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HARVEY FROMMER -- SABR Keynote Speaker, Cleveland, 2005

 

                        Keynote Speech:  My Life with Baseball Books

 

        Thanks so much for that great introduction. It’s just the  way I wrote it for you. Thanks so much for inviting me here to speak, I do appreciate it.

 

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        Every time I appear before an audience talking baseball, I am reminded of the time back in the 1980s when one of the favorite books I have written  - - New York City Baseball first appeared. (Now it is enjoying its fourth re-incarnation).

        The publicist back then asked me which of the three teams in the book ?the Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Giants, the New York Yankees ?did I root for in my growing up years.

        “NONE OF THEM.?nbsp; I replied ?/span>

        “That won’t do,?she said. “You’ll have to pick one of the three for your publicity appearances.?/span>

        “Ok, Since I grew up in Brooklyn, I’ll say I used to be a Dodger fan.?/span>

        So  I went around promoting the book, telling people how I had rooted for the Dodgers, how I bled Dodger BLUE, I was having a terrific time. Everything was fine until one night at a Barnes and Noble Bookstore in the Staten Island Mall.

In the middle of my speech a guy in the back of the audience stood up and yelled out ?

“You’re a fraud. I remember you from the old neighborhood. You were that crazy Cardinal fan.?/span>

 

        “That’s my cousin, folks, I said. He always does this. Pay no attention to him .?/span>

                After my talk was over I noticed the guy who had created the disturbance. . . .

        “Hey, I said - - Why did you do that? ?                    

“Because  - - -you were that crazy Cardinal fan. And besides you always used to beat me up.?

   “I still can beat you up?I said. Get the heck out of here!?/span>

Only the word I used wasn’t  “HECK?/span>

 

TRUTH BE TOLD, folks, I was a Cardinal fan.  Stan Musial was my hero. But living in Brooklyn  - -it was impossible not to be involved in New York City baseball in those golden years.

        THAT TIME somehow always comes back in a rush of noise, in black and white. For many who lived the days and nights of baseball in the NYC of 1947-1957, the images still tarry in memory . . . . .  

 

It was a time when World Series tickets were being printed for one or two or all three New York City Baseball  teams.

It was a time when the look and the style of the teams and their players and the numbers on their uniforms, their nicknames were as familiar to fans as their OWN telephone number or address.

It was a time when the radio always seemed to be on  in bars, barbershops, candy stores, telling the terrific tale of baseball in the Big Apple.

Growing up in Brooklyn I was enchanted by the southern voices of Mel Allen and Red Barber NARRATING the tales of New York Yankee and Brooklyn Dodger baseball through the long days and nights of summer. Each game’s play by play was a story.  I do believe those days primed the baseball author pump for me. 

        I also had the privilege of being able to go to Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field to watch what I would later call “the last golden age?play itself out with personalities like Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Eddie Lopat and Phil Rizzuto, Monte Irvin and Bobby Thomson ?all of whom I got to know fairly well, to interview, to write about.

       

 

That  first version of NYC Baseball back in 1980 published by Macmillan was my seventh book. Since that time I have written hundreds of articles and more than 40 books including the autobiographies of Red Holzman who was the legendary coach of the New York Knickerbockers and Tony Dorsett who was the legendary running back for the Dallas Cowboys.

But with all due respect to those efforts ? writing about baseball has been my preference,  my passion and my pride. And that is what the focus of my talk will be about tonight.

        Many years ago as an undergraduate I studied Journalism at NYU during the day and worked from 5 P.M. to One A.M.  as an assistant sports writer for United Press which was located in the then Daily News Building on 42nd Street near the United Nations. There I had the very good fortune to be befriended by the late Milton Richman, sports editor of United Press. He gave me a true tutorial, teaching me to compose at the clunky IBM typewriter on yellow sheets of paper, to write  quickly and efficiently and colorfully.  I will never forget those lessons and my debt to him.

        In 1974, I received my PhD in Media and Communications from New York University and attempted to publish my dissertation which focused on sports, culture and media. I sent it out all over the place.

        No one was really interested but I got a phone call from Macmillan Publishers that they liked the way I wrote and wanted me to write 3 pages ?a sample ?that might serve as an intro for a book on the history of the National League to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1976.

 I submitted the 3 pages, forgot all about it and then a few months later received a call from a man named Irv Kaze, who was the one who really got me started on my book writing career. He became a very good friend, another mentor.

