with Harvey Frommer and Frederic J. Frommer
Authors, "Growing Up Baseball"
Monday, April 1, 2002; 2 p.m. EST
Father and son authors Harvey and Frederic J. Frommer share collected interviews in their new book, "Growing Up Baseball," to create the first oral history of the "growing-up years" of some of baseballs greatest heroes. Players -- including Bobby Thomson, Red Murff, Keith Hernandez, Don DiMaggio -- recall their journeys from childhood play to the major leagues.
Both Frommers were online Monday, April 1 at 2 p.m. EST, to discuss their book and the history and importance of baseball in America.
Harvey Frommer is the author of many baseball books, including "Shoeless Joe" and "Ragtime Baseball." He is a professor at Dartmouth College. Frederic J. Frommer is a political reporter for the Associated Press in Washington, D.C. He also contributes content to washingtonpost.com.
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Frederic J. Frommer and Harvey Frommer: Having done over 30 sports books and working with my son on his first sports book, it was a real thrill for the both of us, especially all those years of me throwing fungls and balls to him in the backyard. -Harvey
I agree and one thing I was definitely able to relate to in talking to players was those years putting together makeshift diamonds and playing in whatever field and equipment I could at the time. -Fred
Rocky River, Ohio: On the sandlots of my youth, as, I'd imagine, many of the heroes you interviewed, we gathered on summer mornings for ragtag pickup games, where unused gloves served as the bases and everyone used the same half-splintered bat. Today, you can't find a game that isn't part of an organized league featuring kids whose parents buy them the finest equipment and who pay $50 an hour for the kid to visit a hitting instructor. Is baseball losing some of its romanticism, its mystique, as highly competitive leagues and highly driven parents turn youth baseball into the mini Major Leagues?
Frederic J. Frommer and Harvey Frommer: Fred: I think that as a kid growing up in the 1970's I've played my share of little league and pickup baseball. I think back then there was more of an emphasis of kids going out and making use of makeshift equipment with what they had: stickball. I agree that now there is more focus on more organized baseball and parental supervision and that childhood baseball is losing its romanticism.
Harvey: Having batting cages in the backyard or having kids on strength and weight conditioning programs, a natural play of the game becomes lost. Now every kid has to have the state of the art equipment and it always doesn't have to be that way and some of the romaniticism does get lost. In some instances, parents may be getting 'too' involved and might be putting their own frustrations and childhood dreams in to the kids and might result in anger and annoyance. After all, for kids on the youth level, baseball is just a game.
Greenbelt, Md.: Hi--
It seems to me that most major league baseball players in 1920s and 1930s grew up on farms or in rural areas of the U.S. Today, it seems most major leaguers have grown up in either the U.S. suburbs or in the Caribbean.
When you were researching your book, did you find this to be true? And is there any aspect of baseball skills (i.e., pitching, hitting, defense) that's been affected by this demographic shift in where baseball players have learned the game?
Frederic J. Frommer and Harvey Frommer: Harvey: This is a very good question. I think if you cut across generations as we did in our book, we tried to have a big ethnic mix and I think that baseball and today's opening day, as you can see in the line-ups you see the ethnic mix. I don't think the sport has really changed that much as a result of this but has gotten to be more exciting and more skill levels are being shown.
We have old time players in our book like Bob Feller and Murff and Dimaggio who learned the sport. Feller's father built a field for him on their farm. Dimaggio learned the game early on through the streets of San Francisco. Murff learned his game by throwing a ball against a wall of a barn. So this underscores just how baseball is Americana and Americana is baseball.
Washington, D.C.: I have spoken with many adult baseball fans who all seem to share an identical memory of their first major league game. It is that moment when you walk from the dark, greyish concourse, through the tunnel and see the vast spread of bright green for the first time. It's as though nothing else was in color until that moment. I'm wondering if you think this is a generational memory for fans whose only previous view of a ball game was on a black and white television set. In other words, is that first sight of the great green outfield less dramatic for kids today who have seen countless games on color television?
Frederic J. Frommer and Harvey Frommer: Fred: I think it is not different for today's kids because there is nothing like seeing a game in person. Baseball probably more than any other sport can be best enjoyed in person. From any of the players that we interviewed, they had similar instances when they had stepped onto the field. They told of this incredible thrill they had upon walking through the dugout onto the major league field for the first time. They shared the same enthusiasm as when they were a child seeing a game for the first time.
