Saturday, December 26, 2015

Box Score: A Recap of My 2015 Season

I guess it was almost 9 months ago when my wife and I were sitting on the tarmac at Oklahoma City Airport. We were returning to Kentucky after spending a wonderful visit with her sister's family and as we waited for takeoff, I thought about the near future and what it would bring. My book, "The League of Outsider Baseball", was being packaged and shipped at that very moment and was due to launch the following week. Although I've had a long and varied career as an illustrator and designer, this was my first book and I wasn't sure what to expect. I truly poured my heart and soul into this single thing, the culmination of not only five years of writing and illustrating the blog from which it derived, but over four decades of passion for a sport I loved dearly. Months earlier when I had put the manuscript to rest and sent it to Simon and Schuster, I knew I had created the book I had always wanted to find in a book store. The only problem was I wasn't sure there was anyone else looking for that same book like I had always been.

So there I was with my wife sitting on the plane waiting to take off. As always, I was agitated and jittery before take off so I took out my phone and checked my email and there it was: a notification that the Baseball Reliquary had named me the 2015 recipient of the Tony Salin Award for contributions to baseball history.

Wow! I had no idea I was even considered for the award. For those who aren't familiar with the Baseball Reliquary, this non-profit was been referred to as the "Alternative Baseball Hall of Fame" which I guess is a good descriptive phrase but doesn't quite describe what the Reliquary is. Founded in 1996, the Baseball Reliquary embraces all the things, good and bad, that make baseball a truly unique sport. Each year the Reliquary elects three players to their Hall of Fame and also recognizes two other aspects of the game: the fans and the people who keep its history alive. The "Hilda Chester Award", named after the leather-lunged, cow bell ringing Brooklyn super-fan is given each year to a similarly dedicated fan of the game. The Tony Salin Award, named for the eminent historian, is given for contributions to the preservation of baseball history. That's the award I received.

I can't begin to explain how honored I was by this award, but I'll try. The timing was perfect, because if I had won the award a month later I would have chalked it up to having a book out - but this was prior to the book hitting the stores. This award was for everything I had done before the book, and that's what made it so special to me.

Here it is...

The Award is as unique and eclectic as the Baseball Reliquary. A completely distressed and destroyed baseball that only a baseball historian can love is suspended inside a clear case engraved with the name of the award and recipient. It goes without saying it is displayed in a very prominent spot in my studio. 

The ceremony was held at the Pasadena Public Library in late July and my wife and I flew out for the event. The day was made even more special because my in-laws came along as well. Alan, my father-in-law, grew up in Southern California during the 1950's and was a fan of the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. It just so happened that one of the 2015 inductees was a guy who embodied Angels baseball in the fifties: Steve Bilko. Steve passed away some time ago, but his whole family turned out for the ceremony and the hilarious stories told by Bilko biographers Gaylon White and John Schulian brought the house down. My mother-in-law (who, though born and raised in Australia, taught herself to keep score and statistics as the official scorekeeper for her sons' Little League teams!) bought me a copy of White's book "The Bilko Athletic Club" which became my favorite baseball book of the year.

In one of those weird coincidences, my old pal Charlie Vascellaro was keynote speaker for the event and his presence made the whole day seem like a happy reunion. After the ceremony I signed copies of my book and got to meet Tony Salin's son. He handed me a baseball glove signed by the past recipients of the Salin Award as well as all the living Baseball Reliquary Hall of Famers. I was then asked to add my signature in a special place saved just for me - right beside Steve Dalkowski's autograph! (For those of you who've not seen my book, one of the best illustrations in it is of the great pitcher and Baseball Reliquary Hall of Famer Steve Dalkowski). 

In the first week of May I received the first production copy of The League of Outsider Baseball - in fact that's me in the above photo holding that first copy. I can't say how impressed I was at the look and feel of the thing. The publisher's attention to detail was unlike any baseball book I'd ever owned and you have no idea how proud it made me to see my name on the cover. Simon and Schuster's production team really did a phenomenal job managing all the colors, making my illustrations just pop off the pages.

