Oral History Committee: Interview Guidelines

General Interview Guidelines
Oral History for the Baseball Researcher
October 1, 2014

Larry Gerlach, the founder of SABR’s Oral History Research Committee, once likened a first oral history interview to a first date. In both cases, you want to initiate contact, but you’re shy, hesitant, lacking confidence — so you put it off.

Understanding this anxiety is easier than overcoming it. The only way I know is to take a deep breath, pick up the telephone, and make the call. (You can usually find their number in your regular source for phone listings, whether it’s a book or online. If you can’t find it, contact us and we’ll help you.) Tell the person that you’re a member of SABR (you may have to explain the organization to them), and tell them that we have a national archive of interviews that we maintain for baseball researchers and fans, and that you would like them to be a part of it. The experience that most of us have had is that these people are thrilled to be asked, and even if they don’t want to talk, they are rarely rude.

The first step is to request the name of a player in your area. You can do so by contacting Paul Ringel. If you would like to request an assignment with a specific player, we can often provide those.

You can make the phone experience easier for both of you with courtesy. Request an interview well in advance. If they want to meet right away, that’s great, but even if you’re in the same town I would suggest that you offer a date a week or two in the future as a sign of respect for their time. Then ask them what the best method is to confirm the appointment with them a day or two before the scheduled time. Pick a location that’s convenient for them and also relatively quiet. A coffee shop, for example, isn’t a great idea because too much noise will interfere with the quality of the recording. Indeed, the quality of sound is important, so please choose your interview location with that in mind.

The people you interview do not have to be former major leaguers, or even former players. They can be anyone who was connected with the game: umpires, scouts, managers, or other baseball professionals. Journeymen can often tell you great stories about stars, significant games, or just everyday life in the major or minor leagues.

Once you have the appointment, the best cure for continuing nervousness is to be well prepared. If you’re going to see a former major leaguer, use Baseball-Reference.com to examine his career. Study his record, the lineups of the teams he played for and against, and the managers he played for. Look for unusual stats, and players or moments that you’d like to hear about. See if there is a BioProject entry on or Wikipedia page for your interviewee so you can learn something about his background. If not, consider using your interview as a springboard to get involved with the BioProject and write up the player’s life story yourself.

In short, do your research. Don’t expect a 90 year-old man to remember every detail of his five years in the minor leagues. Most players do remember, but some do not, and even if they do your interviewee will be more engaged if he (or she) sees that you know your stuff. Take your reference source with you, to check on names and dates that might come up. You can also request the player’s Hall of Fame file, an assortment of newspaper article clippings that the Hall maintains on each player. The costs of copying are usually nominal.

The other aspect of preparation for the interview is to make sure that you have the right recording equipment. Whenever possible, use digital equipment rather than cassettes. Digital recorders that work well are quite inexpensive, and you can even record with your iPad or iPhone with the proper app (I have used Audio Memos Pro, which sells for $9.99, but I am sure there are other equally good ones). Another option for phone interviews is to plug a device like the Olympus TP-8 microphone ($14.99) into your digital recorder’s microphone input, place the earbud in the ear that you’re holding the phone up to, and it will clearly pick up both sides of the conversation. Always be sure to test your equipment in advance, and bring extra batteries or your charger (whichever is appropriate for your device) to the interview. Having a second recorder running concurrently is another good practice.

When you get to the interview, test the equipment again to make sure it is working well and that your environment is conducive to recording. Have the interviewee sign the consent form that we will give to you. If you bring a camera with you, ask for his consent before taking any pictures. Then begin the interview with your interviewee’s name, your name, the date, time, and location. State that you are recording the interview for the SABR Oral History Collection, and make sure that you have the interviewee state on the recording that he has consented to the interview. SABR’s signed agreement with contributors allows for shared copyright, where the interviewer and SABR may concurrently make use of a particular recorded work.

Each interview will be different. Some are relaxed, while others are more formal, but most are fun and memorable experiences. Remember that you do not have to cover the entirety of an interviewee’s career. If particular aspects of this person’s baseball experience are of interest to you, let them know during the initial phone conversation to make sure that it is a subject they are willing to discuss. Prepare questions, but do not make them too specific. Avoid yes or no questions; instead ask how, what, and why.

