Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

December 5, 2007

The Sports Speculator

Wonder how pro tennis players would do with a frying pan instead of a racquet? The irreverent Todd Gallagher has answers.

Carl Bialik

Consider Bill Veeck the intellectual forerunner of Todd Gallagher. In 1951, the White Sox owner wondered what would happen if opposing pitchers were forced to cope with the tiny strike zone of a 3'7" leadoff man. So he hired midget Eddie Gaedel, saw him walk on four pitches, and had him replaced with a pinch-runner. The American League president banned the contract the next day. But 45 years later, Gallagher revisited the scenario, this time sending four batters 4'4" and shorter to the plate against a minor-league pitcher. The diminutive batters won in a bloodbath, scoring four runs in one exhibition inning. Bill Veeck's son, Mike, wasn't interested in signing the fearsome foursome, but Gallagher won't let the matter drop. "I'm actually working on making this happen still as part of a larger plan to ruin baseball," he tells Gelf. "The midget stuff has legs. Tiny, little, midget legs, but legs, nonetheless."

Todd Gallagher. Photo by Amanda Mitts.
"These guys are playing silly, ridiculous games and are treated better than almost anyone in our culture, so to allow them any self-seriousness is a mistake."

Todd Gallagher. Photo by Amanda Mitts.

At its best, Gallagher's recent book Andy Roddick Beat Me with a Frying Pan: Taking the Field with Pro Athletes and Olympic Legends to Answer Sports Fans' Burning Questions mixes irreverence with investigation. Examples of these burning questions include, "How easy is it for pro athletes to get laid?" (Gallagher visited a Cleveland athletes hangout to find out); "How big is the gap between male and female athletes?" (it's much wider than commonly thought); and "Could Andy Roddick beat an average tennis player with a frying pan?" (the answer is no, despite the book's title).

Gallagher, age 31, blends his sports passion and knowledge (he's a former USBL coach and writer) with extensive interviews (he flew around the country and conducted hundreds of interviews) and plenty of one-liners (he's now a television writer, producer, and comedian). His interview with Gelf is a lot like the book, as you'll see; he even made another phone call to confirm that his tennis serve really could be 105 mph. Read on to see Gallagher's explanation for his book's misleading title; his argument for leaving athletes' private lives alone; and why the press creates false sports heroes. This interview has been edited for clarity. (You can hear Gallagher and other sports writers read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Thursday, December 6, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: Let's start with the title. You beat Roddick. Had you chosen the title before the match? Or did the editor suggest it? Does I Beat Andy Roddick With a Frying Pan not have the same ring to it? What does Roddick think of the title? What do you think of the suggestion in this Gene Weingarten column that newspapers follow your lead?

Todd Gallagher: The title was indeed chosen before the match…or at least the option of using that title was seriously discussed. Everyone seemed to think I was going to get crushed by Andy, so I think internally all systems were go on this eye-catching title that is completely untrue. Contractually, I have the final say over every word in the book, which is why you see wonderful phrases like "shit balls" and jokes like "I spoke with Jeanette Lee, the Black Widow, about her relatively quick rise to the top. Like another black widow, Faith Evans Smalls, her path to superstardom was not without hard work." However, when it came to the title (I had to plead for months so I didn't get stuck with "What if Little People Played in the Big Leagues"), marketing, and packaging, that was out of my hands. That's also why you can find/not find the book in the "Miscellaneous Sports" section of your local bookstore next to instructional manuals on flyfishing and swordfighting.
I haven't talked to Andy yet about the title, but I'd guess he's happy with it since he's the one doing the beating, which, to refresh, is not actually the case.
As to Gene Weingarten's suggestion, all I can say is he is a mean and spiteful man, filled with bile, who says hurtful things to bright-eyed, naive writers who get strong-armed into titles. Truthfully, I believe this. I also believe it was some form of revenge for me siding with Dave Barry in the book over their bet as to whether Gene-O could become the best free throw shooter in the NBA with some practice. Gene could learn a thing or two from Sam Walker, who is one of the greatest men alive and has not taken any potshots at the book even though I disagreed with his idea of raising NBA hoops to 12 feet. No, Gene's been great and has been supportive of the book, if not the title, so all is well.
As an aside, I hate having to write those "just kidding" sentences.

GM: Seems like you really wanted to win that match. Were you at the top of your game? Did you have people watching and cheering for you? What was the final score? When's the rematch?

