Talking with Ben Bradlee

24 Apr
Ben Bradlee (photo: Robert Birnbaum

Ben Bradlee (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

Ben Bradlee Jr. retired from a successful 25 year career at the Boston Globe to write The Kid:The Immortal Life of Ted Williams(Little Brown). It’s a useful and thorough study of Williams’s complicated and stormy life in and out of baseball— when it was still the National pastime and America’s game. Bradlee and I chatted at my local caffeine commissary (The Keltic Krust) touching on the challenges of writing this big and, for the time being, definitive biography of Ted Williams. We also spoke of the current state of baseball, cryogenics, the joys of sons who play baseball, his reading interests and future endeavors.

RB: I was amused at the lengths that various reviewers went to describe how big your book was. One writer compared the weight of your book [2.7 pounds] to the weight of Ted Williams’s bat [33 oz.].

BB: Yeah, that was sort of cheeky. But it is a long book. I was criticized for that by some people. The Washington Post, of all papers, said that no baseball player was worth 800 pages, period. The President of the United States, okay but no baseball player—that was the guy’s line.

RB: Do you think he read it?

BB: Probably not.

RB: That’s a judgment that you might reasonably make if you read the book [or let that judgment stand as the sum total of a review].

BB: Well, who knows if he read it or not. I can’t say that the guy didn’t. But once he formed that opinion, it’s all uphill from there.

RB: I wondered that [was any ballplayer worthy of a large and extensively detailed bio] before I read it. I am disposed to read 200 page biographical essays such the ones that James Atlas published with his Eminent Lives series. But I did read your book —speaking of big books, the New York Times did a piece on big biographies including The Kid with bios of Norman Mailer, Woodrow Wilson and Barbara Stanwyck, so apparently size is now a separate story. And the Guardian did a piece on the trend towards big novels.

BB: That’s interesting because generally I was encouraged by that Times piece on big bios—the essence of that was big personalities deserve big books. And that was counterintuitive because we live in an era of people having limited attention spans and the trend is toward shorter books. This was a labor of love. It took me an embarrassingly long time—ten years—600 interviews and 800 pages take a while. I had no idea it would take me that long.

RB: When you began how long did you think it was going to be?

BB: I went where the reporting took me. And Little Brown was really supportive as I missed deadline after deadline.

RB: What did you say when they asked, “Where’s the book?” “I’m not finished.” Or “Just a little more…”

BB: I spent the first three years solely reporting and interviewing. And finally the editor [Geoff Shandler] called up “Don’t you think it’s time to put pen to paper?” He did an amazing pencil job—which restored my faith I book editing. Earlier books I had done had no editing at all. They just hit the ‘Send’ button. And every writer needs editing. The depth that Shandler went—he would circle a sentence on say, page 800, of the double page manuscript and say, “I think that works better on page 267.” That level of detail—which was impressive.

RB: Your were a fan as a kid —you saw Williams play. That was your interest in the writing this book. Were you aware of how much part of the New England culture Williams was?

BB: Of course. How could you not be, growing up in this area?

RB: People would have conversations with you about Williams?

BB: I just knew about him. He had been—I said ”hero” in the book, which might have been the wrong word. I looked up to him. I had pictures in my bedroom—plastered with pictures cut out of Sports Illustrated and Sport magazine. I’d go to the park as often as I could. I followed him in retirement. I read his autobiography in 1969 when it came out. I followed him —I was interested in him. And in his death, I was struck how much interest there still was and how many lives he had touched. The Globe ran a page of letters after he died. They were from grandfathers talking about how they had introduced their sons to baseball through Williams. And their sons to their sons. He was a certain [kind of] glue in the social fabric. At that point I quickly read the early books on Williams. They were all by sports writers.

RB: Leigh Montville.

BB: He was the most recent and he was a colleague of mine at the Globe. He had left years earlier to go to Sports Illustrated and then he was writing books. I knew he was out there. He was out there with about a 9-month head start on me. We were tripping over each other on the road, interviewing the same people. He’s very fast [snaps his fingers]. He just turns it around. So he published 18 months after Ted died. He did a good job.

RB: In the scheme of things, I expect your book will be spoken of as ‘definitive’?

BB: You’ll make that judgment, not me. I’ll tell you this; I was trying for the word ‘definitive’. And when reviewers mentioned that, that pleased me.

RB: You take the reviews to heart?

BB: Well, sure. Don’t you?

RB: Well, yeah. I wanted to see if [as some writers claim] you were disinterested.

BB: Of course everybody reads them; I am not going to deny you don’t take them to heart. You want good reviews. Anybody does. And there were 95% good reviews.

RB: It gives me pause when you read a review by a writer who is not particularly a book critic— I was thinking of Bruce Weber’s review of The Kid

BB: That was in the daily Times as opposed to the Book Review piece by Charles McGrath.