Even more important than your questions, though, are your listening skills. Don’t dominate the conversation, and focus on what the person is saying rather than on your next question. Let the interview drift into unexpected areas if that’s where the subject wants to take it, but also feel free to guide him back gently after a while if the digression is not producing interesting material.

As one expert eloquently put it, the purpose of the interview is to cast stones into the pool of your interviewee’s memory and set up currents of movement therein. While we prefer interviews that span a player’s entire career, targeting a few specific questions to particular areas or incidents of a player’s career is worthwhile, particularly if time is short. You can also listen to other interviews in the Oral History Collection to get a feel for good interviewing techniques.

Here is a list of some possible questions you might ask:

  • How did you get started in baseball? Sandlot ball, American Legion, high school, etc.?
  • What was your family life like as a kid? Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school?
  • What did your family think about you playing professional baseball?
  • What positions did you play growing up?
  • How did you reach the majors?
  • What was your favorite ballpark? Your least favorite? Why?
  • What type of hitter/pitcher were you?
  • Describe your hitting stance or pitching motion.
  • How do you rate yourself as a hitter? Pitcher? Fielder? Runner?
  • Who were the toughest pitchers/batters you faced?
  • What umpires do you remember and why?
  • Who influenced you the most? Which managers, coaches, teammates, opponents?
  • Who were your favorite ballplayers when you were a kid? When you played?
  • Who were the colorful characters on your team?
  • What was the travel and road life like? What were the off-field benefits of being a ballplayer? What were the off-field detriments?
  • What did you do during the offseason? What did you do after your playing career?
  • How did you get along with managers? Executives? The Press? The Fans?
  • What were some of your most memorable games? Events within games?
  • What was the worst game you played?
  • What season do you remember the best?
  • How did you know that you reached the end of your baseball career?
  • Tell me about (a famous play, a notorious incident, etc.)

Don’t settle for generalities; ask for incidents which illustrate the type of person a player or manager was. Jog their memory, mention names of players that you’d like to hear about. Ask to see scrapbooks, photos and memorabilia (if you’re not meeting them at their home, ask if they would like to bring such materials when you arrange the interview). Ask about today’s game and the players. If a former player sees that you’re interested, you care and you know what you’re talking about, you’ll get a good interview.

There are differing points of view on how long you should let an interview run. Some say that over an hour is too much, while others say you should let it run as long as the interviewee wants. Our suggestion is that you simply pay attention. If your interviewee is older, or seems to be getting tired, and you still have more material you would like to cover, ask them if they would like to set up another time to meet. If this is a one-time deal, you can push it a little longer, but still remember to be courteous about taking up too much of the person’s time.

Once the interview is concluded, thank the person (obviously) and tell them you will be in touch with a copy of the recording and of the transcript of the interview. Make them a CD unless they would prefer it in some other form. If you are able, transcribe the interview as close to word for word as you can (focusing particularly on the interviewee’s comments rather than your own) as soon after the interview as possible so that your memory is fresh. It’s a time-consuming process, but it’s a useful research tool for those who wish to benefit from the work you have provided. It is far better for the person who conducted the interview to transcribe it, but if for some reason you cannot do that please let us know as soon as possible and we will try to find someone else to do it for you.

Once you are done, please send a copy of the recording and transcript to sabroralhistorycommittee@gmail.com if it is an MP3 audio file or to Paul Ringel via regular mail if it is a tape. Please contact Paul Ringel at pbringel@gmail.com to let him know of all interviews you have completed, and he will provide you with his mailing address, if needed.

Thanks for considering participating in our oral history work. We think you will have a great time, and end up with great stories to share with your friends and family. You are also doing an invaluable service, because oral histories preserve the voices of baseball history in a uniquely resonant way that cannot be recovered after these players are gone.

If you have any questions about any part of this process (preparation, the interview itself, transcribing), or if you want to draw from our list of available interviewees, please don’t hesitate to contact any member of the Oral History Committee leadership.

Welcome to the club!

The SABR Oral History Committee:

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