SSTN Interviews Author Johnny D. Boggs
SSTN: Today we are here with author Johnny D. Boggs. Johnny is known as a writer of western novels. He has published over 50 novels. Before that, he worked as a newspaper sports journalist at the Dallas Times Herald (1984-1991) and Fort Worth Star-Telegram (1992-1998), rising to assistant sports editor/nights at both papers. He was won a record nine Spur Awards from Western Writers of America, a Western Heritage Wrangler Award from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, and has been called by Booklist magazine “among the best western writers at work today.” Johnny is also a big baseball fan, which is one reason why he’s with us today.
Thanks for coming to Start Spreading the News. It is great to have this discussion with you.
You are welcome, Paul… Love the site, and with a cold front moving into Santa Fe, what could warm me up more than talking about baseball and Westerns? Hey, only 65 days till pitchers and catchers report!
To begin, please tell us how you became a baseball fan.
I grew up on a farm outside of a small town, but in the 1960s and 1970s, Timmonsville, South Carolina, was a baseball town. My introduction was at American Legion baseball games in the summer. Timmonsville had a really good program then, even made it to the American Legion World Series in New England in 1968. Daddy would bribe us: Rake the yard, clean the house, do what Mama asked my older sister and me to do and he’d take us to a Legion game. Soon, I was chasing foul balls for a free Coke. Then I moved up to putting the runs up on the scoreboard. Finally, I was keeping the scorebook in the dugout. So I was always watching, and learning, the game. I was a terrible baseball player, but I kept the scorebook in high school, called in the results to local newspapers, and that led to a newspaper career as a sportswriter and editor. If Mama had gotten her way, I would be coaching baseball and teaching English in some small South Carolina town. But I had other ideas.
My older sister and I would play baseball with anything – a rubber ball, use a tobacco stick for a bat, etc. When I tried to teach my kid sister how to play, she hit me over the head with a bat. A real bat. Louisville Slugger. Not a tobacco stick.
On Sundays after church, a lot of times I’d bike over to a neighbor’s house — the Howards; they had two sons — and we’d have pick-up games. The Andersons lived just down from the Howards. Butch, the oldest, was an MVP at the University of South Carolina and made it to Double-A ball. Mike spent most of his career with the Philadelphia Phillies. He was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals and, yes, it’s that Mike Anderson who is the tormented outfielder who hits the game-winning grand slam against the hapless Cubs in the original play “Bleacher Bums.” Katrina, my older sister’s age, played women’s professional basketball. I went through grade school, high school and college, the University of South Carolina, with Kent Anderson, a year younger than me. He spent a couple of seasons with the then-California Angels. So the Andersons, and not the Boggses, got all the athletic talent in our neighborhood. Butch, Mike and Kent were like brothers. Still are. And Butch, who coached high school and Legion ball, taught me a lot about the game. I don’t know. He might have been conspiring with Mama to turn me into a high school coach. I became satisfied coaching and umpiring Little League in New Mexico.
Most Timmonsville kids pulled for the Atlanta Braves, but I just hated the New York Yankees – only because of their success. So I became a Kansas City Royals fan in the 1970s. Which was, as you know, heartbreaking until my freshman year in college in 1980. And got gloriously better in 1985.
When I was in Dallas, two news-side editors and I made a road trip to Kansas City to catch a Royals-Tigers game. We’re watching the game, and neither team had much that year, when the announcer directs everyone’s attention to the DiamondVision screen where “we take you live to Arlington Stadium, where Nolan Ryan is working on his seventh career no-hitter.” We looked at each other and groaned. We drove 500 miles to MISS the game of a lifetime.
Funny thing is, from around 2000 on, I always made it to a Royals game, often more than one game, on the road or in KC. And for all those losing years, the Royals were something like 20-3 in games I saw them play. They should have paid me to attend games. In 2015, their championship season, they were 0-4 in regular-season games I saw. And not just any 0-4. First loss after leading after eight innings in more than a hundred games. First loss after leading in the ninth after a hundred-something games. A friend of mine in KC told me to get out of town and don’t come back. But I took my son to Game 1 of the World Series. Was I sweating until Alex Gordon’s ninth-inning home run tied the score, and Eric Hosmer’s game-winning sac fly in the 14th!
