The announcement that Tom Seaver, the Mets’ greatest pitcher and one of baseball’s greats, was leaving public life because he had dementia surprised and saddened me. In 1976 I wrote my first book and his first authorized biography.
I had begun to write a book about the Mets’ owner, Joan Whitney Payson, and I wanted to hear from her star pitcher called “The Franchise.” Playing a key role in the Mets’ astonishing World Series win 1969, he was the magician of the Magic Mets by taking the worst team ever and turning them into champions.
We met in an office at Shea stadium. He put out his hand, thathand, exuding the charisma of a star athlete. Quickly revealing a sharp mind and quick wit, Tom spoke warmly of Payson’s generosity and loyal faith in the young club. At the end of the interview, I said, “I haven’t seen any children’s biographies about you. Want to do one?”
He smiled and said, “Sure.”
No one wanted a book about Payson. I launched my fledgling career as a children’s book writer by announcing that Tom Seaver had authorized me to write his biography. Holiday House was interested.
“Good news, Tom!”, I wrote. “We have a publisher.” No answer. I wrote again. A few weeks later, Seaver was at USC, his alma mater, to play against the varsity team. I went to the game and saw him signing baseballs for the kids. Pushing through them, I held up an unauthorized biography of him, I shouted, “Do you want another one of these, or do you want a say in it?”
“Call my manager Monday,” he answered.
I asked an agent friend what would be fair to give Tom, ten or fifteen percent. “See if he’ll take fifty”, my friend said. The publisher called his manager, offered 50 percent and a $1500 advance. The manager said that Tom needed his rest. I suggested that the publisher double it and I’d forfeit my advance, just this once. Three grand was worth his time.
Tom connected me to his coach, best friends, and his parents in Fresno, where he grew up. In their house there was a family portrait of Tom at five with his parents and much older siblings. In his father’s arms surrounded by his mother who had played basketball and his tall brother and sisters, it was obvious that Tom was the adored little brother. Tom, however, yearned to be one of them, not a mascot. That was the determination he brought to the Mets.
At our first meeting in the LA Hilton restaurant where we met for breakfast, Tom wore a spiffy three-piece Sears suit without a tie, one of his endorsements. The second endorsement, Aramis, filled the room. We were both 32, yet he seemed older, weary from celebrity. He spoke with love and passion for what he did, describing pitching as a physical art form. Everything in his life revolved around the art of pitching, and I heard a wistfulness. While I imagined writing forever, at best he had ten more years to do what he loved best.
Only now do I understand how intimate a relationship a biographer has with her subject. For a year, I got to be Tom Seaver. When his mother told me how heartbroken he was when he was too young for Little League, I identified for a different reason. It was OK for me to be a wild Giant fan like my mother but wanting to play centerfield like Willie Mays wasn’t. Girls watch, they don’t play.
Writing about Tom wasn’t the same as playing but it was close. When I described him on the mound going into his magnificent wind up, it was me. I stepped back from the keyboard and imitated it. I l kept a baseball on my desk to transport me into a Mets #41 uniform and I played women’s softball for the American Legion. I prayed never to field a ball and not to strike out.
When I walked around the field, I attempted the knowing, blasé expression of sportswriters I’d read and admired, while Inwardly I was doing cartwheels. I confessed to Roger Angell that I was writing my first book. “Just write in your voice,” he advised. I stood behind the catcher in front of a screen and watched the motion of the breaking ball over and over, almost hearing the spin on the ball blurred by its speed.
The last time I saw Tom was at Shea Stadium just after he’d been traded to Cincinnati and was facing the Mets for the first time. Tom had gotten the manuscript and I was nervous. We would meet the next day for me to hear his response. An encyclopedia about a notable person doesn’t tell a story or a life, only the facts of it. A biography reveals motivation and character. Smart biographers write about dead people who can’t complain. Here was a man reading how I understood his life.
I asked Tom that if he liked what I wrote, to introduce me to George Foster, who was on his way to hitting 52 homeruns and 149 RBI’s that year. As a handsome guy sprinted past us Tom shouted, “Hey George, see this woman? Stay away from her!” cackling his famous laugh. My second book was about Foster. Thank you, Tom.
It’s easier to write about baseball than physical and cognitive decline. At first I thought that this can’t be true, he’s young! We’re still in the game, aren’t we? It’s only the seventh inning, time yet to travel, work, play. Maybe not. Loss brings bracing gratitude for what remains. How good that I can write a sentence today. How unfair that this has happened to a very nice man.
I hope that the winery he began with all the passion and devotion he brought to baseball, and his family, hold him high and tight, as his father did long ago. I hope that the upbeat, warm, and thoughtful man still emerges. If I still know him, he remains brave, grateful for his remarkable life, and honest about his long day’s journey into night.
Abundant thanks, Tom Terrific, for taking a chance on a rookie.
Malka Drucker is the authorof Tom Seaver: Portrait of a Pitcher (Holiday House, 1978).
RUN, RABBI, RUN
The Wise Craziness of Purim
The blog name rifs off a strange little British song, “Run, Rabbit, Run, that sounds like a children’s tune about rabbits escaping being shot for rabbit pie. According to Wiki, it became a patriotic anti-Nazi song: “The lyrics were used as a defiant dig at the allegedly ineffectual Luftwaffe. On 13 November 1939, soon after the outbreak of the Second World War and also soon after the song was premiered, Germany launched its first air raid on Britain, on flying boats that were sheltering in Sullom Voe, Shetland. Two rabbits were supposedly killed by a bomb drop, although it is suggested that they were in fact procured from a butchers’ shop and used for publicity purposes.” It was also sung as “Run Adolf Run “ and was Churchill’s favorite song.
Why is it the name of this blog? Because there is no time to waste in a world that feels like it’s in the eleventh hour . How we answer is how history will judge us. The rabbi in me tells me not to despair nor to give up. Being angry and self-righteous isn’t helping me. Hence, a blog that takes its inspiration from sly satire to encourage resistance with the chutzpah to laugh.
We’re about to celebrate the strangest of Jewish holidays that requires laughter to observe it. The Sages asserted that in the world to come, we’ll be so smart and good that we won’t need any practices except for the holiday of Purim. As long as we live in this imperfect world, we’ll need to laugh.
It’s subversive, sexy, and wise. Purim, the one day a year a Jew repairs the world not by study, prayer, or good deeds, but by laying down the books, dressing not modestly but wildly, and drinking enough to mistake the hero for a villain and vice versa. The command is to be silly and trust it will get you closer to G!d.
Maybe we all need to hit the pause button on non-stop news and turn on the cartoon of Purim where we meet a really stupid king, a queen who is banished for upholding her virtue, and an assimilated Jewish woman who sleeps with the enemy and saves her people. A good lesson in remembering that the world reveals and conceals the Holy One’s Presence. We expand our GPS to laugh at all we think we know is right and true, and at all the things we want to change but cannot.
My father would often respond to my laments with, “If I may offer a little advice, don’t take it so seriously. He’d be happy to know that the rabbis agreed with him. May every rabbi run out the door to bring a little laughter to a breaking heart and we’ll be on our way to saving the world. Actually, forget the rabbi part. Everyone, run out the door and get this world to laugh a little more.