This Week's Question: Favorite Interview
As authors, we end up talking at length about our books when they first come out. Less discussed but just as interesting are the occasional peeks behind the curtain to see how the product comes to be. Which is why, beginning this week, we’re having select PBBC members write briefly about their processes. This week’s question: Of all the interviews you’ve conducted, what’s your favorite?
One time I asked Adrian Beltre for some time in spring training to help give color on a Rougned Odor profile I was writing. He said "I have two minutes," then spoke for exactly two minutes into my recorder, stopped, said "thank you," and walked away.
In the early summer of 2017, the Cardinals set me up to interview Red Schoendienst, their Hall of Fame infielder who, at 93, still served as a special assistant coach. I arrived a few hours before game time and was led through one tunnel after another into the bowels of Busch Stadium. Finally, we reached a room that I heard before I saw it. It was the team’s laundry facility, dominated by five industrial-sized washers and dryers, each humming with activity.
It was there that I found Red, dressed in a Cardinals home uniform, sitting in the corner in a big, red lounge chair, feet up. He was friendly but soft-spoken, which was challenge each time one of the giant machines nearby hit a new cycle. I was confident that my recorder would pick up Red’s words; the challenge was hearing him so that I could ask the next question. Every so often the room went silent, and I quickly tried to ask as many questions as I could. I heard about 60 percent of Red’s answers.
One story I heard loud and clear was about the Cardinals tryout he attended in 1941, which is where he first encountered Lawdie Berra (who wouldn’t become known as Yogi for another year). He told me how Yogi was the best hitter he’d ever seen, and how, for reasons Red would never understand, Cardinals GM Branch Rickey did not agree — and failed to sign one of the best players in baseball history. The details, including Red arriving in St. Louis penniless and spending a night in a hotel rife with bedbugs, were priceless. Rickey’s decision changed baseball history. And Red’s tale was well worth the ear strain.
Two doors down from the No-Name Bar in Sausalito, California, is the office of UCSF psychoanalyst/neuroscientist Thomas Lewis. During my research of team chemistry, I came across his book, A General Theory of Love, which includes this mind-blowing sentence: “[No human] is a functioning whole on his own; each has open loops that only somebody else can complete."
As the chatter of tourists filtered through his office window, he explained to me that mammals need other mammals to flourish, humans most of all. Everything about another person is contagious. “A part of who you are in the moment comes from who the other person is,” he said.
I didn’t understand what he meant. “You just feel like, oh, I’m funny with this person,” he explained. “Or, I’m smart, or have more ideas. You get changed.” Not radically, but enough that it’s noticeable if you look for it.
“So they’re tapping into something in me I already have?” I asked.
“There really is no ‘you’ in the way you think there is,” he said. “There is a you that is unchanging, but a part of you is always supplied by other people.”
That was the turning point in my quest to discover if team chemistry was an actual thing — and if so, what was it? Now that I knew it was a biological construct, it could be scientifically proved. I was off and running.
The Iron Sheik — real name, Khosrow Vaziri — was my favorite wrestler as a kid, and the subject of my first attempt to write a book many years ago. That project stalled when the Sheik ended up being too irascible and volatile to work with. Also, he threatened my life. We eventually patched things up, and I got to spend an afternoon with him during The Wax Pack road trip, in Fayetteville, Georgia. We ate pizza in his living room with his six-year-old granddaughter, watching his infamous 1984 "Boot Camp Match" against Sgt. Slaughter from Madison Square Garden. During the part where the Sheik bladed (the lurid and now outlawed practice of slicing one's own forehead with a razor blade in order to bleed during a match), his granddaughter recoiled in horror at the sight of her grandpa's head spouting blood like a geyser. The Sheik turned to me and with a slight grin said, "Don't smarten up the marks, bubba" — carny talk for "Don't tell her wrestling is staged."
I spoke with Art Stewart, Jim Bouton's American Legion coach, who was instrumental in his signing with the Yankees in 1958. Stewart was 90 at the time and sharp as a tack, full of so many interesting stories about Bouton that I just let the tape recorder run. He painted a vivid picture of coaching Bouton's Legion team, the Chicago Yankees, complete with hand-me-down uniforms. The image Stewart painted of a young Jim Bouton pitching against a team of convicts in the Joliet prison yard while hundreds of inmates looked on, betting cigarettes on every batter, was priceless. Stewart was an interviewer's dream; he gave me so much that it was painful to leave any of it on the cutting room floor.