Washington, D.C.: Did you find many players who had fathers (or mothers) who were intent on bringing up a professional ballplayer? And on a lighter note, did Harvey ever try to develop Fred as a million-dollar slugger?
Frederic J. Frommer and Harvey Frommer: Fred: Yes we had a few. The one that really stands out is Keith Hernandez who played for the Mets and Cardinals. His father was a firefighter and would organize games for the kids in the neighborhood. Hernandez told us in the book:
"My dad wanted me to be a major league player. He'd often tell me, 'You know, at one time Willie Mays was an eight-year-old kid like you, Mickey Mantle was eight years old and Stan Musial was eight years -old. Look at where they're at now. So what don't you make that you?' Thinking those baseball greats were once kids just like me kind of put it in perspective I bought it hook, line and sinker. I knew I wanted to be a major league ballplayer."
Harvey: The father of the Brett family moved his whole family from the east coast to the west coast to give his sons more baseball playing opportunities and raised a couple of really superb baseball players. His sons are George and Ken Brett. George was the younger one. A scout came out to sign on Ken, but he heard his dad saying "Ken is really good but wait five years until the younger one comes along. He'll be a hall of famer." George Brett did become a hall of famer. I never thought that Fred could become a million dollar closer cause he never did much pitching. But I did think he had a shot as an infielder.
Fred: My dad used to hit me very hard ground balls in our very small backyard and told me if I worked hard enough, I could be another Billy Cox who was a great fielding third baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950's. Now I play in the outfield.
Arlington, Va.: Harvey, I'm a big fan of your work. With all of your insight, what do you think it will take for the D.C. area to land a baseball team next season?
Frederic J. Frommer and Harvey Frommer: Harvey: I guess it will take one of the established teams to definitely go out of business. I definitely believe that D.C. deserves and is long overdue another major league baseball franchise. We interviewed in our book several players who incidentally performed for the old Washington Senators and they were wistful of their memories of that team. I strongly feel that D.C. needs its own team.
Fred: For D.C. to get a team, the Baltimore Orioles owner needs to be persuaded and compensated for the fans that he claims he will lose to a Washington team.
Princeton, N.J.: Did you find any interesting between players who grew up in urban areas as opposed to rural or suburban? What were the differences or similarities between the two you may have noted during your research? MLB has been pushing inner-city programs for almost a decade now with the RBI program, so that made me curious as to players who came up in cities prior to that.
Frederic J. Frommer and Harvey Frommer: Fred: In getting back to Bob Feller, he talked about how his dad had built him a field and people would actually pay 25 cents to watch him and his friends play in a big field in Iowa. Also in the book Mo Vaughn talks about growing up in Norwalk, Conn. where they would play in an abandoned tennis court. You do get very different experiences where some of the players actually played baseball as kids and some of them played very rough approximations of baseball with any equipment that they could get.
Harvey: The players from areas like Texas, California or Florida definitely have an edge in getting into a baseball career year-round. We interviewed Bob Tewksbury and he said "I came into the American dream through baseball. I was born Nov. 30, 1960 and grew up in a small town in New Hampshire in the very early spring, I would force my brother to go out with me and play catch in the snow. I still have memories of waiting for spring to finally bloom, of chasing balls through the snowbangs. I still have memories of wet baseballs." So Tewksbury is an example of where there's a will there is a way but the edge is definitely is on the side of the warm weather players.
Washington, D.C.: How do you go about conducting an oral history? For this book, how did you choose who to interview? Did you conduct interviews in person or by telephone? And, did you find that some people were much more responsive and articulate than others or was it easy to get everyone to talk?
Frederic J. Frommer and Harvey Frommer: Harvey: We did some by telephone and some in person. The bulk was done in person. Some we went after just because of who they were and some we went after because they were recommended to us. People like Dimaggio, Feller, Grace, Kiner, Knolan, Ryan or Zimmer and other like them were picked because they had fame or a status. Then there were others who had special claims to fame that we went after like Don Larsen who pitched the only perfect World Series game and also Pumpsie Green who was the first Black player in Red Sox history and the last Black player to integrate a team. Both of them had great stories.