Those are amazing stories – each one!
Please tell us about your writing. What drew you to become a writer of fiction and westerns in particular?
Daddy was a great storyteller, and both of my parents were avid readers. In third grade, our teacher had everyone “write a tale.” Just make something up. I don’t remember what I wrote, but I was hooked on the charge I got. I started writing stories for classmates. “Want a mystery? OK. Five cents.” “Science-fiction? Sure. A dime.”
By my junior high school I almost always had a book in my hand, and I’d crank out stories in my room. I’d always loved Western movies, and “Gunsmoke” was a TV ritual. I cut class my senior year to watch “Fort Apache” on TV. The appeal came probably because the West I saw was a long, long way from tobacco fields, swamps, pine forests, cottonmouths, heat and humidity. And the guys got to wear cool hats. So I started writing Western stories and reading Western books, fiction and nonfiction. But baseball always remained dear to me. Eventually, I decided that I wanted to become a sportswriter, then figure out a way to make a living writing Western novels. Somehow, I’ve managed to do just that. I left newspapers in 1998 and have been writing full time since. Not many people that I know followed their dream. I’m lucky. I’m blessed.
You have added baseball themes to many of your novels which is a very unique approach. Please share an example of how baseball plays a role in that genre.
Mark Twain said, “Baseball is the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming 19th Century.” The same can be said about the 19th Century American West. For me it started at — you guessed it — a Kansas City Royals game. They won on a walk-off. I was alone, watching the game, and started thinking. ‘You ought to write a baseball novel. … What about a baseball Western? … Hmmmm. Maybe a baseball Western set during the Civil War.” That was the start of “Camp Ford,” which came out in 2005 and was the first novel of mine to win a Spur Award from Western Writers of America.
Camp Ford was a Union POW camp in Tyler, Texas, the largest west of the Mississippi River, and it appears Confederate guards played the Union prisoners in baseball games there. So that’s what the novel is about. Someone called it “A Civil War-Western ‘Longest Yard’,” which isn’t a bad description. I linked the story to the 1946 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox. An old Union veteran is invited to the Series and starts to recall his time in Texas and that game between the guards that was, to players on both sides, more important than any World Series.
The novel’s success surprised my literary agent, and me, but my agent always told me, “We don’t care what you write, as long as you make it a character-driven story.” I’m sure he regretted that. A few years later, I followed with “The Kansas City Cowboys,” which was about the National League’s 1886 experiment of putting a major-league team in Kansas City. The legend is that the Cowboys were expelled from the NL after one season because of “hooliganism.” They were probably dumped because it was hard to get East Coast teams to Kansas City. I just took that legend and ran with it.
I’ve always been a movie buff, so the idea for my novel “Buckskin, Bloomers and Me” percolated after watching the Jack Lemmon-Tony Curtis-Marilyn Monroe comedy “Some Like It Hot.” I put a teenager, whose stepmother wants the boy dead, hiding out on a barnstorming Kansas City Bloomer Girls team in 1906. The Bloomer Girls were, of course, reputedly all-women teams that played town ball teams of male players across the country – they just typically had a few male players disguised as women players, usually the battery. Once again, I twisted things around and had fun with it.
You’ll probably find a lot of readers who will say, “Johnny Boggs couldn’t write a traditional Western if he tried.”
Most of my work is grounded in Western history. I’ve written a lot about the Kansas-Missouri border wars and the James-Younger Gang: “Northfield,” “Arm of the Bandit,” “Wreaths of Glory,” “Hard Way Out of Hell.” There’s a legend that some of the James-Younger Gang caught a baseball game in St. Paul before they tried to rob the Northfield bank. I’m probably best known for trail-drive novels, “Return to Red River,” “A Thousand Texas Longhorns,” and I’m contracted for two more. That said, I’m actually toying with the idea of another Baseball Western.
