Question of the Week: Unique Interview Location
This week, PBBC authors answer the question: What is the most unique location at which you've conducted an interview, who were you interviewing and how did it come about?
Just last week I interviewed Tim Mead, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, on the outdoor patio of The Otesaga Hotel, the century-old lakeside lodging where inductees stay. We were lucky enough to have our lunch check picked up by a stranger at the next table who recognized Tim. That put us both in a good mood, which made for an even better interview.
I asked questions about his personal life, which began in a Greek orphanage, and about his plans for the future, since he just passed the one-year mark in office after spending 40 years in various roles with the Los Angeles Angels. Among other things, I asked Tim how he liked the climate change from Southern California to central New York. “I never owned a parka in California,” he said. “Now I have three: cold, colder, and coldest.”
Tim told me he was working to secure closer ties with Major League Baseball, increase public awareness of the Hall of Fame, and lay the groundwork for future expansion and renovation — especially in light of the upcoming 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's integration of major league baseball in 2022.
The front passenger seat of Bill Walsh’s sedan in a Stanford parking lot at night for deep background on an expose about an NFL executive. [Ed note: Said expose shall remain unidentified, to protect Walsh as the source.]
I’m tempted to say a back room off the visitors’ clubhouse at AT&T Park, where Rod Beck (then pitching for the Cubs) led me for a postgame interview so that he could smoke his cigarettes freely, not to mention grab a bottle of Wild Turkey from the floor-to-ceiling cooler for repeated refills into his Dixie cup.
Even better than that, though, was my visit to Dick Green’s home in Rapid City, South Dakota, for Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic. Green was the consummate tour guide, driving me some 25 miles south of town to Mount Rushmore, where, in the negative-15-degree weather of a polar vortex, we sat for hours next to the picture windows in the memorial’s cafeteria, virtually alone, and talked about the A’s in what was unequivocally the grandest setting for an interview I’ve ever experienced.
I traveled to Rockford, Ill., to interview some All-American Girls Professional Baseball League players who would be in town for the 75th anniversary celebration of the Rockford Peaches. My plan did not work out very well. Because time was limited, I began conducting phone interviews from my someone-was-definitely-murdered-here Rockford motel room. (Travel tip: The only thing Swiss-like about a rural Illinois budget motel with “Alpine” in its name is that the amount of holes in the wall can be compared to Swiss cheese.)
I started by calling 97-year-old former infielder, Marge Callaghan, who lived in Manitoba, Canada. Within the timespan of our nearly two-hour conversation, these things happened: The headboard of my bed dropped to the ground and split clean in two; the maid got into a screaming match with somebody right outside my door and threw at least one roll of toilet paper at him; a permanent resident of the motel, with whom I shared a wall, backed his car up to his door for easy-access loading of at least a dozen stuffed garbage bags; the premeasured coffee filter pouch I placed into my single-cup coffee maker exploded, sending grounds high enough to stick to the ceiling; and someone tied their German shepherd to the side-view mirror of their car, where the poor thing barked for 30 minutes straight.
After the call, my wireless carrier informed me that I had racked up $150 in out-of-network charges to Canada.
I very much enjoyed speaking with Marge, though.
Scene-setting is a key stylistic element of The Wax Pack. When I planned out each chapter, I thought in terms of four to six scenes, as if I was writing a movie. In order to make those scenes work dramatically, I thought a lot about the environment in which the story unfolded. I knew that meeting players in a variety of environments — bowling alleys, art museums, hitting academies, cafes, living rooms, etc. — would be a lot more engrossing than if I sat across a table from them over and over. Reporting in the field, being active and mobile, also helped to loosen up my subjects and to create a more comfortable setting for getting into some deeply personal topics. The most unusual setting had to be the Naples Zoo, where I met my childhood hero, Don Carman. The scene in which he gets emotional with me while discussing his father — with macaws screeching and giraffes not far off, all amid the unrelenting humidity of July in Florida — made for a setting straight out of an indie filmmaker's storyboard.
Bill Greason is a three-time American hero and inspiration to all. I spent a week in the Birmingham area to research Willie Mays’ roots for our book “24,” and I was fortunate to hang out with Greason for a day. Bill was a rookie pitcher and Mays’ teammate on the legendary 1948 Black Barons, who played in the final Negro League World Series. Bill was also the first African American pitcher on the St. Louis Cardinals. He also was part of the all-black 66th Supply Platoon that took part in the Battle of Iwo Jima, one of his two terms in the military. Furthermore, Reverend Greason has spent much of his life as a minister and still, at 95, preaches at the Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, where he showed me a back room with amazing mementos from his life in and out of the game. We reminisced about his days playing ball with Mays, and the conversation continued when we went out for soul food. “Yessir, he’s a humble spirit,” Bill said of Willie, “believing in helping people, helping children. He’s always been that way. You don’t need to be a bragger, even if you hit over 600 home runs. We both learned that at an early age.”