2012 Bison Books paperback edition

Thursday, December 22, 2011

My Best of 2011

A handful of my very favorite personal highlights of a great year -- 
Professional: Taking NATIVE AMERICAN SON on the road
  • Charlottesville, VA: Speaking at the terrific Ragged Mountain Running Shop during the Virginia Festival of the Book
  • Los Angeles, CA: Appearing on the "Beyond the Icon" panel with Richard Schickel, Yunte Huang and Leslie Brody at the Los Angeles Times Festival of the Book at USC 
  • Oklahoma City, OK: Being keynote speaker at the Jim Thorpe Association's Leadership Luncheon -- and selling LOTS of books
  • New York City: Speaking to the Actors' Fund in the venerable Milton Berle Room of the Friar's Club 
  • Atlantic City, NJ: Speaking at the annual Pop Lloyd Negro League Celebration and having the privilege of meeting several former Negro League players and hearing their wonderful stories
  • Feedback: Hearing, all year, from discerning readers such as Douglas Brinkley, how much they enjoyed NATIVE AMERICAN SON.
  • Awards: Winning the annual research awards from both SABR (baseball) and PFRA (pro football) - the stat guys who know EVERYTHING about their respective sports.
Personal: Friends, Family and Community
  • Deepening old friendships
  • Making many new ones 
  • Being with my son, my daughter, and my two-year-old grandson
  • Living in and loving NYC, Westchester County, NY and Rockbridge County, VA = perfect trio.
On to 2012...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

50 Years Ago Today - Disastrous Berlin Premiere of JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG

Within sight of the Reichstag ruins and 700 yards from the brand-new Berlin Wall dividing the city, Stanley Kramer’s JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG had its world premiere a half-century ago on December 14, 1961 before a stunned, silent audience of prominent Germans – and 300 reporters from 26 countries. “No applause, no sobs, no tentative laughs to relieve the tension,” reported the New York Herald Tribune. Few showed up for the lavish post-party.

In a century marked with unprecedented conflict and a year, 1961, that often felt like the edge of Armageddon, JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG marks an important pivot after which popular feeling, at least in this country, began to face seriously the horrors of what would soon come to be generally called “the Holocaust.”

The sensational trial of Adolf Eichmann on 15 counts, including crimes against humanity, had concluded in Jerusalem a week before with a guilty verdict. The death sentence was read out the day after the movie’s premiere, December 15. By Christmas commentators were suggesting that the Nuremburg trials were the legal and moral precedent that “authorized brave little Israel” to hunt down and prosecute Eichmann. Hannah Arendt had reported on the trial for The New Yorker and the last four words of the subtitle of her subsequent book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, would become a catch phrase of history.

Preceding the film’s premiere had been a year of stunning Cold War brinksmanship. In April the Bay of Pigs debacle kicked off John Kennedy’s first year as U.S. president. Encouraged by this apparent incompetence of the American leader, Soviet leader Khrushchev bullied and harangued Kennedy at their June meeting in Vienna, threatening war if his demands to alter the status of Berlin were not met. All summer the world tensed itself for war. By August 17 the Berlin Wall was done, built in five days. September 1 U.S. seismographs discovered that the Soviets had resumed testing of major nuclear devices.

Meanwhile, director Kramer, screenwriter Abby Mann and United Artists were working on JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG. Shooting took place after two weeks in February of rehearsals at the Revue Studio in Hollywood and then moved to the site of the original trials in the Palace of Justice in Nuremburg and to the still-rubble-strewn streets of Berlin.

The meticulous Kramer was known for “message” pictures (THE DEFIANT ONES, ON THE BEACH, INHERIT THE WIND), but JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG was made with a particular passion and purpose. Since the end of World War II in 1945, a former U.S ally, the USSR, had become an enemy. And a former enemy, Germany – at least the Western part of the divided country -- was an essential Cold War ally in the fight against communism. As a result, it was considered "a breach of good manners in polite society,” as the film’s screenwriter Abby Mann recalled, to bring up the Nazi extermination of the Jews for fear of offending Germany.

