The Old Weird Baseball

An interview with Josh Ostergaard, author of The Devil's Snake Curve
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Even in the lengthy tradition of baseball literature, The Devil's Snake Curve defies easy comparison. Josh Ostergaard's miscellany of obscure baseball history, Eighties Royals-fan memoir, and Billy Martin folklore is aptly subtitled "A Fan's Notes from Left Field." Coffee House Press kindly gave us permission to publish an excerpt, in which Billy Martin incites Mickey Mantle to kill three cows. Author Josh Ostergaard also took some time to talk with The Classical about facial hair, internment camps, and what Walmart has to tell us about the Royals' roster construction. (Interview conducted via e-mail, and edited for length).

The Classical: There are a few real discoveries for even a devoted baseball history dweeb in The Devil’s Snake Curve. The indelible Art Shires, Yankees owner Del Webb building internment camps, John Titus and the last mustache in baseball, the full lyrics to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” What are some of your personal favorite finds in the research that went into the book?

Josh Ostergaard: The old White Sox huckster Art Shires remains a favorite of mine. There’s a lot more material out there if someone wants to write a full book about him, though I think it would work best as an experimental biography or creative project rather than a straight treatment of his life. After he left baseball he went through hard times, including a stint trying to make is a pro wrestler—I think that was in the thirties. And before he started playing baseball he supposedly used pseudonyms to play as a ringer for college football teams around the country. Part of the reason he’s interesting is that he was a liar and a braggart, so I wouldn’t consider these claims to be true. One quote I wish I’d put in the book is that when he first got to Chicago, he supposedly said, “So this is the great American League. I’ll hit .400.” He was truly an eccentric personality. The undomesticated man.

The biggest revelation for me was the fact that Yankees owner Del Webb had built the Poston internment camps for Japanese Americans. By the time I discovered that, I was already thinking about the over-arching theme of the book, which is the ways that popular culture (baseball in this instance) intersects with some of the darker aspects of American society. Even the best parts of our country—the Yankees of the mid-twentieth century—are inextricably linked to a pretty foul underbelly. Though the Yankees obviously had nothing to do with Webb’s business practices during the war, it’s the symbolic link that interested me. In a capitalist society the people who rise to the top are not those with the most virtue.

Politics aside, I still love the fact the Hall of Fame has an award named after Lou Gehrig that is given to ballplayers whose lives are virtuous. It was given to Pete Rose in 1969, and Mark McGwire in 1999. That’s a delicious irony, considering they are barred from the Hall of Fame for their character flaws.

Before reading your book, I'd never thought of baseball's tradition of mildly nauseating facial hair (see Garza, Matt; Spiezio, Scott; Johnson, Reed) as having historical roots deeper than Rollie Fingers' handlebar mustache. But you've read a new depth to the connection between baseball and facial hair. What's your personal favorite baseball facial hair? Least favorite? (My least favorite is Eric Hosmer's beard, by the way). How did you come across John Titus?

My favorite mustache in baseball history is the one worn by good old Rollie Fingers. It looks like Salvador Dalí and an emperor tamarin at the same time. Nobody can beat that for thematic confluence. I started paying attention to how baseball owners and the media portrayed ballplayers’ hair way back in the early nineties when Don Mattingly got in trouble for having long hair. If memory serves, there was an episode of The Simpsons where they made a joke about it. I started wondering what the fuss was about, and when I looked back through time, I saw that sportswriters seem to have taken delight in reporting on facial hair in particular for a hundred years. I think it has to do with Homo sapiens’ discomfort with its membership in the animal kingdom. And if you think about baseball teams as corporate machines that produce a product, the rules against facial hair make sense because they are basically a way of domesticating the human animal and making the player submit to authority in a way that protects the corporate owner’s assets. I am almost certain I learned about John Titus while doing follow-up research on another player named Frenchy Bordagaray. When Frenchy dared wear a mustache to the Dodgers camp in the early thirties, sports columnists with long memories reminisced about John Titus and how nobody had worn a mustache since he retired. I first learned about Frenchy when a former Hall of Fame staffer named Russell Wolinsky blogged about him. I dug a little deeper from there. I don’t think I have a least favorite mustache in baseball, but I should say that I’m intrigued and horrified by Al Hrabosky’s rather aggressive follicular arrangement.

