Interviewing Techniques and Guidelines
There’s more than one way to a good interview. We will provide two schools of thought here. It can seem formidable to think of calling up a former major-league ballplayer, particularly one you may have revered in your younger days. Please know that many players love to tell stories of days gone by and that, for some of the older players in particular, the opportunity to talk with an interested interviewer is even a treat.
- Related link: Read the SABR Oral History Committee’s interview guidelines (updated October 1, 2014)
These guidelines are for player interviews, but anyone who has played or been connected with major-league baseball or had a long minor-league career is a viable subject: umpires, managers, coaches, general managers, beat writers, PR directors, farm directors, scouts.
Recording the stories of the older veterans while we still have the opportunity should be a priority. They also usually have better stories to tell.
They don’t have to be stars. Big names are not essential for a good interview. Lesser-known journeyman players are often the best storytellers and are appreciative that someone remembers them and wants to hear their stories. You can learn more about the stars from their teammates and opponents than you will ever get out of those stars themselves. Longtime minor leaguers from the 1930s–1950s era often played for managers who were former major leaguers, and they know a lot about future stars they played with or against in the minors.
Finding Interview Prospects
If you know who you wish to interview, try, first of all, an online telephone directory such as 411.com. A surprising number of players from the 1970s and earlier are simply listed under their own names. If that doesn’t work, you might contact one of the teams for which he played. Major-league media-relations directors often maintain lists for contacting their team’s alumni. Media guides and farm directors can be sources of scouts’ names and addresses. Explain that you are hoping to interview him for the nonprofit Society for American Baseball Research, that you are not being paid for your work, and that you hope they might put you in touch with the player in question. The chair of the Oral History Committee or the chair of the Biographical Research Committee may be able to supply the last known address, particularly of the oldest former players. Smalling’s guides to players’ addresses can be helpful but may be outdated; they will, in any case, often give you the city and state in which the player lives, which can help you refine your search. Local sportswriters and game broadcasters may know about former players in that area.
An introductory letter is OK, with a SABR brochure to tell them who we are. But a letter may go unanswered, not because the person is not interested but because most people don’t answer letters. If you start out that way, follow up within a week with a phone call. Otherwise start with a call, telling them who you are and why you would like to interview them. Sell yourself as a volunteer researcher and historian working to help develop information for a nonprofit society of baseball researchers and that you are not a fan or autograph collector.
If the ballplayer you wish to interview lives anywhere near you, it can be very rewarding in a number of ways to try to arrange to do the interview in person. Of course, most ballplayers won’t live near you, and even some who do may feel more comfortable with the relative privacy of an interview by telephone. They needn’t dress up for your call and needn’t pick up around the place to prepare for your visit.
The most important thing you can do, before attempting first contact, is to be prepared in the event that they consent to an immediate interview. See more on this below.
You may, however, run into resistance or outright refusal. Some people don’t want to be interviewed. They may say, “I’m not much of a storyteller.” An answer to that is, “It’s up to me to ask good questions to learn what you have to tell us.” You can reassure them that if you ask a question they feel uncomfortable asking, they should feel free to simply request that you move on to another question. You can let them know that in no way are you trying to do anything other than present the story of their life.
They may be wary of how much time you’ll take. An interviewer once made an appointment to see Johnny Roseboro at an old-timers’ game. At the appointed time he knocked on the door of Roseboro’s hotel room. Roseboro opened it, scowled, and said, “How long is this going to take?” “As much time as you’ll give me, as long as you feel like talking,” was the reply. The interview lasted two hours.
There are some experienced interviewers who feel that the best approach is not to allow too many opportunities for the player to say “no.” Some of SABR’s most active interviewers prefer the telephone and prefer not to send a letter in advance but to call cold and try and talk the player into doing an interview on the spot. Being prepared with questions in advance is essential to this approach. This approach seems to work much more often than not. If it is simply not a good time, one can try to schedule a time that is more convenient.
For an in-person interview, the person’s home is always the best place. It’s quiet, he’s at ease, and scrapbooks and photos and mementos that will jog his memory (and yours) are at hand. If it has to be in a restaurant or public place, bear in mind that distractions and noise are handicaps.
For a telephone interview, again, be prepared. Know as much as you reasonably can about the player’s career and think about the key questions you might wish to ask to fill in the gaps. Know who his manager was and who his teammates were, and have a list with you that you can refer to in order to make sure you get to the questions you have.
Here, again, the nature of what you will want to ask depends on the reason for your interview. If you are doing an oral history, you are going to want to ask a set of standard questions. These should probably include:
- What did your parents do for a living?