RB: Where McGrath quotes his mother saying she would have left his father for Ted Williams.

BB: I thought that was a riot

RB: What about today? What’s the response to things about Williams today?

BB: The response I get? I have been enormously gratified to get letters from readers and emails, saying how much they liked the book and often sharing Ted stories and how he touched their lives.

RB: Any surprises?

BB: No. All of a type. But gratifying—people had obviously read the book and took time to write me and say how much it meant—how much they appreciated. I wasn’t sure I would get those types of letters. But I have a file now of those.

RB: There’s a sequel.

BB: No sequels.

RB: The annotated and updated edition. I asked about how Williams fits into today’s mélange of pop culture because I have a son who is a ball player—I am dismayed at the difference between the support of the high school football team and the baseball team. Which makes me wonder about the place of baseball—

BB: Yeah. I guess it must b e different in [different]pockets of the country. For example, I was down at the University of Mississippi at a book conference recently. And I was struck by how big college baseball is there. They have a 10, 000 seat college stadium.

RB: They are SEC [Southeastern Conference, not to be confused with the Securities and Exchange Commission].

BB: Yeah, the SEC. But around here you struggle to get fans. Its essentially just parents. I don’t know what the reasons are.

RB: Yet every year it seems that Major League Baseball sells more tickets.

BB: Generally, it’s considered less popular than football. And they do have a problem in the black communities. Really, a shockingly low percentage
of African Americans in the majors. That, despite [MLB’s] initiative to try and get into the inner city to interest more black kids to play baseball. It’s not happening.

RB: There were some inconsistent figures in a recent piece about Hank Aaron. He alludes to the last baseball draft and reported that there were 13 black kids in the first round [of 32 positions].

BB: In the last baseball draft? That’s encouraging.

RB: They are obviously really good players. Getting back to the talk about your big book, I read, “126 pages went by before Williams picks up a bat.” And, “Bradlee devotes over three hundred pages to Williams life after baseball.”

BB: Well, really the whole raison d’ etre for doing the book was to focus on his personal life. I didn’t skimp on the baseball, despite Bruce Weber’s claim [NYT]. He indicted me for not being a sports writer.

RB: He wrote that you didn’t explain the secret of Williams’s batting prowess.

BB: I plead guilty to not being a sports writer. But I brought a non-sports writing sensibility to the book—my background is on the news side. And his baseball life had been pretty well covered. The less plowed ground was the personal life. So that was my focus and that’s the new material. The turning point for me was getting his two daughters to talk. They had never talked before. And that opened up a whole new area. Once others learned that they [the daughters] were talking —they [others] who had held back, then came forward.

RB: Claudia has a book that has just come out (Ted Williams, My Father: A Memoir by Claudia Williams) I have an ARC.

BB: Its sort of a small memoir on growing up with Ted. She and I were practically married for a while. I spent so much time with her. We haven’t really talked since. But I talked with her husband and I gather that she is a little upset with me.

RB: Why do you think?

BB: Its inevitable. She feels that I don’t believe her account of the cryonics affair. You know how it is when someone gives you access. They think —

RB: —that you are going to represent the way that see things, the way they think.

BB: Yeah, but you have to write what you think is the truth.

RB: You get into that very early in the book. In gruesome detail. Its pretty sickening this cryonics process. As opposed to cryogenics.

BB: People confuse the two. Cryogenics is a mainstream science that studies how materials react to extreme cold. Cryonics is this crazy procedure. You know, my theory in starting the book that way was, that that was people’s last memory of Ted. ­ And I had new stuff—I had three people who were in the room giving” a fly on the wall” account of what was happening. It was a grabber. You want to hook your reader. I didn’t want to start the biography the conventional way, “He was born on…” I got to that—so that was my theory.

RB: Was there anything you were squeamish about publishing?

BB: No.

RB: Nothing existed in his life that was so awful that you couldn’t—

BB: —no, it’s a warts and all treatment. And there is shocking stuff in there about how cruel he could be. But ultimately, I think it’s a redemptive story because he had a good heart. And he was kind. He was probably bi-polar.

RB: You suggest that Ted’s mother was a religious zealot. But you steered clear of a diagnosis of him.

BB: I did engage in a little armchair psychology but only so far. But I think he was probably bi-polar before they knew or understood what that was.

RB: Before anger management was “Anger management”.

BB: Yeah. He plainly struggled with that. It was a double-edged sword for him. He used it productively on the baseball field because he always claimed to hit better “mad”. So he would pick a feud with a writer and go off on a tear and hit .500 for a month. In his personal; life it caused him great difficulty. His anger would bubble up at inappropriate times and places. He would just go off. The price of being in his orbit was that you had to endure these eruptions, these squalls. And they would go away but he could be brutal.