The Nuremburg war crime trails had been a first in international jurisprudence, establishing the legal concept of crimes against humanity. The first and best known was the trial of key Nazi leaders, including Rudolf Hess and Albert Speer, from 1945 to 1946. JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG was based on the third trial, in 1947, that prosecuted 16 functionaries in the German judicial system (the script condensed the number down to four). When Mann discovered in the late 1950s that none of the jurists convicted (most of them were found guilty, some given life sentences) were still in prison, he wondered if the same attitude that allowed the Nazis to come to power was somehow related to their release (Arendt would speculate along similar lines during the Eichmann trial). That question inspired Mann’s original 1959 Playhouse 90 teleplay.

The show was a sensation. Mann claimed to be the first, both in the TV and film versions, to show documentary footage of concentration camps to a broad audience. “Nobody wanted to remember the camps,” he recalled at the time. The American Gas Company, a sponsor of the teleplay, insisted that the word “gas” be deleted from the script with the result, cracked one reviewer, that “Six million Jews died in . . . chambers.”

Kramer figured the only way the movie version would fly at the box office was to load it up with stars. The New Yorker would call it “a judicial GRAND HOTEL.” Marlene Dietrich was the “good German,” Spencer Tracy the crusty American judge, Maximilian Schell would win an Oscar for his portrayal of the defense attorney. Judy Garland, fragile, was in her first film in five years (on April 23, 1962, she would give her great Carnegie Hall concert). Montgomery Clift, drinking heavily, worked for free, his face wrecked by a car crash. Other stars: Richard Widmark, a very young William Shatner, and Burt Lancaster as Emil Janning, the Nazi judge who gives the final indictment of his own culture (‘Where were we? ... Were we deaf, dumb and blind?”).

The movie “opened and closed” that night in Berlin and would not be released in Germany until after the mini-series HOLOCAUST was a hit on German television 20 years later. Former United Artists executive and biographer Steven Bach would call JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG “one of the last of its sort before the movie industry’s capitulation to television made such subject matter impossible except on television.”

It wasn't a great movie, but it was an effective one. It was made to remind the world, as The New Yorker summed it up at the time, “of nothing less than the degree of our accountability as members of the human race, for the life and well-being of every other member of the race.” 

Friday, November 11, 2011

11-11-11: "Crippled Jimmy Thorpe" v. Harvard

One hundred years ago today Jim Thorpe was the star of one of collegiate football's most spectacular games: Carlisle Indian Industrial School v. Harvard. For the full story read my NATIVE AMERICAN SON: THE LIFE AND SPORTING LEGEND OF JIM THORPE (paperback due out in March 2012). 
     For a teaser, click on http://www.amazon.com/Native-American-Son-Sporting-Legend/dp/0375413243 and plug "Harvard" into the search box to read the section of the book that starts on page 101: 

The stage was now set, public interest “smoking hot,” for “the battle of the year," Carlisle versus Harvard. Harvard's coach, the tall, patrician, snobbish and belligerent Percy Haughton, wrote to Pop Warner [Carlisle's coach] before the game warning him that if Carlisle used a Warner trick -- sewing half-football patches on the front of the jerseys of the backs -- Harvard would cancel the game. Haughton told his second-string to suit up to start the game, conserving his varsity's strength for their next games against Dartmouth and Yale, and left for New Haven to scout the Yale-Brown game.  As one Carlisle player said,  “We pointed to this game because it meant more prestige than any other. On the other hand Harvard didn’t consider us much.” 
     At game time “Crippled Jimmy Thorpe,” as The Boston Sunday Globe described him, had his still-injured right leg heavily wrapped with “a basketweave of strapping adhesive plaster running almost from his toe to his knee.” The game would set him up as the enduring, punishing model of the iron man who plays on regardless of physical handicap. Injuries -- Jim suffered few of them -- only made him more focused. Revealing a superstitious side to his character, he pointed out that this was the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the eleventh year of the new century and eleven was his lucky number. 
            The game was epic. “Probably,” claimed the Kansas Star, “the most spectacular playing ever witnessed.”

