SSTN Interviews Don Zminda
SSTN: Today we are here with author Don Zminda. Don has spent more than two decades working for STATS LLC, first as the company’s Director of Publications and then as Director of Research for sports broadcasts. With STATS, Don supervised the company’s support of regular and postseason baseball on FOX from 2000-16, along with thousands of local and reginal games—including Vin Scully’s Dodger broadcasts.
A member of SABR since 1979, he is the author or editor of more than a dozen books about baseball, including The Legendary Harry Caray: Baseball’s Greatest Salesman, Go-Go to Glory: the 1959 Chicago White Sox, and Double Plays and Double Crosses: The Black Sox and Baseball in 1920.
Don, it is great to have this discussion with you. Thanks for coming to Start Spreading the News.
Thanks, Paul. Love the blog!
Don, you have been a writer and researcher for decades, spending this time deeply immersed in the game of baseball. What is it about baseball that makes it such a wonderful and compelling game?
The game itself has so much history and tradition, much more so than any other sport. It has a wealth of statistics that enable us to compare Babe Ruth, who retired nearly 100 years ago, with Mike Trout. And it’s a very enjoyable game to watch. The pace can admittedly be too slow at times (especially these days!), but you can sit down to watch a ballgame with a friend and catch all the essential action while talking with your friend about what’s going on, or whatever you want to talk about. That’s wonderful.
The story of baseball is often told through its legendary numbers: records, years, uniforms… What numbers do you believe are baseball’s most iconic?
Where do we start?
Cal Ripken’s 2,632 consecutive games played—500 more than Lou Gehrig’s 2,130—a record once thought to be unbreakable?
Barry Bonds’s 762 career home runs… or if you prefer, Henry Aaron’s 755?
Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA in 1968?
Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak?
Jackie Robinson’s uniform number 42?
You could go on forever.
This is a Yankees blog, and you write a lot about the White Sox, but I think there are some fascinating connections we can dig into. First, your newest book Double Plays and Double Crosses looks at the 1920 season, the year after the fixed World Series. 1920 was also, of course, Babe Ruth’s first year with the Yankees. As the fallout from the fixed World Series was taking place, Babe Ruth was, at least as legend says, “saving the game.” Do you believe Babe Ruth helped save baseball? Did his exploits help take some of the focus away from the Black Sox?
Without a doubt, the excitement over Ruth’s home runs helped lessen the fallout from the Black Sox scandal. In my research for Double Plays and Double Crosses, I learned that when Ruth and the Yankees played on the road in 1920, on average more there were more than twice as many people in the stands as in non-Yankee games. When Ruth played in Chicago in 1920, so many fans wanted to see him play that they opened the gates five hours before the game started! The scandal was without doubt very damaging to the game, but Ruth help restore interest in baseball.
In this book, you argue that the cheating continued into the 1920 season. Most people who defend Shoeless Joe Jackson look at his 1919 World Series stats (which were very good) and use that as evidence that he wasn’t rigging the World Series. Did he try to fix games in that 1920 season?
In the end, was Joe Jackson innocent or was he part of this scandal?
Even after 100+ years, there is so much about the scandal that we still don’t know, and will never know for certain. One thing we are pretty certain about was that the Black Sox continued to throw games in 1920… Eddie Cicotte and Happy Felsch frankly admitted it, and their teammates knew what was going on. As for Jackson, his .375 batting average in the 1919 World Series was impressive, but he didn’t drive in a run until Game 6, by which time the White Sox were one loss away from elimination. His grand jury testimony was pretty damaging about his role in the scandal. He told the judge in chambers that “he made no misplays that could be noticed by an ordinary person but that he didn’t play his best.” He also admitted to the grand jury that he expected to be paid $20,000 for his role in throwing the series, and that he complained to Chick Gandil repeatedly when the money didn’t show up (he wound up getting only $5,000). As for his role in the fixed games in 1920, it’s hard to say for certain, but I think Jackson may have been a reluctant participant in continuing to help fix games, as the Black Sox were likely being blackmailed by gamblers who had knowledge of their guilt. Jackson’s is a sad case, but he was definitely part of the scandal.