The week before the book hit the stores my wife Andrea surprised me with a book launch party. All my friends showed up and my wife decorated our house with large reproductions of the illustrations from the book. The whole affair was catered, complete with a bar stocked with my favorite booze and baseball decorated cupcakes made by my friend Michelle. It was an incredible party and a night I'll never forget.

And then the book hit the shelves!

Before the book came out I was terrified of reviews. What if no one liked it? Each morning I looked online for reviews and then all of a sudden there they were! Nervously I clicked on the first one - and it was really good. Then the next - even better. Then another - really great! One after another, newspapers all across the country featured my book and I can't tell you how flattering the reviews were - but you can read them HERE

Of course it didn't hurt that NPR's Scott Simon interviewed me for his Weekend Edition show. This, plus the many positive newspaper reviews, kept The League of Outsider Baseball atop Amazon's "Baseball Biography" AND "Art Books" categories for weeks.

I tell you, it was an incredible feeling to see my book featured in the Book Section of the same newspapers I consult when I am looking for something new to read. Not only did newspaper reviewers enjoy the book but Major League Baseball gave it the greatest review I'd ever seen them give a book and ESPN called it "The Most Beautiful Baseball Book of the Summer". Can't do any better than that! 

One of the most influential reviews came from Mike Rooney, a Barnes and Noble manager in Knoxville. His review in the store's house publication had a big impact on how Barnes and Noble marketed my book, and you have no idea how grateful I am for that. Mike even had me come down to Knoxville for a signing, which was a great time. Turns out he's a Mets fan like me and during the signing he had Game 6 of the 1986 World Series playing on the TV screens throughout the store!

Among all the positive aspects of the whole review process was a single oddity that I want to mention. One "famous" reviewer gave me a favorable write-up - but I could instantly recognize from reading it that they (I'll call this person "they" to disguise their identity) never opened the book. I knew this is that the review quoted directly from the marketing material which I wrote myself - and the reason I know that is because it is an early version which mentions a player who was not included in the final book! My curiosity peaked, I read other reviews by this person and found that they didn't seem to ever read any of the books! One review missed the entire point the author was trying to make with his book! In the comments section I found many readers calling this "reviewer" out for this and their countless mistakes. What stuck in my craw was that this person gets a paycheck to read these books and their reviews are picked up by many news outlets. Made me angry because my book was wasted on this clown - I'd rather have had their copy go to a real reviewer or a library where people will actually read it.

One of the scariest parts of the book launch was the 3-week radio interview blitz that was scheduled. It seemed like every morning I'd get an updated schedule with blocks of 15 minutes to a half hour booked all across the country. The first ones I did I was scared stiff - this was live radio after all and I tend to swear like a sailor in even the most formal of settings. Luckily I was able to keep my colorful vocabulary under wraps and after the first couple shows I actually was able to relax and have fun with each call. The most reassuring part of the interviews was the off-mic compliments I received from the hosts and engineers - it made me feel very proud to hear things like "I never really get time nor want to read the books whose authors I have on - but your book was fantastic!" and "all the people here in the booth are fighting over who gets to read it next". This enthusiasm made each show very fun to do, because instead of my having to pick stories I think would be interesting, each host had their own list of questions and stories they wanted me to tell their listeners. With the exception of one "morning zoo"-type show, I could tell that every single host read through my book - and that made for some great radio shows.

Of the many shows I did, none could top the sheer novelty of the hour long C-Dot Show. Hosted by Reds beat writer C. Trent Rosecrans and Josh Sneed, this was live in front of an audience at MOTR Pub in Cincinnati. I was scared stiff going into that one, especially since my wife was in London doing research and would not be there. However a group of my best friends (all of whom I later immortalized in the Casey at the Bat commission) showed up to support me. The show was fantastic and it was great to sit and talk baseball history with two guys who know their stuff like Trent and Josh do. All the way across the Atlantic, my wife was able to download the show and listen to it as she walked to the Bodleian Library in Oxford the next morning (you too can hear it HERE).

