Touring The Bases With…Mike Vaccaro
Mike Vaccaro is the lead sports columnist for the New York Post and the author ofÂ The First Fall Classic: The Red Sox, The Giants, and the Cast of Players, Pugs, and Politicos Who Reinvented the World Series in 1912, 1941: The Greatest Year in Sports and Emperors and Idiots.Â He has won more than fifty major journalism awards since 1989 and has been cited for distinguished writing by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the New York State Publishers Association, and the Poynter Institute.Â A graduate of St. Bonaventure University, he lives in New Jersey.
Mike Lynch: Before we discuss The First Fall Classic, I want to get into your career, writing and baseball in general.Â Did you always want to be a writer and was it always your intention to become a newspaper columnist?
Mike Vaccaro: I was lucky. I know a lot of my friends, it was a week before college graduation and they STILL had no idea what they wanted to do with their lives. Me, Iâ€™ve known since I was 7 years old, from the moment my father took me to a game, pointed to the press box and explained what the guys did in there. I mean, I was hooked, right then and there. Now, yes, I have always dreamed of writing for a living, and beyond the sports page but that was always my intention, and from the moment I invented a two-page mimeographed newspaper for my grade school classmates, thatâ€™s the road Iâ€™ve taken.
ML: I see that you were named the sports editor of the Northwest Arkansas Times in 1991 at the age of 24, making you the youngest sports editor at a daily U.S. newspaper.Â Was it daunting to have so much responsibility at such a young age and was it difficult to be in charge of reporters who were older and/or more experienced than you?
MV: I wouldnâ€™t say daunting, only because I was probably too dense and dumb to realize that I should have found it daunting. In a lot of ways, it was the most fun I ever had because it was a small staff and as a result I had to do everything: write columns, cover high school games, lay out pages, go to meetings, write movie reviews â€¦ the whole bit. I actually think that experience has helped me a lot as my careerâ€™s gone on because I think I have a lot different perspective dealing with editors (both in newspapers and publishing) because I know what itâ€™s like to be on the other end of the phone having those conversations.
ML: As a baseball fan, what would you change about the game (if anything) if you had the power to do so?
MV: I know this is the classic old-school â€œpuristâ€™sâ€ take, but I hate the designated hitter more and more the more years go on. I mean, I REALLY hate that the two leagues play under different rules, so Iâ€™d be primarily in favor of either permanently adding it or permanently banning it, but I do tend to have a preference for the kind of games the NL plays, and not only because theyâ€™re necessarily shorter. I just think thereâ€™s a lot more strategy involved, and good managing is rewarded because of it.
ML: How do you feel about the All-Star game determining home-field advantage in the World Series?
MV: See, now this is an issue where I am definitively NOT old school: I think itâ€™s a terrific idea. I thought it was ludicrous that for close to 100 years they would simply alternate homefield between the leagues, and I think even detractors would argue this is a better way of doing things than that was. But I also think itâ€™s not necessarily fair to make it a straight homefield thing: the AL winner this year, I believe, will have played a significantly harder schedule than the NL winner. So when you consider all of that, plus the fact there really are genuine stakes involved in the All-Star Game now, I think itâ€™s a good thing.
ML: Where do you stand on the Steroid issue as it pertains to induction into the Hall of Fame?Â Do players like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, et al. deserve to be enshrined despite allegations that they used performance-enhancing drugs?
MV: I think what everyone deserves is to take the full five years to determine and evaluate. I suspect many voters will have their own sliding-scales of justice. In their minds, if they think Clemens or Bonds or Alex Rodriguez, for instance, were Hall of Famers before they used, even if they donâ€™t have actual data, they may vote that way. McGwire and Palmeiro are two examples of guys where the consensus is they were absolute products of their steroid use. I donâ€™t see either of them ever getting close, regardless of how much time passes.
ML: Now on to the book.Â When I first learned that you were writing a book about the 1912 World Series, I e-mailed you to â€œthankâ€ you for stealing my idea.Â Iâ€™d been researching the 1912 season for my own book, but decided to scrap it when I learned about yours.Â Of course Iâ€™m kidding about you stealing my idea; you had no idea what I was up to.Â I know why I was drawn to the 1912 season, but please explain what it was about 1912 that piqued your interest enough to write a book about it.Â And why focus mostly on the World Series when there were a lot of interesting things that took place during the entire year and the baseball season in general?
