Tag Archives: Ben Bradlee Jr

True Dat: An Oral Biography

21 Jul


While understanding the appeal of biographies I have not found that the door stop comprehensive tediously factual compendia of a life (even of an admired or world historical personage) bear the weight of such attention— though Ben Bradlee managed to write a weighty tome about Ted Williams that held up well through its 800 plus pages. The concise biographical essay (around 200 pages) by a sympathetic writer introduced in a series by James Atlas seemed to me to adequate for most general (those not seeking to bathe in the minutiae of a life).



There is another approach to biography that in the two instances that I encountered them I found extremely effective— the oral biography. Crystal Zevon’s assembly of commentators on her late husband I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon and Robert Altman: The Oral Biography by Mitchell Zuckoff. There are, of course, a number of reasons why these two lives lent themselves to the oral history approach, not the least being the outlier, colorful personalties of Zevon and Altman.





Except for Che (Guevara), no one comes to mind who has greater cross generational universal appeal than Bob Marley. Setting aside the fact import of more than 500 books devoted to the late Jamaican musicIan, his image adorns more consumer products than one can reasonably imagine (except Swatch watch only  a Che adorned wristwatch. And it is the complexity and wide reaching appeal that Bob Marley generated in his few 36 years before succumbing to cancer that makes So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley by Roger Stevens both exponentially useful and definitive



Roger Steffens is one of the world’s leading Bob Marley experts. In compiling this biography in over 40 years he interviewed more than seventy-five friends, business managers, relatives and confidants of Bob Marley. As an early adopter of reggae music Steffens was present t the creation and with the zeal and determination of the true believer he draws out the telling stories from Marley’s original group the Wailers ( Junior Braithwaite, Beverley Kelso and Cherry Green) as well as his intimate relationships (wife Rita Marley and long time companion Cindy Breakspeare.)



As we should expect, Steffens elicits little-known stories, about of some of Marley’s songs, the Wailers’ difficulties with  producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, singer Johnny Nash’s  mentoring and the assassination attempt (see Marlon James novel), which led to Marley’s   stirring performance two nights later still carrying the bullet embedded in his arm.

So Much Things to Say allows to witness Marley’s conquest of a planet wide audience— for example, his visit to Zimbabwe to sing for freedom fighters  and a host  of other international public appearances. Clearl,y Marley packed a substantial life in his three and a half decades. Most compelling are  the accounts of Marley’s post Cancer (controversial) diagnosis and his rapid decline. Bob Marley (1945-1981).

Even a cursory viewing of a Bob Marley concert video will provide one of  those light  that get through the cracks and that he gained sufficient cultural/political valence to occasion conspiracy theories about the alarmingly late cancer diagnosis, ties to the CIA and casting shadows on Chris Blackwell, Island Records owner. Bob Marley’s  musical legacy is inestimable (as you can get a taste of in the videos I have included ) and if you are inclined  to attend to 464 pages (including 40 pictures) about a remarkable life, this should be the one.





1.Serviceable Online biography of  Bob Marley… https://www.biography.com/people/bob-marley-9399524

2. I should note that Jon Lee Anderson’s  biography of Che Guevara is exhaustive  accessibly with lots to recommend it as Anderson is  superb example of a disappearing calling— the foreign/war correspondent. Here’s a chat I had with him back in 1997 when his Che biography was freshly minted…https://ourmaninboston.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/talking-cuba-and-che-with-jon-lee-anderson/

Coach Sic:Our Man in Newton

1 Sep

The role of a sports coach involves among other aspects, paternal surrogacy and the role of whipping boy. There are times when the pressure to win and so great are parental expectations and dissatisfaction that even greater burdens are added to an already challenging task. All of which is to say that the men and women who to take up this kind of life’s work are special.

Coach by Micheal Lewis

Coach by Micheal Lewis

Michael Lewis (Moneyball, The Blind Side, The Flash Boys)wrote an homage to his high school baseball coach in a small tome,entitled Coach.That man, Billy Fitzgerald, known universally as Coach Fitz, was a controversial figure and had aroused the ire of a number parents. One parent demurred:

A couple of those guys won’t talk to me,” he said, ”because I defended Fitz. But what can I do? My goal in life is not for my son to play college ball. Fitz has made my kid a better person, not just a better athlete. He’s taught him that if he works at it, anything he wants, it’s there for him.’

And Lewis concludes

We listened to the man because he had something to tell us, and us alone. Not how to play baseball, though he did that better than anyone. Not how to win, though winning was wonderful. Not even how to sacrifice. He was teaching us something far more important: how to cope with the two greatest enemies of a well-lived life, fear and failure. To make the lesson stick, he made sure we encountered enough of both. I never could have explained at the time what he had done for me, but I felt it in my bones all the same.

Coach Joseph Siciliano is one of the people that has dedicated a lifetime to his work.He has coached the Newton North Baseball team for thirty years and has been enshrined Massachusetts Baseball Coach’s Hall of Fame. Coach (at some point that rubric takes on he role of an honorific) has experienced a full range of coaching experiences including the rare accomplishment of leading the Newton North Tigers to a State Championship. A short while after that we sat down to chat at our local coffee shoppe, The Keltic Krust.

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siciliano(photo :Cheryl Clegg)

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Sicliano (photo :Cheryl Clegg)

RB: I know a few things about you— I know that you recently won your 300th career victory as a coach. And, you’re in the Massachusetts Baseball Coach’s Hall of Fame.

