SSTN Interviews Bruce Reaves Coleman
SSTN: Today we are here with Bruce Reaves Coleman, author of True Stars of the Major Leagues, and who is a lifelong student of baseball history, All-Star Games, the Baseball Hall of Fame, baseball cards, baseball board games, and so much more. Bruce is also a member of SABR.
Thanks for coming to Start Spreading the News. It is great to have this discussion with you.
Thanks so much for asking me to participate, Paul – it’s always great to talk about our favorite sport and it’s an honor for me to be included on your informative and entertaining site.🙂
To begin, please tell us how you became a baseball fan.
I always enjoyed playing T-ball with my buddies in elementary school, but I became a true fan on April 8, 1974. I was 7 at the time, and after supper I was busy throwing a tennis ball up on the roof of our house and catching it when it bounced down. My Mom was under strict orders to call me in when Hank Aaron came to bat. The first time she called me, I was too involved in my game of roof ball and missed his time at bat, so the second time she called, I made a bee-line for the TV and got to witness history. At the time, I could probably only tell you the names of about a dozen baseball players, but Hank Aaron was my first hero.
I love books that look at players in the Hall of Fame, and who are not yet in, and that determine who is worthy of this honor, as your book does while also looking at All-Star selections. Who do you feel are the most worthy players who have not yet been elected to the Hall of Fame?
Many of the players I listed in True Stars as deserving of the Hall of Fame have since been voted in, and I’m grateful for that. Yet some still have escaped Cooperstown enshrinement. I continue to be mystified by Pete Browning’s exclusion. The original Louisville Slugger was a three-time batting champ in the old American Association – which was a Major League in its day – and is in baseball’s top 20 for career batting average. Then there’s Tommy John, who was only a dozen wins shy of the seemingly “automatic” 300-win club, for whom the elbow ligament surgery so prevalent among pitchers today is named. And to my mind, the best third baseman not in the Hall today is Ken Boyer of the Cardinals, an all-star selection in seven seasons who finished among the top 10 MVP candidates in his league four different times, winning once. At a position that is perhaps the most under-represented in Cooperstown, Boyer should have been a slam-dunk years ago.
I have always been a big fan of Graig Nettles. Most people don’t know this, but he twice led the entire American League positional players in WAR for a season. If he had won MVP’s in those years, he might be in the Hall of Fame today. Do you think he belongs in the Hall? Please allow me to throw a few more Yankee names at you: Thurman Munson, Ron Guidry, Tommy John, Don Mattingly. Are any of them Hall-of-Fame worthy?
Nettles is similar to Boyer in that he was a six-time all-star who garnered Top 10 MVP support in three different years. His career was much longer and he was a true run producer, banging out almost 400 homers and driving in more than 1300. I think voters have been too caught up in Nettles career batting average. Again, playing a position that is so under-represented, Nettles should have received more support. Obviously, the Yankees, as a whole, have more Hall of Famers than any other team in baseball, so it’s hard to make the argument than any have been overlooked. But to me, Thurman Munson and John (see my earlier answer) should have been inducted years ago. I understand Mattingly’s plight – voters say his period of sustained excellence was just short of enshrinement – but to me, you’ve got to look at the overall impact of that excellence. Sandy Koufax really had only six years of true dominance. Couldn’t the same be said of Mattingly? As for Louisiana Lightning, he essentially had two careers – and both were excellent. His earlier days – especially in the late seventies – he was pretty much untouchable. Then in the eighties, after he had learned the art of pitching, he became masterful in a much different way.
You’re an expert on baseball cards. Which are your favorite sets of all time? (My son is working to build the entire 1959 Topps set. He’s about 40% there!)
