball still America’s pastime?

No. It’s our spectator sport and I think possibly still our biggest spectator sport, and we love to read about it and talk about it and watch it on TV but nobody PLAYS baseball anymore. Softball, yes,but today everybody plays basketball or touch football whereas a century ago EVERYBODY played baseball. If you can find an old newspaper file from around 1912, ten years before I was born, look at the coverage of games on Saturdays and particularly Sundays – dozens of games, club teams, neighborhood teams, small town teams, political clubs, social clubs. It’s astonishing.

You wrote the foreword to one of Lawrence Ritter’s books. Do you think there’s a living group of players who’d merit another edition of The Glory of Their Times?

I’ll get a little passionate here. I think Larry Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times is the single best baseball book that’s ever been published. I think it stands alone, like Mount Everest, better even than Angell or Kahn or the other terrific efforts. Regarding Ritter, there were several books written in imitation of it later — interviews with old players — a couple I think by the very competent Don Honig — that are informative and fun to read, but compared to “Glory” they’re like watching a good high school game after seeing the Rangers versus the Cards last fall.

What I am saying is that it would be impossible to write another edition of The Glory of Their Times. It was a unique subject. Ritter was a unique writer.

But if a Don Honig were available and the players were available I’d love to read such a book about the era from approximately 1982 or 1983 to 2004 or 2005, 20 extraordinary years with many remarkable players — the era of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, so many singular players, so many significant events.

Who’s the greatest baseball player you covered?

Willie Mays. Period.

I seem to remember that Bill James, using his fabulous, desiccated statistics, demonstrated that Mickey Mantle, who was Willie’s almost exact contemporary, was actually the better player, and I’m not equipped to argue with Bill, although I’ll try. And there are DiMaggio, Williams, Musial, Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez – no, wait. I didn’t cover DiMaggio, who retired after the 1951 season — I didn’t start with Sports Illustrated until 1954. But that’s still a pretty impressive collection of players to put Willie on top of.

I saw Mays play a lot. My father and I were in the moderate crowd at the Polo Grounds in May 1951 when Willie played his first game for the Giants. My father was only a mild baseball fan, although he told me his favorite ballplayer when he was a kid in New York back at the beginning of the 20th century was a bearded outfielder for the Giants named George Van Haltren, which indicates a certain degree of baseball intensity. In any case he and I drove down from Tuckahoe to the Polo Grounds, bought tickets (which you could do then) and sat in the lower stands between home and first base. Willie had broken in a few days earlier in Philadelphia where he went 0 for 12 in three games. He was batting third which if it seems a high spot for a brand-new rookie seemed a proper spot to take a look at a rookie who had been batting something like .477 in the minors.

The top of the first took some of the fun out of the game right away. Warren Spahn was pitching for the Boston Braves and in the top of the first Bob Elliott hit a three-run homer for Boston, which took a lot of the starch out of the Giant fans. If Spahn was on, and had a three-run lead already, we didn’t have a prayer. Spahn set the first two Giants down in order and here came Willie, our fabulous new rookie. I forget what the count went to — a ball and a strike, something like that. Spahn threw the next pitch and Willie hit it on a line high and deep to left center field. I cannot recall if it hit the wooden façade high in left field or went over the roof and out of the park. All I remember is the electric excitement that shot through the park at the sound and sight of our precious rookie in his first at-bat in New York hitting a tremendous home run off the great Spahn. “He’s real!” was the feeling. “He’s real!”

Never mind that Spahn closed him down and the rest of the Giants the rest of the night. Never mind that Willie went another 13 times at bat before getting another hit, It didn’t matter — as he subsequently demonstrated, time and time again. He was here.

I saw a lot of Willie Mays, and that certainly gave me a strong bias towards him. But I saw a lot of Mantle too and was deeply impressed by what he could do. Yet Willie stayed above Mickey in my mind, then and forever. I saw the famous catch Willie made against Vic Wertz in the Polo Grounds in the 1954 World Series but later on I saw him make a catch in Cincinnati’s old ball field, Crosley Field. My memory says Crosley had a steep warning bank against the left-field fence. A Cincinnati runner was on first base when the batter sent a tremendous fly ball to deep left center. Willie went up the bank, leaped, made a spectacular catch, turned and as he was falling threw the ball on a line to first base where he just missed doubling off the base runner. Simply an amazing play, and he kept doing things like that.

