Dodger photographer highlighted game off the fields
In an effort to preserve his legacy, Stein’s daughter, Bonnie Crosby, collaborated with Dennis D’Agostino to produce a collection of his
work, Through a Blue Lens: The Brooklyn Dodgers Photographs of Barney Stein,
1937-57 (Triumph Books).
Crosby and D’Agostino a former public relations employee for the NY Mets, discussed their project at a program at a June program hosted by the Yogi Berra Museum and Education Center in Little Falls, NJ.
Stein said her father taught her not only about photography “but about the emotions of the game.” He presented more than the action on the field, she said; he showed the Dodgers and their extended community of employees, families, and fans.
D’Agostino described Stein as “one of the greatest news photographers New York has ever seen. He photographed everything from heads of state, entertainers, tragedies, gangsters, etc.,” he said. “And then when the whistle blew every day
at five o’clock at the Post [where Stein had a full-time position], off he’d go to Ebbets Field to have his second job.” Flipping through the book, the reader sees the artist himself joining in the fun and managing to capture his subjects with their guards down.
Perhaps his most famous shot is one of unmitigated agony for old-time Dodgers fans: pitcher Ralph Branca, head bowed in grief after yielding baseball’s most famous home run, ‘the shot heard ‘round the world,” hit by the New York Giants’ Bobby Thomson to win the 1951 National League pennant.
On the lighter side, one of Stein’s favorite photos features Marilyn Monroe at Ebbets Field in 1957 demonstrating her “athletic skills” for Israel’s Hapoel soccer team during an exhibition with a team of American all-stars.
“The Israelis were asked what they wanted to see during their visit,” D’Agostino said. Their response: “‘As athletes, we’d like to meet the Brooklyn Dodgers; as men we’d like to meet Marilyn Monroe
Photos courtesy Barney Stein Photo Collection, LLC. A version of this article appears in the June 21 issue of the New Jersey Jewish News
For more than a quarter-century, Mel Allen owned the most recognizable voice in America. Filmgoers listened to his MovieTone newsreel narrations while a national radio audience was soothed by his smooth introductions to numerous programs. But most of all, baseball fans followed his calls of the New York Yankees, his signature “How about that!” signifying a clutch hit or outstanding defensive play. Allen, who died June 16, 1996, received numerous accolades for his work, including the Ford Frick Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame and induction into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1980.
With such a storied career, it’s difficult to fathom why his employers, the Yankees and NBC, unceremoniously dumped Allen in 1964 when the team was sold to a new ownership.
In his new biography The Voice: Mel Allen’s Untold Story (The Lyons Press), Curt Smith, a senior lecturer in English at the University of Rochester and author of several books on baseball broadcasting, explains the backstory of startling rumors that led to Allen’s dismissal.
Melvin Allen Israel was brought up in an Orthodox home near Birmingham, Ala., where his Russian immigrant parents, Julius and Anna , ran a dry-goods store. “Mom clasped good works, prayer, and belief that God guides life,” Smith writes. When Allen decided to change his name — as **** frequently did in those less-enlightened times — his father “blew a cork, then softened…. Less than his folks, being Jewish was only one part of his makeup. Mel was really the ultimate achievement-driven man — more American than ethnic.”
Growing up under such circumstances was not easy, Smith said in a telephone interview, but “it gave Allen a sense of values about right and wrong that remained with him throughout his life.”
“I think the ritual of Judaism, the Judaic canon, was important to him, perhaps not as important as to his parents. Given the facts of his growing up, achievement was not simply his ladder, but his way out, to go beyond the discrimination of youth to achieve in later life.”
Allen was “an institution, the most marquee voice in the country,” Smith said. “Yet he went from the most recognized voice in the country to a non-person.”
No official grounds were ever given for his dismissal. Among the “explanations” Smith offered: The Yankees and NBC brass thought that Allen was an alcoholic or a heroin or cocaine addict, that he had had a series of mini-strokes, and that he was a homosexual. One Yankee official at the time simply said, “We see no reason to embarrass Mel .”
“What does that mean?” asked Smith, who said that Allen told him years later, “When people are left to believe the worst, they will.”
