SSTN Interviews Tony Castro
SSTN: Today we are here with prolific author Tony Castro.
Tony Castro is a Harvard and Baylor University-educated historian, Hemingway and Napoleonic scholar and the author of seven books, including the landmark civil rights history Chicano Power: The Emergence of Mexican America, which Publishers Weekly acclaimed as “brilliant… a valuable contribution to the understanding of our time.”
His biography of Ernest Hemingway, Looking for Hemingway: The Lost Generation and a Final Rite of Passage (Lyons Press), was named by National Public Radio as one of the best books of 2016.
Castro’s most recent book is Mantle: The Best There Ever Was, published in 2019 by Rowman and Littlefield. The New York Times has called his 2002 cradle-to-the-grave biography Mickey Mantle: America’s Prodigal Son the definitive book about the Yankees Hall of Fame slugger.
As a journalist, Castro has reported on politics, race relations, wealth and power, pop culture, Latin America, and sports for numerous news organizations, among them the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Texas Observer, and Sports Illustrated. He reported on the civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua in both English and Spanish for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and La Opinión de Los Angeles.
Tony was among the first reporters in America to write extensively about race in presidential politics, dating to his undergraduate days at Baylor, when he reported on Bobby Kennedy’s quixotic 1968 campaign in the Mexican Americans barrios of California. That reporting became a centerpiece of his 1974 book Chicano Power. Looking for Hemingway includes an account of a 1967 unauthorized visit that Tony made to Cuba as part of a Students for a Democratic Society group that met Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro and received a private tour of the Ernest Hemingway Finca Vigía estate in San Francisco de Paula in Havana.
Born in Waco, Texas, Tony Castro is a graduate of Baylor University, where his senior thesis was on James Agee, the American novelist, journalist, poet, screenwriter and film critic, and posthumous Pulitzer Prize winner. As a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, Castro studied under Homeric scholar and translator Robert Fitzgerald, Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz, and French history scholars Laurence Wylie and Stanley Hoffman. Tony Castro lives in Los Angeles with his wife Renee LaSalle and Jeter, their black Labrador retriever. Their two grown sons, Trey and Ryan, also reside in Southern California.
An amazing author, who is also a big baseball fan, Tony, it is great to have this discussion with you. Thanks for coming to Start Spreading the News.
Thank you for having me, Paul… 🙂
Please begin by telling us a little about how you became a writer and why you are drawn to baseball for so many of your books.
I’ve been writing since my childhood. When I was eight I wrote a 40-page “book” about Davy Crockett. It wasn’t much until my third-grade teacher published copies on a mimeograph machine and distributed them through her teacher friends and the public library. It led to a story in my hometown daily, and it got me the reputation as a precocious, upstart smarty-pants, as well as a place on the local college children’s theater group, not to mention more expectations than I ever imagined.
A local weekly asked to me write a column about kids which I did for years and in junior high led to me writing about anything I wanted to – Elvis, rock ‘n’ roll, movies, politics sports, you name it. I covered the Beatles concert in Dallas in 1964. That same year I interviewed Lyndon Johnson during his presidential campaign, as well as Hubert Humphrey, his running mate. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was a full-time reporter at my hometown newspaper, the Waco Tribune-Herald, working along with an older police reporter named Thomas Harris who would go on to write the Hannibal Lecter books.
Baseball was also a big part of my life. My dad, who was an exceptional ballplayer, had played on an armed services team during World War II and then played two seasons in the Mexican Leagues. An uncle was part of a group that owned a Pittsburgh Pirates’ Class B minor league team, the Waco Pirates, and later, after the team left Waco, owned and managed a semi-pro team made up of players who had just washed out at spring training in Florida and college players trying to get noticed by birddog scouts who were always around. I was the bat boy and was always interested in the baseball stories these guys were always telling.
My dad was a big Joe DiMaggio fan who saw him play a number of times in the late 1930s when the Yankees would make swings through Texas and the South after spring training. Dad was also a big memorabilia collector before it was even in fashion, so I grew up with large poster-size photos of DiMaggio and Mantle on my bedroom walls. The photos had come from large calendars that my dad collected.
But how I became a writer… well, my friends say it’s amazing considering my humble beginnings. I am an accomplished Latino journalist and writer who was born in a brothel in post-World War ll Texas. As a child, the only English words I spoke were “Joe DiMaggio” and the lyrics from a Hank Williams tune — I got a feelin’ called the blues, oh, Lord/ Since my baby said goodbye — that my pachuco uncle Pancho wickedly taught me to croon as a prayer to Jesucristo. In the second grade I was diagnosed as intellectually slow and cast off to a special education classroom for children labeled at the time as being “mentally retarded.” So my childhood was the hilariously heartrending story of growing up a poor, out-of-luck barrio boy who might have been written off if a student teacher hadn’t smartly spotted that the shy child spoke only Spanish, some of it pachuco caló slang thanks to my zoot-suited uncle Pancho, but who also showed sparks of brilliance.