Another fun interview was with my old friend Dr. Bob Hieronimus in Baltimore. This was an hour and a half show and to my delight it came off sounding exactly like what it was - two old friends swapping fun baseball history stories. Dr. Bob is one of the most generous people I've ever met - his work behind the scenes supporting some of the old Negro League greats has never and will never be recognized because he's that type of guy. When my book came out Dr. Bob was first on my list of people who were to get a review copy - not because I wanted to get on his show, but because I knew he'd really enjoy it. If you want to hear some good radio, I recommend listening to it when you get a chance HERE).

Of course with a new book comes book signings and I was lucky enough to do a few this summer. I gotta say these were really enjoyable because I was able to meet many people across the country who share the same interests. It was also flattering that people would take the time out of their day to come and meet an author like me. It's one thing to write this blog and book, but it's quite another thing to meet the people who read them in person. I'm always surprised at how people with such diverse backgrounds and personalities all have a love of baseball as a common denominator and this is no more evident than at a book signing.

One thing I was really dreading was giving talks about my book. I was never a very comfortable public speaker, and I was a bit apprehensive about the way I wanted to do my presentations. I don't have a fancy Power Point show nor do I read from a script. I don't use Power Point because I tend to get too distracted changing slides and besides, I've never had one go smoothly anyway. The reason I don't read from a script is because I'm dyslexic and can't read aloud. So basically I wing it - off-the-cuff conversation style. Fortunately the audiences seem to respond well to that approach and I like the spontaneity of it. By the end of the summer I came to really enjoy sharing my love of baseball history with an audience. Among the best talks I gave were at the English Speaking Union in Cincinnati and the Wisconsin Book Festival in Madison. The later one was special because one of the organizers told me afterwards that my talk received the highest feedback grades they'd ever seen at the festival. Anyway, I've come to enjoy giving talks and hope to do more in the future.

Over the years I've been fortunate enough to hear from several of the players whose portraits and stories I've included on my website, and that continued after the book came out. One of the most memorable was the letter I received from the relatives of Jimmy O'Connell. He's in the chapter entitled "The Bad Guys" due to his being thrown out of organized baseball for offering money to an opposing player to throw a game. Jimmy's great-niece wrote to say how bittersweet it was to find her great-uncle Jim in a chapter with a title of "Bad Guys". After telling me about how much she enjoyed the book she added this poignant passage: "So I'd like to put in a word for Jim O'Connell and let you know what a good guy he was. Devoted to his wife, my Aunt Esther, a loving uncle to my mom and her sister and madly in love with the game of baseball, long after it turned its back on him. ". It was something that has stuck with me ever since. These ballplayers I illustrate and write about had families who loved them. The letter made Jimmy O'Connell not just a name from old newspaper articles and box scores, but a very real person. I'm happy to say that Jimmy's relatives are now finishing up a "guest author" post on the old ballplayer they called "Uncle Jim". It should run sometime in early 2016.

Among the most surprising letters (in a good way) I received was from former President George Bush. He's in "The People's Game" chapter of the book where I wrote about his being captain of the Yale baseball team that played in the first two College World Series. Even though he was in ill health this summer, he still made time to send me a letter and signed photograph of he and Babe Ruth. All I can say is what a class act.


One of the neatest things related to people's reaction to the book occurred just a few weeks ago when I was visiting my grandmother in New Jersey. Her good friend Esther had bought a copy of my book as a gift for her two brothers, huge baseball fans since they were kids. Esther told my grandma that her brothers really enjoyed the book, but the best part was that it solved a baseball mystery the two had wondered about since the 1950's - turns out the two remembered a rookie sensation with the Brooklyn Dodgers who came up at the end of a season and pitched two phenomenal games with incredible strike out numbers - and then disappeared. For years the two wondered in vain what happened to this guy - until they found the answer on page 55 in my book! Esther's brothers were talking about Karl Spooner, a guy who was near the top of my list when I made out the original roster of players I wanted to include in the book.

