SSTN Interviews Author Lyle Spatz
SSTN: Today we are here with renowned author Lyle Spatz who has written thirteen books about baseball, many focusing on the New York Yankees including The Colonel and Hug, New York Yankees Openers, Yankees Coming, Yankees Going, and Comeback Pitchers (his newest book, coming out on April 1).
Lyle has been a SABR member since 1973 and was chairman of SABR’s was Chairman of SABR’s Records Committee from 1991 through 2016.
In addition to the books previously cited he has written The Historical Dictionary of Baseball, New York Yankees Openers: An Opening Day History of Baseball’s Most Famous Team, 1903-2017; and biographies of four Brooklyn Dodgers legends: Bill Dahlen, Willie Keeler, Dixie Walker, and Hugh Casey.
Lyle was also the editor of The Team That Forever Changed Baseball and America: The 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers; Bridging Two Dynasties: The 1947 New York Yankees; and The SABR Baseball List and Record Book.
Lyle, it is great to have this discussion with you. Thanks for coming to Start Spreading the News.
You are welcome, Paul. Thank you for having me.
You are a prolific author who has focused a great deal on New York City baseball and baseball in the first half of the 1900’s. What draws you to these topics?
I was born and reared in New York City and came of baseball age in 1946, just as New York was entering its Golden Age. The history of the game has always fascinated me, and it seems each year my interest in the current game lessens, and my interest in baseball’s early days grow.
Please tell us about your newest book Comeback Pitchers, a book you wrote in collaboration with Steve Steinberg. (Please also tell us a little about the collaboration process.)
Comeback Pitchers is the dual biography of two pitchers, Jack Quinn and Howard Ehmke, who were active in the first third of the 20th century. While very different men in almost every way, they had one thing in common—perseverance. Both were told repeatedly that they were either too old (Quinn) or no longer had the ability (Ehmke) to pitch at the major league level. Yet Quinn pitched until he was 50 and for decades held the record as the oldest man to win a game). Ehmke’s win in the opener of the 1929 World Series was perhaps the most surprising World Series win ever.
Steve lives in the Northwest corner of the country, and I live in the Southeast corner, but we were able to email our drafts across this vast distance just as if we lived next door. No matter what chapters Steve wrote or I wrote, the copy went back and forth between us many, many times until we were satisfied. We established this pattern in our first book, and have continued it through the next two, and now as we begin our fourth. Our goal has always been to “speak in one voice,” and from what many readers have told us, we have been able to accomplish that.
Collaborating on a book with someone you see maybe once a year presents some interesting challenges. In addition to the three-hour time difference, we have much different body clocks. Steve is a night-owl, and I’m an early riser. I believe many days he is going to bed shortly before I am waking up. We also have different personalities. Steve is a Type A and I’m a Type B. This, as it turned out, is not a bad thing. Moreover, we never had a serious disagreement on any phase of the project. We began as acquaintances and ended as friends, something I am told doesn’t happen very often.
That book sounds great. I will be picking up a copy! You also wrote a book about early Yankees great (he was a Highlander, of course) Willie Keeler. He’s always been one of my favorite all-time players. How would you describe Keeler to the fans of today? Which players of today (if any) would he be most like?
In my research I found newspapers referring to the club as the “Yankees” as early as 1904, and that’s how I always refer to them. Because Keeler played for the Yankees from 1903 to 1909, to me he played all but one of his American league seasons as a Yankee.
If you ask the average baseball fan what comes to mind when he hears the name Willie Keeler, he will likely say, “hit ‘em where they ain’t.” It’s a phrase whose usage has gone far beyond baseball and become a part of the American lexicon. Keeler was one of those quick-thinking adept batsmen who opened the door for the undersized ballplayer. He was the smallest big man of baseball, whose peers in batting were men physically equipped as he was not. Besides being small, he in no other way resembled the heavy hitters of his day. He choked up so much on his small bat that just about a foot of it was used as the hitting surface. His onetime Orioles teammate John McGraw called him the greatest player of all time, with the possible exception of Ty Cobb. “He was the most expert batter I ever saw. There was nothing he could not do in place hitting,” McGraw said. “He was the fastest man I ever saw on the bases and one of the headiest base runners.”
