SSTN Interviews Author Lincoln Mitchell
SSTN: We are here with Lincoln Mitchell, author, columnist, and (very are very proud to say) a writer here at Start Spreading the News.
Lincoln has three published books thus far that focus on baseball. These are:
Lincoln, we are so glad to have the opportunity to talk about these writing ventures.
Thanks, Paul. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss my books and to talk a little baseball.
Please begin by telling us a little about each of your books.
My most recent book San Francisco Year Zero seeks to tell the story of 1978, which was an extraordinary and hugely important year in San Francisco.There was so much happening that year in San Francisco beyond the terrible tragedies in Jonestown and the Moscone-Milk assassinations and my book tries to capture that by weaving three strands, baseball, punk rock and politics, together. The nascent punk rock movement reshaped youth culture in San Francisco. The Giants had an unexpectedly great year which probably saved the team from moving to Denver. And, of course, the assassinations changed our city forever. These may seem like three separate stories, but by including all three I was more able to give a sense of what the city was like as well as why that year was so important. The book, which is written in an accessible almost journalistic style, includes anecdotes about that year and draws on interviews with many who were there. The biggest complaint I get about the book is that there is too much baseball, but I don’t think readers of this site will be upset about that. SFY0 is also about urban politics, social history and the emergence of an approach to governance in San Francisco which, whether we like it or not, combines social liberalism with pro-business policies. That is now how most major American cities are governed, but it arose out of the events of San Francisco in 1978. This is also my most personal book as I was a child in San Francisco in 1978, remember many of these events and went to a lot of Giants games that year.
The book I wrote before that was Baseball Goes West in which I sought to reexamine the move of the Dodgers and Giants to California. In that work, I propose that the dominant cultural narrative that the move west was the end of something-youth, innocence, the golden age of baseball or anything else, is completely wrong. Instead, I argue that the Dodgers and Giants moving to California helped create the MLB we know today and may have even saved the industry. This book is a baseball book with lots of stories about the great rivalry between the Dodgers and Giants, the players on those teams once they moved to California and about the changes in baseball over the last sixty years, but it I also about cities, memory and why some narratives remain so powerful.
My first baseball book, Will Big League Baseball Survive, was both an examination of how MLB as an institution developed into what it is today and a look at how MLB will need to adapt to changing economic, technological, political and communication contexts to survive into the 21st century. This book takes a social science approach to looking at baseball a different way. Like all my baseball books it is a hybrid of scholarship and social science with baseball storytelling.
Where can readers purchase copies of your books?
You can get my books at all the major online booksellers. San Francisco Year Zero is also sold at several Bay Area bookstores. Some of them may be reopening soon.
You write a great deal, for numerous outlets. You write about baseball, current events, and politics (among other topics). What is your favorite subject to write about?
When I describe myself as a writer, I say I write about US politics, foreign policy and baseball, but rarely at the same time. However, my favorite subjects involve somehow combining those topics. Writing about baseball, and MLB’s, history in other countries in Will Big League Baseball Survive or the intersection of baseball and urban history in some of my other work including San Francisco Year Zero is my favorite kind of writing.
Your writing seems to combine several different perspectives-fan, scholar etc. Could you please discuss that a bit.
I am not a sportswriter who has spent my professional life covering baseball games and teams, but I have followed the game closely for well over 40 years. A huge part of my approach to writing is that of a fan who loves the game and, like all fans, has my own quirky interests, passions and the like. Naturally, that is a big part of my perspective, but there is more to it than that. As a social scientist, I like to ask questions about historical or baseball events from that may not have been explored before. So, for example, my work on how globalization will affect MLB or how the unique politics of San Francisco had an impact on the history of the Giants, reflects that. I also like to probe what it means to be a fan and to write in a way that gives a voice to the fan. I hope that this comes through when I write about Yankees history, as I have been doing for almost a year on Start Spreading the News.
You have been a baseball fan since the 1970’s, growing up loving both the Yankees and the San Francisco Giants. Tell us how that mutual love came about.