To close out 2015 I received one last piece of great news - The League of Outsider Baseball was selected as one of the Nine Best Baseball Books of the Year by Spitball Magazine. This means my book is in the running for the coveted "Casey Award", the highest honor that can be bestowed on a baseball book. Three years ago I was asked to be one of the judges and that was a great honor, but now even that was topped by being nominated for the award itself! The winner is announced in February... 

Of course every year comes with a bit of regret, and mine is but a minor one - I wish The League of Outsider Baseball had been released a few years earlier - then it might have been included in The Bible of baseball books - "501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read Before They Die" by Ron Kaplan. However Ron did have me as a guest on his podcast which was a lot of fun - you can hear for yourself HERE.

So as I enjoy Christmas with my wife's family, I want to say thank you to everyone who made this year so incredibly special for me. I'm talking about Jake Elwell, the New York literary agent who convinced me a book was indeed a possibility, my editor Matthew Benjamin and publicist Maria Whalen at Simon and Schuster who believed in me and made the book a reality. And most importantly, my wife Andrea. As much of a pessimist as I am, I never, ever would have pursued the book had it not been for her boundless encouragement and unwavering belief in me. I will never forget these words of advice she gave me: "make the book YOU always wanted to find in a bookstore". Thanks to her, I did just that.

I wish everyone a safe, prosperous and happy 2016 and hope you keep checking in at The Infinite Baseball Card Set because there's some real good stories coming up!

Those who have met me in person know I'm not the kind of guy to toot my own horn. In fact, much to my detriment, I'm lousy about promoting myself. That's why it's hard for me to ask this, but this is something that needs to be done: if you bought a copy of The League of Outsider Baseball, can you please take the time to write a review of it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Good Reads? It would mean a lot to me and most importantly give future publishers an idea of what the book reading public thinks of my work. Almost all of the existing reader's reviews have been flattering, but every once in a while some crackpot writes a clunker out of jealousy or boredom. I for one often look at the reviews on those sites before I spend my money on a book. Reviews aren't the only thing I rely on in my purchasing process but it's certainly a factor, and that's why I'm asking you to please take the time to write your thoughts about my work.

Monday, December 7, 2015

209. Tris Speaker: Fenway Park, 1912

Over the past two weeks I've unveiled two of my commissions for The National Pastime Museum: my interpretation of "Casey at the Bat" and Grover Cleveland Alexander. The third and final piece commissioned was of Hall of Famer Tris Speaker. 

Speaker had a long, illustrious career, first with the Boston Red Sox when they won the World Series in 1912 and 1915, and then with the Cleveland Indians where he led the Tribe to the 1920 World Championship. When Speaker wrapped up his career in 1928 his average was frozen at .345, still sixth best of all-time. He holds the record for career doubles and ranks fifth in total hits. As powerful as Speaker was at the plate, he truly excelled in the outfield - beat writers at the time gave his glove the coolest description ever bestowed on an inanimate piece of sporting equipment - "the place triples go to die". 

As good as he was on the playing field, Tris Speaker also had a dark side. As a young player with Boston he was mixed up in the Catholic vs. Protestant rivalry on the team, something he brought with him when he moved to Cleveland in 1916. His anti-Catholic feelings were so strong that he refused to attend his friend Ray Chapman's funeral after he was killed by Carl Mays' erritant pitch in 1920 because it was in a Catholic church. Sportswriter Fred Lieb wrote in his book "Baseball as I have Known It" that Speaker revealed he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Still, when Larry Doby joined the Indians in 1947, Speaker was a scout/good will ambassador for the club and reportedly displayed complete support for the AL's first Black ballplayer.  

Speaker's career in the majors ended under a dark cloud in 1926 when he and Ty Cobb were implicated in a game-fixing scandal by former teammate Dutch Leonard. An investigation by Commissioner Landis ultimately found nothing to it, but by the time he was cleared Speaker was out of the majors and managing in minor leagues. Scandal or no scandal, Tris Speaker left behind such impressive numbers that nothing could possibly stand in the way of his enshrinement in Cooperstown.

