Friday, May 29, 2009

Ultimate Beach Read

And I mean it. My new book Young Woman & the Sea (see previous posts) was just selected a “Best Summer Read” by the Wall Street Journal, one of only five non-fiction books so designated. They even ran an excerpt:

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Researching Trudy

Once upon a time when I was beginning to write sports and social history, the print portion of what flacks and reviewers usually call “exhaustive research" was just that. Even ten or twelve years ago, writing a two or three thousand word profile on a historical sports topic was grueling. Apart from interviews, which, depending on the time period in which one writes, are not always central to the process, you had to try to find every book on the subject – or close to the subject – and hope each had an index, and spend hours looking for useful information. Research in newspapers consisted of scrolling though mountains of microfilm, and either taking notes or taking your chances with copy systems that were rarely satisfying. Even the most basic information was almost impossible to come by. For instance, in those pre Retrosheet days even reconstructing the play by play of an inning of a baseball game was almost impossible.

Now of course the wealth of material available online is staggering. In one full day online I can often access and print (if necessary) more material than I could have physically looked up and copied in several months a decade ago. It has dramatically changed the amount of time it takes to research a contemporary topic, and write a book about it. But here’s the catch. As the wealth of online material grows, I think many researchers just stop doing the old grunt work I just described. There is a tendency to dismiss sources that are not available online through Proquest, some magazine database or Google books. Not true. The result can be a great deal of faux research that ignores as much material as it includes.

In my soon to be published book on Gertrude Ederle, "Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World," I did both kinds of research, days and months online and similar time in libraries. In 1926 Ederle became the sixth person – and first woman - to swim the English Channel, beating the men’s record by nearly two hours, a staggering achievement that proved, once and for all, that women could compete as athletes. My challenge was to animate her and her era. The result was, I think, informative. In the end I uncovered more than six thousand articles and stories about Ederle over an eighty-year period. That doesn’t include the wealth of background information on topics such as swimwear, swimming, the geology of the English Channel and other topics I dove into. In the end I collected more information on a single confined subject than I have ever used in any of my previous books. I am certain that I now have the largest collection of print material in Gertrude Ederle in existence, absolutely critical in reconstructing her life and times. And some of the best of that information was acquired at the very end of the research process, which continued even as I was writing and even revising the manuscript in galley form.

The difference between research then and now is as dramatic as the difference between writing out in long hand and using a word processor. Having done both, I prefer the way it is today, but I am reminded by the process that just as writing today generally requires using both a pen and a PC, research requires both access to online resources and the discipline to spend weeks and months squinting in a corner of the library.

Not unlike the discipline it takes to train to swim the English Channel.

Monday, May 25, 2009

It's Memorial Day...


Two weeks since the war started
and I have already surrendered
thrown up the white flag
relinquished my gun, and turned myself over.
Caught between my own lines, captured.
Private, I am confined
with others of my kind; solitary,
chained to my oaths and promises
and no thought or words of home.
I keep no military secret but this:

We should not live this way.

My name, my number, my place and rank in this world
is not enough to say. I have given up
to love; to fight
is to start the battle
and the beatings I still feel
all bad training, say for me to stop.
I’ll admit to anything, yet confess
to nothing else. There is no war crime
no malice in my heart, but one true target
and I refuse to hate the one that keeps me.
We war for reason, and there is none here.
It is fear and loneliness, the feeling of our separate cells
we fight, and not each other.
I will cooperate with my captor
and join in the resistance the only way I can,
make invasion from imprisonment
trying to escape, freeing myself, through the head
the heart, and then the body
of the only true, real enemy
we have ever known.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Day Labor

One of my all-time favorite quotes is from Wilcy Moore, one of the first relief pitchers and a key member of the 1927 Yankees. "I ain't a pitcher," he once said, "I'm a day laborer."

And ain't that the truth. As someone who has been writing books almost exclusively for nearly twenty years, with about 2.5 million words between the covers,I learned more about writing from working construction than any writers' workshop. Because the sooner you integrate the process of writing into your daily life, respecting it for its occasional magic, but treating it like day labor, with all the same attendant difficulties that come with getting up way too early and working even when you don't feel like it, the better off you are, and the easier it becomes.

Many writers, I think, are too cautious about the process, and I tell people over and over and over again to stop acting so damn precious. The people who are good at this, like those who are good at virtually anything, outwork almost everyone else who is trying to do the same thing and may be more talented and privileged. I've never met the artistic genius who didn't put in the time, but many who thought they were who never bothered.