RB: Were they predictable?

BB: Um, no I don’t think they were predictable. A lot of it was born out of his being a perfectionist. He strove for excellence in anything he did. Like fishing—he was very inpatient with people he didn’t think were trying as hard as he was. Or understood as quickly or pick up as quickly. So he might pop off if he took you fishing and you didn’t get it. Bobby Doerr told me about some rages he had to endure, out fishing with Ted. I said to him “Did you ever challenge Ted and tell him not to treat people that way?” He said, “No, you just didn’t do that. That was who Ted was —he knew he had a problem. And if you were there for him on the other end he would love you forever.”

RB: Some people fought back.

BB: Yeah, his three wives. They couldn’t endure that. And others. Others worried in hindsight that they enabled him by not speaking out.

RB: Speaking with 600 people is awesome accomplishment and task. For prior books or reportage had you talked to that many people?

BB: No, no, never. This was a whole new kettle of fish.

RB: Did you have to discipline yourself to get that part of it done?

BB: Yeah. There were days where the muses weren’t firing on all cylinders. It’s a lonely enterprise. You’re by yourself and I didn’t have lot of people I was going to for guidance. My editor’s strength was on the back end—the pencil. Not in the front end. I did go to a former colleague of mine at the Globe, who went to the WSJ and then Bloomberg—Dan Golden. He gave me a really rigorous pre-edit before I turned it in. I wasn’t sure about the depth of the editing I would get. These guys are so spread thin with a lot of books plus administrative duties so I thought it made sense to do that. It was very valuable to me.

RB: You didn’t expect this book to take ten years— did you ever consider giving up?

BB: No, never.

RB: Were there times when it was really hard?

BB: Oh sure. It was hard. Again, I was laboring alone. It wasn’t until the end that I went to Golden with the finished manuscript. You have to trust your outline. You have to trust your concept and that was hard.

RB: Did the overlay of information you gathered give you confidence?

BB: I knew I was getting new material and good stuff. I was excited by that. Again, getting the 2 daughters was a turning point. I went deep on his childhood—the Mexican-American stuff, I found it fascinating. Tracking down his Mexican relatives. They told that wonderful story—they were proud of him on the one hand and they resented him for shunning them.

RB: He refused to acknowledge them when they came to the ballpark.

BB: And that wonderful story at the end of 1939, his rookie year and he comes back to San Diego—the conquering hero. 100 of the Mexican side of the family turn out at the train. He takes one look at them and turns and runs in the other direction

RB (Laughs)

BB: That sticks in their craw till this day.

RB: What is like to have completed this project after 10 years?

BB: Well, I have been hustling it hard for these months —I have 10 years invested in it and wanted it to do well. It made the Times list right out of the box. Which floored me I never thought that would happen. I hoped it would.

RB: So you re not really done with it yet.

BB: I’m going to hustle it for another month or two, trying to get a second bounce now that the baseball season has started. But I’m almost done. And its time to move on to the next thing.

RB: Thought about what the next thing is?

BB: Well, yeah I have thought about it— I have another book in me. I am trolling around for the right idea. The idea is key—you have to get the right idea. Biography interests me as a genre.

RB: I like the oral biography like Mitchell Zuckoff’s bio of Robert Altman and Crytal Zevon’s bio of Warren Zevon, both relying on the accounts of a wide swath of people from their lives.

BB: It’s a different way to do it.

RB: In a way you did do that.

BB: Yeah but I wrote a narrative. To just publish quotes seems like a short cut to me. You’re cheating the reader—

RB: —unless the quotes are really good and well contexted. (contexualized)

BB: —out of your supposed skill for producing a narrative.

RB: That may not be a biographer’s intent. Perhaps the intent is lay open someone’s life relatively unmediated. So that’s what you’re going to do next, a biography?

BB: Probably. You have to look carefully at what’s been done, if anything. But ultimately, you make the judgment that you can do it better and make a contribution.

RB: Something else about Williams—in your interview with Charlie Rose, he seemed to become a little kid—

BB: —yeah, he loved Ted.

RB: His enthusiasm overwhelmed his interlocutor persona. He had to tell some stories and display an expertise in baseball lore.

BB: Yeah, maybe there is something about baseball that brings out the child in all of us. You feel it, you have your son playing ball.

RB: My favorite thing is watching my son play.

BB: Me too (BB’s son Joe, plays for Union College) By far, I’d much rather watch him than the Red Sox.

RB: I like watching Puig, the Cuban player with the LA Dodgers—he’s electric.

BB: I didn’t put this in the book but for some reason but my favorite story involves Ted and a Cuban player named Pedro Ramos. Remember him?

RB: Pitched for the Washington Senators.

BB: It was the mid Fifties and the Senators were in town playing the Sox and Ramos was a rookie at the time. And Ted comes up and Ramos struck him out.