MV: I remember that e-mail, and feeling a dueling sense of guilt, because you would have done a fabulous job with the idea, and relief that Iâ€™d unwittingly started it because it really is such a fun baseball time to be able to spend time with. I focused on the series mostly because thatâ€™s how the idea began: try and find a World Series that hadnâ€™t already been written to death, and see if there was a natural narrative that built up around it. The other one I pondered was 1926, the Pete Alexander-and-Tony Lazzeri series, but so much has been done on the â€™27 Yankees I thought thereâ€™d be some inevitable spillover. Plus, once I started looking deeper into the 1912 Series I knew I HAD to do it, not only because the characters were so rich and unforgettable but also because the games themselves were remarkable, both in how they were played and the ancillary stuff going on around it. In many ways, you look at any World Series from that era and it serves as a precursor for what happened in 1919. And the era itself â€“ so colorful, so vibrant. And when you add in the historical elements around which I could tell the story â€“ the Teddy Roosevelt assassination attempt, the Charles Becker trial â€“ it was completely irresistible from a storytelling standpoint.
ML: In the bookâ€™s introduction, you explain that you re-created some conversations that you â€œtried to reconstruct as faithfully as possible, given the knowledge gleaned from studying their characters and personalities over the course of fourteen months of research.â€Â Did you have any trepidation about attempting to re-create conversations?Â Have you received any backlash for doing so or have you gotten mostly favorable responses?
MV: Yes on the trepidation and yes on the backlash, but most people seem to understand why I did this. And I understand the backlash because it was precisely why I had the initial trepidation. Look, there is an avalanche of material available where the charactersâ€™ actual words are in play. As such, Iâ€™d say more than 90% of the conversations and stuff were direct and unedited quotes. But the other 10% was necessary to keep the narrative flowing. The choice, to me, was to not use ANY of the quotes and then the book becomes basically a textbook, and even I would have trouble reading it. What I do is, I ask the reader to trust me: I spent a lot of time with these people, not in person obviously but in researching them. I would never augment the story or the plot with these recreations, simply broaden the way the story could be told. In the end, I was comfortable with the way I went about this, and inserted the authorâ€™s note to make the transparency complete.
ML: John McGraw was quite an interesting figure and I can imagine you found all kinds of material about him with which to work.Â Other than McGraw, though, who did you find to be the most interesting figure that you researched for the book and why?
MV: Iâ€™d always been fascinated by McGraw because I graduated from St. Bonaventure and he attended the college in the 1890s, and, well, heâ€™s just a relentlessly interestingÂ character anyway. But the other player I was fascinated by was Tris Speaker, who I think may be the most underrated and underappreciated pantheon player in history. All the legends of his ilk â€“ Cobb, Ruth, Johnson, Cy Young, etc. â€“ we know everything about them. I think hardcore baseball fans appreciate Speakerâ€™s life and his career but donâ€™t truly understand what an incredible player he was. Iâ€™d say it isnâ€™t a stretch that he may still be considered one of the top 10 players to ever play the game, and I donâ€™t know how many people would think to put him on a list like that.
ML: How has The First Fall Classic been received since it came out?
MV: Almost universally positive, which is encouraging to me because as a student of history, not just baseball history itâ€™s great to see that people still have an interest in bygone days. The reviews were very, very kind, sales were good, and people have really gone out of their way to reach out to me and say nice things about the book. Thatâ€™s been gratifying beyond words.
ML: Are there more books in your future that you can talk about or are you still trying to figure out how to steal another of my ideas (laughs)?
MV: (Laughs back) I have a few ideas germinating nothing specific yet. Iâ€™m pretty sure itâ€™ll involve baseball and history, though. Iâ€™ve been able to carve a small niche with that which makes me a heck of a lucky guy.
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Mike.Â I found your book to be very enjoyable and informative and Iâ€™m looking forward to your next one.
Mike Lynch is the author of Harry Frazee, Ban Johnson and the Feud That Nearly Destroyed the American League and It Ainâ€™t So: A Might-Have-Been History of the White Sox in 1919 and Beyond, and the founder of Seamheads.com.