The Devil's Snake Curve evolved into its final form after starting out as a novel. Tell me a bit more about the novel that never was, and whether you still have any plans to write baseball-related fiction. How long did this book take you to write? It's an unusual style of a book, almost a miscellany on the cultural history of the game. Where did the inspiration to shape the book this way come from?

DSC started off as a straightforward nonfiction project in which I intended to write down all the things I hated about the Yankees, but that got boring within a few months because it was too straightforward. During that time I also found that when I tried to write bad things about Billy Martin, I failed completely. I discovered, to my horror, that I actually love Billy Martin. I think it’s because he was so fully human, with his faults paired with his intelligence and passion. Like Art Shires, he’s one of the great characters of baseball history—another undomesticated man.

About six months into my work on what became DSC, I radically shifted my approach. I threw away what I’d done, and started writing a novel about a father and son who dedicated their lives to hating the Yankees. The structural trope in the novel was that I was writing in first person about how I’d visited an estate sale and found a trunk containing their life’s work—they’d spent decades collecting “evidence” that the Yankees were in fact the worst team in baseball history. As the new owner of their research, the character of the narrator tells the story of their obsession with the team. The novel was about passion, self-deception, and the fragility of the historical record, and it was heavily influenced by the way the Bush administration hyped the war in Iraq. I was trying to understand how false claims succeed. I finished the novel in 2006, and spent two years revising and polishing in the morning before pedaling to work at the Field Museum. It was probably a viable book had I stuck with it, but circumstances unrelated to the book made it necessary to set it aside. Without going into too much detail, I discovered that the structure of my novel risked being recapitulated in what will become my second book, a nonfiction project about a uranium miner. That’s why I threw away the novel and started over, making more direct use of all the research I’d done in the preceding years that hadn’t made its way into the novel itself. I could have made the novel work but chose not to in order to protect my second book. It was a difficult decision, but it was the correct decision.

The unusual aesthetic and structural approach in the book comes from a few different impulses. Well before I started writing, I was fascinated by The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin. It’s basically a several-hundred page compendium of raw material and brief observations about the Paris arcades (shopping centers) and other elements of 19th century life, such as the rise of advertising, etc. Benjamin died before he finished it, but it functions well in its fragmentary form. It’s a bit under-theorized, it’s not cohesive, and it’s very stimulating and thought provoking. Anyway, that’s the most obvious inspiration for DSC. I also was determined to try to write a book in which the subtext and implied meanings were in fact the heart of the project. I wanted to use baseball and its history as a language or palette to explore the ways American society manufactures an illusion of its own virtue.

Has your Yankee-hate waned at all in an era of comparatively feeble Yankee teams?

My Yankee-hatred waned once I started researching the team in earnest. It started with my grudging respect for Billy Martin, and then basically I found that although all the reasons I disliked them were still true (even when they weren’t that good), the more I learned the more I gained a wider perspective. I don’t hate any baseball team. I’m not very competitive, and I don’t find antagonism to be a very interesting way of seeing the world. Or rather, I find the antagonism of others interesting, but I don’t often feel it internally with regard to sports. I made use of it DSC, of course, but I think your question probably stems from the sense a reader might gain that I don’t really hate the Yankees, despite having grown up with them as rivals of the Royals. I like history because it’s already been completed. I care less about who won than about what happened and the stories that arise from the game. I like to know the ending of the movie first.

David Glass, owner of the Royals, made his pile of money as a senior executive for Walmart. In one passage of the book, you make a convincing argument that Glass applied some of Walmart's business logic to the Royals—that lineups were constructed to maximize revenue, with little consideration to the quality of the team on the field. After a rare winning season for the Royals, are you still down on Glass?