Early in this century there was a renewed interest in Keeler because of the spectacular career of Ichiro Suzuki. Not since Keeler did it a century earlier, had anyone been so successful as Ichiro was at “hitting ‘em where they ain’t” and beating out infield hits. Unlike many players, Ichiro has an interest in baseball history and had gotten interested
in Keeler as he chased several of Willie’s records. He came to appreciate what Keeler had accomplished and as a show of respect visited Keeler’s grave.
Many years ago, I purchased Yankees Coming, Yankees Going a thoroughly detailed book outlining ever single Yankees transaction (through 1999). I use this as a resource often. It is an amazing text. Do you have plans to update this text?
My first book was New York Yankee Openers, which ended with the 1996 opener. A few years ago, McFarland asked if I would like to add the openers played since, which I did, and the book now goes through the 2017 opener. There are no plans at present to update Yankees Coming, Yankees Going.
What projects are you working on today?
Steve Steinberg and I have begun work on a biography of Mike Donlin. Donlin was a star outfielder for several teams in the early 20th century, most notably the New York Giants. He was the most popular player in New York (even more so than Christy Mathewson) until Babe Ruth came along. He married vaudeville star Mabel Hite, and quit baseball for several years to tour with Mabel.
When we research and write, we learn. What has been the biggest lesson you have learned through your writing?
Through research and writing, as well as through my years with the Records Committee, I learned never to trust someone’s memory. Their” facts” must be checked and double-checked for accuracy. Here are a couple of Yankees-related examples.
On September 19, 1968, Mickey Mantle hit his 535th home run off Denny McLain, passing Jimmie Foxx for third place on the all-time list. According to McLain’s own words in his autobiography, plus eyewitness testimony of many others, McLain says he “grooved” the pitch for Mantle, and that he told catcher Bill Freehan to let Mickey know it was coming. Maybe he did “groove” the pitch, but Bill Freehan did not play in this game! Detroit’s catcher that day was Jimmy Price.
The March 26, 2002 Boston Globe carried this quote by Rickey Henderson “One year, Don Mattingly drove me in 79 times.” Not quite. In the four seasons they were teammates, Mattingly drove Henderson in 50 times in 1985, 37 times in 1986, 21 times in 1987, and 34 times in 1988.
What has been the biggest lesson that you learned from baseball?
There are two.
Long before Bart Giamatti said it, I learned that, “Baseball can break your heart.” That lesson came on October 3, 1951.
Also, that baseball is a game only to the fans. To everyone else, players, managers, front-office people, and especially to owners. it’s a business. The National League’s decision to move two of its flagship franchises out of New York in 1958 forever changed the way I view the game.
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?
The 1948 season in New York, which helped lay the foundation for the city’s Golden Age. Maybe I’ll do it someday.
What are some of your favorite baseball books that you have read?
Seasons Past, The Celebrant, Baseball’s Great Experiment, Boys of Summer, Bums, and the Roger Angell books.
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 (at any level)?
Willie Mays was the best player I ever saw. But the most exciting was Jackie Robinson, whom I was fortunate enough to watch live many times throughout his career and innumerable times on television.
Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…
What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
Who was your favorite player?
Dixie Walker and Pete Reiser as a child; Duke Snider and Gil Hodges as a teenager; Harold Baines and Ken Singleton as an adult.
What is your most prized collectible?
I was never a collector. When I was a kid going to Ebbets Field, my friends and I would wait after the game to get players’ autographs. But for me it was just an excuse to talk to the players. I never kept the autographs, though I do regret not keeping the scorecards they were written on.
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
Puccini, Chopin, Yo-Yo Ma, The Great American Song Book
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?
Maryland crab cakes.
Favorite pizza restaurant is Ledo’s in Maryland.
Please share anything else you’d like with our audience –
To paraphrase Robert Creamer, “you know you are old when your present is most people’s past.” That is certainly true of me. I am part of a dwindling demographic who saw baseball in person before he saw it on television. Like many fans, I think the best years of baseball were the ones when I was 10-16, or so.
I seldom watch baseball any more because of the way it is played now, and because of the showboating and histrionic celebrations that take place throughout the game. I just can’t imagine Reese and Robinson, or DiMaggio and Henrich, to name just two examples, jumping up and bumping asses after a win.
Lyle, thank you so very much. This was so great!!! I appreciate your honesty and perspectives.
I look forward to continuing to read your wonderful books and look forward to the newest one… and the ones to come!