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.

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