I saw him in San Francisco after the Giants moved out there almost single-handedly destroy the Braves, now pennant winners from Milwaukee. He could rise to a pitch of intensity that was almost unbelievable, creating an excitement that I have never forgotten. I think of two somewhat parallel plays — double plays started by centerfielders, one by DiMaggio, which I saw on primitive television in the late 1940s, and another by Mays against the Dodgers, which I didn’t see but which I read and heard about for years. In Yankee Stadium the Yankees were beating the lowly St. Louis Browns something like five to one in the ninth inning. I believe the bases were loaded but I’m not sure and I’m not sure it matters. But there was a man on first base. There was one out and the Browns’ batter lifted a little pop fly into the dead area between second base, center field and right field. Neither the second baseman nor the right fielder had a chance for the ball. The old-fashioned TV setup of those days had one camera focused on the area and it showed DiMaggio running in from center field toward where the ball might fall.

There wasn’t a chance he could catch it and the runner on first place took off, running as hard as he could. DiMaggio kept running — he was very, very fast although he never looked fast because of his long loping stride, and he was running straight at the camera. which seemed to be set up near the dugout on the first-base side of home. It seemed to take forever. But DiMaggio, loping in, reached his gloved hand forward, stretched out and caught the ball inches off the ground; he slowly straightened up and without changing his expression or his gait loped across first base to complete a double play that ended the game, kept jogging toward the camera and the dugout and disappeared into the dugout and the clubhouse behind it, without ever changing his expression. It was simply extraordinary, unforgettable.

Willie’s center field double play was different. I don’t recall that it was the ninth inning, I don’t recall that it was a game-ender. But it was a late inning in a game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers and a very close game, one out with a Dodger on third base. Again, the batter hit a sickly little pop fly into short right-field. The right fielder was too deep to get to it, the second baseman was in too close, possibly thinking to cut off a run at the plate. Willie, who was also unbelievably fast, came racing across from center field and there seemed a possibility that he could make a diving catch and get the ball. The Dodger third-base coach held the runner at third, figuring that whether Mays got to the ball or not he’d be running full tilt toward the first-base foul line as he fell and would be unable to get up, turn and throw to the plate in time to cut down the runner. Willie did catch the ball, tumbling toward the ground as he did, and the coach sent the runner toward the plate. Willie fell to the ground as anticipated but as he fell he twisted his body and made a perfect throw to the catcher to double up the base runner. It was an unbelievable play, as wild and extravagant as DiMaggio’s was cool and perfect. But it showed one of the characteristics Mays had in abundance — the extraordinary ability to rise (or, in this case, fall) to an occasion

One other point about Mays. Ordinarily I don’t like longevity being so important in the evaluation of a ballplayer. There must be half a dozen ballplayers in the Hall of Fame who are there because they hung around year after year. Even Ted Williams, unquestionably one of the very greatest ever to play the game, got extra points because of all those extra seasons he had with the Red Sox during the 1950s after he got back from Korea. He hit a lot of home runs and had a couple of extraordinary batting averages but if you look at his record closely and compare it to his fabulous seasons from 1939 into the 1950s he is simply not the same ballplayer, not the same hitter. His runs scored and runs batted in are sadly diminished, not anywhere near the astonishing numbers of his earlier years.

Yet I offer Mays’ physical strength and durability as added reasons for his greatness. I don’t want to take the time now to dig out the Baseball Encyclopedia and cite numbers. But take a look and see how many times in the old 154-game schedules he played 150 games or more, or close to it. He not only played at an all-star level, he did it longer and more consistently than any other of the really great players

Maybe these aren’t good arguments for Mays as the greatest, but, oh, if you could have seen him play, feel the exuberance, see the quick, brilliant baseball mind at work, see the things he could do.

What are your most treasured baseball memories?

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.

But big-league baseball memories — seeing Willie break in is a tremendous memory, and the other things he did. Seeing Babe Ruth hit home runs; I saw Babe play at least one game in 1932, 1933 and 1934, his last three seasons with the Yankees, and each time I saw him he hit a home run (a couple of times it was a doubleheader and he hit a homer in one of the games, but he hit one.) In short I have the thrill of remembering what a Ruthian homer looked like up close – simply gorgeous. That beautiful swing and Ruth’s big face looking up watching it go as he starts to run. And the ball, already enormously high in the air as it floated past the infield. I mean, I saw Babe Ruth hit home runs.

As mentioned earlier I saw John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson in uniform managing in 1931. In 1954 during an old timers game I sat on the bench in Yankee Stadium near Connie Mack and Cy Young and watched a middle-aged Lefty Grove kidding with those two old men. I got a thrill every time I had a chance to talk to or (much more important) listen to Casey Stengel. I got to know Mickey Mantle, who the New York sportswriters didn’t much like, and found, when you got past the shyness and antagonism toward strangers, that he was a nice, kind of diffident young guy.

I didn’t think about it at the time but looking back I think the relatively close association with certain players created a host of treasured memories — not necessarily the great players like Mays and Mantle but the bright, relatively obscure players like Monte Irvin, Gil MacDougald, Al Smith, Jerry Coleman, Wally Moon, Rocky Bridges, Bill White. It seems childish but I remember them more warmly and I think with more excitement than the intermix with the great stars.