Smith, who ranks Allen as the second-best baseball announcer of all-time (behind Red Barber), said that the announcer “was the best ever at his peak. Nobody could do with his skills what [he] did doing baseball: the lexicon, the stunning grammar. No prepositions were left at the end of a sentence, no participles were left dangling, no infinitives were split.” But after listening to more than 100 hours of tapes, Smith agreed with the critics: By the time of his firing, “the Voice” had lost his chops. “He would repeat himself, he would misstate facts, he would let silent air prevail for 25-30 seconds, something that you would never abide from Allen a decade earlier.”
In The Voice, Smith offers his own thoughts as to the reason behind Allen ’s downfall.
At 51, said Smith, the legendary announcer was feeling the effects of his demanding profession, which the author does not attribute simply to burnout. Allen engaged the services of Dr. Max Jacobson , a “physician to the stars” whose clients included Eddie Fisher, Truman Capote, and John F. Kennedy. His specialty was prescribing amphetamines, which were legal at the time.
Given all the facts, Smith said that he believes that Jacobson “misprescribed,” and that Allen never understood where the problem lay. “The kind of damage done is cumulative, and even when you stop taking [it] you never quite regain your former skill, and he never did.”
Allen was essentially, if tacitly, blacklisted for more than a decade, until he made a remarkable comeback with This Week in Baseball, a syndicated TV program that features game highlights and player profiles.
Allen, said Smith, “was as color blind and devoid of any bias or prejudice or animus as any human being I’ve ever known.” He would get an occasional anti-Semitic letter, but “he always reacted in such an extraordinarily intellectual and high-class way that I think he shamed the bigot.”
The author called Allen “was one of the finest people I’ve ever met in any field. I have a six-year-old boy, and if he’s half the person Mel was, I would be one happy dad.”
Other baseball titles by Curt Smith include:
- Voices of Summer: Ranking Baseball’s 101 All-Time Best Announcers (Carroll & Graf)
- What Baseball Means to Me: A Celebration of Our National Pastime (Warner Books)
- Storied Stadiums: Baseball’s History Through Its Ballparks (Carroll & Graf)
- America’s Dizzy Dean (Chalice Press)
- Our House: A Tribute to Fenway Park (Masters Press)
- The Storytellers: From Mel Allen to Bob Costas : Sixty Years of Baseball Tales from the Broadcast Booth (Macmillan Publishing Company)
The literary world lost one of its greats with the untimely death of David Halberstam. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author is one of those writers whom I always admired for his ability to transcend subjects, whether writing about politics (The Best and The Brightest), American history/pop culture (The Fifties, my favorite of all his books), or myriad other topics. His next project, The Coldest Winter, about the Korean War, is due out in the fall.
That Halberstam also wrote about baseball (and other sports) placed him in the company of George F. Will and Stephen Jay Gould, authors who didn’t consider themselves as above writing about a game despite their reputations as experts in non-sports fields. As a result, they were able to give fans — and non-fans — some though-provoking works on the national pastime.
Halberstam wrote about events that seemed ordinary at first glance, but upon deeper examination were exciting, unnerving, and just a little bit sad. Summer of ’49 (Morrow, 1989) followed the Yankees-Red Sox battle for the American League. And while October 1964 (Villard, 1994) may have been ostensibly about the World Series between the Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals, the deeper story was about the decline of the Bronx Bombers, who would not win another pennant for more than a decade, and the national league champs, who, with such stars as Lou Brock, Curt Flood, and Bob Gibson on their roster, were still fighting battle against bigotry and ignorance.
Then there’s The Teammates: A Portrait of Friendship (Hyperion, 2003), which followed the heartbreaking saga of former Red Sox legends Johnny Pesky, Dom DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr, and Ted Williams during the end of the Splendid Splinter’s life. My review of Teammates is on Bookreporter.com. You can read a sample chapter here.
Some obituaries on Halberstam:
- The New York Times
- The Times slideshow presentation
- ESPN provides this one, along with audio comments from sportswriters John Feinstein and Bob Ryan, as well as selections from Halberstam’s work for ESPN. Sports Illustrated ran the AP obit. I’m sure they will offer something a little more heartfelt over the next few days.