Treating writing as labor keeps me focused on the task at hand. I hardly ever think about what will happen to a book as I am writing it, or the doors it will open, or the cool stuff or the bad stuff that will happen because I wrote it (and I've had both happen - book signings with no one and times I've felt like one of the Beatles), or my expectations in terms of sales and reviews. I can control very little of that, and every second I spend thinking about that stuff takes me away from the work that I am doing. Besides, it's not like you write the book, wait for it to be published, experience that and then begin the process again. It' overlaps, like covering a beat - you have to roll out a story every day. You write the book, and by the time you are finished up and beginning the editing part, you had better have the next idea/proposal rolling out, and by the time that first book is published you should be well on your way to writing the next one and starting to think of the one after that. Some of the things I have in the works now are, literally, ideas I had and started lining up and working towards ten years ago, and I'm already trying to plot out the next ten years. I have a book coming out this summer, Young Woman & the Sea. I'm done with the research and getting ready to write the next one, and may be signing another contract soon. The process is not unlike the way it was when I worked construction, lining up each job ahead of time so you didn't get laid off between jobs and end up unemployed - especially now.

Despite what others have said, I don't think that writing a book is like running of a marathon. It's running every day to stay in shape for a marathon.
There is a small vernal pond between my house and the lake. Despite its size, ever changing light, water levels and season flora make it new each time I walk past.
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Saturday, May 16, 2009

BEST Writing Advice I Ever Received

No matter what you write or in what genre, occasionally read your work into a tape recorder and then listen to it closely when you play it back. This lesson was delivered to me by Robert Kelly, who was my poetry professor at Bard College and I've used it ever since.

Hearing your own voice will give you a perspective on your own work that cannot be gained any other way. If, when listening, something doesn't make sense or sound right, neither will it make sense on the page when read silently by a reader. Similarly, if you find your attention drifting when listen to yourself, the reader's attention will also drift.

Discovering where this happens, and why, will help you edit and revise. Awkward and inappropriate phrases will stick out when read back aloud - cut them. Phrases or sentences or observations you have fallen in love with but are not organic to the work will also stick out. Whenever you stumble over a word or phrase when reading aloud, there is probably a better word or phrase to use. Over time you'll develop your own inner ear which will allow you to hear your own work without using the tape recorder. All writing is language, and language is sound, and by listening you will learn to use the sound and rhythm of the language to your advantage - that is called style and is the way you find your own "voice" as a writer.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Getting Under It: Counting Strides in the Outfield

Seven or eight years ago, as I neared the end of my adult amateur baseball career, for the first time in my life I found myself playing a lot of outfield. I didn't feel very confident, and after thirty five years of playing third base (when not pitching) I was also pretty bored. So I got into the habit of counting the strides either I or another outfielder would take to the ball on our way to catch it.

I soon learned that this was a relatively quick and dirty way to gauge range and now do it by habit. The average running stride is about the same as the height of the runner (1.14 feet in track and field) - so let's assume six feet. To test the accuracy of that assumption, a player stealing second generally takes 12 strides. Taking into account the lead, the start, and the takeoff point for the slide, those twelve strides cover about 70 feet, so I think the calculation is roughly correct.

I used to feel pretty good about myself if I managed to reach a ball after running 15 strides or so - around ninety feet (obviously, if the ball hangs in the air, is hit on a line, or the outfielder gets a late "jump" this affects the number of strides and one's ability to "get under it," but over time I've still found it to be a useful tool).

If you get the chance to watch a major league outfielder on a regular basis you'll discover that very, very few have a range of less than fifteen strides, or ninety feet. Most get up to eighteen or nineteen strides, say 110 feet or so. Above twenty strides - 120 feet - is relatively rare, and twenty-five strides, or 150 feet, is incredibly uncommon and seems to be the upper limit. Torii Hunter used to approach twenty-five, and so do guys like Jacoby Ellsbury.

Using the same method you can also determine just how deep an outfielder is playing, which otherwise is pure speculation. I've seen a few major league centerfielders in parks that are 410 feet to dead center turn and run twenty strides before pulling up at the warning track while chasing balls hit over their heads. That player is setting up only about 280 feet from home - very shallow in today's game. But there are others who can barely get ten strides in, meaning they set up 330 or 340 feet from home. Similarly, you can use the same method to determine how far corner outfielders are playing from the line.