- Was one of them more active with you in your early interest in baseball than the other? (There are numerous instances where it was the mother, rather than the father, who was more active.)
- Did you have siblings, and what was their interest?
- What is your first memory of becoming interested yourself?
- What schools did you go to and how did you progress?
- Were there coaches or others at different levels who were particularly influential?
- Did you play Legion ball, Little League, sandlot ball, etc.?
- What contact did you have with scouts?
- What was the process like that led to your signing?
These are just the questions leading up to signing the initial professional contract. One important thing to keep in mind when talking to your interview subject is that you are really engaged in a collaborative project: You as interviewer are trying to get information on his or her story, and he or she is trying to help you out. You’re working together, not adversaries. Keep an eye on the clock, though, so you don’t impose on the subject’s goodwill by having things run unnecessarily long. The conversation will hopefully be a friendly one, but keep in mind that the subject is taking time out to help you and you don’t want to have it become less amicable or even a chore.
Ask open questions that allow the subject to offer answers that might go in directions you never would have guesses. Things come up. Listen to what he or she is saying, and ask relevant follow-up questions to explore areas that interest you. Try to let the subject talk and try to avoid “talking over” your subject, interrupting him or her.
Always make time at the end of the conversation to ask if you could call back, very briefly, to check one or two points in order to make sure that you’ve got the story straight.
You can certainly offer to send the subject a copy of what you’ve written up, in first-draft form, so that they may request any corrections or additions or to eliminate something they might have said that feels unfortunate to them on reflection. You’re not looking to create a name for yourself in “gotcha” journalism here but to get down a factual account of the player’s (or scout’s, or executive’s, etc.) life.
The amount of time you should allocate depends on your objective in requesting the interview. For an oral history, which should usually take 45 to 90 minutes, you will want to make more time, perhaps sometimes breaking the interview into two segments. If you are asking a discrete set of questions for, say, a BioProject biography, this would take less time. It’s always good to try and add to SABR’s store of oral histories, and this allows you to get much more detail — often, unanticipated information will come up.
If you prefer to do an in-person interview, plan on two to three hours. It may take less time. His health may not be up to that long an interview. The interview may turn out to be a dud. It happens. It’s much worse to have to cut short a good interview because one of you has to be somewhere else.
For an in-person interview, any basic tape recorder that can be plugged into a wall socket will do. A microphone is essential, though many recorders have acceptable built-in microphones. Some players talk softly. A little Radio Shack mic will do. Place it unobtrusively on a table near him. Don’t rely on batteries; they run down at the worst times. If you have to use them, bring extras. And check the recorder to see if it’s working at the start and at the end of a tape’s side.
“Where do you want to sit?” they might ask.
Where is it quiet? (Beware of TVs that are on in the house, air-conditioning units, fans.)
For telephone interviews, electronics stores offer some very inexpensive telephone hookups (typically less than $30) that enable you to hook a tape recorder up to your telephone. Check it beforehand to be sure it’s hooked up correctly. You might also like to take brief notes on paper while the interview is in progress simply to protect yourself against learning later that the recording was compromised in one way or another.
Regardless of which approach you take, before you get underway, try to obtain the player’s consent to the tape recording on the tape itself.
Johnny Mize said, “I’m not interested in talking to anybody who doesn’t know what position I played.”
Joe Oeschger was a pitcher with a mediocre career record who became famous for one thing only: He was one of the two pitchers who pitched the entire 26-inning game in 1920. Because of that one game, he had people come to see him from all over the world. He said, “You would be amazed at how many of them began the interview with, ‘What position did you play?’ I knew those interviews would go nowhere.”
The key to every good interview is preparation. Many times you will find that the player enjoyed it more than he expected because you were prepared and you asked intelligent questions. If the player sees from the start that you know what you’re talking about and you know what he’s talking about, you’ll have it made. It’s essential that you familiarize yourself not only with his career but with other teams and players of his time.
Have a Big Mac or Total Baseball with you, or have access to a computer. In a relaxed interview, you may use it a lot. If he has a story about somebody but can’t recall the name, you can look up the team roster and read off the names. If he’s uncertain about which year he led the team in stolen bases, you can look it up. If he asks, “Who was that little lefthander with the big curveball?” you can read off the names of the pitchers from those years.
Know what you’re talking about. Have a clipboard with his entire record — major- and minor-league stats (from Baseball-Reference.com), managers, teams played for, where they finished, team rosters. Research and make notes on unusual stats and incidents from his career and stories that have appeared in print but that may not be accurate. Verify biographical information. Double-check even such basic things as the city and date of the player’s birth. These are sometimes wrong, even in printed works for fairly recent players.