Former Highlander Hal Chase was involved in betting scandals and is rumored to have been part of the Black Sox controversy. Did you find any connection between Hal Chase and the Black Sox?
While some people thought that Chase was one of the ringleaders of the scandal, his role was likely limited to helping arrange the meetings that got the fix going. Once that happened, he had no direct involvement. But since he knew what was going on, he was able to clean up. Chase is estimated to have made as much as $40,000 betting on the Reds. In an era when the average baseball salary was less than $5,000, that was huge money.
You also wrote about the 1959 “Go Go Sox.” That team surprised many by winning the American League pennant – one of only two seasons in the 1950s that the Yankees did not win the pennant. What made that White Sox team so special?
The White Sox were a good team throughout the 1950s, mostly due to excellent pitching, great defense, and speed on the bases. It all came together in 1959, but frankly the White Sox were a little bit lucky that year: the Yankees had their worst record in the ‘50s (79-75), while the Sox had an incredible 35-15 record in one-run games.
Ray Boone (Aaron Boone’s Grandfather) played (briefly) on that 1959 White Sox team. What was Ray Boone like as a player? Can you share a Ray Boone story with our readers?
Ray Boone was a very good player. He came up as a power-hitting shortstop, then was shifted to third base when he was traded to the Tigers, who at the time had the young Harvey Kuenn at short. With the Tigers he had four straight years with 20+ homers and tied for the American League lead in RBI in 1955. Ray was pretty much washed up by the time he got to the White Sox in ’59, but one story I like about his time with the Sox is that he used to bring his 11-year-old son Bob to the ballpark and let him take batting practice against pitchers like Early Wynn. Bob of course grew up to become a fine major league player himself, and like his dad, Bob would bring his sons Bret and Aaron to the ballpark and let his boys shag flies and hang out with the players. And sure enough, they grew up to become fine major leaguers themselves!
Now for the most controversial of all New York vs Chicago debates… (said with a smile)… Both cities have famous, beloved broadcasters who uttered the phrase, “Holy Cow!” Chicago has Harry Caray (whom you have written about) and New York has Phil Rizzuto. Did one of these two announcers popularize the phrase or was it so popular and common that they both ended up using it as a signature phrase?
Two beloved broadcasters, one beloved signature phrase! Harry started broadcasting long before Phil, so I guess he should get dibs for the phrase among the two of them. But Harry wasn’t the first broadcaster to use “Holy Cow” as a regular catch phrase.
The guy who really first popularized it was an announcer in the Twin Cities area named Halsey Hall. Hall used “Holy Cow!” when he was working minor league games for the Minneapolis Millers, then brought it to the majors when Minnesota got the Twins. But by then Harry and Phil had both made it their trademarks, so Hall never got the proper credit.
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?
Has anyone tackled the subject of why the Yankees were so slow to integrate? I think that would be a really interesting book.
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?
It is impossible for me not to pick Willie Mays.
Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…
What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
Who was your favorite player?
What is your most prized collectible?
I have a champagne cork from the clubhouse celebration after the White Sox won the 2005 World Series. It’s not “authenticated” or anything, but that’s fine. To me it is priceless.
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
More than anyone, Joni Mitchell.
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?
At the risk of alienating all of New York, I am partial to Chicago deep dish pizza. We have frozen pizza from Giordano’s shipped out regularly to our home in LA.
Please share anything else you’d like with our audience –
Whether you read my books or not, it’s people like Paul and fans like you that help keep baseball going. Thanks for that, and for your interest in my work!
Thank you, Don.
This was so much fun. I love talking baseball. I also love Giordano’s pizza. I’ve only been to Chicago twice, but that pizza was amazing!
Keep up the great work and please stay in touch!