JS: Yes.

RB: And you were at Ted Williams’s last game at Fenway Park. A momentous event.

JS: I saw it. Yes, it was.

RB: So fill me in. You were born where?

JS: In Boston, in 1946. Grew up in the North End until the 4th grade. Then we moved out to Newton. I had four brothers and one sister and most of us went to Sacred Heart High. My father taught at BC, so 5 out of 6 of us went to Boston College.

RB: So, you are pretty much a homeboy.

JS: Absolutely, absolutely. I always kid around that when I go on vacation I go out west to Framingham.

RB: How much has baseball and kid sports changed since you began coaching?

JS: You know when I first started coaching, even when I played—kids would say, “Okay it’s baseball season” and they would pick up a baseball bat. [Okay]It’s basketball season, “Let’s shoot.” Now in order to prepare for a sport you really —its like the pros. They used to just show up[at spring training], they used to sell cars in the off season. Now they hire nutritionists and trainers. It’s not gotten that bad in terms of high school sports but you know [that’s] what the kids are doing in the off season. And it almost prevents kids from being three sport athletes. It does. Two, the kids still can do it. Certain sports you can do it—football you just need the strength training. That’s good for everything. And then you can play another sport.

RB: And baseball, football and basketball seasons don’t overlap

JS: They don’t

RB: You could still do those three.

JS: Absolutely. But the skill in basketball and baseball —you very rarely see a kid who plays both. You see football and baseball , football and basketball—

RB: Why is that? Totally different physical attributes?

JS: Yea, in order to shine at baseball you have to be in the batting cage —it’s a skill. Basketball you have to be shooting all the time.

RB: I guess Michael Jordan [Jordan tried to play pro baseball] would be a prime example of what you are saying.

JS: Absolutely.

RB: Whatever happened to playground pick-up games? You can still find them in basketball—

JS: You know something, I worked for the Newton Recreation Department when I first got out of college— I taught and worked. And the parents would drop their kids off at the playground. We would have at Newton Center Playground two teams, an A and a B, under twelve year olds. And we would play other playgrounds. Now the Commissioner Russ Halloran said, we‘ll never see the end of this and he predicted there would be [baseball]camps and that’s what’s going on. At West Newton Common, right over there [Keltic Krust is a block away], from sunup until sundown, kids would be playing. Parents wouldn’t drop their kids off now. I can remember growing up in Newton Center— there were 6 kids in my family and we were the small [family]. There were the Eagans with 15 …and parents would drop their kids off. That’s how things have changed.

RB: I guess former pros started a shift with their camps,
cashing in on their names. But now everybody and their mother has an AAU program. It has become a big business.

JS: Absolutely, its big business. Okay, so you have your AAU programs right. There is an AAU guy who has just bought or developing a 20 million dollar complex in Northboro. It has four fields plus a medical office building where you get treated if you have a sore arm or something. Its incredible.

RB: If you spend 20 million, what does you revenue stream have to be? It’s a truism to say that money has corrupted pro sports. Money has corrupted college sports. Has it affected high school sports?

JS: It really hasn’t. Here’s the thing. An AAU program might cost 3000 to 4000 dollars. To me, it keeps the kids focused. It keeps them out of trouble. You don’t need a therapist. I mean really it is something —its not a bad way to go, if you have the money.

RB: When the parents are spending that kind of money the dynamic changes—their commitment to the sport changes.

JS: Yes.

RB: You pointed out to me that some of these programs perhaps are telling their players that they are better than they are.

JS: Whether you want it or not, there is always that thought that people running AAU are telling kids they are better than they are. Also, the kid listens to what he wants to hear and I think—I would hope for the most part at a certain point a youngster would say, “You know something, those kids are better. I am not going to get caught up. Let me look into something else.” I had a kid [on the high school team]who did AAU but he saw the writing on the wall. So what he did this year was, he was our manager. And he held a job. He’ll play summer ball. He had a real mature response to what was going on. You would hope that there’s adults in his life, who say, ”Here are your choices.” Which I think there were.

RB: In watching the Newton North baseball team I noticed you stress building a team—everyone has a job to do. Your vision is not to train future major leaguers.

JS: No. Some might end up there. But you know what is interesting—I’ll give you a great case in point. We always pride ourselves in saying we are going to work from 1 to 20 with your kid—we have 20 kids on the team. And there were times this year when we needed somebody. Because of injury or this or that and we coached that kid as though he was a starter. That’s one issue. The other thing is —I don’t know if you have seen the teams we played against but they have adult coaches on the sidelines. We have kids coaching and our 3rd base coach this year didn’t play very much but he was an integral part of the team. We picked off people at 3rd base. We never got picked off. We doubled people up. We didn’t get doubled up. Because of our kid coaches, who we value. And so we try, 1 through 20, to give them a job every game. Its something we have done all the time.

RB: I guess it should be obvious, but what is the feeling like after a championship season? How much different is this than your 29 other years of coaching?

JS: After this season, and I think there were even some kids that felt this—”we don’t get to practice tomorrow?” We just had a good time. And this isn’t true of every team —it makes it easy when you win. But the kids, I thought, worked hard at practice and had a good time. We use humor. At the end, personally I went, “No practice tomorrow, what are we going to do?” There was elation etc. etc. that we finally did it but there was, ”We love baseball what are we doing tomorrow?” Of course, half of them went on to the AAU season etc.

