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July 8, 2003
Allen Barra has written for numerous publications since the late-1970s, including The Village Voice, The Wall Street Journal, and currently The New York Times. In 2002, Barra authored Clearing the Bases: The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Last Century, which took a refreshing look at some of baseball's most argued topics. Recently, BP correspondent Alex Belth caught up with Barra to discuss his early days as a writer, the influence of Bill James on his work, and Major League Baseball's marketing department.
Baseball Prospectus: So what team did you root for as a kid?
Allen Barra: I went back and forth between the Mets and the Yankees a lot. My dad was a fanatic Willie Mays fan. We used to see him at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia, and at Shea Stadium. He got tickets to the 1962 World Series. I was at the first game in 1963, the one that Sandy Koufax pitched against the Yankees. My father got tickets to that game and he kept me home from school. It turned out to be the great game we hoped that it would be.
BP: Did you play baseball?
AB: Oh yeah. I still do. I coach my daughter's little league team.
BP: Did you play through college?
AB: I played in high school but I didn't play in college. I don't know why. It's just at that point, there was too much going on. I ended up going to school at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. We moved down to Alabama and I ended up going to school there.
AB: Did you read baseball literature as a kid?
BP: Yeah, I always read. When I was growing up, the best stuff out there--I still insist that the real golden age of sports writing was the late '50s to about 1970. Sport Magazine especially. Sports Illustrated had Tex Maul, who was a great football writer. Dan Jenkins was a terrific football writer. His Saturday's America is still one of the great, top 50 sports books ever written. The stuff in SI was terrific. Not that there isn't some good stuff in there today. I don't mean that. But Sport Magazine was terrific. Dick Schaap. Who was very encouraging to me later on, which was very nice. Ray Robinson, who I keep in touch with all the time.
BP: He wrote Iron Horse, didn't he?
AB: And his Christy Mathewson bio. Gosh who else? Ed Linn. I remember reading Sport Magazine as a kid, and those sport bios, which are still terrific reads. Al Silverman. For years he was editor and chief of Viking-Penguin. I met him once and I said, "Are you the same Al Silverman who wrote Warren Spahn: Immortal South Paw? They were wonderful little books. They were concise. The stories in Sport were quite good, and they told me everything that I needed to know about the athletes. I imagined that Joe DiMaggio wasn't the icon everybody made him out to me. But I don't really care. I'd much rather read a sport biography of that period than read one of the exposes today.
BP: Did you have ambitions to be not only a writer, but a sports writer?
AB: More than anything else, I kinda grew up wanting to be in the alternative press. I can't say exactly why. But by the time I was in college everybody wanted to be writing for the Village Voice. Or establish their own Village Voice. And there was that time when there really was the idea of a weekly paper. I lived in Chicago in '80 and '81 and wrote for The Chicago Reader. When I came to New York, I actually had this idea that I could make a living writing for the Voice. I wanted to write about a lot of things, and I still do. I love to write about books. I do a historical movie column for American Heritage, and I was a film critic for a while...
BP: So you never wanted to be a sports writer who got up close to the players and work the beat, or be a features writer?
AB: Not really, no. But I did have a lot of things to say. And having grown up in the alternative press I think I always had the idea to always look for the backside of the story. I went straight to New York after Chicago and started writing for the Village Voice. This was in the early '80s when they didn't have a sports section. And I kept needling and pushing and pushing. The two men who started the sports section are no longer with us. Ross Wetzsteon, who was also a drama critic, very influential in starting the Obie awards. Ross discovered Sam Shepard, and he was a great baseball fan...
BP: When did you first read Bill James?
AB: Bill James I had heard about through a friend of mine, who was a friend of Norman Mailer's. And Norman Mailer was an early booster of Bill James. I've asked him about that, but I've never really understood the connection there. But Ross Wetzsteon was a big Bill James fan. We used to pass Bill's books around, and buy The Baseball Abstract, and photocopy stuff and send it to people. Bill didn't invent a lot of those things; he was the first one to crystallize them. For instance, we all knew that on-base average was a more important stat than batting average and had been saying so for some time. But Bill said it in a clear way, and illustrated it in a more lucid fashion. Bill brought it all together. You know, he equated the thinking man's fan. With apologies to Leonard Koppett, who had a very good stab at that with his book, The Thinking Fan's Guide to Baseball. It was a nice book. And it still is an excellent read. But Bill was the man that brought it all together. And he was a hip, funny writer. He also had that Midwestern, Mark Twainish kind of dry, Kansas wit.
BP: I love how you had columns running simultaneously in The Village Voice and The Wall Street Journal.
BP: Have you read Moneyball?
