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Baseball Letters (1996)

by Seth Swirsky

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I enjoyed Baseball Letters (and the second volume, Every Pitcher Tells a Story) so much that I wrote to Seth Swirsky:

hello mr. swirsky,

today i bought both of your baseball books & i've just begun reading them. i find them especially interesting because as i child i used to write to baseball players from long ago (well, i considered it long ago), especially players from the 50s. i'm glad to see andy pafko in there. i was obsessed with the old brooklyn dodgers and he was such a kind man -- he used to send me old postcards and photos of himself.

what i'd like to do is turn the tables on you & ask you a few questions, if you're amenable.

[He was -- and here is his response:]

From: Seth Swirsky
Date: Sun, 11 Aug 2002
To: doc

1) of all the players who answered your letters, were there any who refused to be included in the books? if so, what reasons did they give?

first, thanks for the kind note. i'm glad you're enjoying the books. the third (and by far the best) in my trilogy is coming out next 'opening day'--it will be called something to write home about (random house).

[Name deleted] and tony kubek were the only ones who did not give me permission to use their letters. kubek didn't say anything so unbelieveable, and he's mellowed over the years. [Name deleted] wrote how black players were inferior to white players and of course, did not want that printed. i wrote him and asked him if he thought a-rod and ken griffey jr., etc. could have played in his day and he said ' well, maybe those guys'.

2) in light of the subsequent revelation of the signal-stealing system employed by the 1951 giants organization, it's interesting what pafko recalls thomson saying to him about the shot when they became roommates ("his answer was that's history, did not want to talk about it"). not that thomson's not a classy guy, but do you think pafko was correct in seeing it as thomson showing class, or do you think maybe thomson didn't feel quite right about the home run?

in my next book there is a letter from ralph branca--he confirms what pafko hinted at and what cal abrams says in my book (way before the wall street journal had an article about it). thomson absolutely knew what was coming. to hit it is another thing. still, he pounced on that pitch.

(See also)

3) that image of the williams letter on the cover of baseball letters was digitally manipulated, right? i mean, it didn't really get crumpled, did it?

i designed entirely my brand new book because of things like my cover--the idiot who gave the williams letter a crumpled look was going for an aged feel. did he not think that it looked like i crumpled up the letter and perhaps threw it out? that's why i will never let anyone art design my books again. i completely designed my new book with no help from the book company.

thanks doc and all the best to you.


The ballplayers are threatening to walk off the field. Again.

Major-league baseball has still not fully recovered from the strike eight years ago (it didn't help my writing career any, either), yet once again the limos are lining up to whisk away the game's multimillionaires to whatever private paradise they inhabit during the three months they're not being paid millions of dollars to have fun.

When the minds of ballplayers are not occupied with the woeful unfairness of their lot in life, I don't know what they're thinking about, some of these guys, because it's sure not the game. Sloppy playing is common, unlike in the days when competition for positions on only sixteen major-league teams tended to weed out players deficient on the fundamentals, or just mentally deficient. Coaches yell at toddlers in tee-ball for the kinds of bonehead errors these guys are getting fat salaries not to commit. I just watched the Cubs end up with two baserunners on third. After the play, as the goofball who forced the other runner to be put out stood there dumbfounded on third, you could easily read his lips asking the base coach, "Wha-happent?" I'll tell you what happened, bucko: you had your head up your butt instead of in the game, is what happened. I realize it's the Cubs we're talking about here, but still.

Hey, I heard that. You just said "Who cares?" out loud. Don't you lie.

Yes, admittedly, there is a lot not to care about when it comes to both professional and scholastic sports. There is no question that too much attention and too many dollars are paid to both.

Some people, however, practically boast about their lack of interest in sports, as if that deficiency were a jewel of character or mark of intelligence, rather than (as it usually is) a reaction to not having excelled at or at least enjoyed playing any sport themselves. (It's interesting that people who cannot sing -- those who admit they can't, anyway -- usually do not let that prevent them from enjoying the singing of others, yet a lack of athletic ability often engenders a tenacious bitterness.)

Whatever the cause of the lack, it is important to acknowledge it as a lack, for there is a good reason that athletic contests have always attracted interest, all the way back to the Greeks (who invented the Olympics) and beyond.

There is, of course, the lower type of interest in sports, the "bread and circuses" deplored by Juvenal and the wiser of the ancient Romans, who recognized the Roman obsession with games and spectacle as a sign of idleness and weakness of character. This is probably the most common sort of sports interest today, sometimes known by the technical term, football (whether American football or that street thug training course the rest of the world calls football).

No, just kidding. All you football fans put down your switchblades and stop swinging those chains. This lower sort of interest is not limited to any one sport. It is the consumerist interest in sports, and all sports partake of it because -- as in all human endeavor -- even in the midst of strength, human weakness will have its say, and its voice is loud. Damned loud, in fact.

There is also, however, a higher sporting interest.