This is a sorry answer. I should have specific moments of baseball history– like Willie’s great catch of Vic Wertz’s huge fly ball in the first game of the 1954 World Series, which I saw standing with Roger Kahn as we got ready to go around the stands to post-game stuff in the centerfield clubhouses.

You’ve written biographies on Casey Stengel and Babe Ruth. If steroids had been a part of the game when Stengel and Ruth were players, do you think they would have used?

Sure. Yes. Absolutely. Hell, for decades before the big scandal about steroids in baseball, clubhouses used to have plates or dishes filled with little candy-like pills players gulped or chewed on routinely. My mind is gone – I forget what they were called.. Uppers? Bennies? I can’t recall. But that was standard. Athletes are always looking for an edge and that was a way to get them fired up. I have never been as upset by steroid use as the moralistic holier-than-thou baseball writers who vote on the Hall of Fame. What a bunch of self-important phonies!

I mean, you’d think all an ordinary player would have to do is take steroids to hit 70 home runs or bat .350. But I think McGwire was telling the truth — he took steroids to hold back distress, to make him physically able to play the game. Steroids don’t make a player good. Think of the hundreds, even thousands of players who have been in and out of the major leagues and who may have dabbled in steroids and think how few have hit 50, let alone 60 or 70 homers. Sure, every two-bit hitter in the lineup seems able to drive the ball over the outfield fences, but that has as much to do with the dimensions of the fields and the dimensions of the players, even without steroids. As mentioned earlier in this interview one of the great changes in the game over the decades has been the increasing size of the players. They’re enormous compared to the players of 80 years ago and more than enormous compared to those of 120 years ago.

One other thing that ought to engage the moralists, some of whom still bleed tears for poor old Shoeless Joe Jackson and feisty Pete Rose. Jackson took money to throw ball games. That’s a fact. Whether he actually threw a game or not is beside the point. He AGREED to play badly for money. Rose brought betting on games into the clubhouse, which is horrible, despite all the warnings against doing so, despite the evidence that gambling corrupts sport. I think both of them should be in the Hall of Fame — tell the truth about them on their plaques: they were superb players but moral midgets — but both should continue to be banned from active participation in the game, either posthumously or not.

But the terrible sinners who took steroids were doing what? They were trying to get better, trying to improve themselves (foolishly), trying to win. They were wrong but their motives in a way were admirable.

A new season of Hall of Fame voting was recently upon us which also means the Baseball Writers Association of America announced the 2012 winner for its J.G. Taylor Spink Award. Does it irk you that the award is solely for newspaper reporters and not magazine writers like yourself?

The BBWAA was an important and valuable organization when it was founded back in the 1910s and it continued to be vigorous and important until the 1950s, when TV began to boom and newspapers began to die. In the middle 1950s just after Sports Illustrated began it rankled me that the BBWAA kept non-newspaper sportswriters like me out but it quickly became a non-issue. It simply did not matter. In its early years I believe the BBWAA controlled the pressboxes but in my experience the clubs’ PR people did, so who needed the BBWAA? It existed for the Baseball Writers Dinner, which used to be great fun and may still be, but otherwise it simply does not mean much anymore, and its annual award is just another item of clutter, a good-attendance medal. In the last fifty years I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a magazine writer or a TV broadcaster moan because he or she wasn’t a member. Or maybe they do complain but who really cares? I hope I don’t sound bitter or spiteful because I don’t feel that way. I just don’t think the BBWAA has much significance. I’m not complaining, honest. I know I’ve written some good stuff but I’ve never felt I was on a level with, say, Larry Ritter, John Lardner, Ed Linn or Roger Angell, and I don’t recall any of them being given awards by the BBWAA. Perhaps I’m wrong but to answer your question, no, it doesn’t irk me.

Jimmy Cannon once said that being a sportswriter is like living in a prolonged boyhood. How much has this held true through your life?

Ah, Jimmy Cannon. There aren’t a lot of my generation still hanging around, so I can’t produce validation of the following opinion. Still, I’ll toss it on the table, if only to stimulate discussion.

Jimmy Cannon’s reputation as a great sportswriter was much larger with people who didn’t work with him, or who came across selected pieces of his work after he more or less disappeared from the scene. I believe the mild aversion among his generation to outspoken praise for Cannon derived at least in part from his own fascination with his writing and his constant need for praise, for reassurance.