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The World's "Most Wonderful Athlete" Goes Around the World

The Brits have an acute sense of history that we Americans can only envy. A year in advance of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, the busy BBC has been all over the story of Jim Thorpe's incredible performance 100 years ago (almost) at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm.  I've done two lengthy interviews, one in person (see my previous blog post on that) for a BBC Radio 2 series that will air next spring, the other by phone from London for BBC World Service. Impressive, both of them.

1912 was the Fifth Olympiad of the modern Games. The Olympic movement was barely off the ground and plagued with controversy and in-fighting. Read my NATIVE AMERICAN SON to get a nice summary of the whole thing. 

Here is the first of the two Thorpe-related radio shows to air, so far, from across the pond: BBC World Service is the 24/7 show that broadcasts in 27 languages to 180 million people around the planet.  It's a fitting audience size -- and recognition -- for the finest multi-sport athlete the world has ever seen or ever will see. You'll hear me talking about Thorpe. More importantly, you'll hear the pleasant, relaxed Thorpe himself, from a rare radio broadcast.


Saturday, July 9, 2011

Oh, to be in Long Beach now that SABR's there...

Lawrence Ritter, standing, looks on as Lee Lowenfish, left, interviews Red Barber, circa 1985

This Thursday, July 7, my biography of Jim Thorpe --Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe (Knopf) -- was officially awarded the 2011 Larry Ritter Award for the best book about the Deadball Era by the Deadball Era Committee at the annual convention of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) in Long Beach, California. 

I was unable to cross the continent to attend, but I sure wish I could have. This is a great honor, given by total experts in the history and statistics of our great American pastime. And, though I never met him, I understand that Larry Ritter was not only deeply respected for his knowledge of the game, but loved for his generous nature.

So, here are the remarks I prepared to be read out at the Deadball Era Committee meeting this week:

It is an honor to be the recipient of this year’s Larry Ritter Award from the SABR Deadball Era Committee. When I called my editor at Knopf, Jonathan Segal, to tell him about the award he was delighted. Jon knew Larry, thought the world of him and was thrilled at this wonderful connection. I wish I could be there to accept the award and to thank the Committee in person.

Of course I also immediately thought of THE GLORY OF THEIR TIMES: THE STORY OF BASEBALL TOLD BY THE MEN WHO PLAYED IT. Fred Snodgrass, Sam Crawford, Hans Lobert, Chief Meyers, Rube Marquard – each of those names figures in Jim Thorpe’s story when he was with the New York Giants and in the major – and high minor – leagues.

Part of the pleasure in researching and writing NATIVE AMERICAN SON was going back in time to those days when organized sports were new and fresh. Though baseball was the most organized of the team sports – football had a very long way to go, as Thorpe knew well – the sport was still in its comparative childhood, if not infancy.

One of the most satisfying discoveries about Thorpe – and there were many – was coming across 1919 newspaper coverage that demolished the old John McGraw taunt that Thorpe couldn’t hit a curve ball. As you can read in the book, Thorpe’s relationship with the redoubtable Muggsy was complicated. The root of the problem in my opinion? Thorpe was already a star when he started with the Giants in 1913. The greatest athlete in the world. He didn’t need McGraw to make him one.

However, he did need the manager to make him into a great baseball player. Thorpe had played mediocre, at best, baseball with the Eastern Carolina League in 1909 and 1910. An operation for trachoma, a debilitating eye condition rampant in Indian boarding schools such as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, may have left him with impaired eyesight. As Frank Deford told me, no matter how good an athlete is in basketball, football, track and field – baseball is just different. It requires different skills, a different mindset. Thorpe’s strategic appetite was best satisfied on the football field.

