SSTN Interviews Tom DeMichael
SSTN: Today we are here with Tom DeMichael, author of Baseball FAQ: All That’s Left To Know About America’s Pastime. Tom has also published other books on television, history, trains, toys, and more.
Thanks for coming to Start Spreading the News. It is great to have this discussion with you.
It’s my pleasure, Paul. I’m honored to be here.
To begin, please tell us how you became a baseball fan.
Back in the 60’s, I played Little League (it was called “Peanut League” in the Chicago suburbs.) I really didn’t have much interest in the game, but played it because my Dad was such a big fan. To show just how good I was, I was the catcher in one game and my Dad had volunteered to umpire. This was in the day before catcher helmets, so I just had my cap on backwards. On the first pitch, I closed my eyes and turned my head in fear. The ball hit me in the back of the head, knocked me silly, and my Dad almost passed out from worry. Needless to say, I spent most Peanut League games after that in right field.
Fast forward to 1969 and, as the Cubs were seemingly headed toward their first pennant in decades, I found that I just couldn’t get enough of the game. I played fungo with myself in the backyard, hitting homers over the roof of my house and pretending to be my favorite Cubs – be it Banks, Santo, Billy Williams. Of course, when Joe Pepitone joined the team in 1970, he became “my guy.” More than twenty years later, I played in a Cubs Fantasy Camp and am very proud of a picture showing me and “my guy.”
In short, I have had an unreal love affair with baseball for more than fifty years. (Not to worry, my wife knows about it.)
Your baseball book, Baseball FAQ: All That’s Left To Know About America’s Pastime, is full of information on baseball, its history, trivia, and so much more. How did you come to write this book… and how did you decide what to include?
I had written several books in the FAQ series for Hal Leonard Publishing. When I heard they wanted to do a Baseball FAQ, I told my editor I would do anything necessary to get the assignment. I felt I had been prepping nearly my whole life to write such a book.
I wanted Baseball FAQ to be part-history book, part-instructional guide, part-reference manual, and part-bathroom buddy. And, as much as I love and respect the game, I wanted to write it in my style of light and easy prose, with a bit of humor and self-deprecation when needed.
Deciding what to include was easy – the tough part was deciding what NOT to include. I had a rough limit of 140,000 words…and felt I could have written 100,000 more. I had to omit chapters on baseball around the world, the unique lingo of the game, and much more. And, of course, my beloved Cubs just happened to end their 108-year World Series drought right AFTER the book came out, which could have been a chapter of its own.
What was the most interesting fact that you found as you researched Baseball FAQ?
That’s hard to say. One may think they’re an expert, only to discover how much they DON’T know when researching a book like Baseball FAQ.
By virtue of historic isolation (like most of the baseball world,) I was thrilled to find the depth of structure and legacy in the Negro Leagues. In tracing the early, early roots of the game, I found it went back way before cricket and the British game of rounders. Rather, it dates back hundred of years to Romania as a game called “oina.”
You wrote an entire book about toys of the 1950s and 1960s, “Timeless Toys” you call them. Which, if any timeless toys were related to baseball or sports? What do you think was the greatest toy (or toys) of all time?
Back in the 60s, a company named Tudor made the Electric Football Game, where you set up the offensive and defensive players, then flipped the switch and the vibrator motor shook the table and all the pieces jumped like sizzling steaks in a pan. No one could ever make those things do what you intended. But I wanted (and got one Christmas) Tudor’s version of an Electric Baseball Game. Based on the same principle, the runners “ran” from base to base when the switch was thrown.
Interestingly, I’ve just finished a follow-up book to Timeless Toys of the 50s & 60s – cleverly titled More Timeless Toys of the 50s & 60s – that features a little-known action figure known as Johnny Hero. Similar to GI Joe, Johnny could be clad in NFL or MLB uniforms, complete with spikes, bat, balls, etc. Probably an early example of sports licensing for kids.
Of course, there’s the Nerf Ball, allowing home runs in the living room. And the Frisbee has had a life of its own.
As for the greatest of all time? Everyone has their own opinion, but I believe Play-Doh gave kids the chance to use their hands AND their minds to create whatever they wanted. And, it smelled great!
Many baseball fans have spent many hours playing the various tabletop baseball games that have been sold for decades, many originating in that 1950s to 1960s period including APBA, Strat-o-Matic, and others. Have you played any of these games, or others, and do you have a favorite?
I never got into APBA or Strat-o-Matic, but I spent most of the late 80s and early 90s (before we had kids) playing an archaic PC game called MicroLeague II Baseball. And I combed that huge Baseball Encyclopedia book (before the Internet) for stats that allowed me to build my own super All-Star teams. I didn’t care so much for the game play, but for the challenge of pitting Babe Ruth against Bob Gibson and seeing how that would come out.
Do you have a favorite baseball movie?