My late brother and I were born in Manhattan and moved to San Francisco when we were very young. Our mother, who raised us, was a Yankees fan. Her parents had been Yankees fans, then switched to the Dodgers in the Jackie Robinson era, then back to the Yankees when the Dodgers left New York. For us, being Yankees fans was a big part of our identity in San Francisco. It connected us to our family in New York and in an odd way to our Jewish identity. We were the only Yankees fans, and only Jews, at our Catholic School so in our young minds those two things were linked.
We became Giants fans because they were the local team. I started going to games at Candlestick Park around 1977 when I was nine. The two teams were in different leagues and the Giants were generally not very good, so it was not much of a conflict. Also, when the Dodgers and Yankees played in the World Series in 1977, 1978 and 1981, all of our friends and classmates rooted for the Yankees too.
Other than your writing, your work has not been baseball related. What role had baseball played in your adult life.
If I was truthful about how much time I spend thinking or reading about baseball, watching old YouTube clips of ballgames, talking baseball online with friends, writing about the game or even just looking at old baseball statistics, even people very close to me would be surprised. Baseball has been a constant in my life for about 45 years. It is the one addiction I have never been able to break and is also my psychological comfort food.
As a Yankees and Giants fan, please take us through your thoughts and emotions at the time when you learned that Bobby Murcer and Bobby Bonds were traded for each other. (You might have been the only fan with a vested interest in both teams and both players.)
What a great question. This was a huge trade in both cities and for both teams. In San Francisco, Bonds was thought to be the better player, but there was also a sense that his best years as a Giant were behind him. Murcer was also an excellent player at the time of the trade, so there was some excitement about getting him. Murcer and Gary Matthews looked like they would be two thirds of a very good outfield.
Murcer is now remembered in San Francisco for just how much he disliked playing in Candlestick Park. I have spoken to teammates and team personnel from that era who still joke about how Murcer hated the ‘Stick. Not surprisingly, he was not happy in San Francisco. My sense on both these players is that they never really recovered from being traded from their first team. Murcer had the good fortune to spend the last years of his career back in pinstripes where he belonged, but Bonds never made it back to the Giants as a player. However, his son had some pretty good years wearing the orange and black.
A fun subplot of that trade is that neither player lasted very long with their new team, but both were traded for players who helped their new team a lot. The Yankees turned Murcer into Bonds and then Bonds into Ed Figueroa and Mickey Rivers. Those great Yankees teams of the late 1970s probably would not have been as good if they had not made that trade.
The Giants traded Murcer for Bill Madlock after the 1976 season. Madlock gave the Giants two excellent years, but then they foolishly traded him for Ed Whitson in 1979. Yankees fans may remember how disappointing Whitson was in New York, but he was no great shakes with the Giants either. That trade was a mistake, but they then traded Ed Whitson to the Indians following the 1981 season and got Duane Kuiper in return. Kuip was never great with the Giants, although he was a useful bench player. However, Kuip has been one of the best announcers in the game for the Giants for more than thirty years.
Here is a tough question – The Yankees and the Giants meet in the World Series. It’s Game 7…who do you want to win?
It really depends. My sense is that I would get a feel for that as the series progressed. It would depend on which team had gone the longest without a championship and which team’s story line grabbed me more. I know that is cop out. Sorry about that.
What is the most challenging part of writing a book and the publication process?
I find a lot of it challenging. Staring at a blank computer screen every time I start a new chapter is very difficult. Waiting for publishers to get back to me is very frustrating. Also, because I write for academic presses, I have to respond to outside reviewers who can be very helpful, very petty and frequently both.
Do you have any other works in process? Can you tell about these?
I am currently finishing a book on the San Francisco Giants from 1976-1992. The book will be about the Giants on the field during those years as well as the decade and a half struggle to stay in the city and find a new ballpark. The book begins in January of 1976 when the Toronto papers reported that the deal to move the Giants to Toronto had been finalized and ends in early 1993 when Bob Lurie sold the team to Peter Magowan.
