SSTN Interviews Author Jon Leonoudakis
SSTN: We are here with author Jon Leonoudakis, award-winning filmmaker and the author of Baseball Pioneers: True Stories of Guts and Glory As Told By Pioneering Men and Women of the Game. This book is a companion to Jon’s streaming baseball documentary series, “The Sweet Spot: A Treasury of Baseball Stories.” The Sweet Spot is a multimedia project with its roots in oral histories, greatly influenced by Lawrence Ritter’s “The Glory of Their Times.”
Jon has been a producer in the entertainment industry for over 30 years. He is one of the producers of the internationally-acclaimed music documentary, “The Wrecking Crew,” and has ten films in the permanent collection of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Folks can purchase Baseball Pioneers: True Stories of Guts and Glory from Amazon here: https://amzn.to/2zdHyzy
Jon, it is great to have this discussion with you. Thanks for coming to Start Spreading The News.
Thanks, Paul, it’s good to be with you and your audience.
Your book is fascinating as you share stories of famous and not-so-famous trailblazers in baseball history. Please tell us a little about this wonderful book.
Part of the mission of our Sweet Spot multimedia project is to explore the existential side of baseball, the stories beyond the stats if you will. There’s been so many books and films about the champions of the game, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and so forth, and I wanted to present a project that digs deeper and gets under the veneer of apple pie and hot dogs to look at the game from a different perspective, giving people a chance to reconsider how they think about and perceive the game, its history, and its place in the 21st century.
American women have been involved in the game since the 19th century, but they’ve been systematically marginalized within baseball by crippling gender bias for over a century. I admire the women featured in the book, because all of them refused to be denied their chance to participate in the game they love. The fact that half of America wasn’t encouraged to play (and still isn’t to some extent), umpire or coach baseball for so long is disgraceful to a country that prides itself on freedom and its strides for women’s rights.
The core of the book is fueled by our interviews, or oral histories, for the streaming show.
So, we wanted to shake things up a bit. Most people coming to read about about baseball pioneers might expect stories about Ty Cobb, Cap Anson, or Babe Ruth. It could be argued that Jackie Robinson was the greatest baseball pioneer, so we have a wonderful piece about Jackie from journalist Ron Rapoport not long before #42 passed. Jim “Mudcat” Grant was an excellent pitcher for fourteen years in the majors, from 1958-1971, and was one of the few starting pitchers in the American league in 1958. His journey featured many, many challenges. As for the women, two of them played in the old All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (1943-1954), which was the basis for the highest grossing baseball film thus far, “A League of Their Own,” and Justine Siegal, who blazed a trail by becoming the first woman to coach for an MLB team (Oakland) and pitch batting practice for an MLB team (Indians). Lastly, umpires are fascinating studies—arbiters of the game with thankless jobs. How about a woman umpiring men’s pro games? Perry Barber is just 5’2” but when she’s behind the plate, she’s in charge and a real pro.
Of these fascinating people in your book, which person was it most fun to research and write about?
It has to be Perry Barber. Who goes from being a debutante, to a successful singer-songwiter opening for the likes of Billy Joel, Springsteen and Hall and Oates, to become a pro umpire for her life’s work? She’s also a “Jeopardy!” champion!
Please tell us a little about the Jackie Robinson interview, one of his last, chronicled in your book.
The story comes from Ron Rapport, a decorated sportswriter with the Chicago Sun-Times and Los Angeles Times. Ron knew Jackie was coming to L.A. for an old-timer’s day where his number was going to be retired. So, he called the Dodgers to ask if they were doing anything special for him. He was surprised when they told him, “no,” and he was given the phone number of Jackie’s hotel. I don’t want to give too much away and spoil that story for the book, but what transpired was shocking and the interview was Jackie as a lion in winter. He pulled no punches and was true to his values. It’s a remarkable moment and insight into a man that not only changed the landscape of baseball, but our country.
Jim “Mudcat” Grant was the first African-American pitcher to win 20 games in a season (going 21-7 for the 1965 Minnesota Twins). He was an excellent pitcher for 14 years in the big leagues, but that season was, by far, his best. What attributed to his great success that year?
I have to say Mudcat is maybe the sweetest man I’ve ever met, a true gentleman and a wonderful storyteller. I was 7 years old and began collecting baseball cards shortly before that season, and I recalled his performance in the 1965 World Series where he not only won 2 games, he hit a home run! But I was very curious about his sparkling season—how did he become a 20-game winner? Mudcat said there were two big reasons. One was working with perhaps the greatest pitching coach of all time, Johnny Sain. Sain worked his magic with pitchers everywhere he went. The other reason was his #1 catcher was another African-American, Earl Battey. Mudcat said Earl was very smart, good to work with, and a great person. I was shocked when Mudcat said some of the white catchers on his previous teams intentionally sabotaged him because of racism. He said some of them would tell the hitter what pitch was coming!
In the title of your book are the words “Volume 1.” Will a Volume 2 be coming out in the future? Can you tell us about that book?
Yes, my partner, Kelly Holtzclaw, and I have been putting together our next collection of stories for Volume II, and leaning towards featuring people who are the glue of the game, the behind-the-scenes folks, like bat boys, official scorers, clubbies (equipment managers), and baseball card photographers. We interviewed Mike Murphy, who was the clubhouse man for the San Francisco Giants for over 50 years. We rarely hear from those people, and they have remarkable stories to share.
Do you have any other works that are in progress?
Yes! I just finished what i consider a cinematic love letter to baseball, “108 Stitches.” It’s a curated compilation of baseball people responding to the last question I always ask at the end of our interviews. I hand them a brand new baseball and ask them to tell me what their heart and soul says. We talked to people age nine to ninety, and I was surprised how many people broke into tears.