What is important for Thorpe’s Deadball Era baseball career is that he had to learn how to hit that curve ball. Baseball did not, as other sports did, come easily to him. It took him six years, but he did it. By 1919, sold to the Boston Braves by McGraw, he retaliated by leading the National League throughout most of the summer in batting. On July 16 the Los Angeles Times reported that Thorpe was hitting .411 in 22 games. Before a leg injury took him out of the running in early August, he was hitting .375 to the American League’s Ty Cobb’s .350. He ended the season at .327 and would always point to that statistic and say, with typical dry humor, “I must have hit a few curves.”

To this group of SABR experts I feel duty bound to point out that, contrary to what is printed on page 180 of NATIVE AMERICAN SON, Jim Thorpe did NOT play in the 1913 World Series. McGraw barely let him leave the bench that rookie season. When asked which position he was playing that year, Thorpe replied, “Sitting hen.” I pointed out that editing error to SABR when I was told the book was under consideration for the Ritter award and I thank them for their understanding.

Sports statistics are otherwise unforgiving and rigorous. That is both the creative control and the challenge of writing about sports. One of the big ironies of Jim Thorpe’s stellar athletic career is that, except for baseball, there are no official statistics for his performances in football or track and field. He was just too early.

Painstaking research by an NCAA archivist that can be appreciated by everybody listening to these remarks established that, even with no record at all of some of his 1912 football yardage for Carlisle, Thorpe was probably the game’s first 2,000-yard rusher. His remarkable records in the 1912 Olympic decathlon and pentathlon were annulled in 1913 and have never been re-instated, in spite of the popular perception. Too bad, because his Olympic decathlon time in the 1500-meter race stood until 1972.

And that’s one of the statistics I bring up when people ask: Was Jim Thorpe really that great? The other one is the 1919 batting record.

Thank you all very much. And I hope you’re all having a great time out there in Long Beach!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Thorpe's Big Centennial & London 2012

Opening Day: July 27, 2012. The Brits are getting pumped for the 2012 Olympic Games. It's the third London Olympiad after 1908 and 1948 and they've built a brand-new stadium (see photo above), of course. And, with a sense of history more acute than most of us, they've got the largest BBC radio network, Radio 2, already busy at work on an ambitious series of six Olympic-themed documentaries called Radio Ballads, to be broadcast during the Games a year from now. 

The segments will, according to Manchester-based interviewer Vince Hunt, tell the story of the Olympics, ancient and modern, from 776 B.C. through to London 2012, via the 1936 Berlin Olympics, 1972 Munich tragedy and the 1976, '80 and '84 boycotts as well as the 1908 marathon fiasco. They will also, by the way, coincide with the centennial of Jim Thorpe's 1912 triumph in Stockholm when he won the pentathlon and decathlon by huge margins. When the King of Sweden lauded him as "the most wonderful athlete in the world" -- the first international celebrity athlete super-star.

The project strikes this American as a (good) throwback to FDR's 1930s Works Progress Administration (WPA), when artists, acrobats, writers, and more were sent out (by the government) across the U.S. to create new work, everything from plays to national park structures. Hunt was dispatched (by his government-funded BBC) to the U.S. to talk to and record -- phone call audio not good enough -- Olympic athletes and me. 

A pretty remarkable musician himself, Hunt is a deceptively low-key interviewer. By the time we got to the symbiotic link between the early modern Olympics (1912) and nationalism, we were deep into the Big Muddy of World War I, fame, and the end of the American frontier.

Back in the U.K., said Hunt, "for our programmes to become Ballads, we play our interviews to songwriters who are then inspired by the stories they hear to write songs. We have revived a technique from the 1950s devised by the songwriter and theatre producer Ewan MacColl [and our own Peggy Seeger, MacColl's wife at the time] Our first series for the BBC in 2006 can be found here: www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/radioballads." The end result will be what one reviewer has called a "radio kaleidoscope" of interview clips, sound effects, and the ballads. 

