TSO X The Pandemic Baseball Book Club : Interview

They were supposed to publish their books in March or April with the 2020 season Play Ball… but the pandemic happened and live baseball was put on hold for months. Several american authors found a solution to promote their works : the Pandemic Baseball Book Club! The Strike Out has reached out a few of these enthusiastic authors.

The Strike Out : First of all, what is the Pandemic Baseball Book Club? And who came up with the great logo and the expression “cul-de-sac” as punchline?!

Jason Turbow : The Pandemic Baseball Book Club is a collection of authors whose baseball book releases were impacted by COVID. When we found our bookshop events canceled, we figured out a way to do them online, and picked up members as we went. The logo was drawn by one of our authors – Anika Orrock, whose fabulous book, The Incredible Women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, is among our ranks. “Cul-de-sac” is pretty common in English usage, so it didn’t seem too foreign. It was taken from an off-the-cuff comment made by one of our founders, Brad Baljukian, when we were discussing what this club might be. I liked it and stuck it up on the website.

Anika Orrock : I was unaware until just now that as a French expression, “cul-de-sac” translates to “the bottom of the bag”! A cul-de-sac here in the US is an idyllic neighborhood dead end street, circular. My grandparents lived on a cul-de-sac, it was always so lively with neighbors chatting and kids playing. I love the American reference in that way, but, being a self-deprecating bunch, I must say the French expression is also hilariously accurate. As an illustrator and designer, I may be biased, but I am a firm believer in the power of visuals and good design. The moment we came together, my first thought was “we need branding!”. Good branding is too often an afterthought. But it’s also the fun part for me! I had a lot of fun with this logo, mostly because no one was telling me what to do! I just told everyone we needed it and I did it, whether they liked it or not!

TSO : It’s not that common for authors to work together. From the outside, we get the feeling that there is competition between you, but not with this project?

Jason : That’s probably the nicest result of this project. Many of us work – or once worked – on newspaper and magazine staffs, and while there was camaraderie among those ranks, there is surprisingly little to be found in the publishing world. Book promotion can be a lonely pursuit. Together, though, we’ve harnessed the power of each other’s Twitter feeds and social-media support, and have done what we can to collectively support each other. They say that a rising tide lifts all boats, and we’re putting that theory to the test.

Eric Nusbaum : I would add that writing books can also be a very lonely pursuit. It’s a lot of time spent in your own head. So having company and colleagues to commiserate with about the process, and then about the publishing experience has been really nice. It’s also given us some structure and some purpose in this pandemic environment where nobody can do in-person events.

Brad Balukjian : Don’t let Nusbaum fool you, he loves nothing more than to bury himself in the dustiest room of a library archive and avoid all human contact for hours on end. But yeah, this is not a zero-sum game. Promoting They Bled Blue does not mean The Wax Pack can’t also be successful.

Anika : As a first time author, I had no other publishing experience to compare this to. Nearing the launch, I was beginning to see how competitive the market is and I hated it. I am not a competitive person and was feeling anxious about how to navigate. Just before things got crazy, Brad reached out to me on Twitter with a comment of support and I felt thoroughly confused, like maybe he was messing with me! I credit Brad for setting the public supportive tone early on. Launching a book during a pandemic – specifically a book about baseball when there is none – is not ideal, but I can’t imagine anything better than this scenario. The circumstances have facilitated community, cooperation, collaboration and friendships that might not have otherwise existed. It’s truly special.

TSO : Is the immediate success of the PBBC due to everybody missing live baseball? It couldn’t have been possible without the pandemic and all things related (season postponed, libraries closed…)?

Jason : We certainly wouldn’t have conceived of this organization had our live events not been canceled. I’m not sure there’s a way to know whether live baseball would have helped or hurt us by this point. On one hand, fans are looking for other ways to stay connected to the sport. On the other, baseball books are usually released in the spring for a reason: When excitement builds around baseball, fans want to immerse themselves. Baseball book sales are far heavier in-season than they are during the winter months.

Eric : I appreciate that you’ve called us a success. To me the success so far has been the community we have built. The pandemic gave us a unique space to try this thing. But the real test will be how we build the group up and bridge forward to a healthier future when baseball and the world go back to something resembling normal.

Brad : In an alternate universe without a pandemic, would our books have sold as well or better? We’ll never know, but I don’t lose any sleep wondering about that because I have a set of wonderful new friends. In my study of retired baseball players in The Wax Pack, the thing they missed the most, across the board, was their teammates and the camaraderie of their clubhouse. We are proving that that camaraderie can exist among writers, too.

Anika : Jason, Eric and Brad said it all perfectly. This is one of those rare things that would not have happened under normal circumstances and it just so happens to be for the better. I think the lack of live baseball may have helped, but baseball itself is more than just a game to many fans. The nostalgia, history and pace of the game really fosters connection and relationships. Within the club, our books are very diverse, but baseball connects us. I think, especially right now, that connection is felt and provides further opportunity for fans to connect with us and one another.

TSO : Instead of bookstore Q&As with your readers, you’re doing Zoom meetings, virtual Q&A, podcasts… How is it different to promote a book only digitally?