I am also working on a biography of George Moscone. It is mostly about Moscone and the political history of San Francisco, but Moscone spent the first two months of his mayoralty working to find a way to stop the Giants from moving to Toronto, so there is a baseball angle too.
What moment in Yankees history deserves a fresh look or a book written about it?
There are not a lot of good books about the pre-Babe Ruth era Yankees, but I am not really interested enough to write that book. One period that interests me more is the early 1970s. The Yankees had this great young nucleus of Murcer, Thurman Munson, Roy White and Ron Blomberg, but they never won the division despite contending in 1972, coming close in 1974 and winning 93 games in 1970. Those teams are interesting to me because it was right before I became a fan. In the Yankees narrative, those are treated as lost years, but the team was actually pretty good and had some fun players.
You have been a baseball fan your entire life. 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 player you ever saw?
The most exciting player I ever saw was Rickey Henderson in 1980 and 1981. I used to go out to Oakland to see him, particularly when the Yankees were in town. Rickey would draw a walk and you just knew he was going to steal. It was great to watch. He was also a wonderful defender at that time, although Dwayne Murphy, who played centerfield on that A’s team, was better. I always rooted for the Yankees, but Henderson was very fun to watch.
The greatest one game performance I ever saw in person was Greg Maddux in game two of the 1996 World Series. I was not happy with the outcome, but he was absolutely masterful that day.
The greatest player I ever saw was Barry Bonds. Even before the PED period, he could do absolutely everything on the ballfield. Later in his career, when he was probably using steroids, he created problems for himself because he was simply too good. Barry Bonds hit more home runs off of pitchers who were using steroids than anybody in history.
Our final question is really just a collection of short answers:
We already know that you grew up rooting for the Yankees and the Giants. Did you have other sports or teams that you rooted for?
I have been a 49ers fan since the OJ Simpson days and a Warriors fan pretty much my whole life. However, I pay very little attention to football or basketball.
Who was your favorite player?
My favorite Giant was Willie McCovey.
My favorite Yankee was either Thurman Munson or Reggie Jackson. I know they feuded with each other, but I liked both of them.
What is your most prized collectible?
Before the 1974 season, the San Diego Padres were thought to be moving to Washington. Topps wasn’t sure if they would move or what the new name would be, so they printed two sets of cards for the players on the Padres. One that said San Diego Padres and one simply Washington “Nat’l Lea” with the quotation marks. My most prized collectible is the Willie McCovey card from that second set. It is not worth much, but it is my favorite player in this very strange moment in baseball history. I also cherish the handful of Croix de Candlestick I earned by freezing my tuchus off through the end of extra inning night games at Candlestick Park.
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
It is tough to pick one, but I am going to go with Bob Dylan. I am not a huge fan of his most recent work, but his first quarter century or so of songwriting is so smart, sublime, funny and powerful. Also, he wrote a great and somewhat forgotten song about one of my favorite pitchers ever-Catfish Hunter. I couldn’t find a link to Dylan singing that song, but here is Joe Cocker covering it.
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?
I love most Asian cuisines, but my favorite is Chinese. I traveled and lived in China when I was in college in the 1980s so was able to enjoy lots of regional cuisines of China and to appreciate the diversity of Chinese food. Fortunately, in the last decade or so many good restaurants from different parts of China have opened here in the US. If we can ever go to restaurants again, there are a few Chinese places I will go to right away here in New York and on my next trip to San Francisco.
Please share anything else you’d like with our audience –
I have one weird writing tip that might be helpful for people who are writing books. Like many authors, I have to balance my book projects with other work. In my case that is teaching, consulting and other writing projects. This means that I often have to pick up after a day or sometimes weeks of not working on the book. So, I try to break off writing for the day in the middle of a paragraph or sometimes even a sentence. The reason for that is that I find it easier to remember how to finish a thought, which then flows smoothly into the next one, rather than pick up anew and start a different paragraph.
That is fantastic advice.
Thank you so much for sharing so much about writing, your love of the Yankees (and the Giants), and so much more!