SSTN Interviews Author Bill Nowlin
October 14, 2021
SSTN: Today we are here with writer Bill Nowlin. Bill has penned or edited a plethora of books about baseball – almost too many to list, but they include Ted Williams at War, The Babe, Working A Perfect Game: Conversations with Umpires, Jackie: Perspectives on 42, and so many others. Bill has been a leader at the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) and is the co-founder of Rounder Records of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Thanks for coming to Start Spreading the News. It is great to have this discussion with you.
Thanks, Paul. I’m glad to hear from you, I hadn’t known about your site before, but at a quick glance I can see it’s chock full of good stuff. As I write this, I see a post from just yesterday – “The Decision They’ll Always Regret” – which I very much enjoyed reading. Well done.
To begin, please tell us how you became a baseball fan and specifically a fan of the Red Sox.
Geography matters. I was born in the city of Boston. I still live in the area – less than five miles from Fenway Park. Close enough that I walked home once after a game, just to do it. Only yesterday, I drove my car over early to get a prime parking spot, pulled my bicycle out of the back, and rode home. That way, I can take the subway to the game, but have a car handy for afterwards.
My father sold hot dogs at Fenway Park for two years, way back when he was a teenager. But mostly I just started going to games by myself, starting when I was about 12 (the Red Sox weren’t very good in those days – I turned 12 in 1957 – but I got to see Ted Williams play, and he was transcendent. I just kept going, and going. Through thick and thin. I’ve been fortunate enough to see any number of great games – clinching the pennant in 1967, Fisk’s Game Six home run in the 1975 Word Series, several no-hitters, but also the “Bucky Dent game.” Speaking of Mr. Dent, I was also very glad to be at the park for Game Five of the 2004 ALCS – remember that? And I was there just a few days ago to see the Red Sox beat the Yankees in the 2021 Wild Card game. That seemed like the final exorcism of the 1978 game.
Now, speaking of Yankees fans, geography does matter. I have nothing against Yankees fans who grew up in New York. The ones who used to bother me were the front-runners from other areas (including, even, Massachusetts) who simply decided to root for the Yankees because they were dominating. In the last half of the 20th century, the Yankees ruled. Many Red Sox fans were envious, but took it in vitriol. In the current century, I can well understand that many fans around the country dislike the Red Sox for winning too much…
The list of baseball books you have written is legion and spans the history of baseball and teams. How do you decide what person or topic to write about?
The books I have written by myself are mostly about the Red Sox, or Red Sox-related. I was honored to write Johnny Pesky’s biography, Mr. Red Sox. And I’ve written six or seven books about Ted Williams. Most of the books aren’t biographical, though, but about a variety of subjects (I’ve written some books about music, too.)
Most of the book I’ve worked on for the last dozen years have been collaborative efforts and I’ve really enjoyed those. Actually, my very first book was a collaboration with Jim Prime of Nova Scotia – in its most recent form, Ted Williams – The Pursuit of Perfection. We interviewed exactly 200 people talking about Ted Williams from all sorts of perspectives – as a ballplayer, a Marine Corps jet pilot, a fisherman, etc. We interviewed more than half the living members of the Hall of Fame who were from his era, and I did a long interview with John Glenn, who flew in the same squadron during the Korean War. I got hooked. I didn’t want to start – so I kept coming up with ideas for other books.
Most of the collaborations have been with fellow members of SABR – the Society for American Baseball Research. A typical SABR book might be written by 25 or more fellow writers. My role is typically as editor or co-editor, but I always try to write one or two pieces in the book as well. Our most recent publication – to be announced sometime this month (October 2021) is One-Hit Wonders, devoted to telling the stories of 70 major-league players who had one base hit (but only one) in their big-league career. More than 50 SABR members collaborated on that one.
I’ve been glad to work on books about umpires, no-hitters, comeback games, blowout games, etc.