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siccliano (photo :Cheryl Clegg)

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siciliano (photo :Cheryl Clegg)

RB: What are you going to do?

JS: I have the greatest summers, I really do. I just go watch the kids play. Sometimes I sit with the parents and criticize the coach too. (both laugh) [No]I don’t do that —maybe I think it.

RB: What do the players take away from this kind of season?

JS: That’s a great question. You’d hope—whether they do or not that the big thing in life—what to do when things are not going your way. That’s the big thing— hopefully, you just keep plugging at it, look at the positive. See how you can improve and one of the other things is, don’t think so much of the future—the end result. Just go out there and do a good job. And hopefully, these lessons—it all came to fruition. But even if we didn’t win it. The kids were the same. There were many, many cases where things weren’t going our way but somebody picked us up. Through positive energy.

RB: Watching the NBA championship it was a thrill to see the truly good guys[not simply the best players]win. The Spurs seem to be the most obvious example of team building—everybody has a role. They don’t see themselves as stars…

JS: Absolutely. Because of our baseball I didn’t watch the finals until last night. It was amazing. Have you seen our basketball team? You have to go see them. They were—that’s what we do. We do have an outstanding scorer…but everybody has a part.That was amazing —just watching the difference it will be interesting, next year or the year after, are people going to pick up on what they [ the Spurs] are doing. And will we see better basketball?

RB: The Spurs having been doing what they do for a long time. Finally, there is the recognition.

JS: That’s true too.

RB: This is speculative but next spring you show up a the field the first day and you have bunch of kids— where do you start? Do you talk about the championship season?

JS: I don’t know. There were things—there were strengths of this team , okay. And you really can’t match the strengths that we had. But where we were weak maybe we can build that up. Maybe we won’t be as strong, for instance with pitching but if we can get to certain level and then pick up some other stuff. And again, our goal every season is to be competitive in every game. That’s all we want to do, you know?

RB: As champions other teams will no doubt play harder—

JS: Yeah, I know people say that now we have target on our back. But how does that motivate the kids? No, we have to play our way. I’ll give you a great case in point as the head coach. Ready? I have Tommy Donnellan, I have my JV and freshman coaches working. They give those kids discipline. They teach them fundamentals. What does a head coach do?— when they are playing a team that wasn’t that good you get the kids up. When you are playing a team that’s very good, calm them down. And you just go out and play fundamentals. What we teach them, that’s what we do. One of the big things is we do not emphasize the results. Our whole thing with at-bats—don’t worry about striking out. Your at bats are information gathering.

RB: How much has the sabermetric movement affected baseball at the high school level?

JS: You know something, they do that over many, many baseball games. So then they say this, they say, which I don’t agree with, at the major league level that you will score more from 1st with no outs, than 2nd with one. Therefore, don’t bunt. At the high school level, bunt. Because they are kids and they will throw it[the ball] away. But there certain other ideas like getting [deep]into a count. One of the things we look at is—we had a kid do stats, he wanted to major in statistics in college—one of the big ones [stats] we had him look at, when you have 2 strikes how many more pitches do you make the pitcher pitch? And its good because the kids know we value that.

RB: Today on base percentage means a lot— I don’t know if it is a more valuable metric than batting average. I am still amazed by Ted Williams’s life time on base percentage—.442. That seems more valuable than his other achievements.

JS: Absolutely.

RB: Did you aspire to anything else? A college coach?

JS: No, you know what it is it—when I was in high school, I wanted to be a major leaguer. Once I was not going to be a major leaguer —well, I wanted to do something that deals with sports.” How ‘bout being a coach? Wait a minute if I am going to coach in high school I have to teach.” What were they looking for back then? Math teachers. And its interesting— I teach math but there is a correlation, I find in terms of the way you teach math and the way you teach sports. There is a system. What happens when there is a deviation ? How do you handle that?

RB: Sorry, you will never convince me that you need algebra.

JS: (laughs)

RB: I have gone my whole life without using Algebra. Now the emphasis on the Core claims you need Algebra to succeed in life. Really?

JS: All that is, is thinking logically. Solving problems, that’s the whole thing. And where in Algebra you have to memorize some stuff and use that stuff if you already knew that stuff —its logic that’s all it is.

RB: So you became a math teacher as pathway to coaching?

JS: Don’t tell anybody this? (laughs) I ‘m kidding but its true. Here’s a case—I would start a problem—I wasn’t that good in math but I’d start a problem and all of a sudden it’s 3 o’clock in the morning. I found it fascinating. So time flew when I was doing math. That’s why I kind of liked it.

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siccliano (photo :Cheryl Clegg)

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siciliano (photo :Cheryl Clegg)

RB: I imagine coaching sports is now valued as much as the teaching the curriculum. Maybe in some places, more.

JS: Yeah, as we say, coaching is an extension of the classroom If you look at [Newton]North—this is why we have ben so successful. A lot of the coaches are teaching in the school. Here’s some examples—in our math corridor, okay, Leigh Paris is the assistant coach of the state [championship title]winning soccer team. There is a male teacher who is the assistant coach of the state winning [championship title]boy’s track team. Another math teacher who is the assistant to the state winning[championship title] girl’s track team.Four math teachers who are also coaches

RB: What are your thoughts on the diminution of the popularity of baseball?

