Bryan Di Salvatore's big break came when the mock-heroic piece he wrote about watching the 1985 World Series with his softball team captured the attention of William Shawn (editor of The New Yorker at the time), so it's only natural that his focus has returned to baseball. A Clever Base-Ballist: The Life and Times of John Montgomery Ward introduces modern readers to the man who more than a hundred years ago organized the first-ever players union. Yes, John Montgomery Ward.
"Owners used the power to fine as an abstraction," Di Salvatore explained. "Anytime you had a bad day, you could be fined for unruly behavior or for drinking the night before. The Louisville owner owed a bunch of money, seven thousand dollars if I remember, so he just started collecting it from his players through fines. A union doesn't spontaneously emerge."
We talked about Ward's impact on and off the field, as well as Curt Flood and others who changed the game. We talked about the ongoing season, too, but to meet Powell's high standards of objective journalism, my irrational support of the Boston Red Sox (and, likewise, my bitter hatred of its rivals) has been edited out.
"Baseball, itself, to the non-fan, is tedious as hell," the author admitted. "My wife is not a baseball fan, and I had her in mind. All those digressions [in the book]: the transoceanic cable, the county fair, the horrible headlines about the treatment of blacks... I'm really proud how the book came out. I've never read a baseball biography quite like this one."
Dave: What struck me most about the book, reading about baseball at the turn of the last century, was that again and again, baseball repeats itself.
Di Salvatore: Absolutely. There's very little new under the baseball sun. On the broad scale, there's disgruntled players, maladroit owners; there were cries about the plight of small market teams. There were teams back then finishing sixty or seventy games out of first place - it was just as lopsided then as it is now. And there was just as much nostalgia. More than occasional editorials bemoaned the fact that baseball was not the most popular sport: "what's happened to the good old days?"
One big difference is that now teams have long traditions and the league is, basically, stable. Back then - Indianapolis, Hartford, Troy - if a team couldn't make money, they'd close up shop. That's a big difference. And the other is that the rules were so plastic.
Dave: I love the bit about moving the mound back five feet to improve offense. They're still doing that stuff today. But when Ward was playing, the rules were changing almost every year. In his rookie season, the book explains, a "batsman" didn't walk until the pitcher had thrown nine balls.
Di Salvatore: Baseball didn't have a predestination to succeed. The idea of a professional sports league . . . there was no guarantee. It wasn't such a sure success. Soccer, right now, would be a good example of where organized baseball stood.
Dave: The whole concept, not just of baseball having to prove itself, but of a professional league having to prove itself - lots of people thought sports should be left to amateurs.
Di Salvatore: It's clear, though, that amateurism isn't in our nature. It was inevitable. Even back then, people were getting paid under the table. It was a hypocrisy. It was about as amateur as college athletics. One guy, Creighton, way back in 1860, was so good he was getting paid. Well, as soon as the promoters started charging admission, the players were going to get some.
So much about the research . . . it calmed me down. This decade, we're not as bad as we're made out. We're okay. I read through files and files of unsolved murders and cases of child abuse, and that's to say nothing of problems with drinking water and sanitation. Human behavior; it was really wretched. I didn't think at age fifty I would start to become an optimist, but in the course of the research I thought, "It's nice for once not to have this giant backpack of liberal guilt." Racism, for instance: we're really much better now. We've really made progress.
Dave: I'd read before that Cap Anson was not only a racist, but very expressive about it. And he's in the Hall of Fame. Ty Cobb was hardly a model citizen. Nowadays, well, Ferguson Jenkins finally made it, but he'd been arrested once for drug possession, and that kept him out for a while.
Di Salvatore: And Orlando Cepeda.
Dave: Right. Is it simply political correctness? Do people in baseball have no sense of history? Do they have no sense of the people that preceded them?
Di Salvatore: There's a real short memory. And, yes, I really do think we've become very conscious of human foibles, flaws, and in a lot of cases, it's excessive.