That’s a great start to a tough set! I think everyone is partial to the sets they remember most when they were growing up, and I’m no different. I love the Topps sets of the mid-seventies, with all the colorful and iconic border images accompanying readable names. Cards then were made to be handled, sorted, flipped, traded – and the team names were more important than the player names. Later on, cards were made to be opened and immediately placed into sheets or plastic holders, never to be touched again, and that had an impact on their design. Plus the explosion of speculative collectors brought on a bevy of gimmicks and companies that didn’t last. Although I do tip my hat to Upper Deck for raising everyone’s game in the nineties, I have to say that Topps will always be my preference. They’re the “set of record” for the game – sort of like The Sporting News was back when you got it in the mail every week and could search through a week’s worth of box scores in one sitting. As for the specific set, I’m partial to 1965 – I love the team names in the pennant and the secondary colors – the 1972, of course – no greater representation of the Seventies in cardboard – and the 1977 – more for the backs, where all of the players’ info is displayed on a “scoreboard.”
How can we make sure that the All-Star Game is a showcase of the best players each season?
To be frank, it’s impossible, because the best players of the season might not be having the best first half of the season, which is when the game is played. Take Austin Riley of the Braves, for example. He was clearly one of the best third basemen in the National League (why am I talking about hot corner men so much today?), but he didn’t really take over at that level until after the break. You could reward him by putting him on the team next year, but his first half might be lousy. So the only way to make sure only the best players can make the team is to have the game at the conclusion of the season, which is not conducive to showcasing the sport or to having 100 percent participation.
Please tell us about your experience with table top baseball games. Which do you think is the best? What makes that game stand out above the others?
I grew up in the days when you had to rely on the Saturday Game of the Week or Monday Night Baseball to get your Big League fix, so there was plenty of time to make up your own games, whether whiffle ball in the back yard or on the table top. The first one I tried as a kid was Sports Illustrated Superstar Baseball, which let me choose teams and run the league on my own and keep box scores of games. In addition, I learned about the history of the game – who were the best players, what were their tendencies. It expanded my baseball universe and got me interested in the history of the sport. To me, it was the best introduction to board games. Then I went to Statis Pro Baseball, which allowed you to play games using players from the previous season. Of course, I played Strat-o-Matic as well, but I found it to be just a bit too involved. There was no way I could play a full slate of Big League games in a single summer day. So I gravitated back to Statis Pro.
Why, do you believe, are people so drawn to baseball and its stories, legends, and people?
Baseball is a reflection of daily American life, the struggles and triumphs, the bad parts and the good parts. It’s played every day, so you don’t have to wait until the weekend for the drama on the diamond to unfold. It has a rich history, just like our nation. There are disputes and reconciliations – such as the current lockout and the history of labor relations in the game. There are struggles for civil rights. I had no idea what Hank Aaron was going through when I watched him pass Babe Ruth – I only learned about it years later. He became my hero for what he accomplished and the way he accomplished it – with real class. But here we are in 2022, and we’re just now recognizing some of the Negro League players as being fully Major League Baseball players. So baseball is a compelling, complex, uniquely American story that’s been written by preceding generations and is still being written, with plot twists and characters and storylines that appeal to many different tastes.
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?
In a way, you could actually say that baseball has never been more popular. I can watch any game I choose at any time anywhere. Kids as young as 8 play travel ball almost year round. College Baseball has never been bigger. The playing fields at most minor league ballparks are finer than major league fields of decades past. The best players make salaries that millionaire players as recently as the 1990s could only dream of. Fantasy baseball leagues are omnipresent, the world of statistics have exploded, and modern ballparks allow all manner of creature comfort to fans. The only changes I would make to the current game lie in the rules that, while initially well intended, have become a problem for the sport. First, I’d get rid of instant replay entirely. I’d rather have the guy stationed two feet away from the action blow the call than the guy sitting in a studio thousands of miles away in New York. Replay ruins the pace of the game and kills all momentum, let alone makes the game drag on incessantly. Victimized by a blown call? Argue your case, get run, and go on with the game. Better luck next time. Second, I’d get rid of the designated hitter. Those who complain that they don’t want to see a pitcher bat don’t seem to understand the value a good situational-hitting pitcher can be on a team, and relief pitchers seldom bat anyway. It also forces a team to carry a full complement of position players to use as possible pinch hitters, rather than carrying 10 or 11 relief pitchers. And third, I’d get rid of the rule that a relief pitcher has to face three batters unless he is able to end an inning. Rules shouldn’t dictate how a manager can use his players to get the other guy out – he should be able to use his players in any way he chooses. As for shifts, I say leave them be. If hitters can’t figure out how to go to the opposite field or lay down a bunt, continue to exploit their weakness.
