Fred Stein:  1924-2010

It was more than 30 years ago—when I was a very young man, and he was already older than I am now—that I first became acquainted with Fred Stein. I made the acquaintance through my reading of his book, Under Coogan’s Bluff. That book was Fred’s first, a self-published effort.

One might assume a self-published book would be, well, you know, “interesting”: passionate, but amateurish, meandering, disorganized, in dire need of editing. Under Coogan’s Bluff was nothing like that; it was crisp, direct, and smart. I distinctly recall the manner in which it captivated my barely-20-year-old imagination: it sat me down in the Polo Grounds grandstand in the late 1930s, and not in any rose-tinted manner. I felt the hardness, the angularity, the peculiar complicated physical and moral reality of everyday New York City in that era, yet the book never presented any of that straight-on; it was subtly implied, a backdrop to the center stage action of Terry, Hubbell and Ott.

That, my friends, was really fine baseball writing.

It was just a few years ago that I became personally acquainted with Fred Stein, when he contacted me via email regarding one THT article or another of mine that he’d read. We struck up an irregular email correspondence. We finally met in person last summer, at the SABR convention in Washington, D.C. That meeting, and Fred’s gentle but persistent prodding for several months following, led me to get my act together and coordinate this series of articles.

It’s with a leaden heart that I must report that Fred Stein passed away last week, at the age of 86, following back surgery.

The last email he sent me, just over three weeks ago, concluded with, “I still am enthusiastic about further contributions. I’ll keep in touch to discuss ideas for future articles.” That was the essence of Fred, as I knew him: never dithering, never complaining, always looking ahead. He was a gem.

We had already scheduled to run the piece below this week, planned as the third and final installment in the series of email “interviews” I conducted with Fred. The finality of it now is all too profound. Yet, as you’ll read below, watching baseball, thinking about it, and writing about it was one of the great joys in Fred’s long and fruitful life, so there’s no more fitting way for us to celebrate Fred than to read his words on baseball. It’s our distinct honor at The Hardball Times to present Fred Stein’s last turn at bat.

It’s time for another chat with our favorite THT reader who actually, you know, watched Babe Ruth play ball.

ST: As a kid, you were a huge fan of the Mel Ott-era Giants. Did you ever develop a close rooting interest for another team in the years to follow?

FS: My rooting interest in the Giants declined after the Ott era ended in 1948, although I had more than a passing interest in Bobby Thomson’s miracle homer which won the 1951 pennant. But other interests took over in the ensuing years: graduation from college and graduate school, marriage, children and government employment in Washington, D.C.

After moving to Washington, I developed a casual interest in the Senators, unexciting clubs with the exception of players like first baseman Mickey Vernon, outfielder Roy Sievers, righthander Camilo Pascual and the slugger Harmon Killebrew. But I did enjoy visiting Griffith Stadium, despite mediocre Senators teams, as it gave me opportunities to observe excellent visiting team players.

My enthusiasm for the Senators increased during Gil Hodges’ 1964-67 managerial seasons. And it was fun watching the Senators’ improvement under Ted Williams’ leadership before Bob Short took the club to Dallas-Ft. Worth in 1971. But following that there was no local major league team in the D.C. area until the Montreal club moved to Washington in 2005. Before that move, Washington fans had no alternative but to accept the Baltimore Orioles as their “home team.”

I continued to follow the game every day, but the focus of my interest had shifted from individual teams to all aspects of the game, and to players whose effectiveness and styles were especially appealing to me. I differ from most baseball lovers in that my rooting interests focus more on players than on teams.

I rooted for the Orioles during the Jim Palmer/Eddie Murray/Cal Ripken years largely because I was taken by these players’ styles as well as their effectiveness. Similarly, these days I find myself rooting for the Yankees because of my admiration for players like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Mark Teixeira and, before the Yanks let him go as a free agent, Hideki Matsui. Among my other favorites were Greg Maddux, and currently Albert Pujols and Joe Mauer.

ST: What have been the baseball books you’re most enjoyed reading over the decades?

FS: I’ve always been greatly interested in baseball writers and authors. In the years preceding and following World War II, the New York baseball scene included a number of excellent journalists who spent all or part of their careers covering sports, and especially baseball, for New York papers. The most distinctive of the writers included Frank Graham, Dan Daniel, Tom Meany, Red Smith and Dick Young. During this period Graham and longtime writer Fred Lieb wrote a number of classic major league team histories which I read avidly.

Lieb’s Baseball as I have Known it is excellent. Graham’s McGraw of the Giants is superb. Roger Angell has written the most elegant material including my favorite, The Summer Game. And the three Baseball volumes written by Harold Seymour (as we have recently learned, with considerable help from his wife Dorothy), are fundamental to historical baseball writing. My favorites among more recent books are Bill James’s The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, any of Thomas Boswell’s efforts and Paul Dickson’s The Dickson Baseball Dictionary. Finally, John Thorn’s Total Baseball is indispensable.

ST: What was the process through which you conceived of, wrote and published Under Coogan’s Bluff?

FS: With the inspiration of the work of writers such as these, I decided to try my hand at baseball writing. As a youngster in the 1930s through the start of World War II, I had kept a scrapbook on the New York Giants and, with that material in hand, I began to write about the Giants under Bill Terry and Mel Ott. I began my first draft in 1978, 18 months before my government retirement. About halfway through the draft I became discouraged, reasoning that there would be little interest in the subject, and I stopped writing for a month.