JS: I have been talking to the Little Leagues and they are losing a lot of kids. And the thing is I can live with that as long as the kids who are playing now are passionate about it. It is one tough sport. Plus, the way kids who are brought up now, they are easily frustrated. The failure rate in baseball is 70 %.

RB: I see it now as a Little League umpire. Most of the kids have to stand around waiting for something to happen. That’s why I pointed my own son in the direction of being a catcher.

JS: Yeah (laughs), Its interesting — a lot of these lacrosse players,if they ever were catchers they would still be playing baseball. But you put them in right field or center field—it takes an interesting individual. Some of the fathers, “my son is interested in baseball, you like those kids and if they can play that’s even better. You like kids who are watching the Red Sox or this and that.

RB: I have been very surprised at how few kids watch baseball games. So when they came to play, they have no idea what was going on, on field.

JS: When we were going up if we could watch a game on television it was so much fun. Now, you ask the whole team, 1 through 20, anybody watch the game last night? Well, they are doing homework but did anyone watch a couple of innings?

RB: Or even listen to it on the radio? Some announcers are better than TV.

JS: I watch MLB TV and there is a game every night. I’ll tell you, how can I get mad at my players when they are doing something stupid when I see the major leaguers—oh my goodness. You see some of that stuff—not knowing how many outs there were, things like that.

RB: I was watching the highlights of [Yoenis] Cespedes’s latest outfield assists. Gunning down runners at the plate with a 300 foot bullet from left field.

JS: Oh my goodness. Just unbelievable.

RB: It’s great to watch pros with a passion for the game.

JS: Yeah, we have Dustin (Pedroia). You read about him—he gets to the field early. And just loves to be around the game.

RB It’s a joy to see in Little League, although some of the parents need to tamp down their passion.

JS: I’ll tell you there is a community that we’d play against. I can remember when my kid was little, the coaches for this community, they were so intense and the kids were so tight. Meanwhile, they had an article a few years back about how Little League was going down, the kids don’t want to play because its no fun. You hear these stories about Little League parents are yelling at the kids and that’s a shame. The kids want to have fun.

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siccliano (photo :Cheryl Clegg)

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siciliano (photo :Cheryl Clegg)

RB: But now they have choices— lacrosse, soccer, hockey.

JS: Auburndale was hotbed of hockey and we were very, very good, way back when, in the 50’s. Legendary names but we don’t see that anymore.

RB: In Newton when you go to a football game its like Friday Night Lights. The town turns out. I don’t see that for baseball.

JS: You might have gone to the night game when everybody shows up. Maybe not so for afternoon games.

RB: Maybe not midweek but Saturday games same thing.

JS: Here’s the thing, in baseball think about the weather that we have to play in. So that’s number one. But number two, think of the time of day we play. 3:45.

RB: I get it.

JS: If your son or daughter is on the team, then you are going to make a commitment to try to get there. And now there are a lot of other choices and interests, I think, and this would never happen but if they ever put lights at the high school, you would have a great—

RB—By the way, what happened here? No lights for the football filed, no lights for the baseball diamond. Why?

JS: Ah, this is Newton. You’d have to have an act of God to get something through like that. I mean, really and truly. We play Norwood ,okay. On a Monday. 300 or 400 people show up at that game at night. If you have lights …on a Friday night we’d have 500 people watching our team.

RB: There was a rumor floating around that Pepsi had offered a deal to put an electric scoreboard at Albemarle in exchange for the usual considerations [logo placement].

JS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We hear things like that.

RB: I thought that corporate branding was verboten on school property?

JS: Theoretically, but you can get a waiver —there is one at the [Newton] South field. So I am sure you can get a waiver. But historically Newton does not encourage that type of stuff.

RB: So you’ll watch baseball all summer .

JS: All summer.

RB: And in the fall?

JS: I go watch football. (both laugh) And I teach math. You know what’s funny, a lot of our kids play football. If they played soccer I’d go watch them play. Its good to see them play other sports, to see how they handle adversity and how they handle other coaches. And they are not using the same muscles—they are using different muscles and for baseball that’s a good thing.

RB: What sports do you like?

JS: I coach the JV basketball and we have a terrific head coach. You learn a lot about working with kids.

RB: I am told that because of Newton North’s special ed program lots of families try to move into the school district and 600 out of 1800 students are in special ed programs.

JS: When you say special ed, its different today. Say a kid has a tough time finishing tests. Because he processes a little more slowly. So they call [the programs dealing with ]that special ed. Ten years ago, fifteen years ago that would n’t be special ed. There are severe cases and the there’s stuff that you and I probably have. I found very bright kids, if you just say “slow down.”,they can do very,very well.

RB: It seems lots of things were not previously diagnosed. Anger management? Was there that when we were kids?

JS: (laughs) No.

RB: What is your sense of the spans of attention of today’s students?

JS: With television and other things its not that great. And you do have kids who are into academics but there are probably less of them than in years past. There are a lot of distractions You should see at the end of a game —not just our team—every body goes for their phone.

RB: Personally, I am working on trying to reduce the amount of times I check my e mail.

JS: Yeah and then you’d have 20 or 30 or so. I just talked to our athletic director—if he doesn’t pick it up on the weekend when he comes in a Monday he’s got over a 100. Ridiculous.