There have been baseball short stories, too. “Umpire Colt” is based on the legend that gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok umpired a baseball game, armed, in Kansas City. “The San Angela Stump Match of 1876” depicts a game between white West Texas cowboys and Black Buffalo Soldiers. “Contention” has a convict fresh out of Yuma Territorial Prison who’s hired by a woman to get revenge on an Arizona town’s team that has the reputation of being a goon squad for the local mines. But one of my favorites is “The Antioch County All-Star Game.” That one isn’t Western. It’s semi-autobiographical about the pickup games we’d have in the Howards’ front yard when I was a kid. And when Kent Anderson brought the first aluminum bat we’d ever seen.
Who is your favorite writer of western fiction?
You must want to get me into a lot of trouble with my peers. I can’t narrow it to one. Jack Schaefer, author of “Shane” and “Monte Walsh.” Dorothy M. Johnson, whose short stories “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “The Hanging Tree” and “The Man Called Horse” were turned into motion pictures. Pulitzer Prize-winner A.B. Guthrie Jr. His “The Big Sky” won’t make you want to become a mountain man. Those are the three that really made me strive to do something different, find a literary bent, and get away from Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey clones. Although, Zane Grey, well, he played baseball and wrote a ton of baseball stories. I’ve just recently discovered the late Thomas Savage, author of “The Power of the Dog” and “The Pass.” Larry McMurtry’s “Horseman, Pass By,” “The Last Picture Show,” and, of course, “Lonesome Dove.” And the late Elmer Kelton, who I knew. Elmer was a major influence. His novel “The Time It Never Rained,” about the 1950s drought in West Texas, is phenomenal. It even inspired me to write a song, “Loving County,” which I’m happy to say two singer-songwriter friends – Micki Fuhrman out of Nashville and Jon Chandler out of Denver – have recorded and are releasing on Micki’s album, “Westbound,” due out in January. Micki’s a Yankees fan. Jon’s for the Rockies. But we all get along great. The song’s about a ranching couple dealing with a seven-year drought. I couldn’t carry a tune in a catcher’s bag.
The Western is very much alive, with great literature being produced. Anne Hillerman. Loren D. Estleman. Loren’s a pen pal. Meaning, we still write each other real letters. And he can string words together that just stun me with their brilliance. David Heska Wanbli Weiden. Brady Udall’s “The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint” and Aryn Kyle’s “The God of Animals” I just loved. And Bruce H. Thorstad and the late Max Evans and Fred Grove were mentors to me. Bruce even wrote a baseball Western, “Ace of Diamonds,” long before I wrote my first novel.
You have also written about the movies chronicling how certain legends of the west (Billy the Kid and Jesse James) have been portrayed on film. You recently finished a book about sports in the movies. Please tell us about that.
The Jesse James book started off as a talk at the National James-Younger Gang convention. That led to an article for True West magazine, and then I just told myself that I ought to write a book about Jesse James movies. So I watched every surviving reel I could find, and wrote “Jesse James and the Movies.” Which led to “Billy the Kid on Film, 1911-2012.” After that, I told myself, “You need to write a film history about movies that are worth watching! So you don’t have to sit through a whole lot of crap.” The most recent is “Sports on Film,” part of the “Hollywood History” series from publisher ABC-CLIO. I take ten American movies about actual sporting figures and/or events and compare Hollywood’s history to actual history. The two baseball movies — baseball’s the only sport that gets two films — are “The Jackie Robinson Story,” a B film from 1950 in which Jackie plays himself, and “A League of Their Own,” which my editors insisted I include, about the Midwestern women’s softball/baseball league during World War II. The research was fun. I talked to historian Jonathan Eig about Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, interviewed an official at Kansas City’s Negro Leagues museum about Robinson, and reached out to a lot of former sportswriters I’d worked with. And my late father-in-law. A star player at the University of Oregon, he was signed to a minor-league contract by Branch Rickey when Rickey was with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Played one season with the minor-league team in Waco, Texas — he joked that the fans bought him a one-way bus ticket home — then had to go into the Air Force. After that, he did a lot of semi-pro ball, and got invited to some spring-training camps, just never made it back to the minors. But till his death, he always praised Branch Rickey for turning his life around. There’s also a forthcoming book from McFarland, which published the Jesse James and Billy the Kid movie books, “American Newspaper Journalists on Film: Depictions of the Press during the Sound Era,” which includes a chapter on sportswriters — “The Odd Couple,” “The Natural,” “The Babe Ruth Story,” “Eight Men Out,” “Pride of the Yankees,” the original “Angels in the Outfield” — sportswriters show up in a lot of films.