There's a quote in the book by Samuel Johnson. He says, "Upon some men, providence has bestowed reason and judgment; upon others the art of playing the violin." God, if you took the same standard they use in Hall of Fame voting, you'd have to take back about half the Nobel Prizes, the Pulitzer Prizes, . . .
Anson was very popular and had a lot of clout. He was a terrible racist and very public about it, even by 19th Century standards, but he's in the Hall of Fame.
All that said, if I were king of the baseball world, I'd keep Pete Rose out, and unfortunately, I think, Shoeless Joe. Because as far as the sport is concerned, there's only one sin: to throw a game or to upset that balance.
Dave: You write in the book that back then, players were fined for anything: drinking, staying out late, making a bad play.
Di Salvatore: The problem was that owners used the power to fine as an abstraction. Anytime you had a bad day, you could be fined for unruly behavior or for drinking the night before. The Louisville owner owed a bunch of money, seven thousand dollars if I remember, so he just started collecting it from his players though fines. A union doesn't spontaneously emerge.
We have a double standard. We expect these guys to be different from the rest of us. But, for instance, I like to write. It's also my profession and I get paid for it. That doesn't make me love it more. Some days I don't want to do it. It's like playing in Montreal in late April before they got a roof; there's 4,000 people in the stands and you're freezing - it's not fun. But we expect grown-up artists, people who are the best at their profession, to do it for nothing. That's crazy. Architects don't.
It's a curious business. Why do we admire athletes? Whatever the reason, we do. The ones who excel become heroes. John Ward recognized this. He was a star, articulate, and trustworthy to his men. He was a leader.
Dave: He seemed to have a better business sense, too. I had no idea that he was the one who first got Florida towns to pay teams to hold Spring Training on their fields. From today's vantage point, it seems obvious: the towns will bid against each another to acquire teams in order to draw attention to their cities. It's marketing. But to realize that a hundred years ago, Ward was incredibly ahead of his time.
Di Salvatore: It makes incredible sense once it's happened. But, of course, he was well-educated, well-read, and after his playing career, he went on to become a lawyer. There was something slightly Ripken-esque about him. A little removed. I think you'd be on your toes around him. You couldn't screw up. He was a witty guy, but I don't think he was very goofy. Not really one of the boys.
Dave: How did you figure out how to balance the biographical information of Ward and the evolution of the labor movement he started - then on top of all that, the details of American life going on all around him?
Di Salvatore: The first bunch of research was just about Ward, purely biographical. And I remember very distinctly reading a headline, "Horrible Murders in White Chapel." It was about Jack the Ripper. I was up at Dartmouth, doing research, and I laid the piece down and had to walk out of the library. It was a minor epiphany.
Most people will never be as fanatic about baseball as I am. But many of the baseball books I've read occur between the foul lines, and that's very annoying to me. I don't care about old games, you know? There's always another game tomorrow. Reading that White Chapel story, I realized that to say John Ward played baseball in Williamsport meant absolutely nothing. How did he get to Williamsport? And this thing about him going to college at age thirteen - what was that about? So once I puked with nervousness - what more had I taken on here? - I went back, going through the New York Clipper, looking at advertisements and realizing that John Ward was playing in the civilized east while the Umatilla Indians were uprising, and Custer . . .
Baseball, itself, to the non-fan, is tedious as hell. My wife is not a baseball fan, and I had her in mind. All those digressions: the transoceanic cable, the county fair, the horrible headlines about the treatment of blacks . . . I'm really proud how the book came out. I've never read a baseball biography quite like this one. The Babe Ruth one by Robert Creamer is a wonderful book, beautifully written, but it's straightforward, and I wanted to air it out a bit.
Something I learned from William Shawn at The New Yorker, there was always encouragement to follow your nose. To not be the 'A' student and cover the subject with the factual truth, documented, period. It was really cool to keep finding all this stuff. At that point, John Ward had to move over, and I was really glad that he did.
I was trying to serve a curious, smart, general reader. There's plenty of baseball in there, but compared to some books about baseball there's hardly any.
