McMurray: Deadball Era authors offer advice on being a ‘history detective’

Editor’s note: This column was originally published in the Deadball Era Research Committee’s September 2014 newsletter.

By John McMurray

Mike Lackey’s Spitballing: The Baseball Days of Long Bob Ewing and Gerald C. Wood’s Smoky Joe Wood: The Biography of a Baseball Legend surely are two of the most thorough and carefully crafted biographies of Deadball Era players ever published. Both works include meticulous original research, sharp prose, and an account of each player’s life which is probing and personal.

Yet, after a given work’s publication, it is easy to lose sight of the patience and endurance required to publish works of such size and depth. Here, each author was writing his first full-length baseball player biography, and the struggles, pitfalls, and frustrations which each encountered offer perspective for authors who might be considering writing biographies of subjects from the Deadball Era.

In accepting the 2014 Larry Ritter Book Award at SABR 44, presented by the Deadball Era Committee for the best book set primarily in the Deadball Era published during the past calendar year, Lackey told members of the Committee about the long research and writing process that was required to tell the story of Cincinnati’s Bob Ewing, especially since research materials about Ewing’s life were scarce:

“For a long time, for many years, I didn’t even allow myself to think I was writing a book,” Lackey said. “And I certainly never told anybody that I was writing a book. I shied as far away as I could from the ‘b-word’ because I was very much intimidated by it. As much writing as I have done in my life — most of my career, I was a newspaper columnist — I got trained and geared to write 650 words, three times a week, 650 words and stop. And I said, ‘I don’t know how to write a book. It’s too long, it’s too complicated, I can’t sustain a story for that length. I just do not know how to do that. It’s totally alien to my experience.’ Of course, what I finally figured out — it took me a long time — is that you don’t have to write the whole book at a sitting. What you really have to do is to break it down into manageable chunks, break it down into chapters. And then I literally would outline each chapter, what was going to be in it.”

Lackey’s preferred method was to compile as many facts about his subject as he could: “Basically, my process was just to look in every possible corner that I could think of that might shed some light on Bob Ewing or his career or times that he lived in or baseball in those times or the people he was associated with,” Lackey said. “I’m sure I’m a little bit obsessive about things like that. I’ve sometimes referred to myself as a ‘fact junkie.’ But I really did feel it was necessary to find as many facts as I could and put them all in a big pile. Because until you do that, you really don’t know what you don’t know.”

Remarkably, as Lackey noted, it took him approximately as long to research Ewing’s life (from 1997 to 2013) as it did for Ewing to play his entire professional baseball career almost exactly one hundred years prior. Lackey related that he was often in and out of the process of writing the book, putting his work down and coming back to it. Throughout the writing process, fact-checking and tinkering was consistent, leading up until just days before the manuscript was finalized in April 2013.

Breaking the task down into manageable parts helped Lackey to handle this gargantuan effort, which he has described as being similar to “an archaeological dig.”

“The thing that finally got me over the mental block about trying to attack something that size, it comes down to the answer to that classic question: how do you eat an elephant?,” Lackey said. “Well, the answer is, one bite at a time. And that’s what writing a book was to me, it was like eating an elephant.”

Gerald Wood, Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Carson-Newman University, won the 2014 Seymour Medal for Smoky Joe Wood, which is presented annually (if there is a book worthy of recognition that year) at the NINE Spring Training Conference for the best book of baseball history or biography published during the past calendar year.

Wood, whose writing has typically focused on theater and film, had previously published seven other books, including as co-author of Northsiders: Essays on the History and Culture of the Chicago Cubs. While he had never spent more than a year-and-a-half writing a book previously, the exploration into Joe Wood’s life — which included extensive interviews with family members, most notably with Robert K. Wood, Joe Wood’s last surviving son — and mining through audio tapes set the stage for a ten-year project.

“I am not a patient person,” Wood said, “but I had to practice patience.”

Wood’s extensive research allowed him to include rich personal details in the book, which had never before been published: “After hearing Joe Wood’s voice on those tapes, I decided that the tone of the book was going to be to reveal as much of the intimate life, the details, the everyday existence of Joe Wood as I could because I had the sources available,” Wood said. “I was able to tell what he had for breakfast, what he put in the refrigerator, how he ate his ice cream, even what kind of soap he used when he was in his 70s.”

Gerald Wood, too, would occasionally feel overwhelmed by the daunting task of chronicling Joe Wood’s life.

“Only about twice a day,” Wood said. “Mainly, I think that happens when you bump up against a wall or you’re looking for something you can’t find. On my computer, each chapter had its own file. When I was overwhelmed, I would just close whatever file I was working on. Temporarily, that feeling of frustration would go away, and I would just jump into something else.”

In completing his book, Wood cited the importance of the relationships which he developed with historical societies and librarians who could quickly handle his research requests, which provided him with time to travel and research. Wood likened the experience of writing his roughly 350-page biography of Joe Wood to being a history detective, gaining inspiration from the PBS show of the same name which illustrates how a team of researchers goes to great lengths to answer complex and unknown questions of historical consequence.

“You do become a history detective [in writing a Deadball Era biography],” Wood said. “And I think you need to enjoy that part of the process. There are many people — especially in the post-modern world — who are bored by history, and they shouldn’t write this type of thing because they end up cutting too many corners, writing things that aren’t accurate, or embellishing. When I started, I didn’t know if I could be a history detective, but I was glad to find out that I could.”

It is telling that both Lackey and Wood could maintain such dedication to their respective subjects for more than a decade, from the beginning of their research until each book was published. Gerald Wood offers this idea of why he remained so focused on writing about Joe Wood: “I go back to that cliché which says that as you get older, you’re wise to get interested in history, because that’s where you’re going to,” Gerald Wood said. “Today, I care less and less about politics, but I sure care more about the things that shaped the world and shaped me. So I care about the ‘40s and the ’50s, and I certainly care about baseball because baseball was a major part of my life, which was a way that I connected with the world as a child. Baseball is really important to me, it’s what shaped me.

“Going back to the Deadball Era is like forensics. You’re taking things that have been dead to the world, and you’re bringing them back to life. And so the farther you go back, the more exciting the forensic work is.

“One of the sweetest things people in the Wood family said to me was, ‘We’re so glad you did this book because, otherwise, granddaddy and grandmamma would have been lost.’ It may not be quite that dramatic since Wood was already a major figure in baseball history, but they made the point that the history is worth preserving or it will otherwise be gone forever. And, as Mike Lackey showed, they didn’t have to be great players to have stories that are worth telling.”

When it comes to writing a full-length biography, it is particularly important for an author to have a story worth recounting in great depth. Lackey noted at SABR 44 that if an author has to ask whether the tale is worth writing in book form, it probably is not. Similarly, Wood reflected that: “At some point in your pursuit of a baseball biography, you have to ask yourself, ‘Is there a story here?’”

Once he had determined that Bob Ewing’s biography would be of broader and longstanding interest, Lackey emphasized in his remarks in Houston that remaining excited about his subject, even during periods of inactivity, was key.

“[O]nce I came back to it, I never lost my enthusiasm for it,” Lackey said. “If you have that kind of a story to tell, I think you can write a book. My other problem was that I didn’t know if anybody would be interested in reading this book. But if you’re excited about it and can tell the story well, I think you’re going to find that there are other people who are also going to be interested.”

JOHN McMURRAY is chair of SABR’s Deadball Era Research Committee. Contact him at


Originally published: September 9, 2014. Last Updated: September 9, 2014.