Original songs commissioned to mark an important event? What a concept! Alan Lomax in reverse. I'll be interested to see what the Brits make of Thorpe's story. His life is an American opera: high peaks of ecstatic triumph alternating with abrupt plunges into despair and sorrow. Rich material for a song marking the centennial of the first sports performance to thrill the entire world.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Fun & Inspiration at the National Press Club

7 p.m. Saturday, May 21, 2011: Leaving BIO conference

Last weekend the little org that could -- Biographers International Organization (BIO) -- held its second annual convention at the National Press Club in the downtown heart of our nation's capital.

I went to the first annual meeting last year at UMass-Boston and thought the unusually good vibe was just start-up euphoria. Couldn't last. Competition, hierarchy, and back-biting would take over soon enough.

I was wrong. This year the ambience was, if anything, even better. Amicable, productive, generous, energetic. FUN. One attendee said it felt more like a reunion than a conference.

Somebody else wondered if writing about people's lives for a living made biographers nicer people. More empathetic. That might be a stretch, but he had a point. If you're any good as the chronicler of a life, you have to put yourself in your subject's shoes and walk. And walk. And walk.

Who better, then, to be the BIO keynote speaker than Robert Caro? The Manhattan-born man who went to the Texas hill country to live for three years so as to understand where Lyndon Johnson came from. The theme of his address was the importance to a biographer of a sense of place Robert Caro: Power of Place. I was reminded of Iris Origo's statement that for a biographer to see the places her subject has lived is like running a hand over a dead man's face.

Caro began by suggesting that the descriptive tool of fiction -- as with the deck of the Pequod, Napoleon on the battlefield at Borodino, Miss Havisham's room -- can be used by the writer of nonfiction to engage the reader in the dynamic process of discovery. With wit, passion, and elegant chronology he brought us along from LBJ's dirt-poor Texas to the triumphant architecture of Washington.

In a bravura conclusion that stunned the audience Caro showed (not told) how a meticulous understanding of a place can expose a real, historical person's essential motivation: Why he does what he does. Why LBJ was running early every morning as he approached the gleaming marble of the capitol building.

The concrete visual details, if acutely observed, reveal the human story.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Jim Thorpe Goes to Hollywood

The so-called Golden Age of American Sports? The 1920s. The new media of radio and movie newsreels pumped up the reputations of sports stars such as Big Bill Tilden (tennis), Jack Dempsey (boxing), Babe Ruth (baseball), Red Grange (football), and many more. 

When they grew too old for sports where did many of these athletes go? West, to Hollywood. The climate was great and their names were useful publicity, even if they only appeared in a movie as an extra. By 1935 it was suggested that there were more former athletes in Los Angeles than in any other American city.                                     

Jim Thorpe also made his way out to California when his game playing days were over and made a second career of bit parts, largely in westerns and adventure movies. Read more in my piece in Random House's WORD AND FILM website (and check out the YouTube video on the right of this blog page):

Jim Thorpe Goes to Hollywood 1931 - 1950

Friday, April 15, 2011

Going to the dogs

My Yorkie, Bubba, was one of the stars at "Pet Tales," a recent Marmaduke Writing Factory author event.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Book Promotion That Keeps on Promoting, Forever...

Charlottesville, Downtown Mall
C-SPAN Book TV interview Mar. 18, 2011 VA Festival of the Book

Sunny, early spring day in the Southland. C-SPAN sets up a command post in the Charlottesville-Albemarle Visitor Center at the far eastern end of the Downtown Mall. Hand-held camera, interviewer, producer, author. Visitors strolling back and forth in the background. The antithesis of the studio cave.
It's a wrap, and these 15 minutes will get plugged into time gaps on C-SPAN again and again, forever. 