My first interview for The Baseball Codes came over lunch at Lefty O’Doul’s in downtown San Francisco. The book was merely a concept at that point, without even a completed pitch, but recently retired former Cy Young Award-winner Jack McDowell agreed to meet. Since the vast majority of my baseball interviews had come at ballparks, I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I got was splendid. We sat for literally hours, McDowell illustrating in numerous ways just how much I had to learn about the subject about which I wanted to write.
The best story he told was about the famous 1993 fight between Nolan Ryan and Robin Ventura. Ventura, after being hit by a pitch, charged the mound and was quickly put into a headlock by the much older pitcher. It was embarrassing. Someplace along the way, ESPN rated it as the No. 1 baseball fight of all time. McDowell, however, wanted to talk less about the fight itself than everything that led up to it — the White Sox’ history with Ryan, how they’d felt bullied by the pitcher for too long, and how, during Ryan’s previous start against them, they’d collectively decided that enough was enough. Ventura, by dint of being the guy that Ryan hit, was tasked with sending that message. It didn’t end well for him, but it worked out nicely for me: The story ended up comprising the first six pages of The Baseball Codes.
The first active big-league ballplayer I interviewed was Kolten Wong of the St. Louis Cardinals. I'm a Cubs fan. I was a sophomore in college, and awed to be interviewing a key player for a rival team in a professional capacity. Mark Twain once said that "the two most important days in your life are the day you're born and the day you find out why." Against the odds, a kid raised in the Chicago suburbs as a die-hard Cubs fan got his "find out why" moment while talking to the second baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals. In life, as in baseball, you never know exactly what's coming next.
As I was writing "Hall of Name," I had some unresolved questions about Kiki Cuyler. He was born Hazen Shirley Cuyler and my preliminary research pointed to a stuttering issue as the root of how he came to be called "Kiki." One of my friends worked with Cuyler’s great-grandson — also named Hazen — and put us in touch. The younger Cuyler was full of stories — how his great-grandfather wouldn't curse in public, how he sang in the church choir and how Babe Ruth reportedly gave him a piano. I asked if the stuttering story was true. He said absolutely not. "Kiki" was how other outfielders referred to him when flyballs were hit, letting him know when it was his ball to catch. (Cuyler was a splendid fielder, adept at all three outfield positions). Hazen really enjoyed talking about his great-grandfather, and was proud to carry his name forward, even if he wasn't the biggest baseball fan himself.
In 2006, the legendary Buck O’Neil was making an appearance at the Brooklyn Baseball Gallery at Coney Island’s KeySpan Park (now MCU Park), home of the Brooklyn Cyclones. I arrived a few hours early to see when he would be available to the media, and found the man himself touring the museum. When I asked if he might be available for questions, the 94-year-old said, “Well, that depends — who am I talking to?” I introduced myself and shook his hand, then spent the next 20 minutes marveling at his grace, strength and eloquence. My favorite question involved the selection of one specific player to start a team. “Josh,” O’Neil answered immediately, referring to the immortal Josh Gibson, perhaps the greatest ballplayer never to play in the major leagues. “Josh was not only a great hitter, but he was a catcher, you know, and he would just take over a pitching staff. Yeah, I’d pick Josh.” O’Neal went on about other players, too, and I didn’t stop him. I felt like a kid listening to his grandfather. When he was finished, I wanted more but instead thanked him for his time and allowed the rest of the growing crowd that had clustered slowly around us as we talked to take over.
Mark C. Healey
Choosing a favorite interview for this book is like choosing a favorite child. At least I think it is. I don't have children, but I imagine it would be a complicated decision. Was it my hotel room interview with legendary (and almost completely deaf) pitcher Jean Faut, when she stood and yelled the punchline to a hilarious story about coach Bill Allington? Or was it the nearly three-hour phone conversation with infielder Marge Callaghan from my creepy Rockford motel room that almost cost me $200 in long distance fees to Canada? Or was it the moment that infielder Ellie Moore floored me with detailed recollections of sliding bare-legged during "that time of the month" (before feminine products were engineered for the slightest bit of movement), looking like "shark bait" from the waist down?
If forced to choose, I might say my favorite interview was with Katie Horstman and Dolly Vanderlip, together, after hours in a Cincinnati hotel bar. I'm not sure I can even call it an interview; I hardly lifted a finger. I just turned on my phone's voice recorder, set it on the table, ordered a glass of wine and enjoyed their hours-long journey through time. Former teammates and longtime friends, the two went back and forth, finishing one another's sentences, spurring each other into laughing fits, giving one another enough shit for an entire locker room.