TG: You are damn skippy that I really wanted to win that match. I've played tennis my whole life and it would have been beyond humiliating to lose. Had I tanked, the title certainly would have been more accurate, but the heart of a champion (mine) can never be underestimated. There was definitely a crowd, roughly 50 people, and while by the end there was cheering, at first there was more confusion as to why this man with a pencil-thin mustache and wearing a sweater vest, who vaguely resembled a young Howard Hughes, was playing Andy Roddick with such unusual ferocity and why Andy Roddick was using a kitchen utensil in said match.
I've remained close to the Roddick Foundation and am doing work with them, so maybe a rematch is in the cards for next year. I'd give him a chance at revenge now, but I think he needs more practice with the pan and the wound is too fresh.

Howard Hughes

Howard Hughes and Andy Roddick prepare for battle.

GM: Why the self-conscious Howard Hughes look? Is he your idol?

TG: Initially the plan was to show up as the '80s "Image is Everything" Andre Agassi with the puffed out curly blonde hair, dark beard, and pink spandex getup. I was very into this idea not only because I'm old enough to remember when this was a cool look in some circles, but because Agassi was actually going to be in attendance for my match with Roddick.
That dream started falling apart when, after days of pleading, Nike wouldn't send me the needed clothing. I still was thinking about trying to pull it off, so when I went in to get my hair poofed I asked the hair dresser what he thought. We concluded that it might not come out great, and that even if it did, without the outfit, it's possible no one would know I was supposed to be a 1988 version of Andre Agassi and therefore would not let me within 100 feet of Roddick.
But I still wanted to do something special. I'm mildly obsessed with the concept of Howard Hughes, if not the man, and I've always loved the style from that era, so much so that I'd dress like that daily if it wouldn't come off like I was a hipster or trying too hard to be different. I even played a high-school tennis match against a lowly opponent with a wooden racquet and wearing sweater vest and khaki pants. (I was also hammered—another tribute to the greats of the past.) I had already grown the beard for the Agassi look so the facial hair was in place for a well-trimmed, pencil-thin mustache (which had to be colored in), and my hair, which I had grown out for the Aga-perm, was long enough to turn into whatever the hell those haircuts are called.
Anyway, I think it turned out for the best. The Hughes look is less jokey and didn't put too much of the attention on me. One drawback is that people who read the book think that I really look like that.

GM: Why doesn't Mike Veeck sign up the midgets/little people/unusually short players to play minor-league ball full-time? Seems so poetic and right.

TG: Because he hates America and liberty. Really, I'm not quite sure why he didn't jump on the idea, but I'm actually working on making this happen still as part of a larger plan to ruin baseball. The midget stuff has legs. Tiny, little, midget legs, but legs, nonetheless. Expect to hear more about it in the future. Or, if I get rich and famous from a TV show, expect to never hear about it again.

GM: Why choose Cleveland for the chapter on groupies? Are you sure that what the folks in that restaurant told you applies to all pro athletes and groupies? TG: Cleveland was chosen because I was back home in Pittsburgh at the time, and it's the closest city to Pittsburgh with an NBA team. Plus, LeBron plays for the Cavs and he was the target. Now that I think of it, though, I'm not sure how I would have written the chapter if we actually did find LeBron because I really didn't want to rat anyone out or comment on their private lives. I think that stuff is really creepy and when blogs do it I'm very turned off. I hope this doesn't get me the Bill Conlin treatment, but can we draw the line on this stuff? I could work with some of the sports agents and athletes I know and write a book right now about athlete's personal lives: outing players, busting marriages, and detailing drug use that would sit on the top of the bestseller list from now until Kordell Stewart finally pens They Call Me Sweet Cheeks, but is that the direction we want to go in? Do we really need to name names and take pictures of twenty-something-year-old guys who throw a ball around for a living doing things nonessential to their sport, or our lives, like trying to drink a ton of booze and bone drunk chicks? If for no other reason, isn't this kind of gossipy nonsense the reason we're sports fans and not talking about Brangelina? On the whole, I'm a big fan of blogs for the openings they've created for writers and certainly understand this is a small part of what some of them do, but Ben Roethlisberger isn't running for president (although Ben would certainly carry western Pennsylvania if he chooses to enter the race), so I can't quite understand why the man can't just be entitled to his privacy and having a good time. Sorry, I know rants and forced jokes are both a trademark of Dennis Miller, so I'll get back to the question. I do think that what I saw in Cleveland is representative, and while I've never seen it be as systematically done as it was in my experience outlined in the book, now when I look back to situations I've been in where there are pro athletes and groupies, I can see how there could have been a formalized operation in place. As a footnote to that chapter, the unnamed player who wanted to screw my ex-girlfriend that was posing as a groupie has been pathetically texting her weekly since they met and even got her tickets to a game. So there's some gossipy gossip for all of you gossipers out there. Hope it was gossipy enough.