Monday, March 28, 2011

Chatting with Jeremy Schaap

Just before Super Bowl Sunday, ESPN contacted Knopf to set up an interview of me by Jeremy Schaap. He wanted to talk about NATIVE AMERICAN SON for his radio show, This Sporting Life. We met at the Knopf offices on Broadway, between W. 55th and W. 56th streets. They are in the Random House building, the one with the lobby lined floor to very high ceiling with just about every great American book you've ever heard of. Sacred ground.
Jesse is a self-described track and field guy. His fine book Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics is dutifully listed in the bibliography of my biography of Jim Thorpe. His father, Dick Schaap, endeared himself to me not least because he wondered in 2000 just what Babe Ruth had done in the previous 50 years to put him ahead of Thorpe in some of those end-of-century Greatest Ever polls.

Knopf set us up in a conference room, with the ESPN producer, Jesse Baker, holding the mic between us. Jeremy was direct, thorough, persistent, and thoughtful. A great interviewer who knew his Thorpe. We talked about Carlisle, about the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, the West Point-Carlisle football game several months later. About track and field today.
It struck me that he is just about the best example of Thorpe's legacy. Like so many other American kids in the 20th century, he learned about Thorpe from his father. Of course, not every kid can claim the likes of Dick Schaap, someone who wrote so well about the Olympics and so much else.

But the essential transmission is there. The father, who probably heard the story from his father, recounts the story of the great American Indian athlete to his son. The circle continues unbroken.

Listen to the interview: here, on the right column of my blog page >>>>

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Seeing Liz Taylor at JFK

Late afternoon, TWA Terminal, JFK airport, sometime in the late 1980s: I am wandering around this amazing Eero Saarinen-designed landmark, waiting for someone to arrive from somewhere. 

As I stroll along the mezzanine (see photo below), taking in the light, angles, vertiginous ramps, there is a sudden change in the atmosphere. Maybe it is a noise, a rumble. Or an electric charge. Something is traveling through the air, a kind of communication. Something is happening down on the floor of the terminal. It is a phenomenon I have never experienced before or will ever again.

I go to the edge of the mezzanine and look down. People are moving in one direction, to my left. They aren't running, just being drawn as if to something magnetic. I can hear gasps, little cries. It's not a disaster, exactly. These are not noises of fear or horror. 

Suddenly I see the source of the reaction. It's a passenger cart, coming from the left, zipping through the terminal to a gate. The thrill in the air is now beyond intense. It is alive. It is hot. It is focused on the dark-haired woman sitting in the cart, waving to the crowd like a queen.

"Who is it?" I call down to the crowd below. 

"It's Elizabeth Taylor!" they shout back. 

Stars in the sky generate heat. That's why they twinkle from so far away. That crowd in the TWA terminal has just seen one of the greatest movie stars of all and ever. A shooting star that won't come our way again. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Good Old Days

1924: Thorpe, second from left, with NFL Rock Island Independents

Looks like a Saturday afternoon high school game, right? The NFL is only four years old here. Thorpe is four years away from his last football game.

It's 14 years since football was opened up in 1910, with running plays and the forward pass taking the place of deadly, scrum-like mass momentum attacks that, in 1909, had caused 24 fatalities -- fatalities -- in prep school and collegiate football.

Back then there wasn't any professional football to speak of. The Canton Bulldogs and the Massillon Tigers, teams from towns about ten miles apart in Stark County, Ohio, fought each other for what we can think of as the first Super Bowl championship games. Nobody outside of Ohio, if even, paid much attention. 

Until Thorpe joined the Bulldogs in 1915. The greatest athlete in the world brought desperately-needed attention to the struggling pro game. In recognition of that service and with profound gratitude, Thorpe was unanimously chosen as the first president of the new league in 1920. Ever wonder why the Professional Football Hall of Fame is in Canton? Or why a statue of Thorpe is the only one in the entry hall there?

The Canton Bulldogs and the Rock Island Independents did not survive the 1920s. By the end of that decade the pro game had moved to big cities -- and fan bases -- like Chicago (Bears) and New York (Giants). The Green Bay Packers remain, of course, the exception that proves the rule.  

