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SSTN Interviews Author Kevin Baker

SSTN: We are here with Kevin Baker author, with Reggie Jackson, of the great book Becoming Mr. October. Kevin is also a novelist, historian, and journalist.

It is great to have this discussion with you. Thanks for coming to Start Spreading The News.

Thanks for having me. Great to be talking to you and SSTN.

Please begin by telling us a little about how you became an author. How can fans buy copies of your books?

People can get hold of my books through booksellers everywhere—these days, online is probably easiest.

They can also check out just what I’ve written on my website,

I’ve been writing professionally since I was 13 years old, originally covering high school sports for a local daily newspaper—almost 50 years ago now. I was still in junior high school, and had to learn how to type to keep the job.

I wanted to be an author even back then, and started writing fiction everyday in college, thinking I would publish a book before I graduated. Well, fifteen years later…

I did not sell my first novel until I was 33. It was a contemporary novel about baseball, set in New York, but based loosely on the life of Ty Cobb, and called, Sometimes You See It Coming.

How did you arrange to team up with Reggie Jackson to collaborate on the book with him?

Reggie’s agent, David Black, was looking to find somebody to help finish up a two-book deal that Reggie had with Doubleday. This was not long after J.R. Moehringer collaborated with Andre Agassi on his autobiography, Open, which made quite a splash—and deservedly so. It was terrifically well-written, and it had a great story, which was Agassi surviving his psycho, tennis coach dad.

Reggie, thank goodness, did not have that sort of his relationship with his father growing up, but he did have an interesting and complicated one. And he really wanted to tell his side of the story on those first two years when he was on the Yankees, 1977-78.

I am sure as you edited the text, there were some stories that didn’t make it into the final printed text. Do you have a specific Reggie Jackson story that you can share with that didn’t make it to print?

I hope the best stories made it into the text! I found talking to Reggie fascinating. His whole life story—growing up outside Philadelphia, and dealing with the often subtle but very real racism he encountered there. His first interactions with Charlie Finley, and with George Steinbrenner, how he came to be a baseball player.

I think maybe the most intriguing story was how, when Reggie was really letting Billy Martin get to him, early on, Steinbrenner called Reggie’s father, Marty, and told him that he had to come up to New York and help his son, that Billy was getting into his head.

Marty Jackson would reply that he didn’t have time for that, and have Reggie come down to New Jersey, where his brother lived, and they would have a big family conference, and try to get Reggie back on track.

I asked Reggie, “Didn’t you mind Steinbrenner calling your father like that, a grown man like you?” And he said no, because you’re really not a man yet at 29. In fact, he was 31 at the time, but never mind! He was fine with George trying to guide him in that way.

There’s also a very revealing story, I think, in which Reggie talks about going out as a boy to get his father ice cream, and how that gets complicated, and he has to figure out a way to get it—how he knows he has to come back with just the flavor his father wants. I think it provides a real window into how Reggie came to develop that athlete’s mentality, where there is no excuse for failure.

I also found everything he said about hitting to be incredibly interesting, particularly the night he hit those three home runs in the World Series.

I have often written about the night. That was when I became a Yankees fan forever – it was in 1977 when Reggie Jackson hit those three home runs into the night. I have a print of an artist’s rendition of the third and final homer hanging in my home office. Reggie had always been a “clutch” hitter, but that night he really became “Mr. October” – forever. What was your greatest baseball memory as a kid growing up?

Yeah. That was something else. And this is something else we have in the book, about how he plotted that out, how he was thinking of it. I find that that’s the thing with the great ballplayers: they’re always thinking on the ballfield.

Reggie is a very intelligent man in general, he’s done very well in various investments and businesses for himself. But even those baseball stars who you wouldn’t think of as book smart, they learn the game—and it’s a wonderfully complicated game. They figure out ways of doing things, of finding an edge, that most of us wouldn’t dream of.

But as for my own memories, my family moved up to Massachusetts in the late summer of 1967, the “Impossible Dream” summer. And I loved growing up in Massachusetts, but you can imagine what it was like, for a kid who was a dyed-in-the-wool Yankees fan, when it came to baseball!