Please share your favorite sports movies with us.
Yankees disliker that I am, or was, till the Houston Astros came along, I absolutely love “Pride of the Yankees,” with Gary Cooper playing Lou Gehrig. Jimmy Stewart fan that I am, I’m a sucker for “The Stratton Story,” about Chicago White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton. I’m not really a Paul Newman or a boxing fan, but I have a soft spot for “Somebody Up There Likes Me.” I call “Ford V Ferrari” the “Moneyball” of motorsports movies, because it really digests the business of the sport, and everything it takes to build a winner. Coming from the South, I covered NASCAR a lot as a newspaper journalist, and it’s just hard to find a decent movie about auto racing. Who doesn’t love “Field of Dreams”? Nobody dies in “Junior Bonner,” making it a rare movie for director Sam Peckinpah, but it’s an elegiac film about rodeo, family and the loss of the American West. You can’t go wrong with “The Hustler,” with Jackie Gleason playing Minnesota Fats. And it’s not really a sports movie, rather a newspaper noir, but 1952’s “Deadline — U.S.A.,” starring Humphrey Bogart as the managing editor whose paper has been bought by the competition and is about to be shut down, certainly strikes a chord — I went through that in 1991 at the Dallas Times Herald. What I really like about that movie, though, is that Paul Stewart plays the sports editor/columnist, and Bogey sends him to bring in the witness who can testify against the evil mobster. A sportswriter the good guy? You don’t see that often. And Lou Gehrig played himself in a B-Western from 1938, “Rawhide.” The star is singing cowboy Smith Ballew. The plot has Lou leaving baseball in a contract dispute and heading to his sister’s ranch. They filmed it during the off-season. I’m not a big fan of those programmers or singing cowboys, but this one is a lot of fun to watch.
Why, do you believe, are people so drawn to baseball and its stories, legends, and people?
You can trace the roots back as far as you want, but baseball is really an American original. OK, so is the banjo. Yikes. But … so is the Western. Americans love their legends, Wild Bill Hickok, Sliding Billy Hamilton. Johnny Cash, Johnny Bench. Western stories, baseball stories, they are often bigger than life. I think what draws more writers, more filmmakers, and more devoted fans is the fact that baseball is a team sport but it’s all about the individual. The pitcher is one-on-one against the hitter. The shortstop has to make the decision: Try for a double play or go for the sure out at first. There’s so much going on, it’s chess on a big board. It’s simple, but it’s complex. And, unlike most team sports, on any given day, the worst club can be better than the best. And, like the Western, there are a lot of wide open spaces to show.
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?
I don’t know if the game’s broken. I saw three major-league games in 2021, and the team I was pulling for won all three. The Royals in a ninth-inning walk-off against the Tigers. The Colorado Rockies — my son’s team — hanging on for one-run wins against the Padres, when San Diego was playing good baseball, and the Cubs, after Chicago had cut lose everybody. And all three games were played around three hours. Obviously, we’re pricing out a lot of families with ticket prices and salaries. Aesthetically, there’s not a whole lot of excitement in watching a game with four home runs and 24 strikeouts. But the game hasn’t changed all that much. What’s changed is American society.
Part of that problem, as I see it, is a generation gap. We’re in a world of instant gratification. We want it NOW. Baseball wasn’t designed, and it never will be — never SHOULD be — about NOW. It’s complicated. It’s strategy. It’s three hours of chess, and 95 seconds of Ali-Frazier. And it’s just so damned hard to play. Absolutely nothing against soccer — I saw the John Huston-Sylvester Stallone film “Victory” twice in theaters in 1981 — but it’s a lot easier to kick a ball than to guess correctly change-up with the tying run on second and two outs in the bottom of the eighth.
But I don’t know how we fix — if “fix” is the right word — that. There’s the payroll discrepancy, but we’ve been hearing that for years. Besides, underdogs — Braves, Nationals, Royals — still win every now and then.