RB: Yea—You learn that you can e-mail any time and people will respond any time. There doesn’t seem to be business hours for email. So, do you think about retiring? Is there a required age?

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siccliano (photo Robert Birnbaum

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siciliano (photo Robert Birnbaum

JS: Interestingly, my father taught at BC and they forced him to retire at 65. Now this is many years ago—there was a law. He said it was the biggest mistake that he made —was retiring. I can remember going to the state house doing something —that law was coming up. At this stage what is the new 50 is the old 40? It’ll hit me physically that I can’t do it. But at this point it really hasn’t occurred to me, other than when somebody brings it up—“when are you going to retire?”

RB: Whoops. Sorry

JS: My father is 98 year old and I keep telling him to do crossword puzzles especially when he starts forgetting stuff. But he’s still sharp. He still drives.

RB: How does he do?

JS: Great. His whole reason for being is to get a great deal on groceries. So there are three places he goes. He say’s ,”Joe , these grapes were $3 here and a buck ninety eight there.” That keeps him sharp.

RB: Do you still go to major league games?

JS: Once in while. I’m going to tell you something —if I could go to a [American] Legion game or the Red Sox, I would go to a Legion game. The kids, just watching those kids play how they handle stuff. I scouted a lot of games this year. What I saw, the biggest play—double plays —you have to get get one. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a big inning because they rushed the double play.

RB: Thanks so much for your time and this conversation.

JS: Sure, my pleasure

RB: If I think of anything else, I know where to find you—

JS: Yeah, at some field.

Baseball signed by Coach Joe Siciliano [photo; Robert Birnbaum]

Baseball signed by Coach Joe Siciliano [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

Currently reading As They See Them by Bruce Weber (Scribner)

Gabbing with Alex Beam (American Crucifixion)

6 Aug

Once and now, occasional Boston Globe columnist, Alex Beam’s third work of non-fiction, American Crucifixion The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church(Public Affairs)vividly takes the reader to the 1840’s American frontier (Illinois) for a birds eye view the persecution of the nascent Mormon religion and the violent death of its founder, Joseph Smith. And as in his earlier books, Gracefully Insane a history of Mclean Mental Hospital and A Great Idea at the Time about the Great Books, Beam is very respectful of some weird ideas and zany people.

This is the second conversation Alex Beam and I have had. Naturally, we chat about his book, the Mormons, whether Beam is happy, what’s up at the Boston Globe and goofy Jeff Bezos. And Alex’s next book.

American Crucifixion by Alex Beam

American Crucifixion by Alex Beam

RB: You are a practicing Christian, yes?

AB: I am, in fact, a church-attending Christian, mainly Episcopalian by temperament.

RB: The people who tell you, “Shush” in the movie theaters.

AB: (laughs) Are we those people, you mean?

RB: That’s what I have been told defines Episcopalians —

AB: We are a generally disapproving lot. That’s for sure.

RB: That makes for a good newspaper columnist. Here’s what I wonder after reading American Crucifixion, a book about the Mormons’s founder Joseph Smith, how do you define the difference between a religion or sect and a cult?

AB: Well, it’s certainly not a task I set for myself in this book. And it’s a task that interests other people deeply. I always refer to Joseph Smith’s religion as a branch of Christianity, which in itself, as you may know, even in dispute. A lot of people don’t recognize it as a branch of Christianity. I’m a not so naïve as to think many other people don’t view Mormonism as such an intense of form of Christianity that in fact is a cult. In conversation I don’t shy away from that discussion—making clear I am not the definer of the word ‘cult’. I am sure you know, because you know a bunch of languages, that that the French word for religion is in fact “cult”—

RB: — I am afraid to say I didn’t know that. You’re giving me too much credit.

AB: Well, when people start bandying about etymological, you know, “this Sunday I saw you at the altar rail, taking bread and wine as part of your cult ritual” I couldn’t care less. Nothing interests me less. I want to get to one small point, which is, I don’t think people who call Mormonism a cult are deranged or suffused by hatred. I have to say in all honesty when I read the first 120 pages of Lawrence Wright’s book on Scientology {Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief), which is essentially L Ron Hubbard’s biography; I just thought I was reading about Joseph Smith. There were so many similarities. Larry’s book is not fresh in my mind now but it was almost a one to one correspondence. I am dodging your question. I am aware it is valid but I don’t have an answer.

RB: As a godless Jew I think all Christians are off the page. But this particular brand seems to me deranged. At least until he died it was a religion of whatever he decided at the moment.

Alex Beam [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Alex Beam [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

AB: That’s an accurate reading. That’s a correct reading of what I tried to put on the page. I might have shied away from the phrase “Joseph Smith made it up as he went along” but that is certainly my sense. And I have used that phrase in discussions with Mormons. And the ones that really know his life well don’t disagree at all. I don’t think Fawn Brodie, his greatest biographer, disagrees. I encountered a quote of late that was unfamiliar to me and I am not going to reproduce it exactly. Its in Latin but the translation is “I believe in it because it is absurd” In other words, it’s the ultimate apologia. I acknowledge that what I believe is absurd yet I believe in it.

RB: That’s someone’s definition of faith.

AB: Yea. I guess I have a 360 view of Mormonism. Certainly I feel what they are putting across is no more boundary stretching than the parting of the Red Sea or the indeed the ritual that I took part in this previous Sunday. I take part in that ritual probably for very complicated reasons but i supposedly imbibing the metaphoricolized(sic)- blood of Jesus Christ —that has its absurd aspect.

