SSTN Interviews Author Daniel R. Levitt
SSTN: Today we are here with author Daniel R. Levitt. Daniel is the award-winning author of numerous baseball books including In Pursuit of Pennants, The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball, and Ed Barrow: The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees’ First Dynasty among others. He is also the recipient of the Bob Davids Award, the highest award of the Society for American Baseball Research, and SABR’s Chadwick Award, a recognition honoring baseball’s great researchers. When not writing on baseball, Dan oversees the capital markets for a national commercial real estate firm.
Daniel, it is great to have this discussion with you. Thanks for coming to Start Spreading the News.
My pleasure. I always enjoy checking out your site for the latest Yankees news and baseball insights. You have a terrific group of writers.
Please begin by telling us a little about your writing career. How did you get started as a writer?
I’ve always been interested in baseball history and had been an avid consumer of baseball history books for many years. Around 1995, I came across an entry in an old sports encyclopedia that credited Ferdie Schupp with the single season ERA record of 0.90 in 1916, more recently usually credited to Dutch Leonard for his 0.96 ERA in 1914. After further research it was clear that Schupp was the acknowledged leader at the time and for many years thereafter. Based on the tenet that we don’t retroactively re-award titles because of changes in the qualifications for league leadership (only for actual errors in the playing record) I concluded that Schupp should still be recognized as the ERA leader for 1916 and consequently, the single season record holder. I decided to write up my findings and submit the article to SABR. It was a thrill when my article was published as the cover article in the 1996 Baseball Research Journal.
That is a great story. I love when baseball researchers find new information. I believe the careful study of the past enriches the game so much.
As you know, I am an elementary school principal. If I were to talk to the students of my school about what it takes to make it in writing, what advice would you tell me to share with them?
Number one—write about something that captures you. Writing is hard work and writing what excites you makes it much easier and more fun.
Number two—try and write a little bit every day (or as often as you can). It’s good practice and soon you end up with worthwhile material.
That is great advice. As you know, writing also takes time, lots and lots of it. In addition to being a writer, you are also the Vice President of Ryan Companies US, Inc. How do you manage to find the time to write and find success in the business world?
I think people find time to do what they love. Some people are passionate woodworkers, some are ardent potters, others are scratch golfers. For me, I enjoy baseball history and analysis (in the broadest sense of the word) and trying to connect the dots to better understand what happened and why. I’m very lucky in that I feel the same way about working in the real estate capital markets. Every morning I feel energized about the challenges of the business, which presents new ones every day.
Please tell us about your book on Ed Barrow who is one of the forgotten giants of early Yankees (and baseball) history.
The Yankees hired Barrow as their de facto general manager after the 1920 season. Up to that time the franchise had never won the pennant. With Barrow on board the Yankees captured the 1921 pennant and during his tenure won a total of fourteen pennants and nine World Series. As the architect of the Yankees’ dynasty–one of the longest runs of sustained success in the history of American sports–Barrow makes for a terrific subject.
There were two basic questions relative to Barrow and the Yankees that I sought to answer: how did baseball’s competitive environment evolve, and how did the Yankees come to dominate it. The economics of team building at the time were quite fluid. In the early 1920s, Barrow followed up on the purchase of Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox and acquired the rest of owner Harry Frazee’s best players. When that avenue dried up and major league teams were under little pressure to sell off their talent during the roaring twenties, he needed another talent source. Barrow and his great scouts correctly identified the top players in the then independent minor leagues, and Barrow purchased several future Hall of Famers. When the rules for minor league team ownership changed in the early 1930s, Barrow, at the instigation of owner Jacob Ruppert, developed the best farm system in the American League. The Yankees correctly diagnosed the competitive environment and then how to gain an advantage.
Barrow was also involved in some way in nearly every major event in baseball over a 50-year period from the 1890s to the 1940s.
His name is one more fans should be familiar with.
Please talk about Ed Barrow’s involvement in the Babe Ruth sale to the Yankees.
When Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees after the 1919 season for $100,000 and a loan of $300,000, Barrow was still manager of the Sox. After Frazee broke the news to the frustrated, but not completely surprised Barrow, he maintained hope that Frazee might use some of the windfall to help rebuild the team. Unfortunately, the cash-strapped Frazee plowed little if any of his windfall back into the Red Sox.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
What was the greatest little-known fact you discovered about the Yankees of the early 1920s?
I would suggest two items. First, Barrow amassed the first great assemblage of scouts in baseball history and created arguably the first modern scouting department. He hired “Vinegar” Bill Essick to scout the west and Eddie Herr, a former Detroit Tiger scout, whom he assigned to the Midwest. Bob Gilks and Ed Holly focused on the South and East respectively. Superscout Paul Krichell was principally responsible for the colleges and acted as Barrow’s right hand.