GM: What are some of the questions that didn't make the cut for the book? Any you've heard since the book came out that you wished you included?

TG: I actually did about 20 extra chapters that didn't make the book, including: trying to figure out why baseball managers do those affected, animated, silent movie actor motions when they argue with umps (Lloyd McCLendon seemed to think it was passed down as a sort of tradition); one with Aaron Schatz taking on fans' most commonly misunderstood beliefs about pro football (sorry, Aaron, I promise it will be in the next book); how many UFC fighters it would take to kill a wild lion let loose in Wrigley Field (Joe Rogan contended that no matter what the number, it couldn't be done); and which sport's athletes would make the best dodgeball players, which involved interviewing Joe Mauer and other baseball players who have played the game and flying around the country to put on events with MLS goalies, pro dodgeball players, and minor-league baseball players. Similarly, I wasted a massive amount of time answering, "Would a team of baseball players be good at cricket?" by arranging a match between a minor-league baseball team and pro cricket players, and then spending money flying around the country to conduct interviews with Dontrelle Willis, Rafael Furcal, Julio Lugo, and other major league players who have played cricket. You see, fans of logic, initially the plan was to do 50 some questions and pare them down to our 40 best ones. I worked for a good six months in this vein before it was identified as a horrible, unreasonable idea, and we just decided to focus on the chapters that were most likely to make the book.
Matt and Greg Plundo of Pittsburgh, two local legends and barroom drunkards, want to play Big Buck Hunter against a professional hunter. I think that's an outstanding idea. Had Joe Queenan not taken half of my advance for that ridiculous index he wrote, I could have bought them the machine and made it happen myself. Now, we're waiting for Oprah or another "dream angel" to come in and make this a reality. One, if not both, of the Plundos are probably going to have to be diagnosed with a fatal disease and pretend to like Maya Angelou for this to happen, however.

"If things get rolling and the athletes start talking the way they do in real life, their distrust of the media and PR training gets forgotten."
GM: The ESPN commenters don't buy your self-clocking of your first serve at 105 mph. Are they right? Seemed high to me, but then I just try to get the ball in play and annoy my opponents (sort of like I'm playing with a frying pan).

TG: I think you should be ashamed of yourself, Carl, for even looking in the ESPN comments section. The fact that even fully-formed sentences are produced is proof of one of those "monkeys punching typewriters" sayings or some other witty phrase worn on a T-shirt. OK, I'll be honest, I had looked at this myself already, but I hold you and the fine people at Gelf to a higher standard.
Yes, I can most certainly hit a serve 105 and was clocked on a gun at this speed in high school. The guy who played No. 1 on my high school team also was in this range and the guy who was like No. 5 cracked 100, too. These commenters who are saying they were on college tennis teams where no one could hit a serve 100 were either at trade schools or are using "played on a college tennis team" to mean "played in a sandbox made of feces with my imaginary pals." Hitting a 100 mph serve is about the equivalent of throwing a baseball 75 mph, and on any D-3 college team and even some really good high-school teams, almost every guy can hit one that fast. In the interests of conclusively settling this, I called Paul Assaiante, who coaches the Trinity College tennis team, a Division 3 squad in Connecticut for whom I briefly played before dropping out. I asked Paul how many guys he had who could serve over 100. His response: "Pretty much all of them. Certainly all of the guys in the starting six. I'm 55 years old and I can crack 100." Calls are in to high-school coaches and my Mom for further confirmation.

GM: Athletes tend to be so bland. Yet you dig up some colorful quotes, including an admission of stat-padding by Eddie George and a reference to the Shocker by Justin Verlander. Is it your engaging interview style that prompts these honest moments, or did you just target the most-candid athletes, or did you talk to many more before you got quotable comments?