RB: To flesh out the context in which Smith tried to raise up this religion in what was the wild west of the American heartland in the 1840’s is astoundingly ambitious. One small point, was it truly Illinois law that a defendant could not testify for himself?

AB: Yes. That is an accurate fact.

RB: That strikes me as unconstitutional.

AB: A defendant may not be forced —

RB: I don’t think that’s the way it was presented.

AB: It may not have said that but you are referring to the mass killing where the bad guys were killed. All I can say is I checked it. But again we still have that protection—OJ Simpson didn’t have to take the stand.

RB: The claim was they couldn’t take the stand.

AB: Yes, I did write that and I meant to write it that way.

RB: Another quibble— you used the word ‘lynching’ which I take to be specific to hanging.

AB: I did use the word and I did it deliberately. I am embarrassed that I haven’t checked it. In common usage we think it’s a hanging. We often think it’s the hanging of an African American male. I have come to being very comfortable using that term for the killing of Smith. I think it was a lynching.

RB: What is the distance that Mormonism has traveled from 1840 and the assumption of Brigham Young as the leader, up to now. Is it very much different? Did Young make it up as he went along?

AB: The short answer to that narrow question is no. Joseph had 130 direct revelations from God. Brigham had one. So they were radically different characters. In very general terms, Brigham is the builder, the country maker. He established a country in the West called Deseret. Obviously, it morphed into what we call the state of Utah. But to answer your first question, Mormonism is quite different. In one obvious way. Joseph and Brigham institutionalized polygamy. Which the religion had to back away from in 1890 and then again in 1910. There is an interesting term of art— Mormon Fundamentalist. Which again in reality means these kooky polygamists who hide out at the Colorado border who are occasionally prosecuted by the Feds. Now of course they are fundamentalist in the sense that they go back to the teachings of Joseph. The Old Testament teachings of Joseph. I was just in Utah—not for the first time. There is also a sense and its very muted——I am just going to put on the table —that I am generally empathetic to Mormons. But there is a sense I would argue among Mormon intellectuals —there is a mildly discernable sense, that we lost something of great value here in the past 180 years.

RB: Mormons or everyone lost something?

AB: We, Mormons. We lost the purity of a prophet in touch with God, creating a third testament. This is only hinted at in my book only because Mormonism had moved away from the strict communism of the 1830’s that came to be viewed as impracticable, impractical. But nonetheless in this—what really is a colony, a large colony of Nauvoo, Illinois— a lot of property is shared, a lot of property is held in common. Property is given to people, to the needy. A lot of that lives on the religion, I call it a metaphor but there is, in fact, a Bishop’s Storehouse. In Salt Lake City. Maybe this is like everybody but Mormons are somewhat nostalgic for the kind of, the tighter, original religion. One huge element that is missing is that is not really a persecuted religion anymore.

RB: Well, not exactly.

AB: It’s complicated but it’s harder to make the case when your guy is 6 million votes short of becoming President of the United States.

RB: And when an exceedingly eccentric billionaire [who himself is not a Mormon] has a praetorian guard of Mormons. Isn’t there a Mormon colony in Mexico that practices polygamy?

AB: CBS sent a camera crew down there in 2012.It certainly opened my eyes. What they did was they found large estancia, large Mormon ranches in Mexico that are controlled by Mormon fundamentalists.

RB: Do people convert to Mormonism?

AB: Yes, I was thinking of a writing an article about that. There is a documentary about a member of the New York Dolls who converted. And there a cool band called Four Trees where the lead guitarist is a Mormon. Ultraviolet [of Andy Warhol fame] who just died, she converted to Mormonism.

RB: Jabbari Parker, #1 draft pick in the 2014 NBA draft is a Mormon. And there a controversy about whether he should play in the NBA or putt it off and do is obligatory mission work. Mormon athletes are interviewed who end up rationalizing his decision to play. (both laugh)

AB: Right. I didn’t see the recent news reports. I have heard second hand that a lot athletes did not go on missions.

RB: It makes sense to say that as a professional star athlete Parker will have wider influence. I’m struck by the impression that American Crucifixion is more minutely researched than your earlier work—±the Great Books book or the book on Macleans.

AB: Well, it’s a book of popular history. Its funny, not all Mormons would agree with you (laughs).

RB: Meaning they take exception to your presentation of facts?

AB: First of all I am going to take what you said as a compliment. This was a strange situation where I literally started from zero. I literally knew nothing about the subject. At some point somebody warned me— a very helpful lady Mormon historian said, “Be careful with your footnotes.” I didn’t know what she meant but, in fact, Mormons have called me out on my footnotes. They are very punctilious and for entirely the wrong reasons.

RB: Why not make them endnotes? What is the rationale for one over the other?

AB: I don’t know. I have trailing end notes—I find the whole thing (pauses} jejune, if you don’t mind [me using that word]. In fact, I have never has the opportunity to say this but indisputably, in my view, the best work of popular history ever written is a book called The Reasons Why [about the charge of the Light Brigade] by Cecil Woodham Smith, a British lady, that came out in the beginning of the 20th Century. You won’t find a footnote in her book. She also wrote a book called The Big Hunger, which is somewhat controversial about the Irish Famine. There is not a footnote in there. When people attack the Big Hunger—which they do—they don’t attack because of a lack of scholarly apparatus. I find the whole thing ultimately trivial. So, yeah, I had to do a lot of research because I didn’t know anything.