That first book was  A BASEBALL CENTURY: THE FIRST HUNDRED YEARS of the NATIONAL LEAGUE.

I was then a professor in the City University of New York, but I had some time to do other things in the summer.  The other things that summer of 1975 was a dream I never dared to dream.

The New York Mets were approached by the National League and asked if they would allow me to go around with them and interview for the book. The Mets declined.  I guess that is one of the reasons I have never liked the Mets or written much about them

 But the Philadelphia Phillies were agreeable and I flew with them to NL cities. The PR director then was  Bill Giles, son of then  NL President Warren Giles. Along the way I became friendly with  Steve Carlton, Tug McGraw, Mike Schmidt, Richie Ashburn, Harry Kalas.

 I interviewed owner  Walter O’Malley in Dodgers Stadium, Giants owner Horace Stoneham in Candlestick Park.  One of my most interesting interviews was Garry Schumacher ?who was the pr guy for the Giants, who had known Mel Ott and John McGraw and others. He was a real NY character a little out of his element in San Francisco.

I also met  Jerry Coleman, the old Yankee in San Diego. We sat together in the empty stands after a game and he was a remarkable interview, an affable gentleman. He suggested NEW YORK CITY BASEBALL       

Way led onto way. Researching and writing NYC Baseball I met Irving Rudd.  

A little man, Irving was an original, a guy who had a way with words, an internationally known sports publicist.   In his crowded lifetime, he worked at various jobs including that of public relations director for the old Brooklyn Dodgers and publicist for Top Rank Boxing. 

His stories and his unique voice enriched several of my books and the oral histories I have co-written with my wife Myrna. In our book IT HAPPENED IN THE CATSKILLS, Rudd told the story of a winter weekend in 1954 when he and his wife and Jackie Robinson and his wife Rachel went up to Grossinger's (the famed hotel) for some relaxation.  

I WILL NOW SLIP INTO IRVING’S VOICE - - -

Jackie and I were walking around Grossingers and came to the skating rink.     

"You skate?" Jackie Robinson asked.

  Not very well.

        “C'mon, Irv; let's go skating anyway."

         I said, Okay, and we all went to the icehouse. We put skates on.

The wives go to the rail to watch. Jackie goes out on the ice and proceeds to lose his balance and falls flat on his back. Geez! The image of Walter O'Malley, the owner of the Dodgers, came into my head. I just blew my job. Jackie Robinson just fractured something - why didn't I stop him from skating?

Then Robinson gets up and brushes himself off. 

"C'mon, Irv, let's race!" He gives me that big smile.

        So the two of us like two drunks go around the rink of Grossinger's. He's flopping on his knees. I'm sliding on my can. We get up and keep going and flopping and going and flopping and going. And he beats me by five yards.

        “Let's do it again," he says.

        Around we go. This time he beats me by about twenty yards.

        “One more time," he says.

        By now, he's really skating. He is such a natural, gifted athlete. He's skating like a guy who has been at it for weeks. It's no contest. He's almost lapped the field on me.

        Now there's a crowd that's gathered and they're cheering. He puts his arms around me, and he wasn't a demonstrative man.

"Irv," he says, "am I glad you were here this weekend with me. I just had to beat someone before I went home."

 

        Writing NYC Baseball gave me the idea for a dual biography of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey.  That  book was RICKEY AND ROBINSON  - - THE MEN WHO BROKE BASEBALL’S COLOR BARRIER.  I interviewed  many witnesses to baseball history ?people like  Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s brother Mac Robinson, Duke Snider,  Monte Irvin, the famed Dodger catcher Roy Campanella who was in a wheel chair in his California home. 

Irving Rudd was part of this book as well. In fact ?he concluded it with these words about Jackie Robinson.

        “I’m sure that being the pioneer in baseball killed him early.  Black bastard, nigger, coon ?those were the words they called him, and there was all the time he could nothing about it and he had a short fuse.  I always used to think of who I would like going down a dark alley with me.  I can think of a lot of great fighters, Ali, Marciano, gangsters I was raised with in Brownsville,  strong men like Gil Hodges - - -but for sheer courage I would pick Jackie.  He didn’t back up.

 

Another who didn’t back up was Nolan Ryan .

My book THROWING HEAT, Nolan Ryan’s auto biography  was published in 1988. When I began working on it, his sister said to me  “How can you write a whole book told by him ?Nolan doesn’t talk that much.?Her comments led me into making the book one told in Nolan’s voice and those who knew him best - - his wife, his high school coach, other players and managers, family members and especially Red Murff, the scout who discovered him. It was truly my first attempt at oral SPORTS history.