By my early teens I was a gifted student, reading works by Dante and Virgil in the original Latin, performing Hamlet monologues with a Welsh accent and the prelude to The Odyssey in a poetic dialect of ancient Greek. My best friend there in Waco, Texas, was the son of the president of Baylor University. I was president of my National Honor Society chapter, editor of my student newspaper, the only Latino making straight A’s in school, and unbeatable in speech declamation tournaments because of six words that would always glue judges to their seats: “I was born in a whorehouse…”
I am third generation Tejano on one side of my family — my paternal grandfather fought with Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution — and fifth generation on the other. I was the first in my family to finish high school. My father, a decorated World War II army veteran, played professional baseball in the Mexican leagues; my mother, a dressmaker of wedding and prom gowns, insisted that her rail-thin son wear the creations of organza, tulle, and satin adorned with sequins, rhinestones and embroidered appliqués while she made alterations. Years later, I performed a comedy act in drag on the Los Angeles Sunset Strip, opening with the line: “My life as a woman began in a quinceañera dress.” It is among the contradictions of my existence. “I was bilingual, bi-cultural, and religiously bi-polar — I was both Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic whose great-great-great grandfather was a Sephardic Jew who fled Spain in the 1700s… I quoted too much Protestant scripture for a good Catholic, and I knew too many saints and too much Latin for an acceptable Baptist. I was also Hispanic at a time in segregated Texas when there were still three restroom facilities in public places — one for whites, one for blacks, and one for Mexicans. Perhaps it was an omen of my future that I could use the public toilets reserved for whites. I could pass.”
So, with that kind of background, you’re likely going to become a writer or someone who boosts Ferraris in Hollywood, which sadly might have been more financially rewarding.
As you know, I am an elementary school principal. If I were to talk to the students of my school about how to become a professional writer, what advice would you offer to me to share?
Urge them to read. Mark Twain, Mark Twain. And more Mark Twain. And then go from there. Read everything you can. And master English and English grammar. Their usage should become so good that when someone reads their raw, unedited copy, they should come away suspicious that it hasn’t been cleaned up by a professional editor. This is one thing I’m extremely serious about. When someone asks me to read their work, I tell them I don’t want to read their published clippings. I want to read their raw, unedited copy. That will tell me if they’re any good.
Please tell us about the Mickey Mantle trilogy you have written.
I never intended to write a trilogy.
If you’ve read the books, you know that I met Mickey in 1970 when I was a young reporter just out of college in Dallas where Mantle was living in retirement. I was a general assignments reporter, and I hooked up with Mickey who was playing golf almost every day. I was a scratch golfer and working on an afternoon newspaper my hours — 6 a.m to 2 p.m — allowed me to get in a full 18 holes in the afternoon. It was a hoot, and I was often driving Mickey home to North Dallas and then driving Merlyn back to pick up Mickey’s El Dorado wherever he left it. Mantle was out of the news picture in Dallas. What I mean by that is that Mickey had pretty much trashed his name there. He was unfriendly, obnoxious and unkind in dealing with the local sportswriters who were not as forgiving as New York writers had been.
Dallas was also a football town, and Mantle was old news. It was six or seven years since his last big season, and he was still a couple of years before his Hall of Fame induction would put him back in the news cycle. Mickey said it best. “No one gives a damn about me anymore,” he often whined. Mind you, I wasn’t a sportswriter in Dallas I had quickly moved into a beat reporting on civil rights, minorities and politics, and this Is what I did in my reporting career. So, while I was keeping a notebook on my time with Mantle, it wasn’t with the intention of writing a book. Mickey didn’t care. Merlyn, though, was often asking if I planned to write about them and finally just asked that, if I write about this time, that I do so after they were no longer around. But, honestly, my professional interest was politics. It was on politics that I won a fellowship in Washington in 1971, and I wrote a civil rights history in 1974, and then was awarded a Nieman Fellowship to Harvard in 1976.
But baseball did provide an entrée with people like David Halberstam who specialized in politics and public policy but also wrote about sports. And I kept touching base with Mantle. at his Hall of Fame induction, at Yankee Stadium, then on the memorabilia circuit in Los Angeles. By coincidence when I came to work in L.A., the literary agent I signed with – Mike Hamilburg – was the son of Mitchell Hamilburg, a big name agent and baseball fan who had produced Safe at Home! That was the 1962 baseball comedy that capitalized on Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris’ fame after their chase of Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1961. Mike knew of my Mantle connection, so when Mickey died in 1995, he suggested that I take a shot at writing a new biography of Mantle.