TG: I'd say it's a combination of a lot of factors. I did hundreds of interviews for this book, many of which were fairly extensive and not even used. So, for every great line by someone like Eddie George, there's an Ivan Rodriguez interview where he's gritting his teeth, nervous that I'm going to ask him about he and Ugueth Urbina redefining the pitcher/catcher relationship and considering spitting in my face.
But really I've always been able to get interesting quotes from athletes and have a fairly good ratio of good interviews to bad. Some of this comes from being a coach in the USBL at such a young age and learning to not be intimidated, but most of it is because I don't take these guys too seriously and have absolutely no reverence for who they are or what they do. These guys are playing silly, ridiculous games and are treated better than almost anyone in our culture, so to allow them any self-seriousness is a mistake. If an interviewer feeds into that by genuflecting before the interview, laughing too hard at their dumb jokes, and asking ingratiating questions, a hero/loser divide is created that is too wide to get any kind of real or natural answers. In other words, if you engage the players as heroes amongst men, then those are the kind of answers you get. If you engage them as 25-year-old guys who like to play sports, then the answers you get are far different.
It's also important, of course, to prepare good questions, and you've got to turn the interview into a fun conversation. And you've also got to be willing to call bullshit, because if they know they can't outsmart you by giving you phony answers, then they get a little jittery and start just saying the truth. If things get rolling and the athletes start talking the way they do in real life, their distrust of the media and PR training gets forgotten. (As an aside, I think part of the mistrust of the media may come from the fact that many reporters don't record and transcribe interviews. How can they do this? They seriously are going to pretend like they remember the conversations they've had hours earlier?) Verlander is a good example of that. I saw him do interview after interview that was completely boring and bland, but he gave me an hour of great material. His first response is to give some Nuke LaLoosh, media-savvy crap, but once you questioned his stupid clichés and left him nowhere to go, he turned into a really funny guy.
Speaking of interviews, have I ever mentioned I almost got into a fistfight with Stephon Marbury? I didn't? Well, come on Thursday and I'll tell you all about it.

"Sports PR people, and PR people in general, are awful to deal with and are mostly awful people. Truly, they lie for a living."
GM: In the book, PR folks are often a barrier between you and the athletes whose cooperation you need to answer your questions. What's your take on sports PR people? Why are they so obstructionist?

TG: Sports PR people, and PR people in general, are awful to deal with and are mostly awful people. Truly, they lie for a living. That being said, I have a publicist I pay an exorbitant amount of money to who is a wonderful guy.
The reason they're so obstructionist is that they are driven by a singular motivation, which is not publicity for their teams, but rather to just prevent any bad press from happening. This is because bad press—and specifically, bad press from someone they've authorized a credential for—is the easiest way for them to lose their jobs. So what ends up happening is they try to avoid issuing press passes for anybody whom the club doesn't have a corporate relationship with that guarantees them the kind of press they want.
Also, as a general rule it's always easier to say "No" than "Yes." Saying "Yes" means having to coordinate a time, get passes made, keep an eye on you to make sure nothing crazy is happening, etc. So to get that kind of access from them you have to make it so that saying "No" is more of a pain in the ass than just letting you do the interviews. You can do this a number of ways. My preference is by calling a shitload, and then if they say "No," to ask them "why" and then to just keep doing this until they finally give in and do the right thing. As you can imagine, a date with me is a blast.

GM: You get the best cooperation from folks outside the major sports, it seems, with Olympic gold medalists Maurice Greene and Josh Davis willing to compete in stunt races. Is that good news—these great athletes are nice guys!—or sad news about how desperate these sports are for any attention?

TG: I think it's great news! Part of the reason it was easy to work with these guys certainly is that their sports don't receive the same kind of attention, but another factor is that anyone who agrees to do something this goofy for free is going to be a pretty fun-loving person. It wasn't just the guys from individual sports; Freddy Sanchez, DeShawn Stevenson, all of the guys from the book were very cool. I've hated working with athletes in the past, but this was refreshing.

GM: You bash the media for creating the myth of Nate Haasis, namely that he really did know his breaking a state passing record was a farce, though he claimed otherwise. Your former employer, ESPN, seems adept at creating such simplistic sports mythologies. Do you agree with that? Did you resist that while working at the Worldwide Leader? What do you think of its content these days—are you a fan of Around the Horn, Skip Bayless, and the like?

TG: My answer to this question is also the answer to why a lot of things sometimes escape mainstream criticism: Writers, talking heads, etc., can't speak their mind because they have to worry about not pissing anyone off and hurting their chances of doing business. So, to that end, I need to qualify my comments by saying that I'm in the process of trying to get press for my book, sell a TV show, make another book deal, etc., and ESPN is certainly one of the players.
But while acknowledging that I'm skirting the question, I will say this: Most of the things you're asking about that people hate at ESPN came under Mark Shapiro, and with John Skipper now at the helm, I think things are turning around. ESPN Original Entertainment, which was created by Shapiro and was responsible for most of the really hideous programming, has been cut, and the focus looks like it's back on sports. Skipper seems to get it, and if he gets it, and they really are focusing on sports, there is hope. But until the Telecommunications Bill of 1996 and media consolidation become a national dialogue, most of the cross-promotional BS won't go away. Sure, I could have just written "Please think I'm smart," but I thought that was a better closing sentence to this question instead.

beer pong

Gallagher and pro darts player Paul Lim try their hand at beer pong. Photo by Lisa Donovan.

