SSTN Interviews Author Mark Armour
SSTN: Today we are here with Mark Armour. Mark is the President of SABR’s Board of Directors and is the founder and longtime (2002-2016) director of SABR’s Baseball Biography Project. He was the recipient of SABR’s highest honor, the Bob Davids Award, in 2008. He also earned the Henry Chadwick Award, honoring baseball’s greatest researchers, in 2014.
Mark’s book Joe Cronin: A Life in Baseball, published by the University of Nebraska Press, was a finalist for the prestigious Seymour Medal in 2011, as was In Pursuit of Pennants, also published by Nebraska, which he co-wrote with Dan Levitt in 2015. Mark has written or co-written several other books and many articles for publication.
In 2016, he and Chris Dial resurrected SABR’s Baseball Cards Committee.
Mark, it is great to have this discussion with you. Thanks for coming to Start Spreading the News.
You are welcome Paul. Always fun to talk baseball, and I love your blog.
You are highly credentialed and a leader in SABR. Please tell us a little about this wonderful organization.
We are actually celebrating our 50th anniversary this year. The organization was started in 1971 by people who wanted to exchange research ideas and collaborate in filling in the historical record of the game.
A lot of that work is still ongoing, but now we have 6,500 members who have formed chapters all over the country and research everything from ballpark fence distances, to the histories of nearly forgotten minor leagues, to the history of the bullpen cart. But mostly we just get together and talk about baseball — there are a lot of ways to love baseball, and I am confident that if you love baseball you will find people who love it the way you do. And you will learn from people who love it a different way.
I encourage your readers to join us, as you have: https://sabr.org/community/
SABR is one of baseball’s most impressive fraternities of experts. Please tell us a little about how a regular fan might get involved with SABR.
Joining is easy — there are annual dues, but once you have joined all members are created equal. You should join your local chapter (this will probably happen automatically) and then look for email about upcoming events in your area (currently on Zoom, but soon in person).
You can also feel free to join whatever committees interest you (Negro Leagues? 19th Century? The BioProject? Women in Baseball?) and you will hear from them as well.
It is OK to jump in and volunteer to give a presentation right away, and it is also OK (and more common) to just come to listen to others for a while until you get your bearings. Hopefully the meetings will provide opportunities to socialize with the other attendees, and participate in round table discussions about the local ballclub.
We are good people, and we really would be better if you joined.
As someone who loves baseball, I write about baseball each day, I read a ton about baseball… like so many, I live and breathe the sport… I love the Baseball Biography Project. Please tell us how you came up with that idea and how it has grown.
SABR had done a few books of biographical articles (two on stars of the 19th century), and was planning a two volume set on stars of the Deadball era. One of my pet issues at the time (early 2000s) was that SABR needed to publish real content on its website (not just news and calendar info). Those two ideas came together, and I proposed (I was not part of management) that SABR create a project that would allow *any* subject, and we would publish them all on the internet.
My main job at the start was to create a process whereby a bio would be assigned, and then later edited and posted. Other smart people designed the web site to host them all. The process has gotten better, and the quality of the biographies has improved as writers, editors, and fact checkers have gotten better.
There are a very large number of people — dozens of people — who have spent many hours on this project behind the scenes so that the authors’ works can be presented. I am very proud of the project and the work I put in, but the best test was that the project did not need me. I have been out of management for four years, and the project is doing as well as ever. There are now over 5,000 biographies on the site, and they are adding more than a bio a day.
I must add that it is a great project to write for. It is a great way to get your name in lights, perhaps forever!
You write a lot about baseball cards. Which sets are your favorites? What is the most cherished card in your collection?
I began collecting as a kid–my first year was 1967, when I was 6. Most of my love of baseball cards is nostalgia, and I like cards that remind me of being a kid. My favorite set remains 1967, a stance I say is based on logical principles but I acknowledge the weird “coincidence” that it happens to be my first.
My favorite cards change a lot, but one that never goes away for me is the 1967 Willie Mays. When I first fell in love with cards, I had no idea who any of the players and teams were, and I learned about both from the cards. My father looked through my new cards one days and showed me the Mays and said “This guy is really good.” That might have been my first lesson in baseball history.
Please tell us a little about the collaborative writing process. You have often co-authored books with Dan Levitt, who we have also featured here on SSTN.
How do you put a book together with a writing partner?
Dan and I are good friends, but the key element of our collaboration is that we respect each other as writers and thinkers. If Dan writes something that I believe is wrong or not well fleshed out, I will tell him and feel confident that we will talk it through and come to agree. If he tells the same to me, I figure that either he is right, or that he is right enough that I need to step back and reconsider.
For the books that we have done, we start by designing the table of contents and dividing up the chapters. When one of my chapters is done I send it to Dan, and he suggests changes or revises paragraphs himself, and we go back and forth with it.
I am not sure that I could work with many people this way. You need to be able to freely critique each other without fear of ego.
Please tell us about your book on Joe Cronin. (I know we’re a Yankees site, but I have a special affinity for the Red Sox as my dad is a Red Sox fan dating back to 1946 who adored Joe Cronin and especially Ted Williams.)