For my illustration I wanted to do something that visually popped. I went through my library and found a photo postcard of a player wearing a 1911-1912 Red Sox warm-up sweater. Made of red and white wool, that thing must have popped in real life. the time period worked well, too. 1912 was Speaker's first really great year in majors as he helped bring Boston a World Championship - and even better - 1912 was the inaugural year for Fenway Park. 

So, allow me to introduce Tristram E. Speaker, Fenway Park, Fall of 1912...

I'd like to thank The National Pastime Museum for the commission of these three pieces. On top of being a lot of fun to research and execute, it is a great honor to be part of their permanent collection of baseball art.

Those who have met me in person know I'm not the kind of guy to toot my own horn. In fact, much to my detriment, I'm lousy about promoting myself. That's why it's hard for me to ask this, but this is something that needs to be done: if you bought a copy of The League of Outsider Baseball, can you please take the time to write a review of it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Good Reads? It would mean a lot to me and most importantly give future publishers an idea of what the book reading public thinks of my work. Almost all of the existing reader's reviews have been flattering, but every once in a while some crackpot writes a clunker out of jealousy or boredom. I for one often look at the reviews on those sites before I spend my money on a book. Reviews aren't the only thing I rely on in my purchasing process but it's certainly a factor, and that's why I'm asking you to please take the time to write your thoughts about my work.

Friday, December 4, 2015

208. Pete Alexander: October 10, 1926

This Fall was pretty hectic for me. Along with my usual design work I was lucky enough to participate in a couple of book festivals and signings. I've also had a few interesting art commissions, most notably the "Casey at the Bat" interpretation for The National Pastime Museum. In addition to the Mudville 9, The Museum also asked me illustrate two Hall of Famers for their collection. The first was Grover Cleveland Alexander.

"Pete" Alexander had a remarkable career that stretched from his rookie year in 1911 through the late 1930's when he was an arm-for-hire on the barnstorming circuit. In 1915, 1916 and 1920 Alexander won the pitching Triple Crown, leading his league in wins, strikeouts and ERA. Six times he topped the NL in wins, including four consecutive seasons. He won a staggering 373 games plus three in the World Series. Along with being one of the greatest pitchers to ever play the game, Alexander earned himself a reputation as a surly prima-donna with a drinking problem. He also suffered lingering effects of shell-shock from his days in France during the First World War and was an epileptic, untreatable and misunderstood back then. Alexander tried to hide his epilepsy, the result being that his seizures were often mistaken for bouts of drunkenness.

Pete Alexander also left us with one of the most dramatic moments in Post-Season history - one so clouded in mystery it's not known whether it even happened like the often-repeated story.

And that's the moment I wanted to depict in my illustration.

Of course I'm talking about Game 7 of the 1926 World Series.

The 39 year-old Alexander had already chalked up two complete game wins against the Yankees, the second coming in Game 6 to even up the series and force a deciding seventh game. Those things are hard facts - now the legend kicks in. Knowing he would not be called to pitch in the final game the next afternoon,  Alexander went out after the game to celebrate his victory. According to stories told by a few of his teammates which have since become baseball legend, Alexander spent most of Game 7 in the Cardinals bullpen either horribly hung over, or awake and still sneaking drinks from a hidden bottle of whiskey. Either way he supposedly didn't expect to be called on to play that day. 

That all changed in the seventh inning when Cards starter Jesse Haines developed a blister on his pitching hand. With two outs and St. Louis clinging to a 3-2 lead, the Yankees had loaded the bases. Future Hall of Famer Tony Lazzeri was due up next. The game and the World Series hung in the balance so Cardinals manager Rogers Hornsby called on the one man with the right skills and experience needed to get the job done - Pete Alexander.

So hung over, sleeping or still drunk, Pete Alexander emerged from the bullpen and took the mound. The results was one of the most dramatic moments in baseball history: he struck Lazzeri out. The old righty then took the mound in the 8th and 9th innings, holding the Yankees scoreless and winning the World Series for St. Louis.