I was in Houston, Texas and called Red Murff on Nolan’s recommendation. Red was not too pleasant.

 “You call me with that New York voice  and want me to get together with you and talk about a legend ?you better be who you claim you are. Stay at that number. I will call Nolan and find out if you are the real deal.?/span>

        A little while later Red Murff called back:

“Sorry I jumped all over you. You are the real deal. Nolan said you are OKAY,  legit and  to give you whatever you need.?/span>

 Red gave me more than I needed. A straight shooting Charlton Heston type Texas character ?he had a voice and a style that suited oral history and baseball stories perfectly.

Here is a sample:

RED MURFF: In 1963, I began working for the New York Mets as a scout. I was scouting in Galveston one Saturday morning the first weekend in March.

I had about an hour to pass on my way from Galveston to another scouting assignment that afternoon in Houston. So I figured I’d watch a high school baseball game in Alvin just to see who was winning.

There was just one other scout there ?Mickey Sullivan, who worked for the Philadelphia Phillies. It was the second or third inning of the game. It was Alvin High playing somebody ?Clear Lake or Clear Creek. The Alvin coach was changing pitchers just about the time I got settled in.

This skinny, handsome right-hander threw two fastball strikes       and I was thunderstruck.

 You could hear the ball explode.

Then he threw an  atrocious curveball and the hitter doubled to right center.

“Who’s the kid out there??I asked Mickey Sullivan.

“Nolan Ryan,?he said. “He doesn’t have too much, does he??nbsp;        “I don’t know?”I said. Then I started to bite my tongue. “He doesn’t have a very good curveball.?

^^^^^^“That’s the closest I’ve ever come to being a liar.

That night I was  at the old Colt Stadium and saw Turk Farrell of Houston and Jim Maloney of Cincinnati pitch against each other in the twilight.  They could both throw 95 mile per hour fast balls.  At high noon that young man I had seen threw harder than either of them. I’m a hunter and know something about ballistics. And when I filled out my report for the New York Mets, I said that  Ryan was in the 100 mile per hour range, that his ball stayed level in flight, rose as it got to the plate, and then exploded.

At the end of Nolan’s sophomore year I took it upon myself to inform Alvin’s athletic director Jim Watson what they had. I knew the way it was in Texas high schools, how they grabbed a sophomore with a lean, lithe body  and put him in  a weight training program so that before he became a senior he was muscle-bound.  Knowing this, I made my first threat ever to an athletic director and a coach.

“You-all have one of the ten best arms in the world in your school,?I told him.

“You mean JOHNNY BROWN-??Jim asked

“No,?I answered.

“Oh, then you mean…STEVE POWERS…”

“I mean Nolan Ryan.?/span>

“Nollie? I can’t believe this Mr. Murff.?nbsp; Jim didn’t even dream I was talking about Ryan because Nolan had some problems pitching in high school.

“If you put Nolan on a weight program to make him stronger  - - - and I hear about it I’m gonna get all the scouts to sit in your park and we’re gonna get your job.? You’ll make a big mistake if you try and tamper with that arm.?/span>

 “Red,?he said, “you sure as shootin?know more about pitching and  baseball than I do. I’ll go along with whatever you say.?/span>

“Don’t bulk him. Just let him throw a baseball. You do what I say and it’ll be good for you, good me. And especially good for Nolan.?/span>

        I had a close friend Robert “Red? Gaskell, and he was my bird-dog, my sub-scout, back then.  “Your assignment,?I told him, “is to watch Nolan Ryan pitch. Wherever he goes, you go.?

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NOW Back to my voice ******Nolan had some rough times  pitching in high school.  He did not pitch well when Red Murff brought along Mets executive Bing Devine to watch him in a game. Perhaps that was the main reason for what happened next.

RED MURFF: The New York Mets wound up drafting Ryan in the eighth round in 1965. He was the 295th player taken in the draft. The thought that the best arm that I’ve seen was taken so low deeply bothered me. But I knew what we had. And I was intent on signing him.

Steve Vernon, a former farmer who had gone to college and became a sportswriter in Texas City, got the Ryans?okay to sit in on our signing discussions. The Ryans welcomed Steve to their home to watch and listen, but he could have no input in the discussions.

We had two meetings with the family. Our third meeting took place June 28, 1965. I recall it was a lovely Texas evening. We sat around the kitchen table: Nolan, his mother and father, the sportswriter Vernon and me.