RB: What was the focus when you started? Was it the same as after you concluded your research?

AB: The idea, which came, did not come from me but came from a book editor. The idea was that Smith’s death —there hadn’t been a book written about it, which is true —it was extremely violent and involved one of America’s largest religions, it involved sex and it took place on the American frontier. And it took place in a very compact time frame. The whole mission was to write about the last 18 months of Smith’s life and then the mission becomes somewhat confused because the reader, I’m the reader, doesn’t know who he is, why he is in Illinois. So there are 80 pages of throat clearing —that’s selling it a little short but I had to get the reader to the banks of the Mississippi.

RB: You are satisfied to use the word ‘lynching’ in the narrative and the title of the book is American Crucifixion.

AB: (laughs)

RB: That’s a strong word, is it not?

AB: It is a strong word. I came up with the title a few months into it. People have had reactions to the title. I only noticed recently that one of the first pieces of front matter is a letter written by a Mormon lady where she compared Joseph Smith’s killing to Jesus’s crucifixion. And there are other examples in the book where people say; oh this is the saddest thing since Gethsemane or something like that. I wasn’t trying to make a point. In fact, it’s totally your call —there’s things about Joseph’s death that interested me that aren’t in the book. For instance, I was interested whether Joseph reappears to the Saints—darned interesting to me. The short answer is, yes. And indeed that’s answer you might expect. But in a way it didn’t make it in to the book because he appears in dreams and things. It’s not like the New Testament. I am happy to give myself a little credit for not pulling the taffy as far as it would stretch.

RB: Do I have this right—Smith, his brother and his wife are still buried in Illinois?

Joseph Smith's grave site , Nauvoo, Illinois

Joseph Smith’s grave site , Nauvoo, Illinois

AB: Brigham wanted to take the corpses to Utah, for sure.

RB: And the bodies were moved around.

AB: Yeah, they were hiding them from a lot of different people. They thought that they would be desecrated. By the gentiles and then they were hiding from Brigham. One of the interesting things about this religion is —there is a picture of their graves in my book— which shows how modest the graves are. They are incredibly modest. Joseph is not a deity or viewed as a divinity in any sense of the word. I was just in Salt Lake and some guy, at lunch, says, ”You know Brigham Young is buried over by that apartment building.” I just couldn’t believe it. He’s just in a little graveyard. You really wouldn’t know. I doubt it’s in a guidebook or anything.

RB: No big thing for the Mormons.

AB: No and again it speaks a little bit to the theology —these men now—these old white men, they view themselves also as prophets and revelators. Just as Joseph and Brigham were. They are not holy people. They are people who have been chosen for this job by God and they are occasionally gifted with revelations. As are many other Mormons which is part of the doctrine.

RB: Are you inclined to think all or many Mormons will read your book? Is it on any Mormon reading list?

AB: I went to the Mormon Historical Association annual meeting which, for me, was a huge treat. A really friendly Mormon guy— he was such a friend to me throughout the writing of this book, I sent him the book and he said come on down and give a presentation. I gave a presentation and it was very well received. Having said that, the church has an official history department where they create the official history. In my talk I likened their history library to the Lenin Library, which wasn’t all that well received. It was funny — I talked to these people—they knew who I was, let’s put it that way. And this one guy, he wrote the definitive apologist account of the Mount Meadows Massacre—he’s a guy I was trying desperately to reach for three years. He wouldn’t talk to me. And I met him in person. He said to me “I downloaded your book the first day it was available and read it on one sitting.”Now this is a real, genuine church authority in every sense of the word. And I said, “Well, what did you think?” (laughs) And he’s a diplomat—he said, “Well, it’s not the book I would have written.” (giggles)

RB: Hmmm.

AB: Others would say, “Its an interesting perspective.” And they are trying to be polite. The Deseret chain of bookstores is not carrying this book. It’s a chain owned by the church. Basically they have only faith affirming literature there. BYU bookstore sold out of this book. This is not going to be required reading for orthodox Mormons. Mormons as a category are highly literate and highly inquisitive. So the book has done very well in that community but it will not ever be in a case in the front of the Church library.

RB: And mainstream attention?

AB: It has been in the LA Times. It has been in the Chicago Tribune. It’ll be in the New York Times. It was in the Wall Street Journal. Boston Globe. With the sole exception of the Washington Post its been reviewed. The reviews were all favorable. I don’t know what that means.

RB: It means “attention is being paid.” Knowing you to be a fussy guy, are you happy with this book? Or would you like another year to fiddle around with it?

AB: Uh, uh (laughs). I am happy with the book. I was worried that you were going to ask me if I was happy generally.

RB: I have a story about that but go ahead.

AB: Let me think about that for a second. Now I have had really interesting feedback and serious feedback. I think I would cut a little more. The editor wanted to keep cutting and I think I would cut a little more. It was longer —we cut a lot. I don’t think that’s what you are asking. I think you are asking about tone and things like that.

RB: Will you change anything for the paperback? Revise it?

AB: No, is the short answer. What you don’t get to do in a second edition is reedit.

RB: Even with the benefit of feedback?

AB: I am a 100% behind the voice and the order — I like everything about the book.

RB: This project took you how long?

AB: Started in the summer of 2011 finished—2 years.