Chronological is best, beginning with his youth, family background, favorite team and players, when he saw his first major-league game, who taught him, how he was signed, minor-league clubhouses, travel, living conditions, managers, teammates, spring trainings, major-league debut.
But you must be flexible. If he goes off on a tangent that’s outside your order of questions, let him go. You never know what unexpected stories you’ll hear. Ask follow-up questions to the stories, then bend the interview back onto your track. If he wanders into irrelevant areas, like politics or his garden or whatever, let him ramble until you can bring him back on track. That’s another reason to allow plenty of time.
Follow up for details. Example: Red Sox pitcher Boo Ferriss started the 1946 season beating every team in the league and winning his first eight starts. In an interview he said, “At the end of the season they had a day for me and gave me a car.”
Instead of going on to something else, the interviewer asked, “What kind of car was it?”
New cars were scarce right after the Second World War. He said, “It was a big black Lincoln Continental that had been made especially for Mrs. Edsel Ford and somehow they got hold of it and that was the car they gave me.”
He was asked, “So you might be the only big-league player who ever got a used car on his day?”
He said, “That’s right. It definitely had mileage on it.”
That kind of detail makes the story. But you have to ask.
Avoid zeroing in on the obvious. When an interviewer went to see Bobby Thomson, he was not asked about the home run until two hours later, when they got to the 1951 season. Then he was asked if in the last game he had been looking for the same pitch that he had hit for a home run off Branca earlier in the playoffs. On his own, Thomson went into a lengthy description of everything leading up to that pitch.
When someone was prepping to talk to Ralph Branca, he was advised, “Don’t mention 1951. He’s tired of talking about it.”
The interviewer covered Ralph’s youth, how he got started, his early years in baseball, dealing with Branch Rickey — and the only reference to 1951 in the entire hour was made by Branca himself. They were talking about how earlier Giants pitchers used to pitch in the odd-shaped Polo Grounds, and Branca said, “Maybe I should have pitched that way to Thomson.” It was a good interview.
Avoid general questions, such as “What do you remember about . . . ?” Or “Who was a joker, a character, etc?” Don’t put the burden of remembering on the player.
Instead, say, “I’m going to mention some names. Tell me what comes to mind about them, not so much their playing ability, but what kind of people they were.” Then read off the names of managers, teammates, opponents of interest. You’ll get a lot of “nice guy” or “quiet guy” or “a lot of fun” kinds of answers. Plug on; follow up. Ask for incidents that illustrate why somebody was fun or ornery or mean or whatever.
Subjects of interest: team meetings, fights, ejections, funniest thing ever seen in a game, favorite ballparks, bench jockeys, activities on train rides (for older players, obviously), days off on the road, meal money, off-season work, salary negotiations, what they did after baseball, the adjustment to life after baseball.
For pitchers: What pitch did they rely on? Who taught them? What was their book on top hitters? What did they look for in a catcher? Best and worst umpires behind the plate? Did managers ever call pitches? Was there a fine for giving up a hit on an 0-and-2 pitch?
Batters: Ask about their stance, how they developed it, who taught them the most, who were considered clutch hitters.
If it’s appropriate, if the player’s wife is at home and was married to him during his playing days, ask her how it was being a player’s wife, if she had always been fan, how the wives interacted, what is was like dealing with fans riding their husbands.
Perils and Pitfalls
Brief answers: “yes” or “no” or ‘nice guy” kind of stuff
Lack of memory: They don’t always remember things that happened fifty years ago. Or they remember them inaccurately or the way they want to remember things that never happened. Unless the record book clearly indicates otherwise, don’t contradict them. Let it go. If he says he hit the game-winning home run in Game 5 of the 1957 World Series and you have it in front of you that he didn’t, check to see if it may have been a different game or year. Otherwise let it go. If you’ve established good rapport, you might try to contact him later, point out the memory problem, and see if you and he can figure out when that incident really did happen. If you can’t pin it down, leave it out.
One role of the interviewer is to be a resource to jog the memory and to look up information to help that memory and not to be a fellow reminiscer. It’s not the time for your own opinions and memories. It’s OK to use it as a lead-in to a question: “I was at this particular game and I saw you do this.” Then ask him why.
Following these guidelines can help you have a memorable, informative experience. The most rewarding part will be when you hear the person say to you, “I’m glad you came. I really enjoyed it.”