I am a Red Sox guy, but I was drawn to Cronin at first because of his role as president of the American League (1959-1973). I did a lot of research into this period (expansions, relocations, the beginning of the labor battles, etc.) and Cronin was part of all these stories. When you add that to this great playing career, managing some of history’s most famous (title-less) teams, his job as GM at a time when his team did not integrate, the story just became too big to ignore. He was everywhere. He wrote the DH rule. He was a player-manager at 26.
Cronin was rarely the most important person in any of these stories, but he was in all of them. The story that emerges is of a guy who was well-liked and therefore kept getting better jobs. He was never fired–he just kept getting more power. He knew everyone. Between baseball seasons, he went to dozens of baseball banquets to hang out with baseball people more.
The book is largely about baseball from 1925-1975, starring a guy who was there for all of it.
Do you have any great Ted Williams’ stories you can share?
Cronin was Ted’s first manager, and they loved each other until the day Cronin died. Williams could be a pain in the ass to outsiders, but his teammates, opponents, and managers loved him, and vice versa. Joe McCarthy and Ted also loved each other. According to Cronin, he showed up on time, never missed a bus, did everything he was ever asked to do. What’s not to like?
They were polar opposites in many ways. Williams, as Richard Ben Cramer once wrote, craved fame but recoiled at celebrity. Williams would walk off the field after the final game of the season, get dressed, and no one would see him again until spring training.
My favorite Williams story is actually a Yogi story. Some rookie Yankee left-hander was going over the Red Sox lineup with Berra, and when he got to Williams he said “For strong left-handed hitters, I like to start with a fastball up-and-in and then throw a slider low and away to get him to chase.” Yogi says, “The count is now 2 and 0, what’s your plan?” Whether it is true or not I can’t prove, but I want it to be true and it shows the genius of both Ted and Yogi so I’m sticking with it.
You have also published books on successful teams. What do you believe are the most basic core characteristics that talented teams need in order to become champions?
Nothing revelatory, but is nearly impossible to win without a strong group of young home grown players. The baseball salary structure means that great young players are underpaid. If your core is a group of 30 year old stars, you might need a $250 million payroll. The great Yankee teams of a generation ago are a perfect example: their best players were generally young and (relatively) underpaid in the late 1990s, and they used the free market to fill in the roster. Once they had to pay their great core, their team payrolls skyrocketed and staying ahead of the pack was much harder.
Analysts estimate that a win in the free market costs $8M, maybe as much as $10M. The WAR baseline is 47 wins, so a team needs roughly 50 WAR to get to the post-season. So this will cost $400-500M/year if you use the free market to get all your players. Good luck!
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?
One of the lessons I learned from the BioProject is that most baseball players are not interesting enough to warrant an entire book. This is not meant to criticize. No one’s writing a book about me either!
The other problem is that the best memoirs are from people who are willing to risk their own place in the game. Jim Bouton made enemies. Sparky Lyle too. These were good books.
I would love to read a Roy White memoir, but I would want him to be honest and candid about what it was like to be a black player in the minors in the 1960s, coming up in New York, working for Houk and MacPhail and Burke, the coming of Steinbrenner, getting to the Series. It could be a great story, but only if he was honest about how it felt to be the best player on a .500 team and then a role player on a great team. What was the Bronx Zoo like for someone who was not one of the main actors? I loved White as a player, but what was it REALLY LIKE? Someone else could write a White bio, but you’d need him to talk a lot.
For the more modern Yankees, I suspect the most interesting guy would be Bernie Williams. Is he going to write an honest book? I suspect not. I’d buy it though.
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?
Counting watching on TV, the best player was probably Joe Morgan in the mid-1970s. (I am too young for Mays.) He could do essentially everything, and I give bonus points for how cool he looked doing it. (Mookie Betts is similar). Counting players that I actually saw in person many times, it was probably Griffey. (I saw Bonds a few times, too, though Griffey a lot more).
Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…
What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
The Boston Red Sox. The 1970s Red Sox are still my team, and much more important than the teams that won in the 2000s.
Who was your favorite player?
Carl Yastrzemski was my first favorite, though I gravitated more to Luis Tiant by the time I was a teenager.
What is your most prized collectible?
I have a big collection of vintage baseball cards, including some that are quite valuable (1952 Jackie Robinson, for example). I don’t collect for monetary value, so my favorite item might be the personalized autograph John F. Kennedy (then a US Senator) gave to my mother (then in high school) in 1953. It hangs in my office.
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
The correct answer is Bob Dylan, though I suspect the artist I have listened to the most is Elvis Costello (first four records, especially). That is probably the closest to what I want music to be.
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?
Every time I get to New York (not often enough) I go to Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, I want my pizza to be prepared like that and taste like that, and most pizza doesn’t measure up. Setting that aside, my favorite food is a nice piece of fish.
Please share anything else you’d like with our audience –
My favorite activity in the world is still attending a ballgame with friends and laughing the day away. This has not happened since September 2019, and I am getting grouchy. Fingers crossed that I will see many of you at a ballpark soon.
Mark, thank you, so very much, for joining us here. It was great to talk baseball with you.
Please keep in touch.
My continued best to you – always!