Dave: Was John Ward more important as a player or a historical figure? Statistically speaking, if all you had to go by was his numbers, I don't think you'd be writing a book about him.
Di Salvatore: If he didn't start the union and the rest, no. At most, he'd be discovered once in a while and a few people might argue whether he should have been in the Hall of Fame. Statistically, no.
Dave: Is there a modern-day ballplayer you'd compare him to?
Di Salvatore: Well, I think he parallels Curt Flood. Both were unsuccessful. Both, to some extent - it ended their careers, Flood more dramatically so. Flood's stats are not first tier, but I'd want him on my team. Or Dave McNally, maybe, and Andy Messersmith.
But finally, Ward didn't change the game. He was unsuccessful. The Players' League failed. Two years after it was gone, wages were worse than when the League had formed. Babe Ruth changed the game. The guy who decided to change from a dead ball to a live ball changed the game. Messersmith and McNally happened to change the game, profoundly. Walter O'Malley, when he moved. Jackie Robinson - and Branch Rickey, who signed him - changed the game.
Why didn't Ward finish the battle? In all the research, there was a gray space, unanswered. The reserve clause, legally, was hanging by a thread. I kept writing around it and thinking about it until, finally, I came to believe that he was simply fed up and worn out.
Dave: How did you come to this book? How did you become a writer?
Di Salvatore: I grew up in southern California in a working class family. I went to Yale on a scholarship, then to the University of Montana for their M.F.A. program. I wrote for some travel magazines, Sunday newspapers, that kind of thing. Then I was in Guam for a little while, teaching college, and I hooked onto the local paper - just for beer money, really - but I realized I had an affinity for nonfiction.
In 1985, I was working at a supermarket, stocking shelves at midnight, grading papers at the local high school in Missoula, and . . . just going backwards. My softball team watched the World Series together, Kansas City against St. Louis. We roasted a huge Buffalo-hump roast. It was at my house.
I'd broken up with my girlfriend, now my wife; it was just a horrible fall, gray, dismal day. Winter was coming, I didn't have the rent, baseball season was over, and I was standing there doing the dishes . . . I literally left the damn dishes in the sink and I went down and typed up a little story, a mock-heroic story about our softball team rooting for Kansas City because we'd had a bad year and they were the underdogs. I sent it to Mr. Shawn. And he called and said, "I'd like to run this, and I'd like you to come out to New York and be our guest."
Dave: Had you ever met him at that point?
Di Salvatore: Hell, no! I sent it in the mail! A week later, there I was in New York. A magazine was on the stands with my Talk of the Town in it, and there I was meeting John Updike, Ian Frazier, Saul Steinberg (The New Yorker illustrator who did that famous map of New York then the rest of the country in the distance) and Garrison Keillor - because they were showing me around the offices - and my life changed. I wrote lots of Talks, a two-part piece about dynamite, a two-part piece about a long-distance truck driver from Missoula, a profile of Merle Haggard, which I'm very fond of.
I think for writers, most writers, it's very important to have someone - beside the person you're married to - believe in you. That's what Mr. Shawn did. And Pantheon, my publisher, with this book. They weren't looking over my shoulder. They were really good.
Dave: What books would you recommend, baseball or otherwise?
Di Salvatore: I'm reading a wonderful book right now, City of Light by Lauren Belfer, about Buffalo and the electrification of Niagara Falls. Other people I like very much: Tom Orton has a new book, The Lost Glass Plates of Wilfred Eng. I like Tom Drury's The End of Vandalism. James Joyce and Faulkner.
As far as baseball books, one of the truly great American novels is called The Dixie Association by Donald Hays. I think it is as American a novel as Huck Finn - about a pennant race, the Selma Americans versus the Little Rock Reds, a wonderfully comic, energetic novel. The Southpaw by Mark Harris. Blue Ruin by Brendan Boyd, written from the point of view of the gambler who fixed the 1919 World Series. It's the meanest, bleakest, . . . one of the most poetic books I've ever read.
Dave interviewed Bryan Di Salvatore prior to his appearance at Powell's City of Books on September 20, 1999.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State