Today professional football is America's most popular spectator sport by far. This Sunday, when the Green Bay Packers face the Pittsburgh Steelers, just remember that there is no Super Bowl without the NFL. And there would be no NFL without Jim Thorpe.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Controlled Tangents

Editing. The art that separates the kids from the grownups. The skill a writer never feels she's mastered. The task that finds you in your pjs at 5 in the afternoon because you haven't left your desk since you got out of bed at 6 am.

My high school English teacher in California, a Berkeley grad, compared a  piece of expository writing to a piece of string. She drew a vertical line on the blackboard and said, " You see: there is a beginning and an end. A finite line." 

My editor at Knopf takes it one step further. If he drew that line, he would then add another one, curving around the first, that would end up looking like the rod of Asclepius. The second line, the snake, as it were, represents what he calls "controlled tangents." (I tried to explain this once to another writer and he mis-heard me and thought I said, "Controlled tantrums." We laughed 'til we cried.)

My editor is making a couple of important points. One: he does not want, as he put it, a narrative "clothesline" -- a string of facts hung along in a row to dry. That's boring for the reader. Two: especially in non-fiction, the writer has periodically to take little trips -- tangents -- off that narrative line to provide background and context.

But -- and this is the controlled part -- each tangent has also never to lose sight of the subject AND to return in due time to my high school teacher's finite line.  

It's a tricky momentum, as hard to capture as a slithery snake. And you can bet that when the editor says cut, he means trim those tangents in tight and hard.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Prime Real Estate


Barnes & Noble. Not-so-fondly known as the gorilla on the bus by New York publishers. "Very, very frustrating" is how one top non-fiction editor put it as recently as December. Way back when everybody was wondering how big the Kindle and ebook would be this Christmas.

In the fuzzy Blackberry photo here is my niece, Jamie Lee, in the Downtown Brooklyn B&N last Friday night, killing time before a movie. The first thing she saw coming in through the front door was my book. Front and center on the prime display table of new biographies. Yay!

An accident? Nope. B&N has to approve the book jacket before they even let the publisher bid for that space, maybe. The coveted curb appeal and placement is negotiated and paid for. It's not the personal whim of the store's manager.

So what happens now that Borders may go under and B&N just laid off some of its most respected buyers? In a matter of months the ebook may vaporize the enormous clout B&N has wielded over publishers and, by extension, authors.

What will take its place? Anything?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Learning From Mistakes

"Grandstand managers": Polo Grounds, NYC, 1913 World Series: NY Gaints v. Philadelphia Athletics
This is what they used to call an erratum, that little slip of paper with a correction, added to a book after it came back from the printer. The second printing of NATIVE AMERICAN SON came too quickly to get this in, but it will make it into the third!

Page 180, second paragraph, corrected, will now read like this:  
Three days before the [1913] World Series began between the Giants and the [Philadelphia] Athletics, in the second of a two-game series against the Phillies, McGraw started Jim in center field and put him at the top of the batting order. "The minute [Jim] stepped from the dugout," said one reporter, the infamous New York "grandstand managers" started their jeers: "Pick a bat that hasn't a hole in it!" Jim struck out twice and hit two weak grounders at Grover Cleveland Alexander, a great pitcher. "Each time Thorpe came to bat," the reporter continued, "there was a repetition if the grim humor in the grandstand, and each time he started back for the bench, there followed the jeers, and by the facial expression and actions, Thorpe showed how keenly it hurt him." 

My error? From a tattered, old 1913 news clip headlined "Thorpe Tragic Figure in Series," I'd conflated the two-game "series" described above with the World Series. Tip off: Grover Cleveland Alexander never pitched for the Athletics, nor did Thorpe play in the 1913 World Series. Giants manager McGraw barely let him hit at all during this, Thorpe's first, season.

I knew all that stuff, but in a last-minute edit, after all my kind, patient baseball pals had reviewed the text, I slipped it in. It seemed too sad to be true that Thorpe was jeered at a World Series. And, it was. 

