Talking ball with Matt Silverman about Swingin’ 73by Bruce Markusen
April 12, 2013
It is one of the most entertaining new baseball books of the spring, and offers an opportunity to learn about the Mets, Yankees, and A's, and what American culture was like in 1973. The author of Swingin' 73, Matt Silverman, answered my questions about his new book and an historic season.
Markusen: Matt, what made you want to do a retrospective on the 1973 season?
Silverman: As a kid who was playing Army and trying to find a channel not talking about Watergate in 1973, I sort of missed some of the more exciting aspects of that year. When I discovered baseball a couple of years later, and fell hard for the Mets, 1973 became the season just beyond my reach that I wished I had known better. To be honest, I think that kind of pushed me toward this idea. I was always interested in that year and must have watched the 1973 World Series highlight film during 100 rain delays as a kid on Channel 9 [in New York]. The first time I watched that film, I didn’t know which team won and was captivated--and ultimately upset. I came to enjoy that World Series not just from the New York perspective, but I was also fascinated by the A’s dynasty that was so good yet disappeared so suddenly.
Markusen: You’re best known for your writing about the Mets? How did you feel about branching out and discussing other teams like the Yankees and the A’s?
Silverman: It felt rather natural. I have worked on books and sites about other teams. In formulating the idea for this book, it quickly became apparent to me that it should be about more than just the Mets. The A’s naturally would be a featured part of this story, and when I started to think about what would go into the book, the Yankees kept coming up: the first DH, [George] Steinbrenner buying the team, the wife swap, the last year of the original Yankee Stadium, the end of the “Horace Clarke Era,” Steinbrenner trying to hire the A's manager, etc...
Markusen: What was more difficult to write, the baseball segments or those that covered American culture?
Silverman: The cultural segments were the hardest and also the most fun. It is probably only 10 percent of the book, but I thought it important to try to place the reader in the time. When you say “40 years ago,” some people roll their eyes, but I felt that if I could show what was going on at the time it would lead people further into the story and also allow them to understand the era a little better. The year is remembered for Watergate and the oil embargo, but there were TV shows, films, and “albums” indicative of the time. There were other memorable moments—sports moments not on the baseball diamond: the Dolphins completed their undefeated season in January of ‘73, the Knicks won their second title in four years, Secretariat was the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 25 years (and did so in stunning fashion), Jack Nicklaus broke the Bobby Jones mark for most majors won. And perhaps the most memorable sporting event of the year was an exhibition: the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs at the Houston Astrodome.
Markusen: You and I were classmates in 1973, second grade at Iona Grammar School. It was a long time ago, but do you remember us and other kids talking baseball that spring?
Silverman: I remember a lot of stuff from then, but baseball not so much. Filling in those holes was my favorite part about the book. The cultural references, especially TV, I remember pretty well. I recall watching The Brady Bunch with Joe Namath throwing the ball in the Astroturf backyard, but I recall nothing from the Super Bowl that clinched the Dolphins’ undefeated season. Getting my hands on a few games—commercials and all—from the World Series was wonderful. Even though I intimately knew what happened, a few times I got caught up in the game as it was happening and thought the Mets were going to win a game that I very well knew they had lost.
Markusen: The 1973 season is synonymous with the birth of the DH. When the AL adopted the rule, what was your view at the time? Has your opinion of the DH changed since then?
Silverman: I remember a kid at [summer] camp explaining the DH to me for the first time. I nodded my head like I knew what he was talking about, but I had no idea. I watched a few Yankees games—I really liked their announcing team with Frank Messer and Bill White—and I kind of figured out what the DH was about. I appreciated the designated hitter as something they did in the American League. It’s like eating anchovies: I can understand why some people like them, but I don't.
Markusen: Every book has a protagonist, a hero. From your perspective, who were the primary heroes of 1973?
Silverman: Tug McGraw definitely fits that category, as does Tom Seaver, as well as Jon Matlack, and the whole Mets pitching staff, really. Though Rusty Staub and Cleon Jones got hot in September to carry the offense, Wayne Garrett had the best stretch of his career; [he was] the same guy the team had traded Amos Otis and Nolan Ryan to try to replace. (In the “what if” department, the Mets might have had their own string of world championships if they had kept Otis and Ryan.)
Reggie Jackson was the MVP of the league and the World Series, but Bert Campaneris was in the middle of everything that happened for the A’s that fall. And they would not have won without Ken Holtzman, winner of Games 1 and 7, and Catfish Hunter, who started Oakland’s other two wins. And with the turmoil going on in the A’s clubhouse, with Charlie Finley trying to get rid of Mike Andrews during the World Series, the steadying influence of Joe Rudi and captain Sal Bando can’t be discounted. A’s reliever Rollie Fingers was superb, and lefty Darold Knowles became the only pitcher to ever appear in all seven games of a Series.
Obviously with all of these good guys—plus each franchise had a bad guy (Finley, Steinbrenner, M. Donald Grant)—it made for an intriguing tale. Manager Ralph Houk, who had been a Yankee since the 1940s, endured so much that year and was truly crushed, not just by the interfering owner but by the collapse of the team and the “Yankee way.” All he knew was being pushed aside for the new guard (and new stadium). Houk was one of the stronger characters—and was legitimately a hero during World War II.