But one night I was watching the Walter Cronkite program and one segment provided me with needed perspective. There was a description of a wealthy Cincinnati Reds fan who owned a farm in nearby Kentucky. The Reds had abandoned Crosley Field, their longtime home, and the gentleman farmer was in the process of buying pieces of the old ballpark and re-constructing it on his farm. I told my sons, “If this guy is crazy enough to do that, I’m not crazy in trying to write a little book about my long-gone Giants.” And so I returned to my draft, completed it, and self-published it after trying unsuccessfully to find a publisher.

ST: How did you come to learn about the Society for American Baseball Research? In what ways have you been involved with SABR?

FS: SABR was largely instrumental in my decision to publish the book. I had joined SABR in 1975 after I was introduced to Bob Davids at a federal inter-agency meeting on environmental control. Before I published my book, I was again concerned as to whether there would be enough interest in the book. But several SABR members were enthusiastic about the book and this gave me sufficient confidence to self-publish it, after I was unable to interest a publisher in taking it on. Under Coogan’s Bluff was a pleasure to write. It became a modest marketing success, but a useful reference for other writers.

ST: How did you come to collaborate with Nick Peters on Giants’ Diary?

FS: In the mid-1980s I began a manuscript on the New York Giants, from their inception in 1882 until the franchise moved to San Francisco after the 1957 season. North Atlantic books was willing to publish the book, and they arranged to have the ensuing seasons covered by Bay Area writer Nick Peters. Nick escorted me on one of the most pleasant experiences of that project. We spent an entire game in the Candlestick Park press box and then sat in on a high-spirited post-game interview with Giants’ manager Frank Robinson. This was a full-scale baseball writing experience for this novice writer.

ST: Describe the three books you’ve written for McFarland.

FS: The first of those, Mel Ott, the Little Giant of Baseball, covers the career of my most favorite player in 75 years of following the game, a player I saw many times and loved for his skill on the field and his high personal qualities. And so I was very pleased to read your insightful article about Ott in THT in 2007. I was especially interested in the point that Ott’s impressive National League home run totals for his time would have been much higher if he had spent his career hitting against the significantly more lively American League baseball used in the 1930s.

My next book, And the Skipper Bats Cleanup, was about the outdated player-manager role. It’s unthinkable today to imagine, for example, Derek Jeter managing the Yankees in the World Series while serving as their regular shortstop. And yet, in a simpler baseball world in 1933, Joe Cronin accomplished that feat with the Senators. The last player-manager who was a semi-regular player was the Reds’ Pete Rose in 1986. Since the post-World War II rise in major league players’ salaries and team values, it has made no sense to burden a player with the joint responsibility of managing and playing simultaneously. This book discusses the problems player-managers faced in running a team on the field while coping with the usual physical and mental difficulties players face.

My most recent book, A History of the Baseball Fan, recounts the evolution of the fan from the mid-1800s to the present day. The book reviews the involvement of the fan with baseball in several ways. It examines ways in which fans and baseball management have changed over time. It looks at the media and how it has evolved as it reports and analyzes baseball games, players, and impacts American society. It also traces the impact of gambling and attendance levels. And it describes the most famous and infamous fans. Finally, it tells how fans have influenced baseball management decisions and game results.

My interest in baseball writing has added immeasurably to my enjoyment of the game. I highly recommend it to any readers with a similar interest in writing about the game.

References & Resources
Fred Stein was born in New York City on April 21, 1924. He served in the Army from 1943-46, as an infantryman in the European Theater. In 1949 he earned a bachelor’s degree in dairy technology from Penn State, and received a master’s at Ohio State in dairy and food marketing in 1953.

He spent most of his career working for the federal government, in milk marketing from 1952-66, and in water pollution control from 1966-79. He then worked as a pollution consultant from 1980-85.

Fred was a member of the Society for American Baseball Research beginning in 1975. In addition to numerous articles in SABR publications, he was the author of the following books:

Under Coogan’s Bluff: A Fan’s Recollection of the Giants Under Terry and Ott (self-published, 1978)

Giants Diary: A Century of Giants Baseball in New York and San Francisco (co-authored with Nick Peters; North Atlantic Books, 1987)

Mel Ott: The Little Giant of Baseball (McFarland, 1999)

And the Skipper Bats Cleanup: A History of the Baseball Player-Manager (McFarland, 2002)

A History of the Baseball Fan (McFarland, 2005)

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Comments

  1. Warren Corbett said...

    Steve, thanks for that tribute to a wonderful gentleman. I first encountered Fred when I edited his biography of another Giant giant, Carl Hubbell, for SABR’s Biography Project. I was flabbergasted when he told me he saw Hubbell pitch.

    BTW, Fred’s Virginia license plate read “MELOTT.”

  2. Steve Treder said...

    Hi Warren,

    The email interaction I’ve had with Fred’s son and daughter confirms what a delightful family man he was.

  3. robert macgregor said...

    God bless the spirit of Fred Stein! His love of baseball and particularly the giants shines through in his writings, I wish I could have thanked him in person for the pleasure he has given to so many of us.
    Thanks, Fred, Rest In Peace.

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