Life lesson: triple-check everything and then triple-check it again. Especially when you're writing about sports, where there are scores, statistics, and passionate fans. Thank you, an alert reader in Rhode Island!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

My Recent Morning Show Appearance

 I had a great time chatting about Thorpe on VIRGINIA THIS MORNING in Richmond, Virginia. Hosts Greg McQuade and Cheryl Miller were fun to talk to. They had each read the book, liked it a lot, wanted me to sign their copies, and asked great questions.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Couldn't Hit A Curve Ball

1916 Gimbels (M101-5) Jim Thorpe #176 Baseball Card
Jim Thorpe, 1916 NY Giants
"He couldn't hit a curve ball." So said John McGraw, Jim's domineering and pennant-winning manager at the New York Giants baseball team. The judgment stuck, clinging to Jim's story and reputation like a sharp old barnacle.

Jim came to the Manhattan team in the wake of one of the biggest sports scandals of the century (The 2011 World Almanac, almost 100 years after the fact, still puts it at the top of the list of worst sports scandals): Seven months after winning, with huge margins, both the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, and playing a 1912 football season for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School team that would have won him, Sports Illustrated would later suggest, the Heisman Trophy had it existed back then, Jim was summarily stripped by the AAU of his two gold medals and his amateur status. 

Why? He had played professional baseball with minor league teams in 1909 and 1910. So? "Simon pure" amateurism was the sports ideal of an elite determined to exclude, in effect, the lower classes. Anyone who had ever accepted payment of any kind for playing sports was deemed a pariah and demoted to the grubby rank of professional.

Pre-Babe Ruth, the Giants were the Yankees of their day. Jim accepted McGraw's lucrative offer in January 1913. Baseball was his weakest sport, but that didn't matter. He was a huge gate attraction.

You can read in detail about the fraught McGraw - Jim relationship in NATIVE AMERICAN SON. What is important here is that Jim had to learn to play baseball, the sport that can frustrate even the finest athletes in other sports.

By the summer of 1919, sold by McGraw to the Boston Braves because "he couldn't hit a curve ball," Jim was the leading batter of the National League. At one point that summer, he was hitting better (.375) than Ty Cobb in the American League (.350). He could now hit anything, from left- (.333) and right-handed (.316) pitchers.

An injury took him out of the running in August, but for the rest of his life he would say of that 1919 season, when he batted .327: "I must have hit a few curves."

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Bye Bye Old Year, Hello New


Well, that was 2010. 

The last night of it was spent at a party at the neighbor's house down the road here in rural Virginia. The clock was set two hours back so that we could celebrate midnight at 10 p.m. (the tradition started when the children in the group were small; now they're in high school, but we still do it.) Stouffer's lasagne cooking away in the oven. Tons of corn chips. A sausage dip in the slow cooker that, we all agreed, looked bad but tasted good. Cheap red wine. Beer.

This year I went to the Dollar Store and bought out their selection of Mardi Gras-style beads. Everybody, even the dogs, got slung with green, red, and blue strands. The cats were upstairs, as usual, under the beds.

The day before, the few other nearby neighbors, who are either not invited or choose, always, not to come, are warned that there will be fireworks at 10 on New Year's Eve. "The cheesiest fireworks display ever," as it's fondly called, by us, anyway. The guys are really into the fireworks and look forward to them all year. The usual supplier was sick, so a new source had to be found -- a process meticulously recounted to a rapt audience of us. 

A scaffold is set up in the road (it's a cul de sac) with Roman candles, sparklers, tubes, mines, shells -- the works -- lined up in a row on the wooden platform. One year the Roman candles got out of hand and the men had to run for cover -- the incident now a beloved part of our oral history. The women and children gather several feet away, ready to scream with feigned fear and real delight as the crackles, pops, and sizzles begin and the men jump around waving their barbecue lighters.

Last night the sky was crystal clear -- Orion is big right now -- and the air not too cold. At the stroke of "midnight," the first round of firecrackers was lighted. Wow! Ooooh! Wow, again! Yay! Then, like big professional fireworks, just when we spectators thought it was all over, came the grande finale. OMG! Fabulous.

Welcome, 2011.