GM: What do you think of the show Pros vs. Joes?

TG: I think they should take all of the money being donated to Sammy Sosa's foundation and have it redirected to our country's top scientists and engineers with the explicit instruction to create a time machine so that I can be sent back to 2006 to ensure this show does not get on the air. This show is a perfect example of why almost everything on TV sucks. I'd like to point out that their show is so stupid that even by paying athletes a lot of money to make appearances, and having a TV show on Spike as a forum, they got lower-level players than I did for my book, which paid nothing to participate. So there.
Not on the show, but as a radio host, Petros Papadakis is awesome. I just wish there was another way for him to keep cashing big checks. I'm pretty sure he wishes that, too.

GM: Why do you think there's this misconception that women are almost at men's level when it comes to sports? And why do you think there's the disparity you've found? Is it possible this isn't a physiological inevitability, but instead a reflection of the disparate financial and other incentives sporting men and women face?

TG: The misconception is almost entirely attributable to members of the press wanting to show social concern and not doing even the slightest bit of research. Oh, and that people are nuts in this country and don't allow for open dialogues of conversation about certain topics. Just ask Lawrence Summers how venturing into this territory turned out for him, and you can pretty quickly understand why the press is hesitant to touch the subject in a real way.
In my own life, a good friend of mine said I was being misogynistic when I said to him that the top female athletes are on par with 15-year-old boys. He's really into a lot of women's issues, and it was a very visceral reaction. Eventually he calmed down and ended up thinking the chapter was well-done, but still added: "Why even do a chapter like that?" So it's easy to imagine what kind of a reaction I'd get from people more invested in women's rights. Thankfully, my publisher has shielded me from any kind of negative reaction by making sure no one hears about the book. Personally, I think the whole thing is ridiculous because sports are so incredibly inane. Of all the things to worry about the implications of us being equal in…
It's possible that the reasons for the disparity aren't physiological, but I seriously doubt it. Maybe the balance in sports like darts would be closer if it weren't for some of the other factors, but given how consistently the women's best times in any size, speed, and strength events come in the range of 14- to 15-year-old boys, it's hard to fathom that it could be anything but puberty that causes the major separation. That consistency of range, and listening to the US women's soccer team and other female athletes talk about how boys of that age just get too big and fast to compete with, is pretty convincing to me.

"I think there are great books to be written exposing game-fixing in pro sports or how corrupt the college system is. I'll give you some leads as long as you promise not to mention my name when your legs are being broken."
GM: Is there an easy way to tell when you're joking in the book? For instance, I'm pretty sure Antonio Alfonseca didn't try to eat his own fingers. But I had to Google to check whether the stories about Charlie Kerfeld eating ribs in the dugout or having a clause in his contract providing Jello was true.

TG: A fair point. Even conversationally I get this all the time due to my insistence that a joke is less funny if it's told like a joke. So while Alfonseca did not actually eat his own spare fingers, and Bob Wickman did not take the mound wearing a beer helmet, perhaps these are close enough to the realm of possibility that I should have put J/K or LOL to indicate humor was afoot. To further clarify, the Betty Ford Center was not actually named after Whitey Ford, Garo Yepremian did not write a book called I No Kick a Da Touchdown about his family's struggles escaping the genocide in his native Armenia, and I am not actually a spectacular athlete. However, I can neither confirm nor deny whether Tony Gwynn's mom had to make him a special XXL uniform so he could play for the Padres.

GM: What are you working on now? What's your next book about?

TG: This one was so exhausting that it'll be awhile before I write another book. Writing, for me, is incredibly draining, so if I do another one I'll almost certainly hire someone to do the actual writing. If anyone out there is interested in getting killed, though, I think there are great books to be written exposing game-fixing in pro sports or how corrupt the college system is. I'll give you some leads as long as you promise not to mention my name when your legs are being broken.
TV is the main focus right now, which is ironic because the whole reason I wrote the book was to get out of TV. But it looks like I'm going to be getting back in, primarily with the focus on turning the book into a TV show. I filmed all of the events, so a couple episodes are ready to go. Beyond that I have some options for working as on-air talent, which is a lot easier and more lucrative than my previous TV work, so at least I'd be going back on better terms. Also, there's some magazine stuff I'm working on that should be fun and that I can't really get into. But when it's revealed, I promise you'll say, "Why couldn't he just say what it was? Who the hell cares?"

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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