I'm curious - does anyone else count strides this way? I find it interesting is that the range of most outfielders in any direction is about ninety feet, the same as the distance between the bases.

I like that.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Reviews Are In

Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World, the story of the first woman to swim the English Channel, comes out in July.

A few early reviews:

from PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY April 2009 (Starred review):

Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World Glenn Stout. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24 (352p) ISBN 978-0-618-85868-2

In 1926, 19-year-old Trudy Ederle fascinated and inspired millions around the world when she became the first woman successfully to swim the English Channel. With great storytelling, sportswriter Stout (series editor of The Best American Sports Writing) chronicles Ederle's singular accomplishment and its significance for the future of women in sports as well as the tremendous challenges for any swimmer who would dare traverse the waves of the channel. At age five, Ederle (1905–2003) suffered permanent hearing loss, which made her reticent and shy; at age 10 her father taught her to swim. The ocean opened to her like another world, and she loved the feeling of floating and swimming in its vastness. After lessons at the Women's Swimming Association, Ederle developed her gift and emerged as one of America's fastest swimmers, earning a spot in the 1924 Olympics. Disappointed by winning only a bronze medal, she quickly turned to the challenge of swimming the English Channel—difficult due to its strong tides, winds and currents—and after an initial failure, Ederle conquered the channel on August 6, 1926. Stout's moving book recovers the exhilarating story of a young girl who found her true self out in the water and paved the way for women in sports today. (July)

The next one is a paired review, reviewing my book and another about Ederle that comes out a bit later this year. I've excised comments about the other book, but highlighted the important part

from Library Journal, May issue:

Trudy Ederle, who died in 2003 at age 98, was the first woman to swim the English Channel, in 1926. For several years, her fame had been uproarious, her achievement thought earth-shattering. She enjoyed New York's biggest ticker tape parade, had her own swimsuit line, and had Americans rethinking women's athletic capabilities. After a semisuccessful vaudeville tour, her career declined; she turned to giving children swimming lessons and, later, selling dresses in a shop. Although the shy and hard-of-hearing Ederle failed to cash in on her fame, she felt satisfied with her career and resented those who deemed her ultimate anonymity a tragedy. These two biographies help readers understand the age of "ballyhoo" and "wonderful nonsense," as Stout cites sportswriter Westbrook Pegler referring to the Twenties... [Stout was] able to re-create vividly the dramatic events, largely from published reporting and interviews… Stout, who has edited The Best American Sports Writing annually, delves into the history of U.S. swimming, how geology shaped the fearsome tides and currents in the channel, and Ederle's failed first attempt…a popular social history that brings to life a woman, her era, and her remarkable feat. Both books make for very entertaining reading, with Stout's given a slight edge for more picturesque writing. Recommended for all scholarly as well as public libraries.

ISBN: 9780618858682
Pub date: July 28, 2009

Saturday, May 9, 2009

First Pitch

Without poetry, I'm not a writer, pure and simple.

I was thirteen and had to do a school project, using magazine illustrations and photos to illustrate a collection pf poetry. At that point, apart from Casey at the Bat, my literary horizons ended at "The Baseball Life of Mickey Mantle."My older brother gave me steered me to Langston Hughes. Who knows why, but I read this poem:

Suicide's Note

The calm cool
face of the river
asked me for a kiss.

Boom. That's it, satori, I was done, finished, hooked on language and my life changed. I still get chills reading it. There should have been no way that me, a white kid in the middle of nowhere with zero literary background whose parents never read a book should ever, ever, ever have connected with the work of an urban black poet of a previous generation. But language and experience really are universal. I read more Hughes, then read about Hughes, then read who he read, and his contemporaries, then read who they read and their contemporaries, always pulling at the thread.

When I got into high school every week I took the five or six bucks I'd saved up from cleaning toilets, drove into Big City to a used bookstore and would spend the whole day there deciding what to buy. Out of high school I got a scholarship under one of the best poetry teachers in the country, and almost forty years later, although I write prose for money, without poetry I'd never bother. Back in the day I ran informal workshops, readings, and other public poetry events, like reading poetry outside Fenway Park, putting poetry before people who otherwise would never have bothered, sometimes reading to hundreds of people and sometimes reading to myself. Now part of me can't wait to get retired so I can spend more time with it.

But without that first poem...

