SSTN Interviews Author Ron Kaplan
SSTN: Today we are here with Ron Kaplan the author of Hank Greenberg in 1938: Hatred and Home Runs in the Shadow of War and 501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read Before They Die among other works. He also runs the outstanding blog “Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf.”
Ron, it is great to have this discussion with you. Thanks for coming to Start Spreading the News.
It’s a pleasure to be here, thanks for having me.
I have a lot of questions to ask you, but I can’t resist by starting the interview by asking the biggest question on my mind – of the 501 best baseball books, which is your personal favorite?
Of course, that was published in 2013 and there have been a number of great books since then, so I’ll give two answers. Within 501, I think The Tao of Baseball by Go would be my favorite. It combines baseball with a bit of philosophy which is another interest.
Since then I would say The Last Innocents: The Collision of the Turbulent Sixties and the Los Angeles Dodgers by Michael Lehy, published in 2016. It really humanizes some members of that team in a way you rarely see.
Have you read all 501 of the books in your text? If so, that’s amazing. What do you feel makes a book great?
I have; I wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending them if I hadn’t. One of the things I stress is that there are so many aspects of life, if you’ll pardon the cliché, in baseball. There’s history, sociology, math and statistics, fiction, pop culture, you name it.
What really makes a good book? Having a good editor. I’ve seen a lot of books that seem to have been overseen by people who knew nothing about baseball and because of that, a number of factual errors slipped through. And as soon as I see one of those, I have to wonder what else might be wrong.
Outside of baseball, and even sports, who are some of your favorite authors and/or books?
David Halberstam, who did write some great baseball books. David McCullough. Historians who can tell a story in addition to laying down facts. Sometimes I think authors like to show off how much research they’ve done on their projects. That’s all well and good, but if you can’t tell a good story, it’s a loss. I also like books on etymology, movies, and television. I prefer “almanac”-type volumes to single topic titles unless it’s a movie or show I am really into.
You also wrote a great book about the great Hank Greenberg and the 1938 season. Before we get to that season, can you share with us the story of how Hank Greenberg almost became a Yankee and why he did not wear the pinstripes?
Greenberg was born and bred in New York so it would have been a great coup for one of the local teams to have a really good Jewish player on their roster. He actually had a tryout for the Giants, but manager John McGraw thought he was too awkward. He did have a chance to sign with the Yankees. They brought him out to the ballpark where he watched Lou Gehrig playing his position of first base and knew the odds of him taking over for the “Iron Horse” were slim and that he’d probably languish in the minors. So when the Tigers came along and told him it would be a shorter time until he was brought up, he grabbed it.
Please tell us about that 1938 season for Hank Greenberg and his chase of Babe Ruth’s season home run record.
The Tigers were not having a good season in 1938, even though some of the players were doing well individually, including Greenberg. No one took much notice but his home runs began to accumulate. After the All Star Game, some members of the media saw that he was approaching Ruth’s mark. Pretty soon they were running side-by-side comparisons. As the season entered the final months, the pressure was really on. I don’t recall the number, but he lost opportunities because some games were called on account of darkness. Then there was chatter that some didn’t want a Jew to break such a hallowed record. Greenberg, one of the great menches of the game, always downplayed that idea.
Please share with us one little known fact about Hank Greenberg that you uncovered in your research.
Greenberg was a real clothes-horse and spent a lot of money — relative to the salary of the day — on his attire.
Did you have to edit out any stories about Hank Greenberg that you wish you had been able to keep in the book?
One of the difficulties in a book like this was that there were no relevant people left to interview so all the information came from newspapers so there wasn’t a lot of fat that needed trimming.
When we write and research, we learn. What was the biggest lesson you learned in writing this book?
How important it is to network. I was fortunate to have several public libraries in towns that hosted teams at the time grant me virtual access to their newspaper archives , saving me a lot of time, travel, and expense.
Do you have other works in process? Please tell us about them.
I’m actually trying to get a revised edition of 501 done (the original publisher has declined the idea so I’m on the hunt for another one). I have a couple of other ideas that would be much more involved and time is an issue.
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?
Between Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle and the franchise’s general success, I think they’re pretty well covered. There’s a passage from The Baseball Uncyclopedia: A Highly Opinionated, Myth-Busting Guide to the Great American Game by authors Michael Kun and Howard Bloom that sums it up:
“Books about the Yankees. Books about the Red Sox. Books about the Yankees and the Red Sox. Books about players who played for the Yankees. Books about players who played for the Red Sox. Books about players who played for the Yankees and the Red Sox. And, depending upon where you live, a book or two about your local team.”
What I would love to see is a Sandy Koufax memoir but given his reticence, I doubt that will happen.
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?
To be very honest, no one jumps to mind, and I must admit I’ve never really thought about it in those terms. I was at a Mets game at Shea Stadium and missed catching two home runs by Hank Aaron by a couple of rows. He would have to be right up there. Roberto Clemente, too; guys who could do it all. And Koufax, of course. Imagine what he might have done with another five years. These days I love watching Jacob DeGrom pitch. Too bad he rarely seems to get a lot of support, either from the offense or the bullpen. In years to come, I don’t know how players will be rated, given the slew of new metrics. Pitcher wins don’t seem to have the same weight they once did.
Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…
What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
The Mets and the Montreal Expos, since that’s where my mother came from and we made frequent visits there.
Who was your favorite player?
Contemporary: Koufax. Historic: Greenberg and Ted Williams — and players like them — for their ability to miss several years to the war but still come back to have Hall of Fame careers (Yogi Berra, Bob Feller, Warren Spahn, et al).
What is your most prized collectible?
I have a photo of me with Koufax at a business function in the 80s. I must admit I snuck up on him, having prearranged the shot with the photographer. He looks like a deer in headlights, but it makes for a good story.
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
Leon Redbone. His voice and repertoire — mostly songs from the twenties and thirties — are right up my alley.
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?
Tom Ka soup, a combination of coconut milk and Thai seasonings.
Please share anything else you’d like with our audience –
I’d like to give a shout-out to the Pandemic Baseball Book Club (pbbc.com), a group of authors who seized the pandemic moment to create a supportive group that manages to get the words out about their books given that the usual opportunities of author appearances, signings, etc., are not available at the moment. Conversely, I feel sorry for the ballplayers in the final stages of their careers who lost what might have been their last hurrahs.
Great stuff Ron. Thank you so much for joining us here. It’s been a great pleasure. Keep writing and keep up the great work.