Jason : We’re getting creative. We’re doing the Q&As, of course, allowing authors to talk about their work, but we’re also staging panel discussions and more esoteric fare. Our first panel came off a week or so ago, and we have plans for unique kinds of author content. Stay tuned for a game-show kind of thing to be launched very soon.

Eric : Many (most?) of us are first-time authors. I’m very much looking forward to getting to do an event in a bookstore and finding out what it’s like.

Anika : Like Eric, I’m looking forward to live events at some point. I will say, though, this has been a great opportunity to learn, pay attention, and to fine tune skills I can apply later to live events. If I compare my first interviews and bookstore event (singular, I got one!) to discussions and interviews now, I definitely feel more confident and a bit more succinct. How lucky to test these things out in a low-risk scenario with a supportive community of pros! It’s also a great way to gauge interest and audience involvement.

TSO : One of your main concern and purpose is to promote your work and your colleagues’ work, but also to help independent libraries, how is it important for you?

Jason : Independent bookshops were already being horribly impacted by the rise of Amazon. When COVID made them shut their doors, things grew truly dire. We’re doing all we can to inspire people to buy from their local shops rather than the huge online marketplaces.

Brad : I did my dissertation research in French Polynesia, so I’m going to take a stab at answering in French : “Très important. Les grandes compagnies, comme Amazon, ont trop de puissance dans l’écosytème des librairies. Je suis toujours pour le “underdog”, en fait un grand enseignement de mon livre est que les joueurs de baseball “underdogs” sont plus heureux dans leurs vies que les joueurs plus célèbres. Donc, je préfère qu’on achète des livres des petites librairies indépendantes. 

Jason : Show off.

Anika : Clearly Brad is the fancy one in the bunch. I will answer in English by elaborating on Jason’s response. This is a dire time for independent businesses in general. But independent bookshops are more than just places to buy books. They also serve as community hubs. They offer safe spaces for people within those communities to gather and learn. Many of them raise awareness to local and social issues and give a voice to the community. Even if only virtually right now, that is what the PBBC is all about. Our country is divided on so many levels. It’s so important to preserve establishments that make unity possible.

TSO : We know Nats’ Sean Doolittle is a very passionate reader, and not only for baseball books, and a fierce defender of independent libraries too. He loves to share his favorite places while travelling with the team. Have you been in touch with him? 

Jason : As it happens, I wrote what I believe to be the first national profile of Doolittle, back when he was with the A’s. I’ve tweeted at him a few times about his love of books, but have yet to draw a response. If baseball ever comes back to the point that the media can freely interact with players, I’ll ask him directly when the Nationals come to San Francisco.

Anika : Maybe Brad can ask him in French.

TSO : Here in France, sports writing is not considered very seriously, not considered “literature” for a bunch of people. Is it an issue in the US? Or is the long tradition of sports writing prevent you for being mocked by the literature “elite”?

Jason : Numerous writers in the U.S. pursue sports as only one facet of their craft. One of my favorite writers, David Foster Wallace, wrote regularly about tennis. David Halberstam has done amazing work in multiple genres. One of our club members, Emily Nemens, is the editor of the Paris Review. I’ve never seen a sportswriter mocked per se, though there are some literary types whose lack of understanding about sports prevents them from appreciating quality sportswriting. Me, I’m just fine with the lane that I’m in.

Eric : Sports writing is writing. I think people who get hung up on it, or think that somehow sports are not an important part of society and humanity, are revealing their own bias more than anything else.

Brad : I do think that the publishing industry in the U.S. has an intellectual bias against sports because they largely don’t understand sports. It is much easier, for example to get a narrative nonfiction book published in the genre of science than in sports. I hope the success of books like Stealing Home and The Wax Pack proves to the publishing gatekeepers that they should take more chances on these types of projects.

Anika : I am not an active sports writer, but some of my very favorite writers in general were or are sports writers. I’d argue a good sports writer can absolutely hold their own among the literary elite. The ability to weave a complex, intriguing and emotive non-fiction narrative about anything is impressive. If it covers a topic some consider to be uncivilized or uninteresting, that doesn’t make it bad writing. Good writing is good writing. I wouldn’t roll my eyes at Tolstoy because I think wealthy Russians are boring.

Iconic Yankees’ coach Billy Martin

TSO : Yogi, Bouton, Mays, Martin, the ’81 Dodgers, Women Baseball… Is it more interesting to write about baseball past and long history? Or is it because today’s game lack of personalities?

Jason : I love the modern game but for me, baseball history is a huge part of my interest in the sport. I’m a historian at heart. I think that’s why baseball books outsell those from sports that are currently far more popular: The history and the stories therein are so vivid that they’re hard to pass up.

Eric : I would say that baseball history is also American and world history.

Brad : I think the game has become more antiseptic and less colorful today, largely because of the influence of obscene wealth and the Internet/smartphone. I personally find writing about baseball pre-Internet to be much more interesting.