- An appreciation from Newsweek‘s Jon Meacham
- New York Observer
- From Poynter.org, a web site for journalists
The **** and Jackie Robinson
At a time when unenlightened baseball fans and players hurled epithets and brickbats to protest an African American playing in the major leagues, the Jewish community embraced Jackie Robinson as a “kindred spirit,” according to a new book that marks the 60th anniversary of his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Jonathan Eig, author of Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season (Simon and Schuster), said a sense of compassion and fairness made Robinson a cause celebre for **** in New York and across the country.
“I didn’t get into it as much as I wanted to…, but Robinson really recognized that and he really embraced the Jewish community,” he said in a telephone interview during his 10-city book tour. “The only friends in [Brooklyn] that year were Jewish people.”
“The Jewish community clearly recognized a kindred spirit here, someone who had to prove themselves. The war had just ended, [and] anti-Semitism was running high. Blacks and **** both, after the war, felt they had some work to do to establish more respect,” said Eig, a writer for the Wall Street Journal. In his book, he described an incident between Robinson and Hank Greenberg, baseball’s first Jewish superstar, to illustrate his concept of Jewish empathy.
Greenberg — a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947 — also faced bigotry, enduring taunts of “****” “sheeney,” and worse from opposing players and fans. Eig said it was not surprising that he was one of the first ballplayers to befriend Robinson.
Robinson, as a batter, collided with Greenberg, who was playing first base. “Later in the game,” Eig writes, “when Robinson reached first on another single, Greenberg expressed his concern and admiration for the rookie.”
“Greenberg offered Robinson a few encouraging words, and Robinson sang the first baseman’s praises after the game. ‘He sure is a swell guy. He helped me a lot by saying the things he did.’”
The author spent more than a year working on Opening Day, but had to scramble to get it done in time to commemorate the anniversary of Robinson’s April 15 debut, which was scheduled to feted throughout baseball on Sunday. Eig, who was on the New Jersey leg of his book tour, said he had planned on attending game between the New York Mets and the Washington Nationals at Shea Stadium (which was subsequently rained out). Asked if he would have the honor of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch in recognition of his new book, Eig laughed. “I’ll be eating the first hot dog.”
Eig’s first book, Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, has similar qualities to his latest project. “I liked both of them because they were complex heroes,” he said. “They’re important in ways that go beyond the ballfield. For Gehrig, it was because he died young and had to face such a horrible illness; for Jackie, it was that he faced such a difficult trial by fire. And you could certainly argue that his death [at the age of 53] was hastened by the stress he had to deal with.”
“There were a lot of things that I learned about Robinson that I never knew before,” he said, using the opportunity to debunk some long-held beliefs about the ballplayer.
“One that stands out in my mind the most was that I thought that Pee Wee Reese was [Robinson’s] patron saint.” The Kentucky-born had long been praised for embracing Robinson in a game in Cincinnati as a show of solidarity, but after extensive research, Eig questioned whether such a moment actually took place. “He was a really good friend of Jackie, but not so much in 1947. He was still feeling him out, waiting to see what would happen. What surprised me was how profoundly alone Jackie was that year.”
Eig rooted for the Yankees while growing up in Rockland County, NY. A member of the Society for American Baseball Research, he now lives in Chicago, where he follows the fates of the Cubs.
More than 40 books about Robinson preceded Opening Day, so why another one? “As I got older I realized how great the stories were and had to be told again for a new generation,” said the 42-year-old Eig.
(A version of this story appears in the April 19 issue of the New Jersey Jewish News.)
* Eig joined the ranks of fellow authors who have appeared on NPR. He was featured in a segment on Jackie Robinson on the April 15 Weekend Edition Sunday.
There have been a handful of books about **** and baseball over the years. Mostly anecdotal in nature, they have served to fuel the conception that the Jewish involvement in professional sports is practically negligible.
Burton and Benita Boxerman aim to disprove that notion in their scholarly treatment, **** and Baseball Volume 1: Entering the American Mainstream, 1871-1948.
“What we’ve tried to do is not only give profiles of prominent and not-so-prominent athletes in the game, but how the Jewish community and baseball developed together, particularly in these years, and how baseball helped the Jewish community become part of the American culture” said Benita in a phone interview.
The original idea was to produce a single volume, ending with Hank Greenberg’s retirement, but the publisher asked for additional material since 1948. Rather than delay the release to make one larger book, the husband and wife team decided on writing the additional volume.
