Books | Sports

December 5, 2006

Field of Schemes

The Wall Street Journal's Joshua Prager exposed treachery and secrets in the heart of America's favorite pastime in The Echoing Green. He tells Gelf how he got one of baseball's biggest stories ever, responds to his critics, and exposes his lust for baseball memorabilia.

David Downs

Wall Street Journal senior special writer Joshua Prager enjoys discovering secrets where none were supposed to exist.

Joshua Prager
Noah David Smith
Joshua Prager
In the case of his widely lauded, university-ready new book The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World, Prager burrows like a wolverine into the "shot heard round the world"—the 1951 homer by the New York Giants' Bobby Thomson that saved the National League pennant from the clutches of the Brooklyn Dodgers and their pitcher Ralph Branca. Heart attacks and faintings accompanied news of the unexpected home run, and the "shot" reverberated throughout the country, from the White House to the holding cells of soon-to-be executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

For a Journal front-page article in 2001, Prager uncovered proof that the New York Giants had advanced knowledge of opposing pitchers' throws because they were stealing signs with a telescope. Originally slated for one year's research, the 478-page behemoth Echoing Green took five and half years to craft. He hits the subject out of the park with supernatural levels of research and detail that are perfect for baseball and history buffs, though some beach readers may choke on all the proper nouns and backstory.

Two days after Prager broke open another huge mystery about the photographer, Jahangir Razmi, behind the only Pulitzer Prize in photography to go to "Anonymous" in another Journal front-page article, Gelf got Prager on the horn to talk about his critics, the real origin of Echoing Green, and the emotional memorabilia he collected along the way. Following are edited excerpts from the interview. (Also, you can hear Prager and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, December 6, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: Sports is all about highlights. Give me the highlight reel of your book.
Joshua Prager: The highlight reel of this book? Good question. I would say it would start with the cover because I unearthed the photo that shows—even though you have to blow it up—it shows the actual spy in the clubhouse window. Talk about proof. I would say it includes a lot of the stories about the circumstances of the fans of that day—Arthur Miller, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the White House—and it would include the chapter that sort of contextualizes the home run in the '50s, the small chapter that discuses why it is that everyone remembers this. How it had become this moment in just six years. Part of the highlight reel would be all the mini-scoops. I found all of these people who had never been found before—the author's note highlights all the little mysteries that I solved, including the stuff about the White House.

GM: Among mostly positive reviews for Echoing Green, a few people have weighed in saying: The book needed an editor; it contained too-fancy words; it had annoyingly inverted syntax; it could've lost 200 pages; and one guy on wondered if you're overcompensating for a brother who is an Ivy League English Literature professor. Do you have a brother who is an Ivy League English Literature professor and are you overcompensating?
JP: [Laughs] I actually laughed when I read that review on Amazon. No, I don't.
I wanted it to be comprehensive, really comprehensive. Some have said I was too comprehensive, but it felt like for such a special moment, and to write the definitive account of that, I wanted to do it right. Some would say, "Why would you write a book on baseball with this sort of serious tone?" But I said, "You know what, I care about baseball and I want to do it the best I can."
I think after I started writing I developed a style and when I wanted to accentuate a different syllable by inverting certain sentences, that's what I was doing. Maybe I did it too often. You write in the style because you feel that's the best way to articulate what it is you're trying to articulate. I guess I could've made it simpler. If you look at the writing I do in the Journal, for example, it's a different style. Part of that is because they rein me in and part of that is because I decide to write that way.
Everyone thinks that I just sort of don't know how to edit because it's so detailed, that there was nothing left out. That is ridiculous. There were hundreds of items that were left out.

GM: What were the real battles with the book editor?
JP: I really didn't have any battles with my editor. The only thing that I am upset about more than anything else—and I write about it in the book jacket—is that on the cover photo they digitally add a little bit of sunlight on the cover. I felt that we shouldn't doctor the black-and-white photo other than just having the grass be green. They put sunlight behind the outfield fence. It's 3:58 p.m. in the photo and the sun doesn't set in the east. I felt it was sort of indicative to a reader that I might've played around with the facts. So I address the inaccuracy on the jacket. For the most part, obviously, if that is my one gripe, my editor and I worked great together.

GM: You obviously love baseball. What's you first memory of it?
JP: My first game I ever went to was in 1976, but my first memory—I remember very well playing with a Fat Albert, a little orange bat. I remember always swinging that bat and always wanting to dive after balls. I was always asking my Dad to "make me dive! Make me dive!"

