SSTN Interviews Baseball Historian Skylar Browning
SSTN: Today we are here with author and baseball historian Skylar Browning. A long-time journalist and now the director of communications for a national real estate firm, Skylar is the author of Montana Baseball History.
Thanks for coming to Start Spreading the News. It is great to have this discussion with you.
I am truly flattered for the opportunity. Thanks again for asking.
To begin, please tell us how you became a baseball fan.
I played growing up—and actually still play now in a pretty serious adult league. But it was hard to be a fan growing up in the Washington, D.C., area. We didn’t have a team back then and I certainly wasn’t going to jump on the Baltimore bandwagon; that wasn’t my town. Even without a home team to follow, my father and grandfather used to take me to games—in Baltimore, local minor league games, one visit to the old Astrodome—and there was something about the sport, especially watching it in person, that stuck with me.
Now, please share with us the story of how you ended in Montana (you were an East Coast person) and your book Montana Baseball History.
I was working a corporate gig in D.C. during the day and in the evenings and weekends as a sports stringer for the Associated Press—pretty much my dream job, covering the Caps, Wizards, DC United, college hoops—when the University of Montana offered my wife a tenure track position as a dance professor. I honestly had to check a map to recall where Montana was located, but it didn’t really matter because this was pretty much *her* dream job. It turned out to be the best decision of our lives. We lived there for almost 20 years, met some amazing people, started our family and I landed in a great spot as the editor of a local weekly newspaper.
While working for the paper—and playing in a Sandlot-like baseball league—a teammate, Jeremy Watterson, kept peppering me in the dugout with random Montana-related baseball facts. I finally got him to help me channel all of that info into a cover story that we co-wrote for the paper focused on Montana’s connections to the Majors. The History Press saw the story and pitched us on a book, which sounded less daunting and more like a fun opportunity for me to keep writing about sports and dig up some pretty wild facts that tie Big Sky Country to the big leagues.
Montana isn’t necessarily known as a beacon for baseball, yet it has a rich history with the game. Some of baseball’s legendary players passed through Big Sky Country, including Jim Thorpe. Please tell us a little about Jim Thorpe in Montana.
Absolutely. Thorpe played for the town of Shelby in 1926 at a time when Montana’s top semi-pro teams could actually attract (read: pay) real talent in hopes of winning games and gaining bragging rights over neighboring towns. There’s not a ton of info about Thorpe’s time in Shelby—he sustained a season-ending injury in June—but we found a great photo of the team with Thorpe included. That’s a perfect example of the type of gem we uncovered while working on the book—and there are so many others. The year before Thorpe arrived in Shelby, two of the Black Sox ended up playing—and exceling—in the town of Scobey. Future Hall of Famer Clark Griffith loved playing in Montana so much early in his career that he purchased a family ranch just north of Helena. He later mortgaged that ranch to help buy the Senators. Joe Tinker, of “Tinker to Evers to Chance” fame, started his professional career in Great Falls. And of course there’s southpaw Dave McNally, the Billings native widely regarded as the best professional athlete from Montana, who won at least 20 games in four consecutive seasons and helped the Orioles win two championships. In 1970, Dave became the first—and, so far, only—pitcher to hit a grand slam during the World Series.
But maybe the most famous people to travel through Montana were Lewis and Clark. Did they play baseball on their epic journey?
They played a game known as “prison base,” or “prisoner’s base,” and notably introduced it to the Nez Perce (Nimi’ipuu) during their travels through the Bitterroot Mountains in central Idaho before pushing into Montana. There’s some debate over how closely this game resembled baseball; Ken Burns referred to it as a “new stick and ball game” in his documentary on the Corps of Discovery, but others think it was more like capture the flag.
How did you become involved in writing and journalism? What words of advice would you share with a young writer who wishes to follow your career path?
I knew as a kid that I wanted to work in journalism, so I set out early to collect as many bylines as I could. I wrote anything and everything for the high school paper. I freelanced for the small community paper covering high school sports. At college, I joined the school paper and freelanced as much as possible for local publications willing to take a chance on a kid. I found that if you consistently deliver clean copy, on time, with an eye for stuff that keeps it interesting, editors will keep your number close.
That approach never really changed for me. So my advice would be to get out there and do the work for whomever will pay you and showcase you. The more you produce, the more you’ll learn, the better you’ll get.
Please tell us about any current projects you are working on.
Does fixing my baseball swing count?
Why, do you believe, are people so drawn to baseball and its stories, legends, and people?
That’s a great question. I know for me it’s the history, the tradition, the timelessness of it. Living in Montana, where the minor leagues play such a prominent role, it was hard not to get tied up in the romanticism of kids chasing a dream—and, more recently, of how fragile and fraught that pursuit can be.
But I’m a sap for this stuff. Just for fun, I asked my almost 13-year-old son—a huge fan and burgeoning ballplayer himself—the same question. He said (paraphrasing here) that it’s because of how the game teaches us about failure, about perseverance, about teamwork and individual accountability, and how those lessons can be applied to everyday life. He added, “Plus, Juan Soto is just awesome.”
There’s a lot of talk about baseball needing to be “fixed.” Is baseball broken? If you were the Commissioner of Baseball what change(s) if any would you make to the current game?
I have a lot of thoughts on this—and, if I’m being honest, they scramble around often. Overall, I’m a purist, but not against change. I hate the idea of robot umps. I’d also lose video review. Yet, I think the pitch clock works. After seeing it in action during the Arizona Fall League, it doesn’t muck up the overall feel of the game and everything had a better flow.\
More than anything right now, if I were commissioner, I’d figure out the collective bargaining agreement and do whatever it takes to avoid a work stoppage.
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?
Not sure. I tend to be drawn to the more minor characters in the game, the guys not normally in the spotlight but who have some cool backstory or weird side hustle. That’s part of the reason I’ve enjoyed working on the SABR Bio Project. It seems like every ballplayer has a story.
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?
I watched Pedro pitch once in Fenway and, to this day, never seen professionals so consistently baffled.
Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…
What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
Honestly didn’t really have one. I went through a Dodgers phase in grade school and then adopted the Red Sox in college because my dorm was within walking distance to Fenway. Now, it’s the Nationals.
Who was your favorite player?
A tie between Orel Hershiser and Rickey Henderson.
What is your most prized collectible?
Either my 1912 Hassan Cigarettes tri-fold card featuring Walter Johnson or my 1953 Topps Satchel Paige, which is just a damn fine work of art.
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?
Please share anything else you’d like with our audience –
Here’s a cool thing that just happened this week: the state of Montana finally approved high school baseball as a sanctioned sport. For far too long American Legion ball has been the only option for local teenagers and, while Legion ball is fine, this will create opportunities for tons more kids. It’s a huge win for Montana and, of course, anything that grows the game is good.
Again, really honored you reached out. I honestly love any excuse to talk baseball.
Thank you, Skylar. Good luck with your baseball season.
Please keep in touch!