RB: (laughs)

BB: Which was rare. He [Ramos] was beside himself with excitement. After the game in an act of great chutzpah, he takes the ball he had struck out Ted with, barges into the Red Sox clubhouse, approaches the great man and asks him to sign the ball. Ted says, “Get the fuck out of here, are you crazy?” But somebody prevailed upon him to sign the ball. Ramos was delighted. Fast forward 2 or 3 weeks later, the Senators are back in town and Ramos is pitching again. Ted comes up and puts the first pitch 20 rows deep into the bleachers. He’s rounding 3rd and yells at Ramos, “I’ll sign that son of a bitch too, if you can find it” (Both laugh)

RB: Do you miss the newspaper world?

BB: No I don’t. I left at a good time. Last story I was in charge of the Catholic Church/Sexual abuse thing we received a Pulitzer for in 2003. That happened to coincide with my 25th anniversary at the paper. I qualified for my modest pension and I quit to write the book.

RB: Millionaires have always owned newspapers but have any thoughts about Bezos and John Henry (Red Sox owner) buying major papers?

BB: Ordinarily I might be alarmed at their lack of journalism experience but given the dire straits that newspapers are in, what we need now (we in journalism) is someone who can solve the structural economic problem that newspapers face in the Internet era. You are dealing with 2 or 3 generations of people, who grew with the idea that news should be free and won’t pay —when papers try to experiment with a pay wall, they won’t pay. What business can survive by giving away their product for free, we need some one (those of us in journalism), Bezos has more Internet cred than Henry but Henry is a smart savvy guy. We’ll see what he can do

RB: Not worried that this could be further blurring of the division between church and state—if that still even exists?

BB: Yeah, that ‘s a legitimate concern but I liked Henry’s 3000 word op-ed about why he bought the Globe. There was an attractive civic mindedness in that. I take him at his word and its good that he’s rich because he can carry the paper if it starts losing money that it could. These circulation declines are really rough and you wonder if they can be reversed. It’s a fine line but you have to be really creative. I don’t know— I ‘m a dinosaur I read the physical paper and I am comfortable doing that.

RB: Any interest in teaching?

BB: I’ve thought about it. I had offers to teach locally— ¬its got to be the right situation. I am not interested in teaching journalism 101. More [interested in] the nexus of politics and journalism, if anybody still cares.

RB: Are you concerned about the people coming in to journalism and what they are being taught and what their values are? Students today look at the world very, very differently. The generational divide seems much greater than in the past.
BB: It’s troubling. And it isn’t just kids, its filtered up. Whenever I go on an elevator, everybody is just punching away—there’s no eye contact.

RB: It would be hard not to argue that there has been a serious degradation of the social fabric, as we knew it. Can we reverse it?

BB: Reverse what, the coarseness of the culture?

RB: The rampant consumerism, replacement of cynicism with a healthy skepticism. I just did my taxes and I tried to identify anyone in government I found admirable and trustworthy [Senator Warren came to mind later].

BB: Well Washington is very depressing these days. The stalemate of government, the gridlock—you know, the House Republicans trying to destroy Obama at every turn. It’s depressing. It makes for cynicism.

RB: Who are these people?

BB: Tea Party types.
RB: Sen. McConnell?
BB: He has a fight on his hands. We’ll see what happens to him.

RB: I recall Joe Conason described Trent Lott’s reign as Senate majority leader, “he ran the Senate like a juke box.” I don’t know if you distinguish cynicism and skepticism—

BB—there’s an important difference between skepticism, which is proper, and cynicism, which suggest that you have given up. I still think voting matters.

RB: What do you read?

BB: I am reading a book by Denise Kiernan called The Girls of Atomic City. An interesting period piece about women working on the Bomb in WWII at Oak Ridge. I like biography—Caro’s latest LBJ installment.

RB: The fourth one?

BB: The current one, after JFK was assassinated, he assumes the presidency. Caro’s mastery of detail is awe-inspiring
RB: What ‘s biggest biography Fay Malone’s Jefferson [10 volumes]? You have to wonder, how much is there?

BB: Yeah. Well, I have always admired Caro—ever since The Powerbroker. I am reading a memoir by an old colleague of mine from the Globe, Curtis Wilkie, and a southerner. He wrote a memoir called Dixie. Which was a sort of cry of the heart of a Southern liberal. Those guys grow up thinking they are the only ones in the fight, surrounded by red necks.

RB: The “Southern liberal” always makes for a good character in a southern novel. Well, thank you very much

BB: Well, thank you for your interest in the book. I appreciate it.

RB: My great pleasure.

The Kid by Ben Bradlee

The Kid by Ben Bradlee

Currently reading All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Scribner)


3 Responses to “Talking with Ben Bradlee”


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