Players were gunshy about being misquoted but the bulk of the interviewees, once they got into it, enjoyed bringing back years in conversations.
Fred: Some of them were my favorite players. Keith Hernandez was a favorite of mine growing up.
The response was really mixed. Most players were happy to talk about some fond childhood memories and a few players didn't want to be bothered -- that is to be expected.
Cranberry, Pa.: If you were to do this book 30 years from now on the great players of the early 2000s, would it be the same? By that I mean are players so self-consumed and pampered now that they wouldn't give you the time of day? Are the stars today different from the stars of yesterday?
Frederic J. Frommer and Harvey Frommer: Harvey: I think you probably won't have a book as good or responses as good. As I alluded to before, there is a gunshy quality among celebrities and also among baseball players who have been misquoted or pampered too much. We were able to get some of the older players and 30 years from now you wouldn't have a Murff, Dimaggio or some of the older ones we got that gave us some great stories. I think it would be a very different book.
Stamps, Ariz.: Fred,
I remember you from intramural softball at Washington U. -— and you sure aren't like Billy Cox with the glove. And how did a New York kid end up a St. Louis Cardinals fan?
Frederic J. Frommer and Harvey Frommer: Fred: I'd love to find out who my old softball nemesis is. I would say that growing up in Queens, I was the only Cardinals fan in school because my dad was a Cardinals fan and brought me up a Cardinals fan. My dad grew up in Brooklyn and wanted to root for a different team than the other kids rooted for, so he chose the Cardinals.
Harrisburg, Pa.: When we state that baseball is American, perhaps we should mean that to include all of North and South America. What is the percentage of professional players that are from South America or Canada? Hasn't this percentage grown tremendously in recent years?
Frederic J. Frommer and Harvey Frommer: Fred: I don't know the exact percentage but clearly the number of players from Latin American countries have grown significantly. It certainly has grown to be more than just an American game. It's popularity is rising around the world including Japan and Latin America.
Harvey: The non-Americans have brought a verve and a style to it that really enhance the game. Last week, Fred and I were in Jupiter, Fla. watching the last spring training game of the Cardinals and I marveled, sitting there in the Fla. sunshine, at how many non-Americans were playing the national past time and for me, it was a great thing to see.
FredEx Field: I read the amazing "It Happened in Brooklyn" and can see you've handled this different material with equal dexterity. Tell me about your method or process...how do you gather and sort so many memories and stories?
Frederic J. Frommer and Harvey Frommer: Thanks for the compliment.
Arlington, Va.: Do you find that today's baseball players have less heartwarming stories to tell than the old timers about their desire to pursue a major league career because the focus is often more about money than a real passion for baseball?
Frederic J. Frommer and Harvey Frommer: Fred: I don't think so. We had a lot of contemporary players who had fond stories to tell about playing baseball as kids. Mike Difelice, catcher for the Saint Louis Cardinals, talked about playing with a taped up whiffle ball which taught him how to hit a curved ball. He talks about how he played baseball in the basement with a balled up sock and threw it at the runner to get them out. While many kids are subject to intense little league pressure, many kids will find creative and fun ways to play the sport on their own.
Alexandria, Va.: The growth of minor leagues parallels the increasing cost of attending major league games and strike by major league players. Will baseball be resurrected in hometowns or will it "contract" itself into an elite TV only public sport like the NFL.
P.S. I grew up in New York in the 40s and 50s.
Frederic J. Frommer and Harvey Frommer: Harvey: I think that minor league baseball is thriving all over this country and I don't think television has put it out of business and basically major league baseball needs minor league baseball. There are fans in Rhode Island or Tennessee who just come out to see minor league baseball and follow these teams and follow them to the majors. The players in our book spoke very eloquently about their minor league experience on their way to the majors.
Chicago, Ill.: It seems like lots of major leaguers choose baseball relatively late in their athletic development over other sports -- witness Adam Dunn, Drew Henson, Frank Thomas or Kirk Gibson. Did you find that with your interviews? Or did the players you talked to know from the beginning that they preferred baseball from the beginning?
Frederic J. Frommer and Harvey Frommer: Fred: Yeah, we had a lot of players that we talked to say that baseball was not their number one sport. I think that is because often kids do sports where they can do more running around. For a lot of these players, they didn't really see themselves going into baseball players until they were in highschool and got discovered by a coach or scout.