The tale has gone down as one of those great baseball stories, like Bobby Thomson's home run in the '51 playoffs, Curt Schilling's bleeding ankle and Babe Ruth's called shot. But was it that dramatic? I'm not so sure. Don't get me wrong, it was THE pivotal point in the game - the Yankees with Ruth, Gehrig, Combs, and all those other guys was a dangerous powerhouse. You just weren't safe with a one-run lead. My problem lies with two other aspects of the story. 

The first is whether or not Alexander was sleeping, completely hung over or still boozing it up in the bullpen. It ain't a secret that Ol' Pete was a juicer. In fact 1927 would be his last effective season in the big leagues before the sauce took over his life. So it isn't far fetched to see the aging Alexander tying one one the night he won Game 6. He probably did have a hangover the next day. But was he still boozing it up in the bullpen or still drunk? I say no. Pete Alexander may have been a lot of things, but he was first and foremost a professional. Back in 1926 there really was no specialized relief pitchers and Alexander knew that if Haines got into trouble the chances were pretty good that he'd be put in to pitch. Sure he pitched a complete game the day before, but doing a little relief work was nothing out of the ordinary for a seasoned starter like Alexander. He knew this, the manager Rogers Hornsby knew it and that's exactly what happened when Haines got his blister in the 7th inning. Back during that 1926 World Series, Alexander knew he was reaching the end of his career and thus far his great performance in the Series solidified his stature as one of the game's greatest pitchers. He was at the top of his career and he lived for moments like this. Years later when Alexander was working the barnstorming circuit with teams like the bearded House of David, the old ace was in the throes of full-blown alcoholism. His career was in the toilet, his wife left him and he was eking out a living pitching an inning or two in dusty Midwestern towns for a team of bearded amateurs. Now at the low part of his life it isn't hard to see Alexander having to rely on the bottle to dull his senses and indeed many of the stories of him being drunk on a ball field stem from this period of his life - not from his big league days.

Another little tidbit that helps pooh-pooh the bottle in the bullpen tale is that the Cards' manager, Rogers Hornsby, was a teetotaler who wouldn't even let his players see a movie or read a newspaper in the locker room lest it harm their batting eye. Drinking in the bullpen? No freakin' way. Alexander was a superstar and probably was permitted to get away with a lot, but not that much.

The other aspect that is slightly troubling about the story centers around the guy Alexander struck out - Tony Lazzeri. Today we all know Lazzeri as the Hall of Fame second baseman who more than held his own in a Yankee line up that featured the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and a smorgasbord of other superstars. But in 1926 when this story unfolded, Tony Lazzeri was a fresh-faced rookie. Sure he finished his freshman campaign third in the AL in both home runs and RBI, but he batted .275 and led the league in... strikeouts. So in short, when Alexander took the mound and peered down at the fellow with the bat in his hands 60'-6" away, he knew he was facing a kid who had power but was not guaranteed to put the ball into play. So we had a seasoned veteran, completely confident in his skills up against the rookie who whiffed more than any other man in the American League. It's not a situation any pitcher would have relished being thrust into, but f I was betting man, I'd put my greenbacks on Alexander.

So when The Museum commissioned me to do an illustration of Alexander, I wanted to depict Ol' Pete at the moment he received Hornsby's call to take the mound in Game 7. I wanted to show him the way I believe he was during that famous game, tired and at the end of a magnificent career, but a true professional, ready for anything.

Those who have met me in person know I'm not the kind of guy to toot my own horn. In fact, much to my detriment, I'm lousy about promoting myself. That's why it's hard for me to ask this, but this is something that needs to be done: if you bought a copy of The League of Outsider Baseball, can you please take the time to write a review of it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Good Reads? It would mean a lot to me and most importantly give future publishers an idea of what the book reading public thinks of my work. Almost all of the existing reader's reviews have been flattering, but every once in a while some crackpot writes a clunker out of jealousy or boredom. I for one often look at the reviews on those sites before I spend my money on a book. Reviews aren't the only thing I rely on in my purchasing process but it's certainly a factor, and that's why I'm asking you to please take the time to write your thoughts about my work.