I’ve just completed a trailer for a bio doc I’d like to make about “Lefty’ O’Doul, who I call “the legend baseball forgot.” Lefty has the 4th highest average in baseball history and he’s not in the Hall of Fame. O’Doul was also one of baseball’s greatest ambassadors, essentially the father of Japanese professional baseball.
I’m also finishing up a new film featuring Mudcat Grant sharing pitching secrets from his repertoire and “secret” pitches learned from Satchel Paige. I’m about to being work on an interview I did with a player most people may not recall, Greg Goossen. “Goose” achieved a measure of immortality as one of Jim Bouton’s teammates on the Seattle Pilots, often in a very humorous light in Bouton’s book, “Ball Four.” I interviewed Greg about 5 months before he passed in 2011, and he’s just marvelous recounting his days playing for Casey Stengel, Ted Williams, and facing pitchers like Bob Gibson and Stan Williams, the latter of whom was one of the most infamous headhunters in the history of the game.
In addition to being an author, you are an award-winning filmmaker. Can you tell us about your baseball documentaries?
The documentary form speaks to me, and I began my journey into that realm almost ten years ago, with a film about The Baseball Reliquary, a sort of left-coast version of the Hall of Fame, titled “Not Exactly Cooperstown.” The Reliquary celebrates people who’ve impacted the landscape of the game, be they players, fans, researchers, and so forth. It has become something of a cult film. The Reliquary has been a very inspirational source for me, and much of what they do can only be appreciated experientially, so the medium of film was perfect.
I followed that with “The Day the World Series Stopped,” about Game Three of the 1989 World Series. I grew up in San Francisco and my brother had tickets to Game 3, the first World Series game played at Candlestick since 1962. I was nine years out of film school by then, and I knew to bring a still camera and a VHS camcorder to recorder my first World Series Experience. The tragedy that unfolded was personal, as both a native and a baseball fan. That film is a good complement to the ESPN 30 for 30 on the same subject—their perspective is macro, while mine is micro. They contacted me to be interviewed for the film, but couldn’t get our schedules synched. This film and “Not Exactly Cooperstown” can be found on my Vimeo On Demand channel here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/thesweetspot
As I was finishing that film, I got introduced to the great writer, Arnold Hano, who wrote one of baseball’s most iconic books, “A Day in the Bleachers.” I did some research on him and discovered what an incredible life he’d had—kind of a Zelig-type of guy who was present at many historical, sports, and pop culture milestones over a period of nearly a hundred years. He was 93 when I began interviewing him and his memory was very sharp. Hano went to 70 games at the Polo Grounds in 1926 as a four-year-old! He loved sitting near Bill Terry at first base. In 1933, he saw Babe Ruth pitch his last game for the Yankees, and then runs into the Babe on the street a few days later and talks to him about it! That film is titled, “Hano! A Century in the Bleachers.” “Hano!” is on Amazon Prime here: https://amzn.to/2szfwbt
At the end of 2019, I finished one of my favorite films, “The Adventures of Superfan” about a remarkable fan who went on a 35-year quest to get his 1979 San Francisco Giants media guide signed by every coach and player who appeared in it. He was 15 when he start and 50 hone he finished the quest. That’s on Amazon as well: https://amzn.to/2NynImH
Yankees history is replete with great names and moments. Is there a particular Yankees story that you would like to see a book written about?
I really enjoyed David Halberstam’s book, “1964,” about the Yankees’ last visit to the World Series and losing to the multi-racial St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. I’d like to see an exploration of race on the Yankees from Elston Howard forward. Part of the reason the Yankees died on the vine in the mid to late sixties was their reluctance to have more players of color on their team. It took them ten years to return to prominence.
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 is the best baseball player you ever saw?
I’d have to say Roberto Clemente, which is really saying something, since I saw Mays, McCovey and Marichal play. It was a night game at Candlestick Park, maybe in 1971. Giants batting, Bobby Bonds, maybe the fasted man in the game at that time, was on first. Somebody crushed a ball to right over Clemente’s head, and Bonds is off with third in mind. Clemente plays the carom perfectly, whirls and fires a seed from deep right to nip Bonds by a hair. Out! Greatest play I’ve ever seen anyone make at a game I attended.
Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…
What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
San Francisco Giants
Who was your favorite player?
What is your most prized collectible?
A tie! One is a baseball signed by Don Larsen with the date of his WS perfecto on it, and one signed by a team of Little Leaguers I coached in 2002.
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
I’ve been playing guitar for 40 years and been in a few bands, so that is a tough question! Santana, Pink Floyd and the Pat Metheny Group in a dead heat!
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?
I’m a BBQ hound—it’s one of my quests, to find the greatest BBQ. We have a Wood Ranch BQ restaurant near us and it is very, very good for a chain.
Please share anything else you’d like with our audience –
Here are links to view my baseball films:
The Sweet Spot on Vimeo On demand ($1.50/month streaming, over 8 hours of original content, a lot more of my content than on Amazon)
The Sweet Spot seasons on Amazon Prime (Prime members watch for free)
Season One: https://amzn.to/2H3rIu2
Season Two: https://amzn.to/2DdiXd7
Season Three: https://amzn.to/2H3rIu2
Visit us on “The Sweet Spot” website, going behind the scenes and check out our cool T-shirts and custom baseball card set for sale: http://thesweetspot.tv/
Folks can contact me here: email@example.com or on Twitter @jonl24
This was so great.
Thank you for joining us Jon. We wish you continued success, always.