I was a little surprised by the quote you cite, that Jimmy once said being a sportswriter was like living a prolonged boyhood. To me, that implies prolonged happiness, a carefree existence. Now I didn’t know Cannon — I may have met him once or twice, and I certainly remember being in press boxes with him — but I wasn’t a conversational friend of his as I was with so many sportswriters of that era. But from my observation of him and the many stories I heard about him, Jimmy Cannon seemed the opposite of carefree and happy. He often looked worried. I always felt he worried about his writing. My impression was that he wanted everything he wrote to be great or, maybe more important, to be considered great. Sometimes it was. I remember being knocked out by some Cannon columns, some lines, some phrases — pieces that were simply superb.

But the next piece could just as well be overwrought, overdone, overwritten, mawkish. Here’s an anecdote that bears this out. Jimmy once bearded Frank Graham, a kind and gentle man. I always felt that Frank’s best work — usually plain, simple, low-key writing — was about as good as sportswriting could get. Always controlled, maybe too controlled. It was very different from Jimmy’s, yet Jimmy had high regard for Frank, so much so that he went to him and asked what he, Graham, thought of his, Cannon’s, work. Graham tried to tap-dance his way through an answer because he knew Cannon wanted praise, unfettered praise, even though Cannon’s style was at the other end of the spectrum from Graham’s. Frank kept dancing around the subject, knowing how sensitive Cannon was. Jimmy was insistent and finally Frank gave in. He said, “Jimmy, you’re like a young pitcher. Great fastball, no control.”

That for me sums up Cannon’s writing. Here and there it was fabulous, and those were the pieces that were reprinted and which established his reputation. But he turned out a lot of tiresome blah too. And he got lazy, as we all do. In 1951 he wrote an extraordinary column after the Giants came from 16 games back to tie the Dodgers and force a playoff for the pennant, which came down to one final game. Cannon wrote his column from the point of view of Charlie Dressen, the Brooklyn manager, who was wonderful in many ways but didn’t know how to rise to greatness. Cannon began his column (I can’t remember the exact words) “You’re Charlie Dressen and you’ve got one game to show what you can do.” I forget Cannon’s words, which were a million times better than that. It was a superb piece –one of the best ever to appear on a sports page — but Cannon used the format so frequently after that that it became a cliche. “You’re Mickey Mantle… You’re Joe Louis… etc.” I remember a wonderfully funny parody of it by another writer (not me) that began, “You’re Jimmy Cannon and you’ve got a column to fill.’

So I think Cannon was very good but not all the time. I think his line about “prolonged boyhood” was pleasant bullshit, nothing more. Was it prolonged boyhood? I can remember too many nights in distant hotels writing through the night trying to get a damned story to work. Sure, it was fun, great fun, but for me working for Sports Illustrated was the best part of the fun. Getting a story and getting it written– and getting from home to the story and back again later– was work. Nice work, and I was delighted to have it. But still work.

Has there been a philosophy or ethos you’ve tried to follow through your writing career?

I found out when I was quite young that writing was something I could do. Other kids could do things well that I couldn’t do well, like whistling through your teeth or shooting marbles or drawing pictures or singing in harmony or doing push-ups. I was inept or at best mediocre in these areas. But I could write — it was just something I could do. I liked writing. I liked doing what we called “compositions,” which most kids hated to do. I liked reading stuff, which most kids weren’t fond of.

So reading and writing were second nature to me and the jobs I got when I was young almost all related to writing. Not sports-writing necessarily, even though I was a big sports fan, a big sports-page fan. Just writing. I was 31 before I got my first full-time sports-writing job — with the still in utero Sports Illustrated in March of 1954, five months before we published our first issue in August of that year.

But I had read sportswriters intently and, without consciously doing so, had formed an idea of who was good or even great and who was not. The three I admired most were Red Smith (New York Herald-Tribune), Frank Graham (New York Sun and then New York Journal-American), and John Lardner (Newsweek and various monthly magazines, but not ever Sports Illustrated.) I think Lardner was the best writer who ever wrote regularly on sports but Red Smith, because he wrote beautifully too and because he did his wonderful columns EVERY day – or at any rate six times a week – was the de facto king. My god, what terrific stuff he turned out for the Herald-Trib day after day.

Okay, this is a long-winded way of getting around to answering your question. You ask about “my writing career” and whether I had a philosophy or ethos about it. When I was young I thought I was the best writer in the world, or at least that I was as good as anyone else. Over the years as I found and marveled at writers of great skill and accomplishment I began to understand that I was okay but that there were a lot of writers, male and female, who were better than I, and who could do things I couldn’t do.

Part of that sobering up process came from an appreciation of something Red Smith said (or wrote — probably both) when he was at the height of his admirable career. I may have the precise quote wrong but essentially Red, a newspaperman through and through, said, “It’s important to remember that today’s poetry gets wrapped around tomorrow’s fish.”



Other interviews: Joe PosnanskiRob NeyerJosh WilkerJohn ThornHank Greenwald, Dan Szymborski