Shortly before we left, my father took me to see the Yankees at the original Yankee Stadium—only time I ever got there—and to see Mickey Mantle play. And that same week, my Uncle Bruce took me to see Willie Mays, when the Giants were at Shea. That was pretty amazing, even though neither Mantle nor Mays did anything of note.

But my favorite memories were the one game a year when my father took me into Boston to see the Yankees. We were pretty poor, so it was a very big deal for me. And I loved it, particularly the first time, in the summer of 1968.

You know, there was that amazing sweep of green grass that everyone talks about. But of course, in Fenway, everything is all the greener! I have to say, much as I hate the Red Sox, I always loved that park.

That first game, I remember, Stan Bahnsen, who always seemed to kill the Sox, shut them out, 1-0. I got to see Mantle play, for the second and last time, and he hit a single. Tom Tresh bunted his way on and stole second, and Bill Robinson drove him in with another single, for the only run of the game—that was a decent Yankees team, but they had no hitting!

Anyway, it was one of two shutouts I saw Bahnsen pitch at Fenway over the years. In the other one, Ron Blomberg played right field—how weird is that?

As a kid, I didn’t get all that much to cheer about with the Yanks. They only got really good again when I came back to New York, in 1976. But I’ve been lucky enough to see so many great games at the Stadium.

I was at David Wells’ perfect game in 1998, the World Series clinchers in 1996 and 1999; the 15-inning playoff game in 1995, when Mariano came out of the bullpen and pitched three innings for the win.

But the biggest thrill I ever got from baseball was watching the Yankees beat Boston in the 1978 playoff game. Watched it on a little, black-and-white set, in a friend’s dorm room.

Man, what a tense game! That really was for everything, it seemed, after that whole crazy season. Considering what was on the line, and how good and how close the game was, I think there’s a case to be made for it as the greatest single major-league game. I was nervous through every single pitch of it, and I don’t know that I was ever that crazed watching a game again. It was exhausting. You know, what is it that Muhammad Ali said in Manila? “Man, this is the closest I’ve ever been to dying?” It felt like that. But what a great thing it was to see!

I also watched that game on TV – at home, with my dad who is a BIG Red Sox fan. He couldn’t have been happy watching his ten-year-old son jumping around like crazy as the Yankees won and the Red Sox faced another bitter loss.

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?

Well, I hope I am writing it, with this book I am finishing on the history of baseball in New York. But there’s so much to be written about. I’m happy to see that Jonathan Mahler is going to be doing a sequel to Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning.

What I feel a little sad about is how much the greatest moments seem to be slipping into the past. There’s fairly little going on right now, I fear, that would inspire somebody to write a book. But I hope I’m wrong about that.

There are so many people—John Thorn, Allen Barra, Steven Goldman, others—who are always finding new angles, and writing some really thought-provoking things about the game.

You are working on a book about New York City baseball. Please tell us about this effort. Do you have any other works in progress?

Yes, I’m very excited about this. I’ve been working on it, on and off, forever, for Andrew Miller at Pantheon, who has been tremendously patient about it. Unfortunately, the work has been interrupted a number of times by family crises, and by other projects I needed to do to keep hearth and home together.

But as I said, Andrew’s been incredibly patient. It’s tentatively entitled, The New York Game, and it’s about the history of the city, and the game, which are very intertwined.

You know, we have pastoralized the whole idea of baseball, with things like Field of Dreams, where we make out that it’s about kids playing out in a country field somewhere. And that is absolutely not how baseball got going in this country.

To get together 18 people for a game—that almost has to be played in a city. And so it was, originally in vacant lots, and near taverns in Lower Manhattan, wherever they could find a space.

You know, people have been playing one form of bat-and-ball game or another pretty much since we walked out onto the savannah. But what we think of as modern baseball is “the New York Game,” the set of rules that were developed and codified here, in New York—as opposed to versions such as “the Massachusetts game,” where you got players out by hitting them with a hard rubber ball, or “the Philadelphia game,” where you had a rectangle instead of a diamond.