Markusen: One of the more interesting parts of the book involved your discussion of Tug McGraw and his coining of “Ya Gotta Believe.” Do you believe he was mocking M. Donald Grant, or he was legitimately trying to inspire a listless team?
Silverman: Unfortunately, Tug died 10 years ago, and that would have been my first question. He does answer it in two different books he wrote 20 years apart, saying that he was not mocking Grant, but ya gotta believe his teammates still think that’s bull. I always thought it said so much about the Mets’ chairman of the board, the same guy who would force out Tom Seaver in 1977, that the greatest saying in franchise history by the most ebullient player in franchise history required an apology the day it was coined.
When Tug had a bad year and shoulder problems in 1974, he was unceremoniously traded. Grant did not forget.
Markusen: I tend to like the more obscure players, the ones who are not stars or headliners. Here are three players from the 1973 Yankees, Mets and A’s who intrigue me: Jim Ray Hart, George Theodore, and Gene Tenace. Your thoughts on those players?
Silverman: Jim Ray Hart actually got most of the starts at DH for the Yankees, even though he hit only .254 while Ron Blomberg batted .329 and was more productive. The Yankees got Hart from the Giants that spring and obviously Ralph Houk liked him; Houk’s replacement, Bill Virdon, did not. Hart was released after 10 games in 1974 and never played in the majors again.
Gene Tenace was the hero of the 1972 World Series as a catcher, became a first baseman in 1973, and very quietly tied Babe Ruth’s 1926 record for most walks in a World Series (11). Somehow he didn’t score a single run against the Mets, but he extended innings and had the hit that tied Game Two in the ninth, which invariably resulted in Mike Andrews making those two errors and leading to his brief banishment by Finley. Tenace’s versatility enabled the A’s to start him at catcher and get their DH, Deron Johnson, into the starting lineup in Game Seven at first base.
George Theodore was one of those players that fans love. He looked like he stepped out of the stands. He wore glasses, had curly hair, and was somewhat gawky--earning the name “Stork.” The best part of his story was that when he got a chance to play due to injuries to other Mets, he started hitting, and became a folk hero. He was never the same player after a gruesome collision, but he went on with his life in Utah and has been working as a counselor in the Salt Lake school system for generations. He was wonderful to talk to. And who could forget his 1974 baseball card that said on the back, “George likes marshmallow milkshakes.” Who doesn't?
Markusen: Of all the players you interviewed for the book, who offered the most insight?
Silverman: Mets lefty Jon Matlack not only had the clearest memory for detail, he is a longtime pitching coach and observer who paid attention to other things going on around him—he remembered Willie Mays's farewell, talked about charting Tom Seaver’s brilliant but losing effort in Game One of the 1973 NLCS, and spoke about getting hit in the head with a line drive and the decisions of his manager Yogi Berra. Yogi defended his Game Six pitching choice. Ed Kranepool was also very forthcoming with his opinions, many of which differed from those of his teammates. Rusty Staub told me [about] the feeling in the dugout, as did Wayne Garrett and Bud Harrelson. Joe Rudi was very forthcoming.
Duke Sims told me what really happened with Bert Campaneris in the 1972 playoffs. Ron Blomberg explained what it was like growing up Jewish in the South in the 1960s. But Buzz Capra was probably the funniest and, like George Theodore, is thankful about what the game gave him, rather than harping on injuries that took it away.
Markusen: What did Sims tell you?
Silverman: Since Sims hit the last home run at old Yankee Stadium. I tracked down a number for him. I left messages three to four times, and like a lot of the ballplayers, I thought he’d just blow it off. So I was surprised when in the final weeks of the project, he called on his way home to Vegas. He gave me a great story about how they chose who would catch the final game at old Yankee Stadium and how he missed Houk's resignation because he was in such a hurry to leave. Then we got to talking about the 1972 ALCS. On page seven, he confirmed what I’d always suspected: “We wanted Bert to know that we respected his legs.”
Throwing the bat was an accident, or at least the heat of the moment, but what led to it was premeditated.
Markusen: Was there anyone that you really wanted to interview that you simply could not corral?
Silverman: Well, it goes without saying I missed those who died in recent years, including Dick Williams and Tug McGraw, who left behind detailed accounts of the their careers [in authored books]. And I wonder if I might have gotten hung up on had I pried too deeply with Charlie Finley and M. Donald Grant, who are also gone. I got in touch with the representative for Tom Seaver and Reggie Jackson, but I could not get them to weigh in—though I subsequently learned Seaver was suffering from a severe case of Lyme disease last year that temporarily robbed him of his vivid memory. I understand that he is much better now.
Markusen: Now that Swingin’ 73 is drawing good press, what is next for you on the project list?
Silverman: It was tough getting this book done on time and I really pushed myself to make it as everything I wanted it to be, so I have yet to jump into another project. I have an idea about writing something more recent—like the 1980s. To me, and maybe to you, Bruce, that seems like yesterday. So does our playing together on the second grade playground at Iona.
Swingin’ 73: Baseball’s Wildest Season is available from The Lyons Press. To purchase a copy, visit http://www.lyonspress.com.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.