RB: Now you are done with it—though as a historical work I expect the conversation continues. So what do you do now?

AB: I am still writing for the Globe. I have a contract to write another book, actually. About Vladimir Nabokov (laughs) and Edmund Wilson. I have been so happy since April 22 (pub date of American Crucifixion) and I have just been happy living inside of this book. I have to get off my rear end.

RB: So you have things to do? You are not wondering, ‘What am I doing next?”

AB: Yes, I am not at sea. Quite the opposite.

RB: I am not going to ask you if you are happy.

AB: Thank you very much.

RB: I find it peculiar that this is a question people feel comfortable asking each other—what does that mean?

AB: Well, it is a massive externalization of something that—there is an industry that I and others have made fun of. A huge industry of how do you achieve this state that other people didn’t even bother to worry about.

RB: It looks like PBS has devoted itself to this kind of programming—snake oil shows.

AB: I simply don’t watch that kind of thing. Those things just shock me. It’s all about the solipsism of our generation.

RB: Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book about the industry after her bout with breast cancer.

AB: That’s passed over me—I have no comment (laughs)

RB: How are things at the Boston Globe?

AB: I took a buyout from the Globe 2 years ago so I am no longer a staff member. I am just contributing one column a week. I haven’t actually set foot in the building.

RB: How many of your peers are still there?

AB: A few, a precious few.

RB: Any talk about the new regime? I talked with Ben Bradlee JR and he was impressed with John Henry’s initial editorial laying out his intentions for the paper

AB: Right. My view—and this is a viewer as a consumer— I am actually a subscriber. I am interested in the Globe. It seems to me the coin is still in the air. Ben is correct that initially John Henry did a lot of right things. He got that editorial coverage. Everybody he has hired is about the newspaper, is about quality. There is some stuff going on —I wouldn’t say I am privy to it in any way. I am quite interested in Bezos at the Washington Post. And the Times is interesting in and of itself — there are things happening there. With the Globe, these are three papers that interest me. Bezos for whatever you think of him —you might see the more interesting stuff happening there first.

RB: Watching him on 60 Minutes announce his drone delivery plan — he went giddy. The Rickets still own the [Chicago] Tribune? And what about the LA Times?

AB: That’s completely at sea. It’s been for sale of a long time. It’s part of the Tribune Co and they are trying to get rid of it.

RB: I read that Time magazine has moved out of a corporate umbrella and they hired Norman Pearlstine who was there years ago. Time magazine has become irrelevant and to bring a person back from its history doesn’t seem a like move to change that.

AB: I couldn’t tell you. All the action is taking place at a chronological place where you, me and Norman Perlstine are not. He’s this talented New York guy. He is like the Flying Dutchman—he’s always looking for work. He’s been everywhere. He was at Bloomberg for a while. But he’s not the answer. The answer really ios with the younger generation.

RB: Sure, but what you still get is a homogenized POV. This American Life clearly has talented people but the palette is monochromatic or to use another metaphor, it’s a tune in the same key.

AB: I don’t have beef with you in any way on that one—that’s an NPR issue. They have a homogenous culture in my opinion. But I guess what I am talking about is technically skilled younger people. I meant presentation issues. People are cynical now about some of the innovations the Times came up with. They are going to be many, many small experiments that will add up to helping.

RB: Like introducing a Sin column

AB: (laughs) Where?

RB: In the Times. And one of the first pieces was about strip clubs with vague but appropriate images. I didn’t notice the column until I saw a letter to the editor. And the front page features something called “the Insider”. My reaction —who cares?

AB: They are hyping it, relentlessly. I do have a different view of this. I have not been inside the paper for a couple of year. The desperation for revenue streams is like craving heroin. I can’t tell you how many dozens of excellent people had to be let go because of shrinking revenues. Yeah, the Times sells golf balls with their logo on it. (laughs) Its tough out there.

RB; Are you aware of the Baffler? Or its resurrection?

AB: I know its been resurrected —some people in Cambridge did that. It’s not on my reading diet.

RB: It should be. It’s a contrarian’s delight. Have a look at a piece called The People’s Republic of Zuckerstan on the innovation economy in Cambridge and Boston. You are not interested in being part of pow wows about newspapers. I’m sure you must have some ideas.

AB: I‘m not sure I do. I’ll be straight with you. I‘m not sure I do.

RB: Ideas are generated by conversation. Someone says something dumb and then someone else says, “That’s dumb, here’s the way to do it.”

AB: I completely agree with you. But given that I am not on anybody’s staff.

RB: You have lived most of your life here in Newton Massachusetts.

AB: Now I have—since 1984

RB: Is there a place you would go to, not necessarily to retire but say, to write your memoir about your fabulous life.

AB: I don’t want to write a memoir about my fabulous life. I don’t know. I am in the position of so many people. I have children who are adults now. That’s something I think about constantly. Obsess about—what about you?

RB: I am thinking of the Gulf Coast—maybe Fairhaven, Alabama, across the bay from Mobile. But my current health insurance, only available in Massachusetts, may keep me here

AB: I looked at the panhandle of Florida, which has no culture what so ever, which I found kind of appealing.

RB: Well, thanks. We’ll meet again in the fall of 2016 for your Nabokov-Wilson tome.

AB: I’d be happy to.

Currently reading The Drop by Dennis Lehane (Wm Morrow)

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)