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?
I’m biased, but I’d say the 2021 Atlanta Braves. There is so much there. From the Commissioner’s unfortunate decision to bring politics into the game and taking the 2021 All Star Game away from Atlanta after opening day (the Braves’ opening day uniforms each had a 2021 All Star Game patch on the sleeves that had to be removed after the first game in Philadelphia because of the Commissioner’s edict) that cost people who had nothing at all to do with the state of Georgia’s politics to lose millions of dollars, to reigning MVP Freddie Freeman’s abysmal start, to the team’s failure to top .500 for four months – each time they made it to .500, they promptly went on a losing streak – to Marcel Ozuna’s despicable actions after breaking his fingers, which caused the team to abandon its popular “stir it up” mantra, to the loss of superstar Ronald Acuna the weekend before the All Star Game he was to start, to the trade deadline acquisitions of a brand new outfield that turned things around, to Brian Snitker’s rise to a World Champion manager, to Charlie Morton breaking his leg in Game One of the Series, to Max Fried having his ankle stepped on and twisted covering first in Game Six, yet hanging in there to post the best World Series Game Six impersonation of Tom Glavine, to the (hated in Atlanta) Commissioner being booed soundly in Houston while handing the World Series trophy to Snitker, to that same Commissioner getting his revenge by forcing the team to keep Ozuna on its roster, thereby costing them the ability to re-sign franchise favorite Freeman (pure speculation on my part, but why else didn’t they sign him before the lockout?), the narrative of a most unlikely Series win has all the twists and turns needed to become an instant classic.
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 have two answers. The best I ever saw was Barry Bonds. I had the opportunity to take in a three-game set between the Giants and Braves in Atlanta during the summer of 73 – his 73, not 1973 – and he tied a Big League mark by hitting five homers in two games. He would have had an opportunity to hit a sixth, but Dusty Baker removed him from the game. Here’s the thing, though – when he came up to bat after hitting the fourth homer, everyone in Turner Field – the opponents ball park – gave him a standing ovation. I’m sure now everyone who was there feels betrayed, just like I do. On the other hand, the best player I ever covered during my baseball writing career was probably Ozzie Smith. Pound for pound, he had more athleticism than anyone I ever saw, and was perhaps the most entertaining player who was truly unselfish. And he was always an outstanding interview. I also have to give honorable mention in this category to Tony Gwynn as well.
Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…
What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
Atlanta Braves – we got cable station WTCG in 1977, which brought us Braves games almost every day – it later became Superstation TBS.
Who was your favorite player?
Dale Murphy. It was a highlight of my baseball writing career getting to interview him during his heyday. A few years back I got to visit with him again and he was just as amicable then as he was as a player.
What is your most prized collectible?
It’s tough to narrow that one down to just one. I pulled a 1 of 1 Roberto Clemente autograph card from a pack of 2015 Topps Series 2 that my wife gave me during our 20th anniversary trip – that’s way up on the list.
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
Sultans of Swing – I’m a big Mark Knopfler fan,
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?
My favorite food is a brat with mustard, a pack of peanuts, and ice cream in a plastic helmet at a Major League or Minor League baseball game.
Please share anything else you’d like with our audience –
Jake Gibbs, the former catcher for the Yankees, gave me my first job in baseball. My high school baseball coach urged me to contact him, and on my first day of college I called him up. He introduced me to the Sports Information Director, who hired me on as a student assistant. At a dinner years later, I mentioned Jake to Bobby Cox, whose eyes lit up. The skipper couldn’t stop telling me stories about their days together with the Yanks. Jake also pops up in a painful way in Thurman Munson’s autobiography written by Marty Appel.
Bruce, thank you so much for joining me here today. Please keep in touch!