“Major leaguers make so much money, I am almost embarrassed to talk about it,?I told Nolan. “You can make $150,000  a year if you’re real good.?Little did either of us imagine  he would one day make a million dollars a year.

The Met offer was a good bundle of cash for an eighth round pick. With incentives and a college scholarship, the total package reached about $30,000. We talked some and I then gave him the pen.

“It’s your turn, Nolan, “I said. “It’s your turn to get on the mound now.?He sat there and reached for the pen, then shied away like it had some electric current in it. Then he rubbed his hand and stared at that old pen. We sat there in that house with all the memories of Nolan’s growing up years, his plaques and trophies from Little League and high school sports. But Nolan did not pick that pen up. I’d been through it all before with signings ?you just wait.

“Your mom and dad are waiting for you to sign, Nolan,?I said. “It’s on the table.?The atmosphere in that house was like a ballpark in the bottom of the ninth inning with the bases loaded, two outs, and a 3-2 count on the batter. Everybody sitting there knew that something had to give.

What gave was Steve Vernon. He forgot his neutral-observer vow. “What’s the matter with you, boy??he cried, jumping out of his chair and throwing his hands in the air. “You crazy???, sign.?/b>

 I didn’t bring Vernon around for that purpose, but he sure as shootin?put the finishing touches on the deal. Nolan signed.

Back to my voice now

***Nolan Ryan was one of the nicest persons I have come in  contact with in sports. Unassuming for what he has accomplished, a true family man ?he even has a sense of humor. When I began to work with him at his home in Alvin, he suggested that we sit outside on the porch. The temperature outside was over 100. I didn’t complain. He blinked first , suggesting we go inside where we could work better in air conditioning.

I worked with him in Philadelphia and stayed in the same hotel where he was. My wife Myrna and my son Ian,  a teenager at the time, were with me. We all had breakfast together and Nolan showed interest in my son ?his college plans, his baseball background. It was rare to see a superstar show such things for a kid he didn’t even know.

I also got a little moment of personal satisfaction in St Louis where I entered the press box at Busch Stadium along with the famed sportswriter Bob Broeg who I had read in the Sporting News. He introduced me to a few people, one of whom had a name that I had kept filed in “the one day folder? in my head.?/span>

I asked this guy.  ”Do you remember a review you did some years ago on a book SPORTS ROOTS?

“No,?the guy said.

“Yes!?I said.  “You reviewed it and said the writer is a professor at a college in NYC and should stick to doing that and not write sports books. Well, I am that writer and I did not take your advice.

“Is that so,?he smirked. “What are you doing now??/span>

“Mister, I am writing Nolan Ryan’s autobiography.

……………………………………………………………………………………?

Writing about baseball has been my life for a long time now. And even when the writing is not supposed to be about baseball - - baseball becomes a part of it.  In the oral history IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN that I wrote with my wife Myrna  - -there is much about the old Brooklyn Dodgers that comes in and out of the book like a song including this memory    

from one person from that time who remembered the great player Dodger fans called "Robby."

^^^^^^^^^^^

When school was out, I sometimes went with my father in his taxi. We drove all over the city and especially in Brooklyn. One summer morning, we were driving in East Flatbush in Brooklyn down Snyder Avenue, and my father pointed to a dark red brick house with a high porch.
          "I think Jackie Robinson lives there," my father said. He parked across the street and we got out of the cab, stood on the sidewalk and looked at the house.

                 Suddenly, the front door opened. A black man in a
short-sleeved shirt stepped out. I didn't believe it. Here we were on a quiet street on a summer morning with no one else around.

               The man was not wearing the baggy, ice-cream-white-uniform of the Brooklyn Dodgers that accentuated his blackness. He was dressed in regular clothes, coming out of a regular house in a regular Brooklyn neighborhood, a guy like anyone else going out for a bottle of milk and a newspaper.
             Then, incredibly, he crossed the street and came right toward me. Seeing that unmistakable pigeon-toed walk, the rock of the shoulders and hips that I had seen so many times before on the baseball field, I had no doubt who it was.
             "Hi Jackie, I'm one of your biggest fans," I said self-consciously. "Do you think the Dodgers are going to win the pennant this year?"
            "His handsome face looked sternly down at me. "We'll try our best," he said.
           "Good luck," I said."
         "Thanks," he replied."
          He put his big hand out, and I took it. We shook hands and I felt the strength and firmness of his grip. I was a nervy kid, but I didn't ask for an autograph or try to prolong the conversation. I just watched as Jackie Robinson walked away down the street. 