Friday, May 8, 2009

About Those Tests...

For the last twenty-four hours I've heard innumerable talking heads say that the suspension of Manny Ramirez "proves that baseball's testing program works."


For one, although Ramirez reportedly tested for high testosterone , he was caught - and suspended - because of his paper trail. But more importantly, being caught using a female fertility drug is pretty much a smoking gun in terms of previous steroid use, using it while cycling off. And guess what? Baseball's testing program never caught Manny's use of steroids, just the after effect. And if it never caught Manny, well, who else didn't it catch? And how long did Manny manage to pass the tests?

If anything, the Ramirez situation points out the failure of MLB's drug testing program because it is apparent that it is possible to use steroids, be tested, and not be caught.

On Manny Ramirez, A-Rod, Etc.

I've said it before, so I'll say it again:

If we have learned anything since the specter of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs were injected into the game of baseball more than two decades ago, it is that we will never learn everything. The Mitchell Report did little but muddy the waters, splashing all over everyone. When history looks back at the report, its most telling statement may well be that, as Mitchell wrote “The use of steroids in Major League Baseball was widespread. The response by baseball was slow to develop.”


One has to be not only blind but considerably and willingly dumb to look at the last two decades of major league baseball and not raise an eyebrow at each and every number and achievement, not only of every single player, but of every single team, a point the Mitchell Report underscored. Apart from pushing the use of PEDs on the young, that is the worst aspect of this entire scandal, for just as the one player trying to throw one game calls into question everything that happens in that game, so to does the use of steroids and other PEDs by even a small number of major league players ripple through the game and undercut everything that happens after the umpire calls “Play ball!” The effects of steroids and PEDs on the game are not isolated events, but a like a disease, a long-term condition that affects every second of the patient’s life.
Consider Jose Canseco, who has openly admitted his use of steroids. In 1988 Canseco won the AL MVP award and the A’s won the pennant. His presence in the A’s lineup in that season and every other affected every single game his team played in ways far to numerous to count, affecting the batting order, pitch selection, pitching changes, who played and who didn’t for how long, who was traded away and traded for, drafted and let go, because everything that happens in a baseball game is inexorably tied to everything else. To believe otherwise is to deny both logic and reality.

When historians look back at this era there will be one irrefutable conclusion; it all stinks. Every number, every stat and every place in the game is suspect and tainted, artificial and enhanced. Since we cannot now and never will be able to state with any certainty who used what and who didn’t, how much and for how long, no player and no team comes out of this era pure. The implications of that are no more pleasant locally than they are in Oakland, New York or anywhere else, for just as the Canseco’s MVP award and McGwire’s and then Bond’s home run records are suspect, so to are the performances of those teams with those players in their lineups. And as the Mitchell Report told us, no team during this era was unaffected. There was a Jose Canseco on the field for every team in every inning of every game for most of two decades. Therefore the A’s 1988 pennant with Canseco in the lineup is as spurious as the Yankees four world championships in five seasons from 1996-2000, and – it pains me to say so to my Boston friends – as the Red Sox two long-awaited championships in 2004 and 2007.

It is also personal. As an occasional writer of baseball history I do not look forward to a time in the future when I have to write about this era. And I am somewhat embarrassed by the way I have written about it in the past. Although I wrote about steroids in the pages of this magazine [Boston Baseball] in 1998, my books barely mention PEDs and hardly consider their impact. Were I to re-write them today, armed with what we now know of the era, my recounting of the last twenty years would be radically different.

To move forward with any integrity, I believe that baseball needs to acknowledge these facts openly, publicly and for all time. The Mitchell Report – rightly, I think – sees no point in punishing individual players for past indiscretions, because there is simply no way to determine who was, and was not guilty.

But there is a way to punish the game, publicly and forever, to make it clear in the future what is at stake when the integrity of the game is so widely and openly breached.

There should be a plaque in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, identical to the bas relief bronzes that honor players and other notable baseball figures. But instead of the bearing the head of a player, this plaque should bear a large asterisk an d the dates 1988 - 2007. And instead of an inscription that that recounts a person’s achievements in the game, the plaque should say the following:

During this twenty-year period the authenticity and integrity of the game, its records and its results, were compromised by the widespread use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs by players and by Major League Baseball’s failure either to acknowledge or adequately address this issue.

All records and achievements during this time period by every player and every team should be considered suspect.
(first published in Boston Baseball 2008)