Interview with writer Richard Lally
Writer Richard Lally explains how he secured an interview with Frankie Crosetti and what it was like working with Bill Lee.
Richard Lally has been writing wonderful baseball books for nearly two decades. In 1984, Lally collaborated with pitcher Bill Lee on his autobiography, titled "The Wrong Stuff." The next year, Lally published "Pinstriped Summers: Memories of Yankee Seasons Past," which covered the years 1965 through 1982. Lally has co-authored two books with Joe Morgan, and this spring Crown Books published "Bombers: An Oral History of the New York Yankees." More literate than most baseball writers (including yours truly), Lally compares Armando Benitez to Godzilla ("except the Japanese icon never threw this hard") and describes Sandy Koufax's fastball thusly: "A living, punishing thing, it screamed at hitters as it flashed towards home plate to disarm and disrupt. Dismantle."
(Get it? Dis-Mantle.)
Yesterday and today, Lally and I conducted the following exchange via e-mail.
Neyer: Richard, there's a huge challenge facing anybody who writes a book about the Yankees, which of course is that there have already been scores of books written about the Yankees. Why did you want to write a book about the Yankees, and how did you deal with that huge challenge?
Lally: That challenge spurred me to write Bombers. Over the years, I've accumulated a trove of interviews with various Yankees and other ballplayers. After reviewing that material, I believed that there was much about this team that still wasn't generally well known. The truth behind Ruth's mythic called shot or Ernie Lombardi's supposed home plate snooze in the '39 Series were stories I wanted to tell because eyewitnesses had given me new slants on them. In many cases those perspectives contradicted versions that had gained wide acceptance by baseball fans and historians.
My editor at Crown, Pete Fornatale, helped me to meet the challenge by insisting that we refuse to use rehash. To make the cut for the book, a story had to offer a fresh perspective on an event or player. The high bar Mr. Fornatale set made me dig deeply and we were often surprised by what I uncovered. For example, we doubted there would be a chapter on the '61 Yankees, as so much has been written about that club. But then I interviewed Jim Brosnan and he revealed that, during the '61 World Series, the Reds were stealing signs from the Yankees' pitchers in much the same way the Giants were stealing signs in 1951. I'd never heard that before; even the Yankees were surprised by Brosnan's revelation. That story provided the foundation for the chapter, "Canceling Red October."
Neyer: To be honest with you, my two reactions while reading the book were, "Wow, I didn't know I could still enjoy a Yankees book this much," and "This is a strange Yankees book. I'm halfway through, and I've learned far more about Bill McKechnie than I've learned about Joe McCarthy, far more about Lew Burdette than Allie Reynolds, far more about Frank Lary than Whitey Ford ..."
I understand why you wrote the book the way you did, but there must have been stuff that you just hated to leave out, material enough for a completely different book. Is there anything you'd add if today you were magically granted 16 more pages?
Lally: This might surprise you, but if I had those 16 magical pages, I'd first want to include a chapter on the 1974 season when the Yankees finished a close, surprising second to Baltimore in the American League East. The players from that team told me so many fascinating stories: Rudy May on the subtle anti-Semitism directed at Ron Blomberg, Elliott Maddox describing how manager Bill Virdon taught Lou Piniella to become "the best slow outfielder in baseball," and Bobby Murcer admitting that he allowed Shea Stadium to get inside his head and sap his power. You may remember that Virdon moved Murcer to right and replaced him with Maddox in center. Elliott revealed that Bobby never spoke to him again after that, except on the field. And Murcer, to his credit, was brutally self-critical in explaining his reaction. A wonderful snapshot of human interaction. Unfortunately, when we cut for page counts, that chapter didn't survive.
Neyer: Going back four decades from the chapter that didn't survive ... One of my favorite things about Bombers was reading the reminiscences of Frankie Crosetti, who played three full seasons with Babe Ruth. Crosetti recently passed away, at 91 years old, and I wondered 1) when you conducted your interviews with him, and 2) why nobody ever convinced Crosetti to write his autobiography.
Lally: I spoke with Cro during the 2000 season and that's a funny story. I called his home 16 times requesting an interview and each time his wife told me he was away on a trip. Fine, except I could hear him in the background saying, "Who is it? I don't want to talk. Tell him to call Tommy Henrich, his memory is better than mine." Honest, this is all on tape. Finally, on the 17th try, I said the magic words: I told Mrs. Crosetti to let her husband know that despite my Irish surname, I am half Italian. Cro immediately jumped on the line, asked which half, then gave me 45 minutes of gold, including the anecdote about Ruth giving a tramp $100. That story was so evocative of a bygone era, when just anyone could walk into a major league clubhouse.
Of course, when Cro told me the truth behind Ruth's called shot, I knew we had a bell-ringing opening chapter. Over the years, umpteen writers and publishers approached Crosetti about doing an autobiography; it was a natural. But during our interview, he said he got along so well with Gehrig and DiMaggio because the three of them had something in common: they didn't like to talk about themselves. He didn't mind sharing four or five stories about other players, but I think the idea of talking about his life for 250 pages or so was anathema to him.
Neyer: You worked on two books with ESPN's very own Joe Morgan. What can you tell us about Joe that we might not already know?
Lally: Joe has a profound respect for baseball tradition, yet he is not stuck in the past. He is continually challenging baseball's "conventional wisdoms" such as the practice of using your best bullpen arm only in the eighth or ninth innings of save situations. Joe thinks that is absurd, and I understand Bill James agrees with him to a large degree. Joe is also a Renaissance man with an educated business acumen, a keen ear for jazz, terrific taste in gourmet wines, and a sharp eye for great westerns. He and I became fast friends when we discovered that we both had seen Tombstone more than 20 times.
Let me add a sartorial note. I once served as ghostwriter for a book on men's fashions. Joe is among the few people on television who knows how to properly knot a tie. And he is also one of the straightest shooters I know. I would take Joe Morgan's word on anything, any day of the week.
Neyer: What was it like, working with Bill Lee? Did you get along with him better than Don Zimmer did?
Lally: I've always been anti-authoritarian so Bill and I got along famously. The left-hander is a joy to collaborate with because he arrives without the baggage of a self-censor. The only drawback is Bill occasionally thinks he has exhausted a subject, when there is still more excavating to do. But it's my job as collaborator to take out the pickaxe and get to digging. Sometimes a bit of strategy was needed. Near the end of our collaboration on The Wrong Stuff we had many piquant anecdotes, but I felt the book lacked the zaniness it needed to accurately reflect Bill's life. So I locked the two of us in an apartment and told him he couldn't leave until he had told me every wacky baseball story he knew.
Before I turned on the tape, I also mixed four large jiggers of grapefruit juice and tequila, using as little juice as possible. By the evening we were both lubricated, but we had the stories that put The Wrong Stuff on the best-seller list. There is currently strong interest, by the way, in turning The Wrong Stuff into a film. And I guess this is the time to mention that Bill and I are currently working on a sequel. He has been playing baseball all over the world for the last 20 years and, by his own official count, has won more games than Cy Young or Satchel Paige. The working title is Travels With a Baseball Vagabond: Baseball Without Borders.
Neyer: Thanks for doing this, Dick. And congratulations again on writing another great book.
Bombers: An Oral History of the New York Yankees is available in bookstores now, and can also be ordered from Amazon.com.