Second, the degree to which the team purchased stars players from the Boston Red Sox in addition to the Babe was astounding. In one transaction after the 1921 season the Yankees acquired two of the league’s best pitchers, Sam Jones and Joe Bush, along with star shortstop Everett Scott for four players and $150,000–the highest dollar amount ever included in a player transaction up to that point, and one that would not be exceeded until the Cubs bought Rogers Hornsby from the Boston Braves near the end of the decade. In total the Yankee owners paid Frazee roughly $450,000 over a five-year period to build the team that captured three straight pennants from 1921 to 1923.
In Paths To Glory, you discuss great baseball teams. Is there one common thread that seems to stay consistent among the teams that are the most successful?
There is no recipe for success. The most successful teams in baseball history have been ones that either reacted to changes in the game or created their own approach. In addition to the Yankees noted above, examples include the Cardinals in the 1920s building a farm system and the Dodgers opening the white major leagues to Black players. Most are less monumental such as the Blue Jays building one of the first systematic Dominican Republic scouting systems or the A’s Moneyball approach.
You also wrote about the Federal League – another mostly forgotten aspect of baseball history. Can you briefly explain what the Federal League was and how its formation impacted the rest of professional baseball?
In 1914 and 1915 the newly formed Federal League struggled for profits and Major League status, the established leagues battled to stop them, and the players organized baseball’s first real union. The consequences of this battle shaped the business of baseball and American professional sports in general for many years to come. Three in particular standout:
• The story of the battle between the upstart Federal League and Organized Baseball occurred before the antitrust statutes had ever been tested for their applicability to baseball. The Supreme Court’s exemption of baseball from antitrust laws came out of a court case filed by the Federal League’s Baltimore franchise challenging the settlement that forced that league out of business.
• Unlike football, basketball, and hockey, since the demise of the Federal League, no new Major League has arisen to challenge the existing order. The outcome of the battle with the Federals forged the modern business umbrella under which baseball operates.
• The competition for their services from the new league offered the players enough leverage to form an effective union, the last, best hope for a meaningful union until the 1960s.
Did any Yankees (they were the Yankees by 1914) jump to the Federal League?
Yes, the Yankees pitching staff lost two of its rotation regulars, veteran spitball pitcher Russ Ford and Al Schulz. They also barely held onto a third member of the staff, Ray Caldwell. Backup infielder Rollie Zeider jumped when the Yankees refused his demand for a salary increase and an opportunity to play third base.
There is so much baseball history and stories that need to be told.
Do you have any books you are currently working on?
I’m working on a book with coauthor Mark Armour on the confluence between cheating and innovation in baseball. It is a book about the fine line between ingenuity designed to gain an edge and nefarious attempts to cheat. It ranges from John McGraw and his gritty brand of baseball in the 1890s to the introduction of inventive scouting and organizational structures in the 1920s and ‘30s to the steroid era and up through the recent sign-stealing scandal. Baseball might be a metaphor for life, but it can also be an example of life’s seedier side.
Absolutely. IN so many ways, baseball mirrors life, or maybe life mirrors baseball.
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?
I would like to see a dual biography of the Yankees first co-owners, Frank Farrell and Big Bill Devery. Ferrell was a well-connected Tammanyite and boss of much of the City’s high-end, illegal gambling and horserace betting and an associate of Tammany’s Big Tim Sullivan. Farrell and his syndicate oversaw roughly 250 gambling enterprises. Ferrell’s silent partner was his longtime friend, Devery, a shady ex-police chief with his own Tammany connections and who had escaped conviction despite a couple of indictments. Not only would this be a fascinating baseball story but a great period piece on the underworld and corruption in New York at the turn of the last century.
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?
Randy Johnson—when he was on I don’t think there was anything quite like it.
Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…
What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
I grew up and still live in the Twin Cities, so I’m a big Twins fan—a team that’s obviously struggled against the Yankees in recent post seasons. I’m currently a season ticket holder—it will be great to be able to get back and see a game. I don’t remember my first game, but when I was a kid I used to go to Twins games with my maternal grandparents. They would never let us (my brothers and I) buy ballpark food. My grandmother used to bring bags of carrots and celery. And I still like vegetables.
What is your most prized collectible?
I’ve never really been that big on baseball collectibles, though of course, I’ve accumulated a few treasured items. That said, one of the pleasures of writing is the personal connections you make. After reading my book on the battle between Organized Baseball and the Federal League, someone reached out to let me know she had her relative’s original stock certificate from the Kansas City Federal League franchise and was sending it to me. I enjoy that personalized kind of memorabilia because it connects with both people and the past.
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
Hard to choose among a lot of great late 1960s and 1970s groups, but if I had to name one, I guess I’d go with Steely Dan.
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?
Artichokes with garlic butter
Please share anything else you’d like with our audience –
Baseball research is a wonderful outlet for the human need to record and understand the past in addition to interpreting the present. I’m lucky to have a found an outlet for this passion.
And we are fortunate that you share this passion with all of us.
Thank you Daniel for spending some time with us. Please keep in touch. All our best, always!