SSTN Interviews Author Jonathan Eig
SSTN: We are here with Jonathan Eig author of the fantastic book (and one of my all-time favorites) Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig. Mr. Eig has also written about Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali among other topics.
It is great to have this discussion with you, Jonathan. Thanks for coming to Start Spreading The News.
You’re welcome, Paul.
Please begin by telling us a little about how you became an author. How can fans buy copies of your books?
I started when I was 16 as a reporter for the Rockland County Journal News in New York and kept working as a newspaper reporter all through high school and college and then went on to newspapers in New Orleans, Dallas, and, finally, went to work at The Wall Street Journal. While working at the Journal I had the idea for a book about Lou Gehrig—one that focused on his illness as well as his baseball career. I was always a huge Yankee fan, but it struck me I didn’t know much about Lou as a person and I didn’t know how dealt with ALS. I spent about three years working on that book, and when it became a best seller I got the chance to write another book. Soon after the second book I quit my job and started writing books full time. I’ve been very lucky.
In researching the life of Lou Gehrig, what most drew you to this singular sports figure?
I was struck by Lou’s grace. He was always quiet. He never felt the need to brag, or to compete with Babe Ruth for attention or credit. And when he got sick he showed the most grace of all. His speech still awes and inspires me. When he says “I’m the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” he’s saying he’s not going to let this fatal disease destroy everything good that’s happened in his life. He’s also saying he doesn’t want people to worry or feel bad for him. He’s thinking of others, not himself. That’s a real hero.
Can you briefly share with us your favorite Lou Gehrig story?
I have so many Gehrig stories I love. It’s difficult to choose just one. I love that filmed a cowboy musical, Rawhide, but told the director he didn’t want any romantic scenes. I love that he entered his dog in kennel club competitions. I love that even when he was sick he remained determined to do something productive so he took a job as a parole commissioner. I love that he was chewing gum when he gave his big farewell speech.
In writing about Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, and Muhammad Ali, you have chronicled some of the biggest names in the history of professional sports in America. Each of these subjects are larger than life – and each impacted their sports and society in profound ways. While these three individuals were vastly different people, did you find any personality or character traits that were similar among all three?
I think any athlete who reaches the top tier of his or her sport must have an uncommon level of ambition. They all had a strong rebellious streak. Gehrig’s rebellious streak isn’t so obvious but he did rebel. He rebelled against the macho, cocky baseball culture. He rebelled by speaking openly about his illness when he could have tried to hide it. But beyond that, Ali, Gehrig, and Robinson had little in common. If I could invite the three of them to a dinner party, it would probably be a disaster. Robinson and Ali would probably argue, and Gehrig would sit quietly, checking his watch.
In looking at the history of the Yankees, or baseball in general, what person or event would you like to see a new book written about?
I liked Richard Ben Cramer’s book on DiMaggio, but I don’t think it will be the last word.
i’d like to read good biography of Miller Huggins.
I’d also like to see a Mickey Rivers book, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.
Please tell us about your next works that are in process. How do you choose a topic or person to write about?
I’m at work now on a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. Choosing a subject is the hardest and most important part of my job. You have to pick something important, something you care about, something you’re willing to devote years to, and something where you can say something new. In the case of MLK, it had been more than 30 years since the most recent biography. I wanted to begin while many of his friends and associates were still alive. I’ve interviewed more than a hundred of his associates and found tens of thousands of new pages of archival material. After this, I want something a little easier. Maybe Mickey Rivers!
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?
I saw DiMaggio hit an old-timers day home run at Yankee Stadium. Barry Bonds was almost certainly the best I ever saw, but he gets an asterisk for chemically enhanced greatness. The best I ever saw who I feel the best about having seen would have to be Nolan Ryan. It was such a thrill to watch him overpower guys night after night. Also, I caught a foul ball at Arlington Park. He pitched it. I caught it. On the fly. So that was cool.
Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…
What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
Yankees all the way.
Who was your favorite player?
What is your most prized collectible?
I have a handwritten letter from George W. Bush saying he enjoyed reading my Jackie book. But even better than that, I have a copy of my Jackie book signed by Rachel Robinson, with a note saying I did a good job.
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?
My mom’s meatballs.
Please share anything else you’d like with our audience –
Baseball is a great game for readers. Thanks for reading!
Thank you, Jonathan Eig, for spending this time with us. We appreciate it greatly. We wish you continued success – always.