**** and Baseball is their second book, following Ebbets to Veeck to Busch: Eight Owners Who Shaped Baseball,
It would seem the two work well together.
“No problems,” said Burton, whom Benita called the “baseball guru” in the family.
“We dicker over who left the filing cabinet open, but we don’t seem to have many major disagreements over the book,” Benita said.
Burton, 73, who holds a PhD in history and political science, does the research, while Benita, 67, handles the writing and editing. “We used a lot more Internet research than with our first book,” she said. Her husband agreed. “It’s much easier to go on-line than to read microfilm.”
The Boxermans — both members of the Society for American Baseball Research — credit the Jewish Major Leaguers baseball card set, created by Martin Abramowitz, for identifying the players.
Following their copious research, Benita said that previously she had not appreciated Hank Greenberg’s “ stature as a player and role model to the Jewish community…. He was pivotal to the way the Jewish player was treated since then.”
Burton said he was surprised to learn that Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith and New York Giants manager John McGraw were more welcoming toward Jewish players than had been generally reported.
The Boxermans are hard at work on the next volume, which should take another two years to complete and which will bring their readers up to date on the century-plus association of **** and baseball.
(A version of this story appeared in the New Jersey Jewish News, April 12, 2007.)
Joshua Prager is author of The Echoing Green, the authoritative book on what might be the best-kept secret in sports cheating: Bobby Thomson’s homer in the 1951 playoffs against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Prager, who broke the story in a 2001 article in the Wall Street Journal, spent five years researching, interviewing, and writing the book, which Publisher’s Weekly described as “a brilliant narrative not only about the most famous home run in baseball history but also about the mystery that haunts it.” Prager also recorded an abridged audio version of the book.
RK: What’s the significance of your title?
JP: It comes from a poem by William Blake. The poem is amazing. It was written in the late 1700s and it’s all about loss and hope and innocence and experience and it really paralleled a tremendous amount what I was writing about. What was so exciting about the title is that the whole book really is about the reverberations of one moment. It just so happens that it’s called “the shot heard ‘round the world,” so it really is about the echoes of a single moment, both in the lives of two men and the country at large.
RK: So, chicken-and-egg questions: What came first, the title or the book? Did you write the book and then find an appropriate title?
JP: Yes. But I knew I was playing with the word “echo” quite a bit, so when I found [the poem], it made me very happy.
RK: The audiobook contains less than one-third of the written product.
JP: The tape was very baseball-centric. The 70 percent of the book that’s not there is basically about the lives of the people, the backgrounds, why they reacted the way they did to this moment, and why it the moment that it became.
RK: How did you come to do the narration?
JP: Once I knew that they wanted to turn it into an audio book, I asked if I would be able to read it. I felt I would be able to do it with the right inflection and [read it] enthusiastically. So when they heard my voice, they said fine.
RK: Did you enjoy doing it or was it a chore?
JP: I loved it. It was lot of work because they edited it down tremendously. The problem was their editing, while generally done well, was filled with discontinuities and inconsistencies. [For example,] someone would be taken out [of the story] at one point and reintroduced without realizing that they’d taken him out earlier. I actually worked tremendously hard on fixing their edits but I really enjoyed reading it. It was only a shame that it was such a drastic cut. It was standard; these books are about eight hours but it was still sort of sad to me. But I was delighted that it would introduce it to a different audience.
RK: So speaking of success, how is the book doing?
JP: I’m very lucky in that the reviews have, for the most part, been wonderful. I think the greatest honor was what The New York Times said, that it was the best baseball book since The Boys of Summer. The sales have been not as good as the reviews, but that’s okay. The truth is, if I were to choose between the two, between great sales and great reviews, I would, every time, choose the great reviews. But my publisher probably wouldn’t agree with that.
RK: Chicken-and-egg again: Did the Wall Street Journal article come out of the book, or did the book come out of the article?
JP: The book came out of the article. One of the things you don’t have in the audio book: In chapter 26 I talk about how the article came to be, through a guy named Barry Halper. A lovely guy. He was the first person to mention to me the rumors that the Giants had stolen signs. I worked on the article for five months. It had been rumored for many years. I proved it, obviously, beyond a shadow of a doubt. I found the telescope they used, I found the exact day they started. I found who was the electrician [Abe Chadwick. who rigged up the electrical system to transmit the signals], I found who was the spy, who relayed the signs, etc., etc. What I cared about in the book, as I write there, was much less the debatable effects of the telescope on play than the undeniable effects of the secret on [Thomson and Branca]. That was really my focus.
