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. My first book was his first authorized biography.
I had an idea 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, that hand, 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! We have a publisher.” No answer. I wrote again. A few weeks later, Seaver was playing at USC, his alma mater, to play against the varsity team. I went to the game and saw him signing baseballs for the kid fans. Holding 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 without looking up.
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, was as obvious. 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 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 author of Tom Seaver: Portrait of a Pitcher (Holiday House, 1978).