Some of these players talked about how they were terrible players as kids. For instance, Todd Pratt told us how the ball would hit his face when he tried to catch the ball and he would cry after striking out. But his mom told him to keep at it and that he would get better and he finally started getting better when he was 10 or 11. It was surprising how many players were not very good as kids and take to baseball right away.
Washington, D.C.: There has been much in the news about sports figures being kids' role models today. Did the players and managers you talked to for the book get into the game because they considered the players of their day to be heroes? Were there any players who consistently topped that worship list?
Frederic J. Frommer and Harvey Frommer: Harvey: Some of the older players especially spoke about idols. For example, Cliff Chambers had a picture of the most valuable players in his growing up years cut out and put up in his bedroom wall in Portland Ore. Some of these players were Carl Hubble and Lou Gehrig.
Also, Jose Cardenal grew up with idols who were Cuban baseball players like Tony Oliva or Luis Tiant and Tony Perez. So we found that they were admiring their own ethnic groups many times. Black players had heros like Jackie Robinson and Frank Robinson. So the question really does underscore that these idols served as inspiration and role models.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Do you have any opinions on the suggestions that the major leagues be broken into two leagues, with the financially stronger teams remaining in the majors and the less financially stronger teams forming a Quad A baseball minor league?
Frederic J. Frommer and Harvey Frommer: I really have no comment into the financial aspects of baseball configuration. Sorry.
Frederic J. Frommer and Harvey Frommer: Harvey: There were so many who I and Fred enjoyed speaking to. I guess if I had to pick my favorite, it would be Monte Irvin. He was born in Alabama Feb. 25, 1919 and because he was Black, he was shut out from playing major league baseball. Monte was the greatest athlete ever produced in New Jersey. In 1936, he hit .666 for his highschool team but he couldn't get to the major leagues so he played for a decade in the Negro leagues. He played against such legends like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. It wasn't until 1949 when Irvin was batting 373 playing in the Negro leagues that he finally got his break and became a member of the New York Giants in July 5, 1949. As he said "Talk about growing up baseball. I was almost 31-years-old at the time and had been through a great deal of baseball experience, nevertheless, my knees started knocking as I got into the batter's box ... You are not angry, but you are rueful."
His is an incredible story of determination and going against prejudice.
Washington, D.C.: The perception today is that Washington was never a good baseball town -- and in fact it was a lack of support, not two underhanded owners, that cost this city its teams. How was D.C. perceived as a baseball town in the glory days of baseball in the 20s and 30s, and do you think we'll have a team any time soon?
Frederic J. Frommer and Harvey Frommer: I think that times have changed greatly and that the people who are in Washington, D.C. today are not like the way people were when the Senators existed. There was a slogan back in those years "First in war, first in peace and last in the American League" that applied to the Washington Senators. But I don't think that would apply today because it would be a brand new team and experience in the D.C. area. With the right owners and the right players, you'll have a great team. Who knows what could happen?
Spidraycir, Calif.: How do the attitudes and recollections vary when you compare responses from old-timers and more recent players?
Frederic J. Frommer and Harvey Frommer: They don't vary that much because the basic subject matter is the same and they all had baseball memories, influences on them or different roads to the major leagues.
Alabama: How do the mega-contracts professionals receive impact on the "aura" of the game? The Field of Dreams mysticism seems to be waning.
Frederic J. Frommer and Harvey Frommer: I think there is a mysticism and a mystique to major league baseball from its beginning 100 years ago and will still be there a 100 years from now. The game has been tampered and tinkered with and perhaps, over commercialized. But its true essence as the national past time remains. To go to a game on a summer afternoon at Wrigley Field in Chicago or in Yankee stadium in New York or to McCoy Field in Pawtuckett, Rhode Island and to be there among other fans in the sunshine drinking in the action is a once in a lifetime experience. And those of us who love the game keep coming back for more.
Frederic J. Frommer and Harvey Frommer: We would like to publicly thank the players ranging in alphabetical order from Red Adams through Jerry Coleman, to Manny Mota to Bobby Thompson, and to Don Zimmer who kindly gave up their time and memories to help us create "Growing Up Baseball."
© Copyright 2002 The Washington Post Company