Several, of course. In fact, I devoted an entire chapter to baseball films in the FAQ. You can’t go very far without noting “Pride of the Yankees.” The great Lou Gehrig story, plus – any film where you can watch the REAL Babe Ruth, that’s OK with me. But, I’d have to say “The Natural” captures the essence of the heart of why we cherish the game. Every time, when Roy Hobbs pauses in the hospital bed and says, “God, I love baseball” – get out the hankies, folks.
And, there’s a “so bad, it’s good” flick called “Safe at Home,” shot right after the 1961 season. It stars Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, and proves they made the right career choices of being baseball players, rather than actors. But it’s great fun.
Why, do you believe, are people so drawn to baseball and its stories, legends, and people?
As we know it, baseball started in America, but it belongs to everyone. Look how kids in the Dominican Republic form “mitts” out of milk cartons and “balls” out of rolled up tape. Kids in the streets everywhere used to use a broom handle and rubber ball to emulate their heroes. Believe it or not, during the Civil War, opposing soldiers from the North and South would put down their guns and share a friendly game of baseball.
Out of billions of people who have walked the Earth, only about 13,000 or so have been able to play baseball at its highest level. That’s a unique privilege and provides a goal to which we can aspire, and heroes we can admire. And, as naïve as it sounds, just look at the James Earl Jones quote from “Field of Dreams”: “The one constant through all the years, has been baseball…It reminds us of all that once was good and could be again.”
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?
As simple and innocent as all my ramblings on the game may be, I also know baseball is a business. Is baseball broken? I know it’s not “America’s Pastime” as it once was called decades ago. It was the number one sport in America – until the mid-1960s, when football took over the top spot. Today, it’s third, behind the NFL and the NBA. Why? There’s a lot of factors and no simple answer. Money (including the ever-present and increasing interest in gambling and online wagering,) media coverage, and the fan’s attention span.
Changes? Of course, I’m a purist, so – if I had a magic wand – I’d get rid of the DH. I’d create a three-tiered compensation structure, based on analytical ranking, service time, and previous performance. I’d enforce the 20-second rule on pitch delivery – seems like EVERY pitch, the batter has to step out, adjust his gloves, uniform, and cup. I’m not saying give the pitcher an advantage – just get down to business and swing the bat (we had enough of “human rain delays,” like Mike Hargrove, years ago.) And, despite the shortcomings of umps like…well, we know who they are…forget this idea of robot umpires. While they make strike and ball calls cut and dried, they also take the human element out of the game. Baseball is not played by robots – it’s played by humans. Nuff said there.
Yet, I’m also a realist, so I understand the need for keeping the game competitive between large and small market teams. I understand the rightful need for equity between the owners and the players. I understand the fan deserves to see a game without mortgaging their homes. And, how to accomplish all that? Well, I don’t have the answers – which is why I’m NOT the Commissioner of Baseball.
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? New York,- being the major market it is, there have been many good books written about Yankees across the years. The same is true about LA, Chicago, etc. But I think there’s a great story surrounding the 1989 World Series and how the teams, the cities, the fans, and the media dealt with such an unexpected event. I think there are great stories emerging about the role of women in the game over the years – beyond A League of Their Own. There are many great stories about heroes from the Negro Leagues – beyond Robinson, Paige, and Gibson.
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?
Ever SAW being the key (rather than watched on film, read about, etc.,) I think Ron Santo accomplished great things in the game, all the while dealing with the disease of diabetes, years before we knew a lot about it. He hit, hit with power, fielded a tough position, was a smart baserunner, and a good teammate.
Of course, it’s very difficult to nail it down to one – Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, Greg Maddox, Shohei Otani – they all played the game at an unbelievable level of consistency, at the highest levels.
Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…
What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
The Cubs, no doubt.
Who was your favorite player?
As previously stated, Joe Pepitone.
What is your most prized collectible?
While I’m not a big collector of baseball memorabilia, I treasure a baseball that I personally had signed by Andre Dawson, Greg Maddox, Ryne Sandberg, and others.
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
As a musician of more than fifty years, I’ve tried to stay open to many styles of music – rock, jazz, pop, country. But, just as I believe Babe Ruth stands above and beyond all others, the Beatles changed how we listen to and play, popular music.
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?
Yes, pizza is it. And, in Chicago, we eat the dreaded “deep dish” often maligned in other areas of country. Restaurant? It has to be Lou Malnati’s. However, I’m also a meat eater, so wave a “black and blue” ribeye in front of me and I’ll follow you anywhere.
Please share anything else you’d like with our audience – If you’re a fan of the game, don’t ignore the minor leagues – the games are very affordable, the teams are anxious to give the fan a great experience, and the players are trying to chase a dream on a few dollars of daily meal money. And, let’s hope this latest labor dispute gets resolved and we have a fun and entertaining 2022 season.
Thanks, Paul – it’s been fun and a real pleasure to share this time with you. Let’s play two!!
Yes, let’s do this again one day. Thanks for joining me in this. Please keep in touch!