They were very open with me, they opened up their lives to me. They’re incredible men, the two of them.
There’s one chapter in the book that’s about 100 pages, all about the lives of Thomson and Branca. Just wanting to know where they were born. I went to Scotland, and with the help of researcher found Bobby Thomson’s birth certificate; he didn’t have that.
I undertook it seriously to get everything right. There are 4,000 endnotes in the book. I wanted people to know where every little detail came from. That was very important for me. Very simply put; I saw this as a great honor in one sense. There are very very few moments that literally millions of people remember where they were when they happened. JFK’s assassination, Pearl Harbor, etc. For various reasons that I go into a great deal in the book, Thomson’s homer was one of them. And to be able to write the definitive account of one of those moments was … really a thrill.
RK: Those who were around at the time, who remember the event, are now in their late fifties and beyond. Do you get any kind of response from these readers?
JP: Oh yes, I get a lot of wonderful e-mails and letters and that’s really exciting. People want to share their experiences of that day and it’s been thrilling for me.
RK: As I was leafing through the book I found a section about Julius Rosenberg’s reaction from his jail cell. How did you find out about that?
JP: When you write a book that takes place in another time, I think it’s lazy when people say “The cost of the subway was a nickel, The Caine Mutiny was the number one book. I feel if you’re going to talk about those things, they have to be introduced into the book seamlessly. By that I mean, it has to be organic to the story. So if I want to say the subway cost a nickel, there has to be someone going on the subway and paying a nickel. Similarly, I felt that if the people and the issues of that time, from the Korean War to the burgeoning Cold War…if these things were going to find their way into the book, they had to be a part of the story.
What I did was I read every book I could — scores of books — that centered on that time, and I read all I could about the people who were involved in that time. And I contacted all their families — this is why it took me five years — and I went through their diaries and their letters and I figured, maybe Ethel and Julius Rosenbergs’ sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol, remember that day and could tell me something about the home run. So I contacted Michaeland he said, “I don’t have a strong memory of it.” He remembered where he was, but nothing too dramatic. But he said, “But my parents wrote about it.” I got the letters from him and read this entire book, all the letters they wrote, and I was able to sort of construct what his cell was like. And it was very powerful. “Gloom of glooms, the dear Dodgers lost the pennant.”
RK: Let’s talk about Chadwick for a minute.
JP: Sure. It was thrilling for me to have sort of a central Jewish character. He was sort of my excuse, in a sense, to be able to talk about everything from Tisha b’Av in the book to the prayer Anenu, which is said on Tsom Gedaliah [a day of fasting observed during the High Holy Days], which was the day that Thomson hit his home run, so there’s sort of a Jewish streak throughout the book.
RK: Did you speak to his family at all?
JP: Oh, endlessly, endlessly.
RK: Aside from the fact that he was a Dodger fan who ironically helped the Giants win …
JP: I even mention that. When I walk about that I talk about Haman because [Chadwick] was born on Purim and he was “hanged” on a gallows that he himself built.
RK: Did you get a sense at all of any remorse on his part?
JP: He confided not to his family about his sign-stealing, but …to some of his colleagues in the electricians union. And none of them said to me, “I remember him saying how horrible this is, that he had done this.” But by the same token…he watched literally every single game. He died of cancer one month to the day after the home run. And he was diagnosed and had to stop working, just one home-stand after he set up this system for [the Giants], and he watched every game on a little television his brother bought him. The Giants were so far behind the Dodgers at that time, and to watch those two teams converge over the course of those two months must have been unbelievably painful for him. He knew what was going on. So while I don’t have him saying “I can’t believe I did this,” it is not at all a leap [or] anything contrived to know with certainty that this was a tremendous lament for him.
RK: It’s been fifty years since this took place. There have been stories about the game itself, about Thomson and Branca …
JP: It’s the most written-about moment in American sports history.
RK: So why has there not been anything on this level before? There had been rumors going on forever and no one ever though to investigate it?