It was true even before Darwin discovered it and turned it into a truism: all of life is striving, and always has been. Human beings strive, self-consciously, to achieve goals. It's why so much of our time is taken up by our interest in stories -- we want to see how things turn out, to know whether the characters achieve the goal or goals set out by the story. We're all interested in outcomes. That's why we don't like to miss the ends of movies and television shows, and partly why we watch them in the first place. It's why even those of us who heap mean-spirited abuse on reality shows end up watching some of them anyway.

Stories interest us because we're interested in what human beings do and become and in what human beings can do and become. Humans have always been fascinated by contemplating all possibilities, which is one reason that freak shows were as universally popular as they were (some would say are -- which brings us back to reality shows, but we're supposed to be talking about sports here.)

In contrast to real life, the goals of sport are clearly recognized, understood, and agreed upon by both participants and spectators, and the scope for their achievement is strictly limited. We know at the outset that we will see whether the individual or team will achieve the goals the game sets out for them. Sport, at its best, is a kind of story, and is best appreciated as story.


Even as animals play, as a means of equipping themselves for their lives, sport, given its proper sphere, teaches humans valuable principles about their existence. Animals play less and less the older they get; they have learned the lessons of play and are too taken up with the business of existence for which play helped prepare them. Most human beings also play less the older they get but, unlike animals, we humans, with our love of story, continue to take a strong interest in adult forms of play.

Ultimately, however, our interest (probably, in this case, of the bread and circuses sort) has led to millionaire baseball players repeatedly striking for more money. A strike in professional sports can be a good thing if it weans people from an overarching fixation with what should be, and once was, a pastime, a game to be enjoyed intelligently, not obsessively.

Which brings us (finally) to the book in question.

One good thing, at least, came of the '94 strike: Seth Swirsky's Baseball Letters. Swirsky relieved his strike-induced boredom by thinking back to a different era in baseball. He wrote to baseball players of the past to ask them things he'd always wondered about. He didn't go the obvious route and send dull questions to the usual Hall of Famers. Instead, he asked some unusual questions and wrote mostly lesser-known players, such as Warren Peace (one of my favorite baseball names, right up there with Urban Shocker, Yankee pitcher of the teens and twenties), Bob Stevens (who wrote, "In my day (1927-1934) baseball underwent a big change. Night baseball crept in slowly. The lights were terrible in the beginning. Nothing, really, can take the place of the sun."), and former catcher Hobie Landrith, who was asked about a promotion where he was supposed to catch a baseball dropped 575 feet from a helicopter (no easy thing to do -- the first ball was missed and buried itself six inches into the field). "I had a bet of free cokes with my team mates that I would touch one of the three attempts," Landrith writes. "It felt like a sledge hammer hitting my mitt. It was fun."

Baseball fans, more than fans of other sports, are said to be stats-crazy, but they have also always been fascinated by the unusual. They won't be disappointed by Swirsky's book, which includes:

  • Bill Webber's tale of a bizarre prank involving bats -- not baseball bats, but the flying kind of bats.

  • Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish's explanation of the origin of his name ("The only thing I was ever told (by my mother) that of 6 previous children my dad was not involved in naming any of them, so he supposedly tried to catch up.... I've always claimed that he had to be in the fire water to give a kid a name like that.... I was called Buster by all my family.")

  • Recollections of Babe Ruth by Tot Presnell ("He would never be a manager, cause he could not remember signs. He never had one sign to remember. Couldn't remember names.... You might call him a lone wolf. Away from the park, we never saw him.")

  • The claims of former Brooklyn Dodger Cal Abrams, long rumored but now substantiated, that Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard Round the World" was not 100% on the up-&-up: "Their park was wired all the way to the scoreboard. They were getting our signs with binoculars. All year long they never used it because they won their share of games. When they went way behind the Dodgers, they started stealing signs. It's easy to hit a fastball, or curve, when you know it's coming!"
Perhaps most interesting, with a strike in the offing, are the differences between baseball then and baseball now:
  • "I don't charge for autographs. I feel honored to be asked. I'm just thankful to be alive and able to do it." -- Gerry Staley

  • "So many changes in the game today. Equipment, playing fields are so much better. Can't brag on the hours they play. Prefer our schedule -- afternoon games, then an enjoyable dinner. More relaxing and less tension." -- Leo Nonnenkamp

  • "More fun and less money." -- Dolph Camilli, summarizing what big-league baseball used to be like
George Cisar, speaking of the last strike, probably speaks for most baseball fans on the subject of striking: "I hope they didn't screw it up with the past strike. Let's hope not but I think baseball won't be the same for quite a while," he writes, adding that "there could be some improvements on attitudes for all concerned."

Ballplayers would do well to return to the attitude encapsulated in a question Swirsky asked of former Dodger pitcher Claude Osteen:

"Were you ever standing on the mound, on a beautiful day, and just say to yourself -- this is amazing!?"

Note: Please do not write demanding to know what a prank involving live bats teaches us about the human condition.