The game really began here, and nearly all of it firsts took place in this area: the first “world championship” (All right, between Manhattan and Brooklyn. But still.). The first great star. The first national superstar. The creation of the National Association, and the National League, the Players League.

I could go on and on. But New York, compared to almost any other American city, is still baseball-crazy. Aside from Boston and St. Louis, I don’t know anyplace else where it is still so popular.

So, this book is about the game in New York, and the city itself, and how they interact off each other. But it’s also a fan’s book, about the great games, the great players, the big controversies, all the heroes and villains, and also a lot of funny lines and incidents about the game in New York.

Yankees fans will love it. Mets fans will love it. Giants and Dodgers fans will love it, fans of the old Cuban Stars, and the Negro Leagues in New York will love it.

It sounds great, Kevin. I cannot wait to read it!

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?

Well, Mantle and Mays, of course. But I only saw The Mick at the very end, and Mays when he was already starting to decline. Same thing with Henry Aaron, who I saw only when he was already on the Brewers.

There is Derek Jeter, of course, and Don Mattingly, and Dave Winfield. Doc Gooden in his best years, and of course The Great One, Mariano Rivera.

But I guess I’d have to say that the greatest player I ever saw in his prime was Rickey Henderson. He was just an amazing specimen of a human being, and he could do so much on a ballfield. He set the stolen base record by something like 500 bases, he could hit 25 home runs a year. Had the most walks ever by a non-juicer, the third-most putouts ever by an outfielder, behind just Willie Mays and Tris Speaker, I think.

And to see that in action! When the Yanks needed a run, late, he could do half-a-dozen things to get on base, and then the action began. Next thing you knew, he had stolen two bases, and was barreling home. Just a force of nature out there, completely disruptive—probably the closest I will ever get to see Jackie Robinson play.

Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…

What was your favorite baseball team growing up?

Well, as mentioned, the New York Yankees. A hard allegiance to keep up, in Massachusetts!

Who was your favorite player?

I’m old enough to have had a bunch. Starting with Mantle, of course. Guys like him, and Mays—it was like having gods walk amongst you. There was even more of a sense of awe around them than there was for the likes of Michael, or Magic, or LeBron, later on.

After that, during the down years, I loved Roy White, and Mel Stottlemyre. I was a fan of Reggie’s. But really, my all-time favorite was Rivera. Baseball actually became easier for me to watch when he retired, because it got to be so tense, I so desperately wanted him to succeed whenever he came into a game.

What is your most prized collectible?

Well, there’s my scorecard—filled out!—and program from Wells’ perfect game, and I also have a 1952 Satchel Paige baseball card, from when he was on the St. Louis Browns, that an uncle gave me. But probably the ones that mean the most to me are the 1967 Yankees scorecard and yearbook my father got me when we went to our first game together.

Who is your favorite musical group or artist?

Elvis Costello.

What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?

A good steak, medium rare. Preferably a Porterhouse, at Peter Luger’s, or Keen’s. Been too long since I’ve had one of those.

Please share anything else you’d like with our audience:

Yes. Putting a man on second to start an extra inning is an abomination! I hate that even on a trial basis, for this crazy, 60-game season.

Beyond that, all of us have got to take the game back from the people who are really hurting it today.

You know, Whitman talked about baseball being the American game because it had such snap, because it was so quick. The pace is way too slow today.

It’s also become way too one-dimensional. I love statistics, and I think Sabremetrics revolutionized the game in many ways. But baseball is now way too specialized and one-dimensional.

Again, the people running the sport today simply don’t understand its appeal, or its traditions. A case in point is this ridiculous effort to dismantle most of the minor leagues. There should be more minor leagues, not fewer. Also, while this is hardly a new complaint, all the prices at the ballpark are way out of hand. The fan abuse—such as blasting ads at top volume between innings—has got to stop.

To me, this is the greatest game ever invented. We can’t let the greedheads ruin it.

Great thoughts, indeed.

Thank you so much Kevin. This was a great pleasure. I hope you come back to SSTN when the book about New York baseball is published. I can’t wait to talk more baseball with you.


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Start Spreading the News is the place for some of the very best analysis and insight focusing primarily on the New York Yankees.

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