JP: You know what? I think there are very few books…
RK: Never mind the books, what about Major League Baseball to look into it?
JP: I think Mike Vaccaro from the New York Post said it was most researched book on any subject, period. I feel very strongly in research. It’s not true that people didn’t look into it, they did. But they did it the way most people do these things. Not with any incredible amount of thoroughness because that requires a lot of work. It was rumored about publicly ever since 1962 a nd I go through those rumors in the book. But to really something down requires a lot of work and I guess people were content to leave it be. Part of it is that. Part of it is something else that go into in the book, which is very important. Look at it this way: time has to pass before the public is ready for a real reexamination of something so exalted. It was the eve of the 50th anniversary of this moment when I started to look back. And when the players, who had held this secret inside for so many years, I think some of them were very relieved to finally unburden themselves of this secret and that’s something at the heart of the book: what is it like to carry a secret around with you for so long?
RK:Thomson and Branca are both getting on in years. If you had to write their obituaries, what would you lead with?
JP: It’s sort of funny, Roger Angell once wrote about the home run and wrote about Bobby Thomson and he said the home run would comprise the meaty portion of the first sentence of his obituary. And clearly both of these men were defined by this one swing, this one pitch. So I would, in fact, lead with that: “This person was on one side of it, this person was on the other.”
But what I would very quickly get to and dwell upon is that if a person feels good about himself, no matter what happens to him later in life, he will be able to hold onto that. The converse of that is that if a person doesn’t feel good about himself, no matter what happens to him in life, he still won’t feel good about himself. Thomson was a hero publicly, but privately was haunted by some of what went on. He was raised in a strict Scottish home, always told to do what’s right; he wasn’t made to feel particularly good about himself when he was a young man. Branca, on the other hand, was always made to feel good about himself. So although publicly he was a goat, he held on to that inner feeling.
At the beginning of every chapter, I have an epigraph, and there’s one that really sums up that whole thing that is at the heart of the book. Thoreau said “public opinion is a weak tyrant to compare to one’s own private opinion.” How a person sees himself is more important than how others see him, and that’s what I would focus on in their obituaries.” —
Joshua Prager is currently on “book leave” from the Wall Street Journal to work on his next project. The paperback edition of The Echoing Green comes out this spring.
© 2007 Ron Kaplan
What are the odds?
In an amazing example of great minds thinking alike, three former writers for the Forward —Jonathan Mahler, Seth Mnookin, and Joshua Prager — have published critically acclaimed books on baseball, each focusing on a different historical event.
The TV miniseries
Jonathan Mahler, author of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), had the longest tenure at the Jewish newspaper: four years during the mid-to-late 1990s during which he served — at different times — as Washington correspondent, managing editor, and culture writer.
Published in April 2005, Bronx was named one of The New York Times’ top 100 books of the year and will be the subject of an ESPN miniseries this summer.
Mahler’s is the least sport-oriented. Set in 1977, baseball seems almost out of place in an otherwise “serious” book on the problems that faced New York City that year: a crippling blackout and the ensuing madness it engendered, the Son of Sam attacks, and fiscal and political turmoil. Mahler parallels those issues with the story of Reggie Jackson’s first season with the Yankees.
“The city that summer was a soap opera,” he said in a talk with NJ Jewish News. “Rupert Murdoch had taken over the New York Post and there was a big Yankee scandal on the back page of the Post every day. [Yankees manager Billy Martin and Jackson were epic figures. They came to represent two different eras in New York. Martin was from the 1940s-’50s and Jackson was in the first class of free agents…. He represented the new New York. The conflict on the team was a metaphor for tension throughout the city, he said.
Although born in New York, Mahler’s family moved to California when he was an infant. They returned for a visit in 1977 when he was eight years old. “Those were my first memories of New York,” said the author, who moved back in 1990.
Seth Mnookin, the Forward’s city hall reporter from 1999 to 2000, says his writing of Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top(Simon and Schuster) — his look at the inner workings of the Boston Red Sox — was “accidental.”
He was looking for something to do after finishing Hard News: The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media and came up with the idea of an examination of the Sox since 2002, when a new ownership consortium took over.