And I really enjoyed writing a book with a lifelong, passionate New York Yankees fan – David Fischer. Together we wrote Red Sox vs. Yankees, subtitled Hometown Experts Analyze, Debate, and Illuminate Baseball’s Ultimate Rivalry. It’s pretty new, published in 2019, by Sports Publishing. Among the things we do in the book is each pick our all-time best Red Sox team and all-time best Yankees team (he chose the Yankees and I chose the Red Sox.) Tough choices! Then we picked the actual team we each thought was the best. I picked the 2018 Red Sox and he picked the 1998 Yankees. A computer simulation firm ran the all-time best Red Sox against the all-time best Yankees. Guess who won? The Yankees, not surprisingly. They do have a lot more world championships. The computer then ran the 2018 Red Sox against the ‘98 Yankees, and this time Boston won.
The ideas for come from all over. I’m always looking for new ideas – maybe someone reading Start Spreading the News will come up with a new idea! I would welcome that!
We’re a Yankees site, but I love to hear stories about Ted Williams. Teddy Ballgame was my father’s favorite player. (I might be the only Yankees fan who does not hate the Red Sox.) What did you learn about Ted Williams when you wrote Ted Williams At War?
As I was growing up, I knew that Ted Williams was one of the greatest players of all time. I knew he was the most prominent figure helping raise money to fight cancer in children, though the Jimmy Fund in Boston. I also knew he had fought in the Korean War, flying jets. Working on that book, I learned a lot more about that side of his life – among other things interviewing a couple of dozen Marines who served with him. I read all the after-action reports of every one of the combat missions he was on, including the one when his plane was shot down over North Korea and he managed to limp back to a US Air Force base, landed the plane (with no landing great, because it had been shot out), and skidding along the runway – jumping out and running moments before it burst into flames and was left a charred wreck. At 8:00 AM the next morning, he was off on his next mission.
And he really didn’t need to be flying in combat at all. He had already served three years in WWII, and was 34 years old. The Marines would have given him duties (maybe just P.R. work), but when he got called back, he basically said to himself, “If they’re going to call me back, I’m going to see what combat is really like.”
Several years later, in 1957, the year he turned 39 years old, he hit .388 (!!!) and won yet another batting championship.
What drew you to writing? What suggestions would you give a student that wishes to follow in your career path?
I always thought I’d write a book when I grew up. It took me about 40 years to finally write one – the above-mentioned Ted Williams – The Pursuit of Perfection. It was so fulfilling that I just had to keep going.
I’ve never had an agent. (That’s not to say I might not have benefited from having one.) I just picked subjects that interested me and dove in. Making money at it was never the goal. It’s the same way it was with starting the company I helped found, Rounder Records (see below.) We just dove in and started doing it. Trial and error. We didn’t have too many stumbles.
For a student starting out today with writing about baseball, I’d say to check out SABR and write an article or two. If you’ve got another sport you like more (gasp!), the experience of writing something for SABR would pay off – help build a resume, but also help develop some skills and organizing your writing toward a specified goal.
It really helps to have internal drive and to just keep forging ahead. And ask for help from others.
You are an active member of SABR, a former Vice President, and a member of the Board of Directors. Please tell us about this organization and how fans can get involved.
I joined SABR in the late 1990s and helped the Boston chapter host the 2002 national convention. We’re a nonprofit with just about 7,000 members, and all extremely passionate baseball fans. Come to our national convention in Baltimore in 2022 and you’ll find yourself immersed in baseball talk – of almost any kind you could imagine, from 19th century baseball, to looking ahead at where the game is going. The trivia contests are almost unbelievable – the things people know and can pull out of their memories. I know how to look things up, but the trivia champs just know so much. Forgetting the champions, though, everyone there is a fan, and it’s just fun to talk with people about baseball, from all the various perspectives we each bring to the game.
I have been on the Board since 2004, one of my specialties becoming my work on SABR books. Every SABR member can get a free copy of every SABR book, and we’ve produced more than 75 of them. We also produce three journals each year, and the various committees produce newsletters and more. I’ve been particularly involved with BioProject. We have written fully-documented biographies of around 6,000 former ballplayers, executives, and others involved with the game. SABR produces an amazing amount of research.