Anika : I agree with Brad. I love attending and listening to baseball games now, but the money has really challenged my feelings. Particularly right now with the way this season has rolled out. Even if it weren’t the case, I love history and I thrive on story. Baseball history is a bottomless well of great stories. I’m also a firm believer in the tremendous value of sharing yesterday’s important stories today. Baseball is America’s sport, yet women’s professional baseball is practically non-existent. Sharing stories of women who once played professionally offers the knowledge that what happened once can happen again.

TSO : Do you consider yourself an historian when you have to dig into archives to write a book? Sometimes, it’s more than baseball you have to write about, it’s a part of American history. I’m thinking about Mays’ story for example which is deeply linked with segregation/integration…

Jason : The best sportswriting is not about sports. Mays’ story includes race relations. Eric Nusbaum’s book, Stealing Home, is about ways that civic power can be wielded. Anika Orrock’s book contains gender issues. The Wax Pack is a personal journey combined with personality profiles much more than it is a baseball book. It’s one reason that baseball is such a fertile subject: It offers a platform with which to study all sorts of sociological matters.

Anika : Precisely. Sports are so ingrained in our culture. Sometimes they are the driving force behind larger social movements and change. “Title IX” kickstarted the modern day women’s movement. More recently, Colin Kaepernick has become emblematic of the most important American movement and potential shift of consciousness we’ll see in our lifetime for taking a knee during the national anthem without the support of the NFL. If one is going to write about baseball wholly, I guess they kind of have to be a historian.

TSO : Is it hard to stay “objective” and write about very aspects of a player even if sometimes it can be deceiving for the public? Sometimes, players who are loved for what they do on the field might not be very sympathetic character outside of the field…

Jason : I grew up a Giants fan, hating not only the Dodgers, but the very Dodgers that I wrote about in They Bled Blue. I wrote the book, however, as a journalist, with good storytelling and the truth as my motivating factors. Fandom had nothing to do with it. Similarly, I covered Barry Bonds back in the day. Unless some of his churlish behavior was newsworthy, it was never reflected in anything I wrote. As a newspaper reporter, I covered the man’s exploits on the field, not off of it. It’s a bit different when writing books. Now, if my goal is to get at the heart of a team – to uncover what made it click – personalities are a vital part. If somebody was a jerk who affected the clubhouse, I need to write about that. If he’s a jerk only to me, though, that has no bearing on my work.

Eric : The work is the work. I think our subjectivity, our life experience, the sum of everything add up to what we do as writers. Obviously there are higher notions of fairness but we also need to write truthfully to who we are, and to what we are seeing, reading, and reporting.

Brad : I see myself as a journalist, and The Wax Pack as a product of journalism, even though there are aspects of memoir as well. I took my responsibility as a journalist very seriously, in that I made sure to do plenty of research on each of my subjects to get as thorough an image of him as possible. My goal was to try to capture the essence of each player’s personality in a very limited amount of time, and to do so, I did my best to put aside my biases and to admit them where they needed to be part of the story. I try to be honest, detailed, and balanced in my reporting.

Anika : I suppose it depends on the purpose of the work (and how powerful a player’s publicist is!). Sometimes, just the plain facts will do. But as a reader and a writer, I favor honest writing. I completely equate accuracy to integrity. No matter how unfavorable, ugly or risky, integrity wins me over every time. There is a human element that can sometimes be exposed with the warts, something we might identify with. Unless it’s Aubrey Huff.

TSO : Will the PBBC survive the pandemic? Is it a long-term project?

Jason : We hope for this club to endure long past the pandemic. We’ve forged a stout group of writers here, and will soon expand our ranks in numerous ways. Big plans are in the works, but until things are finalized I’d probably better keep the details in house. Stay tuned

Anika : The goal is certainly to keep it sustainable beyond the pandemic. If for no other reason than I would like an excuse to sit and have a beer with these people on a regular basis.

TSO : What were your thoughts for the 2020 season and what did you think about the cancellation of Minor Leagues’ season?

Jason : I am steadfastly against the playing of baseball this season. I think the COVID risks are simply not worth it, let alone the likelihood, with things growing worse by the day in our increasingly stupid country, that the season will have to be cancelled early. Even if the season plays out, and playoffs take place and a champion is crowned, there is no way we will be able to appropriately contextualize that in a historical framework. And baseball more than any sport is about contextualizing EVERYTHING in a historical framework. I think that Major League Baseball should support the minor leagues more, not less. While I’m okay with cancelling games, it would have been nice for the wealthy members of MLB to better support their struggling brethren in the minors. For an outfit that is desperate to expand its reach, turning its back on small-town baseball seems incredibly short-sighted.

Eric : What he said.

Anika : I am very disappointed MLB has gone ahead with the season. The risks and weird mutations to the game FAR outweigh the joys or benefits. When the majority of baseball fans, who’ve been mourning the absence of a season, are vehemently and vocally opposing, that should say something. It says even more that MLB has chosen not to listen. And for the record, I am 100% opposed to the universal DH, this season and every season! It’s just another elimination of one of the very things that makes baseball unique and exciting! Don’t even get me started on the no-pitch intentional walk rule.

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