GM: You've collected a lot of memorabilia over the course of researching this book. Tell me about the seats.
JP: I bought two box seats from the Polo Grounds, I did. They were a few thousand dollars. They're in my living room and I sometimes sit in them and think, "There were people in these seats when Thomson hit the home run."
The most special thing I bought for me was a painting pictured in my book. It's from a 1970s PBS special on Branca and Thomson. They advertised with posters all over the subways. I thought this poster was beautiful—it has this simple style and I wanted to find the original painter. I found the artist, but he had passed away, but his son sold it to me. It's a most special possession, a memento.

GM: How did you get turned on to the controversy and the rumors in the first place?
JP: The real, real answer is—I bought something at an auction of Barry Halper baseball memorabilia at Sotheby's back in 1999.
Halper was a minority owner of the Yankees. I bought an item and then I wrote him a letter and we became friendly after that. Months passed, actually more than a year passed, and I then called him in September of 2000, when it occurred to me that the Mets and Yankees would end up in the World Series together. I thought it would be nice to write some sort of nice story on Subway series in years past, and he was name-dropping all these people. Then he mentioned to me the rumors. I talked about in Chapter 26.
I said, "Hey, do you think that's true?"
"No," he said.
"Why not?" I asked.
"Two reasons," he said. "Ralph Branca told me it wasn't true, and he was the guy who lost, and second, it was baseball's most famous moment. It would've been proved by now."
So I got the list from the archives of the World Series share for 1951. They get this share money and they split it up and they vote who gets what, and back in '51 the minimum salary was $5,000 and if you got to the World Series you could get almost that much in share on top of your pay. They were dependent on getting this money and they vote to share with anyone who's on the team, even the groundskeeper. Out of these 40 names, 21 ballplayers were still alive, including the coach Herman Franks, so I started calling them.

Bobby Thomson
A Bobby Thomson baseball card.
GM: What was the item you bought at Sotheby's, though? JP: That's really interesting. It has different parts of me in it. In 1939, when Lou Gehrig had left baseball, Jimmy Powers, a writer at the New York Daily News, wrote an article saying the Yankees were playing so poorly because they had contracted [Gehrig's] disease. Gehrig and the Yankees were furious and they sued. What I bought was the settlement purported to have Gehrig's last signature on it; it was all shaky and it was rumored that his wife helped him sign it. I have a spinal-cord injury from a bus accident when I was 19, and I went through a lot. I had always loved baseball and Lou Gehrig, and [after the accident] I liked him even more. What I bought combined three things I cared about: disability, journalism, and baseball.

GM: This is a book for historians as much as baseball buffs. What did you learn about the present from being so steeped in the past?
JP: It's been exaggerated, I think, how innocent the time of the 1950s were. I don't think they were such halcyon days. I think that there was a lot going on. I mean, here's this one rock I overturned and look what I found underneath—a sign-stealing scheme. I also think the times have really changed. If you look at the ballplayers, they were totally different back then. The ballplayers, they were much more approachable; their phone numbers were listed, for example. They were not huge men physically; they were sort of normal size. Everyone knew where they lived. That's changed. The salaries back then were not what they are today. Bobby Thomson sold paper bags after he quit baseball. Branca became an insurance salesman.

GM: Was baseball really bigger back then?
JP: I found this one guy with archives in Texas that had the tv ratings when Thomson hit the home run and it was literally over 90 percent. I don't know of any modern event with 90-percent ratings, or even a half of that. Baseball was king back then. It had no competition. The only things that at all competed with baseball back then were horseracing and boxing. Now as much as I adore baseball and attendance today is wonderful, football is a weekly holiday and basketball is tremendously popular.

GM: I find it interesting that in the book you restore proper photo credit to the photographer who took the key shot of Thomson shot in midair. That photographer never got credit. And now your new Journal article is about another story of correcting attribution of a photo.
JP: I believe a lot in setting the record straight, both in dealing with events and the underbelly of famous moments, or even the photo of a famous moment. What I really like doing is finding something nobody knows in something everybody knows; revealing something nobody knew about it. I enjoy writing about secrets because secrets prey on people.
The only article I wrote while doing [Echoing Green]—I mainly wrote just two things. I contributed to a very long story on September 11, and then I had a side project where I was researching another long story that involved a secret and a famous moment captured on film that culminated finally in the Journal story on Razmi. That's going to be my next book.

Related on the web

•Prager's official site, with audio archives of the game itself, vintage photos, and more.

•A 2001 profile of Prager in Columbia College Today.

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Article by David Downs

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