AB: Yeah, but I won't comment. [Author Michael Lewis] has an association with the New York Times. I do think some writers tend to go overboard when they meet some of these clever front office people in baseball. They get a little unrealistic about the...It's not a bad book, but I do think Lewis bought too much into Billy Beane's mythology. I think it would have been a better and more historically accurate book had he contrasted it with the other great Oakland A's genius, Charlie Finely. Anyway, that's just my feeling.
BP: Did you follow baseball very closely during your college years?
AB: I'm not sure that baseball in that period wasn't the best it's ever been. When Marvin Miller shook up baseball. I'm not sure that from 1975-1995, we didn't see the best and most competitive baseball in history. But baseball did so many things wrong in that period, too. And when I say baseball, I mean entirely: the people that run the game. The owners and commissioners. And they never grasped it, and they still haven't a clue.
Baseball's biggest problem--and this is going to stick around for a long time--is that it's the only sport that has a real union, and management that is exempt from anti-trust laws. And that's just a bad combination. You can trace all of baseball problems down to that. Marketing, and everything else. It's the only sport that regularly promotes and campaigns against itself. In order to battle the players and get the salaries lowered, the owners are constantly, relentlessly, criticizing their own product. They have to emphasis decreased attendance, "Oh, we're losing money." What other sport does that? But it's done entirely to get the public and the press on their side. In the last action it worked perfectly. The press so gullible with that Blue Ribbon Panel. That Blue Ribbon Panel was selected by the commissioner of baseball.
BP: Now of course not only have the A's and Twins been competitive, but the Expos are pretty good too.
AB: It wasn't changed by marketing. It isn't the Dodgers and Mets dominating. Now Seattle is a big market team. I love this. A couple of years ago Cleveland and Baltimore were big market teams because of their stadiums. Then they start losing and become small market teams... I suspect sometimes the only reason they would put a major-league team in Montreal is so they have something to bitch about.
BP: Did you follow Curt Flood's story when he sued baseball?
AB: I followed it from a distance. I actually got to meet Curt later on. I worked with Marvin Miller on [Miller's] autobiography. I wouldn't say co-wrote. That would be a lie. But I got to meet Curt Flood. I remember rooting for him. I couldn't understand why it wasn't obvious to everyone that what he was doing was an important thing at the time. He was one of the most intelligent, articulate ballplayers I've ever met. He had to be the right guy. In some ways he was as unique and as important as Jackie Robinson.
BP: Because he had more to lose?
AB: It's just the idea that somebody would finally step up and say, "I'm not property anymore." Baseball players were never slaves, but the press had a field day tossing that one around. Because it's successful, it's not a union? How could a union be successful? Marvin pointed out that it was the only area of labor in which the labor was product. To be bought and sold. Even in the auto industry they can't do that. The product is the car. In baseball the labor is the product. That what was unique about it from the beginning. And every time they won the game got better.
BP: Why do you think people like to get hung up about athletes' salaries as opposed to the kind of money movie stars and rock stars earn?
AB: I don't think they are obsessed with athletes' salaries, I think they are obsessed with baseball players' salaries. Because the owners bitch about baseball players' salaries.
BP: Why do you think Flood's story would be interesting to a kid growing up today?
AB: Fans, especially young fans need to be told that the reason that these athletes make so much money today is that they produce it. They earn it. They earn it more directly than most CEOs of most corporations. Why is it that a corporation fails, they lose money, but nobody gripes when the president of a corporation makes $23 million. Were did that money come from? If their company went under, how did you get that money?
When Alex Rodriguez goes to Texas, his agent makes a cable deal that nets [the Rangers] $250 million, but to make that deal it had to be contingent on them acquiring a major star. So essentially they took the $250 million they made from the cable, and paid A-Rod with it. They didn't reach into their pocket. It didn't cost them $250 million. So the extra caps and hot dogs that they sell from that is profit. So it's worth it to them. He's also made the team better. God knows, it's not a very good team, but they could be worse.
BP: How does this relate to Flood?
AB: Flood was the first one who stood up and said, "This has always been a business. Don't give us that stuff about when it was a game. It's always been a business for you, you've always treated it that way." Curt Flood was the one that started the revolution. And I'm all for it.
BP: Was he a product of his time?
AB: Everyone is a product of their time to some extent. It's being a product of your time and transcending your time that makes somebody truly exceptional. And yes, Curt Flood was definitely that.
Alex Belth is the author of Bronx Banter, a web site devoted to New York City baseball. Before focusing on baseball full-time, Alex worked in the post-production side of the film business for the likes of Ken Burns ("Baseball"), Woody Allen ("Everyone Says I Love You") and the Coen brothers ("The Big Lebowski"). You can contact Alex at AlexBelth@aol.com.