===========================

        Writing about sports and using oral history as a tool is  now a family affair.  RED SOX VS YANKEES: THE GREAT RIVALRY     with my son Fred . . . real kick as a father and son team. Oddness living in New Hampshire primarily, teaching at Dartmouth, surrounded by BoSox fans.  

        I will close with the words of one of them  - poignant but dated . . .but you get the idea.

        DAN MACKIE, feature writer and columnist, Valley News, West Lebanon, N.H.

          My name is Dan. I’m a Red Sox fan. I am powerless over my addiction.

        It began with a few baseball cards in the early 1960s in Cranston, R.I. Some of my friends had Mickey Mantles and Whitey Fords. Ptooh! Yankees. I tossed them away and hoarded Pumpsie Greens and Eddie Bressouds.

        I never thought this would be a problem. I thought I could control it. In early years, I did. The Red Sox stunk. Most years they finished just ahead of Cleveland, who I think started every season with 20 losses. The Yankees were good, like General Motors, IBM, the American Way.

        I shoulda known better than to dabble with the Red Sox. They last won a World Championship in 1918. Sometimes it seems there’s a better chance they’ll find crop circles cut in Fenway’s green, cursed grass than a championship banner.

        But like I said, I’m a fan. I started to like a player or two: Pete Runnels,the sometimes batting champ, Dick Stuart, Dr. Strangeglove, a hard-hitting, hard-fielding first baseman.  I started to feel there’s a teeter-totter balance to the universe. The Red Sox lose. The Yankees win. One sits low. One sits high.

        Through the years my regard for the Red Sox grew and my contempt for the Yankees, who sat atop the teeter-totter, simmered. The Sox almost won in 1967 and 1975, and then, in 1978, assembled a powerful team built around Yaz, Jim Rice and Freddy Lynn. Luis Tiant, contortionist, hula dancer, big-game pitcher, was a master of deception. Bill Lee, a leftie who tossed anti-establishment philosophy and junk ball pitches, the Zen splitter, was terrific, too.

        By 1978 I was a grown person and could have chosen another path. But I read the box scores, listened to the radio, watched games on TV. I got in deeper and deeper.

        Anyway, this is all history, like the fall of the Roman Empire, or Enron. Despite being 14 games behind the Sox in July of ?8, the Yankees, who had a terrific team of their own that year, caught up, fell behind, caught up again, and forced a one-game playoff. Bucky Dent won it with a wind-assisted popup that barely got out of the infield, and then, through a harmonic convergence ?the Jet Stream, Babe Ruth in heaven, a minor earthquake in the Philippines, gravity from Mars and Pluto, a kid stomping his foot in the Bronx, high pressure over the Northeast, a jet landing at Logan Airport, a pigeon flapping its wings, a whale spouting off the coast of Finland, a heavy lady in the third row waving her
program and yelling “Get Out, Get Out,?all these forces and more aligned ?a little white ball floated further and further, up and over the Green Monster, light as a feather, then fell like a stone into the net, the home run net.

        I hit bottom. I swore them off. I said I’d turn my life over to a higher power. Unfortunately, the higher power turned out to be Roger Clemens. He was a false god.

        I am a Red Sox fan still. I hate the Yankees. A Yankee loss is as good as a Red Sox victory. That’s sweet bile, I know, but it’s all I have. And I mainline optimism, addictive as opium, every spring.

        It comes on in a rush: Hey, the Sox are looking pretty good. They’re looking real good. The Yankees?pitchers look a little long in the tooth. My name is Dan. I’m a Red Sox fan.

        DAN –NEEDLESS TO SAY ?is today in his glory!!!!

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        For me, meeting superstars and ordinary people and writing baseball books has been a terrific run ?with more books still coming. It has been a run of highs and lows, of moments of true exhilaration and other times of frustration.

But that is all part of the game ?as Harry Truman said “If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen.?nbsp;

        Finally, all of us in SABR are part of a community, part of a family that shares a bond  ?a love of baseball. That loves cuts across the generations, cuts across team loyalties, cuts across specialized interests in the sport.  Whether your interest is stars, 19th century baseball, the Phillies in the 1980s or Al Kaline ?you are linked with so many thousands  . .. who like me love the game. 

        Thank you very much. You’ve been a wonderful audience. If there are any questions  - -please feel free to ask.

 

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