As hot as the team was, Mnookin said, his project “wasn’t all glory…. I was blown away by how hard everyone there works. The public relations staff, interns, fan representatives [working] 15 hours a day. The Sox seem so beloved in so many ways; I didn’t have a sense of how people deal internally with the negative side of it. When things go well, there’s the expectation that that’s the way it should be.”
Publishers these days have greater expectations for authors to help publicize their work. Mnookin uses a blog and on-line “Q & A” appearances at sites like gather.com to chat with fans and readers. The process can get a bit overwhelming.
“It’s a complete *********, a black hole, to put it together,” he said. “Once you start to do it, there’s an expectation that you’ll be there every day.”
Now hear this
“There are very, very few moments that literally millions of people remember where they were when they happened,” said Joshua Prager, author of The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World(Pantheon). “JFK’s assassination, Pearl Harbor, etc. For various reasons…Thomson’s homer was one of them. And to be able to write the definitive account of one of those moments was…really a thrill.”
Thomson’s blast capped a dramatic come-from-behind pennant race in which the NY Giants overcame their hated rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rumors of cheating by stealing catchers’ signals had circulated for many years.
Prager, who contributed only a couple of pieces to the Forward in the late 1990s, first presented the story in a 2001 article in The Wall Street Journal. He spent five years researching, interviewing, and writing his book. “There are 4,000 endnotes in the book,” he told NJJN. “I wanted people to know where every little detail came from. That was very important for me.”
He also narrated an abridged audio version of his opus. “Once I knew that the publishers wanted to do it, I asked if I would be able to read it. I felt I would be able to do it with the right inflection and [read it] enthusiastically.”
The audio version contains about 30 percent of the printed version, he said. “It was very baseball-centric. The 70 percent of the book that’s not there is basically about the lives of the people, the backgrounds, why they reacted the way they did to this moment, and why it is the moment that it became.”
Prager said recording the book took a great deal of time and effort, but he was satisfied with the finished product and “delighted” to reach a different audience.
So far the reviews have been better than the sales, which, Prager said, is “okay. The truth is, if I were to choose between…great sales and great reviews, I would, every time, choose the great reviews. But my publisher probably wouldn’t agree with that.”
For all the technical skullduggery surrounding the event — using a telescope to steal the opposing catchers’ signs, then relaying the signals through an electric buzzer system to the Giants dugout — Prager was more concerned with the impact the event had on the two principals of the story: Thomson, who hit the homer, and Branca, who threw the ill-fated pitch.
The architect of the whole mess was Abe Chadwick, a humble Jewish electrician. “It was thrilling for me to have sort of a central Jewish character,” said Prager. “He was my excuse, in a sense, to be able to talk about everything from Tisha b’Av…to the prayer Aneinu, which is said on Tzom Gedalia” — the Fast of Gedalia, observed during the High Holy Days — “which was the day that Thomson hit his home run.”
Ironically, Chadwick was a lifelong Dodgers fan. “When I talk about that, I talk about Haman because Chadwick was born on Purim and he was ‘hanged’ on a gallows that he himself built.”
The immigrant game
Mahler, Mnookin, and Prager hope to take their place among other high-profile Jewish writers on the game, including Roger Kahn, Mark Harris, Eliot Asinoff, and Bernard Malamud. Each had his own take on why so many **** are drawn to the topic.
"Partly it’s because sports are a wonderful means of acculturation, and ****, like many other immigrant groups, took to them upon their arrival in this country,” said Prager. “And partly it’s due to the simple fact that many **** are writers. We’ll always take to religion and politics and history, [so] we might as well also look for meaning in sports.”
According to Mahler, “Baseball is the great immigrant game. It’s part of Jewish assimilation and Jewish identity, a great Americanizing role.”
There’s also a nostalgia factor. “In my case, my father grew up in the Bronx, in a working-class Jewish neighborhood in the shadow of Yankee Stadium.”
“In the case of the Forward, there was a real sense…of conjoining of certain poeticness about journalism and a level of inquiry that there was something romantic about it,” said Mnookin. “I think that baseball lends itself to that kind of world view, it allows for that type of project. It is so unique in the ways that it can represent so much about life. There’s a certain kind of mimicking of the poetry of life, and the sort of nostalgia that is an integral part of the Jewish tradition.”
A version of this article appeared in the NJ Jewish News.