Mike just said, “Write it all.”
In 2000 I showed him a manuscript over 2,500 type-written pages. He laughed so hard I thought he was going to choke to death. He said that was around 800,000 words, and that no publisher would buy a baseball biography of much more than 100,000 words, something between 300 and 400 typewritten pages. So we began editing it down. It seemed impossible and like cutting off a leg. Mike finally auctioned a manuscript of 600 pages, which we still had to cut down to 400 pages for publication. The reason I tell you this story is that there was a lot of material – like on the Mantle-DiMaggio, Mantle-Maris and Mantle-Stengel relationships – that was left out of the book. There was also new material that kept coming in. And, that’s how the books DiMag & Mick and The Best There Ever Was – came to be, as well at the forthcoming book, Maris & Mantle: Two Yankees, Immortality and the Age of Camelot. Don’t get me wrong. There was more that went into those subsequent books than just picking up what was left out of Mickey Mantle: America’s Prodigal Son. The game’s new analytics and sabermetrics, for instance. There were interviews with Bob Cerv, Ted Williams, Roger Maris and others that I didn’t have access to until after the first Mantle book was out, not to mention Holly Brooke, Mickey’s New York girlfriend with whom I spoke to almost every day from 2006 until her death in 2017. I also had a couple of long conversations with Merlyn that led me to reconsider things like Mickey’s place among baseball’s greats.
What was the most amazing thing you learned about Mickey Mantle in your research?
That deep down he was a romantic. Who knows what would have happened in his career if he had married the woman with whom he fell in love in New York in 1951, Holly Brooke, and with whom he carried on through the 1960s?
I think I was also amazed by the depth of how flawed Mickey was. But I suspect that adds to the mystique. We love our heroes who swing from their heels but who are also so flawed as to underscore how human they are.
Here is the million-dollar question – if you were starting a team right now with either player in his prime, who would you choose to play centerfield, Mickey Mantle or Joe DiMaggio?
In his prime: Mantle
As a rookie: DiMaggio
I believe your next book is biography of Napoleon Bonaparte. Where are you in that process? I would imagine that this is a tougher assignment than writing about baseball. Am I correct? Do you need to travel to do the research? How is that going in the world today?
I’m still working on the Napoleon book. It’s been a life’s work, a bit like my Hemingway book was. LOOKING FOR HEMINGWAY: Spain, the Bullfights, and a Final Rite of Passage (2016, Roman & Littlefield). We have a place in Paris, and I’d planned to finish up some of the work this year, but that didn’t happen.
This is non-baseball related, but I have to ask… One of my favorite individuals in history is the Marquis de Lafayette whose life intersected with Napoleon’s. Have you uncovered any great stories about Lafayette?
As you may be aware, Lafayette wisely spent much of the Bonaparte era in retirement. Could it be that he had more influence in the shaping of the new American nation than he did on his homeland where he was torn between being republican at heart, while also an aristocrat with strong ties to many members of the ruling royal family? Lafayette’s feelings about Bonaparte may have been summed up in this excerpt from a writing:
“L’empereur Napoléon, remontant progressivement de son poste de magistrat national pour s’asseoir sur un trône sans limites, semble avoir voulu punir, quant à l’abus des réformes républicaines, en nous faisant sentir tout le poids de la monarchie absolue.’’
Translation: The Emperor Napoleon, having risen from national magistrate to the throne without limits, appears to have punished us all with weight of absolute monarchy for the abuse of republican reforms.
Do you have another baseball book coming in the future?
MARIS & MANTLE: Two Yankees, Immortality and the Age of Camelot … coming in 2021 from Triumph Books.
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?
Pete Sheehey, the legendary clubhouse man
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 (at any level)?
Mantle on TV. I didn’t see him play in person until 1965 when he was over the hill, though he did homer that night at the Astrodome in Houston.
The best player I saw in person?
MLB – Reggie Jackson. I saw him several times when he was with Oakland and in 1977-78 with the Yankees. I was living back East and attending Yankees games regularly, including his three homers on three swings in the 77 World Series.
High School – Burt Hooten, pitching for Corpus Christi King High in Texas. Unhittable.
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?
Four Mantle rookie cards, two in mint condition
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?
Thank you Tony. Keep up the great work. These books are amazing and each so great.
Thanks for visiting us here at Start Spreading the News.
Please keep in touch.