I’m glad to hear that the passage on Glass and the Royals makes sense. It’s one of the rare instances in the book where I actually do make an overt argument. I wrote that from the gut, or the heart, you could say. For years after Ewing Kauffman (the first owner) died, the fans kept waiting and waiting and waiting for the rebuilding to happen. We had so many great players pass through: Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, Jermaine Dye, etc, only to have them sent elsewhere. So the displeasure and distrust I write about toward the end of DSC is the result of seeing the same thing happen over and over for decades and getting the strong sense that the ownership truly didn’t care. The way I felt last season when the Royals improved, and especially now since I conveyed my displeasure publicly in the book, is that I don’t really deserve to enjoy the team’s success, and if they win this year I’m not sure I can really feel a part of it. I hope they win, and I hope Glass proves me wrong.

For all your contempt for the Yankees, an iconic Yankee winds up as the closest thing your book has to a main character. I read your take on Martin as something of an oddity, an almost 19th century style baseball grinder somehow captive at the court of the Yankee empire. What drew you to Martin, apart from his role as a nemesis of George Brett in the Royals-Yanks rivalry?

As you point out, I think I’m drawn to Martin in part because my first memory of baseball—or one of the first—was listening to the infamous Pine Tar Incident on the car radio as my family drove home from vacation in 1983. That seems to have imprinted itself deeply in my brain. But beyond that, I discovered that he’s a fascinating guy in part because the Yankees as an organization were puritanical during his time, and possibly still are today. And Martin was the opposite of that. He loved the Yankees, yet he was exactly the kind of personality they tried to domesticate. That tension is interesting to me. Also, Billy Martin was very smart, and very competitive, and always looking for an edge that could help his team win, whether as a player or manager. He was a person who got ideas and did things, rather than passively playing a role. Martin had strong opinions, never censored himself, and especially compared to today’s ballplayers and managers—who in my opinion are so incredibly bland personality-wise—Martin was fascinating. Steinbrenner too. I’d rather have Steinbrenner in the league throwing his weight around and occasionally making a fool of himself than any given contemporary owner or executive who might be more “correct,” but has the temperament and passion of a dead fish. I’m tired of the fake piety that suffuses the professional game, and I like characters in its history who had flaws, but were fully human. Bill Veeck is another obvious example. Major League Baseball has become too self-important. The players are human. Let them be flawed. Same goes for the games themselves. Let the umps make mistakes.

What are some of your favorite documents of baseball culture?

My favorites tend to be when baseball pops up in books and movies that aren’t on their face about the sport. My absolute favorite baseball movie scene is in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The mental patients cheer Jack Nicholson as he imagines and recites the play-by-play of the World Series game they are prohibited from watching. It’s very rich. 

There’s a book called A Day in the Bleachers by Arnold Hano that I’m dying to read, but haven’t yet. And there’s a novella called Will West by Paul Metcalf that I really enjoyed and I hope more people will read. Metcalf also wrote an essay called “Willie’s Throw,” that should be more widely appreciated. And now that I’m talking about Metcalf I want to sneak in a plug for his book Genoa, which is truly mind-blowing, though it’s not about baseball.

Now I’m getting on a roll. I hope people will track down A Pennant for the Kremlin by Paul Molloy—it’s a novel about the Soviet Union taking over the White Sox. It came in out in about 1964 and it’s a great satire on the Cold War, which is remarkable considering that was a perilous moment. 

Any favorite baseball experiences?

In 1999 a buddy and I took a Greyhound to Birmingham, Alabama for the sole purpose of visiting Rickwood Field. I wanted to go because Willie Mays had played there when he was with the Birmingham Black Barons, and if I’m not mistaken Babe Ruth had passed through at some point. The park was built in 1910 or so. My buddy and I took a cab there from our seedy motel. It was early November and the field was empty. We took turns pitching from the mound with a Wiffle ball and then we explored. One of the old scoreboards was sitting in a junk heap outside the fence with tall grass growing around it. Rickwood Field really captured my imagination. The cab driver who took us back to our fleabag motel turned off the meter and told us stories for half an hour. He’d seen Reggie Jackson play at Rickwood in the sixties.

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