I really like watching minor-league baseball. Most casual observers see those massive contracts for big-league stars and think every ballplayer is making way too much money. I was at a game with my family in Casper, Wyoming, years ago. My son, probably 8 or 9, got some foul balls and one of the players on the visiting team had played at the University of South Carolina — it soon dawned on me that I graduated before he was ever born. So Jack and I hung outside the dressing room, and when the player came out, he signed the ball for Jack. And I watch this 20-something-year-old kid walk to the bus carrying a bag and a drink from Subway, and told Jack, “You really have to be dedicated, really have to have a dream and really have to love the game to do this.” I wish more folks could see that side of the sport.
MLB certainly has work to do. But so does the American family. Take your kid to the ballpark, have a “catch,” sign your son or daughter up for Little League, and VOLUNTEER to help in any way you can. This isn’t day-care. Get your kids interested in the game, in how to play the game, how to understand the game. Slow your life down, catch a ballgame. Before it’s too late. Hey, yesterday I was coaching my son in “Coach Pitch.” He’ll be turning 20 in April. I took him on baseball trips every summer for years. Major-league, minor-league, indy league, college wooden-bat league games. We hit every big-league team except the Yankees and Mets. And that was planned for his high school graduation, but COVID wiped that out. Usually, I’d work in some magazine work or research on those trips. My wife would have her “stay-cation.” Sometimes I think there’s a memoir or something there. “Burgers and Baseball: Wandering in Search of a Lost America.” Something like that. Funnest trip was when we did a three-week East Coast run. He needed hours for his driver’s license, so he would drive, and I’d take notes for a novel I was working on, “Taos Lightning,” about an 1886 horse race from Galveston, Texas, to Rutland, Vermont.
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?
Filip Bundy wrote a fun book a few years back, “The Pine Tar Game: The Kansas City Royals, the New York Yankees, and Baseballs Most Absurd and Entertaining Controversy.” I’d like to see a book that really digs into the Royals-Yankees rivalry of the 1970s. But, hey, that’s just me. On the other hand, I went to Mickey Mantle’s funeral. Well, I was living in Dallas, and Mickey was in Dallas when he died, and I ran into a former newspaper colleague who told me she wasn’t there for work but because, “It’s Mickey Mantle’s funeral!” There was something about sitting in the overflow tents for fans, watching grown me cry while Roy Clark was singing, on closed-circuit TV, “Yesterday When I Was Young.” The Mickey Mantle Complex could make a great American nonfiction book. Or maybe combine that with Babe Ruth, Thurman Munson, and, heck, Derek Jeter, and their impact on baseball, fans, and Americana. I don’t want to write that book, but I’d love to read it. But if you’re looking for a book about baseball movies, or a baseball Western … call my agent.
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?
Anyone who rooted for the Royals in the 1970s has to mention George Brett, right? But … gosh … I never saw anyone play second base as smoothly as Frank White. … However, May 23, 1989, I’m sitting with “the Texas Rangers wives” near home plate at Arlington Stadium. Nolan Ryan pitching for the Rangers. Kansas City’s Bo Jackson at the plate. That fastball velocity. That bat swing. And when Jackson connected, and I saw that 461-foot launch begin, I leaped out of my seat, shouted something that Mama would have had me washing my mouth out with soap, and immediately realized I’d never see a home run like that again. I wish Bo would have laid off football, because he was an amazing baseball player to watch.
Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…
What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
Oh, heck, the 1968 Timmonsville, South Carolina, American Legion Post 42 team coached by Bill Pate. That’s where it all started for me.
Who was your favorite player?
Mike Anderson. Gotta root for the home-town hero.
What is your most prized collectible?
The autographed baseballs signed by the kids I coached in Little League.
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
Johnny Cash … Johnny Cash … Johnny Cash.
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?
Green chile cheeseburger, Santa Fe Bite, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Please share anything else you’d like with our audience –
All right. I’m a movie buff, and a writer, so the one written work I’d love to see made into a good baseball movie is T.C. Boyle’s “The Hector Quesadilla Story,” the best baseball short story I’ve ever read. “And the game goes on forever.”
Thank you so much for taking the time with us Johnny. I just purchased Northfield and I look forward to reading it – and many more of your books.
Please keep in touch.