Part of how SABR became so well-known was the work of baseball analytics – SABRmetrics. But in addition to that work is a great deal of work documenting the history of the game, and exploring other aspects of baseball – women in baseball, Negro Leagues history, minor-league ball, Latinos and baseball, ballparks….the list goes on and on.
All are welcome, at www.sabr.org. Explore, and consider joining. We welcome new contributors. It’s a great place to get started, writing up your first baseball article. I always recommend people start with Games Project, which encourages people to research and write up a given game that was meaningful in one way or another. Just 1500 words, and you’ll have others to help you with the editing.
I have to take a detour here and ask you to tell us a little about Rounder Records of Cambridge. Massachusetts. Please tell us about this record label, some of your bands… and more.
Two friends – Ken Irwin and Marian Leighton Levy – started Rounder in 1970, so we just enjoyed our 50th anniversary a year ago. We were in the right place at the right time, working to record music that wasn’t otherwise being recorded – initially, mostly American folk and bluegrass, then blues, Cajun, and more. Over the years, we released more than 3,000 albums. It was never meant to be a business – I call it “a hobby that got out of control” – but within a year or so, we were in it pretty deeply, to the point that in just our third year, we released 19 albums. We had a LOT of encouragement and help from many, many other people.
The two most successful groups for whom we released their first albums are Alison Krauss and George Thorogood and the Destroyers. Both of them have had multiple gold records. But there have been SO many musicians and singers and groups that I’ve been proud to help present over these years. It’s been a wonderful experience that, among other things, took me all over this country, and to other lands around the world as well.
There’s a lot of talk about baseball needing to be “fixed.” Is baseball broken? If you were the Commissioner of Baseball what change(s) if any would you make to the current game?
Work to make games quicker. Have umpires call a strike if a batter steps out of the batter’s box, or doesn’t get back in quickly enough after something like a foul ball. Have the umpires call a ball if the pitcher doesn’t throw the pitch quickly enough. Faster action would keep all the fielders on their toes. It would add a little more excitement to the battle between the hitter and the pitcher/catcher. Aim to bring games in consistently under three hours.
In looking at the history of the Yankees, or baseball in general, what person or event would you like to see a book written about?
Maybe a better question to ask David Fischer! I might give a smart-alecky answer, like The 50 Most Crushing Defeats in New York Yankees History.
In the book and the movie The Natural, the main character wants nothing more than to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.” Who was the best baseball player you ever saw?
There’s something of a theme here. The answer is: Ted Williams. And it was Ted Williams who wrote on the first page of his autobiography My Turn At Bat: “I wanted to be the greatest hitter who ever lived. A man has to have goals – for a day, a lifetime – and that was mine, to have people say, ’There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived.’” Ted’s line was “borrowed” by the screenwriter for The Natural.
Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…
What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
Um, that would be the Boston Red Sox. That is, the four-time 21st century World Champion Boston Red Sox!
Who was your favorite player?
Anyone reading this could safely guess – Ted Williams!
What is your most prized collectible?
I have a game-used bat that Ted Williams used in 1941, the year he hit .406, the last player in either the American or National Leagues to hit as high as .400 in a season. I’ve also got a collection or autographed baseballs, signed by every player and coach on the 2004 Red Sox.
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
Now, that’s a whole different story. We released over 3,000 albums on Rounder Records over the years. At least a few dozen of the artists were my favorite artists at the time. Some of them are well-known, but some of them are not well-known at all. The saying goes that it would be like asking a parent who had many children which one was their favorite. I’m not going to single anyone out here, sorry!
The last two acts I’ve gone to see live, though, over the last month or so, I will tell you, are George Thorogood and the Destroyers and the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys.
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?
It changes from time to time. I’m not a vegetarian. Cheeseburgers are good. Steak frites is a favorite. Pizza is good. I like Indian food, too. I should say I like Fenway Franks, but somehow the hot dogs at the ballpark don’t seem to taste as good as they did when I was growing up. But I do very much enjoy franks and beans at home with my son.
Bill, this was so much fun. Thank you for joining me here at SSTN.
I wish you, and the Red Sox, continued success – always.
Please keep in touch.