While it’s common knowledge that baseball is America’s favorite pastime, lesser known is that the sport was being played in California’s capitol, Sacramento, ever since the days of the Gold Rush. When the country’s first professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, came to play against the locals in 1869, it was just the beginning of the Delta community’s love affair with the game, a passion that still exists today in everything from neighborhood t-ball tryouts for tykes to The Sacramento River Cats, a minor league team with legions of fans. Whether you have ever played in a game, cheered in the bleachers, overindulged on hot dogs and peanuts, or just get weepy whenever Roy Hobbs puts the fictional New York Knights on the front pages in The Natural, Bill McPoil’s debut book, Sacramento Baseball, is a must-read history for sports enthusiasts’ favorite season.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: In the realm of small world coincidences, you first came on the radar screen of You Read It Here First through a mutual friend that you and I have known for years. Tell us about who he is and in what capacity the two of you came to meet each other.
A: Ernie Daniels and I met when we both worked at the Sacramento Police Department. He came on a short time after me and though we never worked as partners, we worked around each other extensively. We really got to know each other during “Pig Bowl V”. (This was an annual football game between the Police Department and the Sheriff’s Department.) Ernie was one of the veterans of the team and it was my first, and last game; I found out I was made for baseball, not football.
Q: Following retirement, where did your career path take you?
A: After a little over thirteen years on the department I was forced to retire because of injuries I sustained making an arrest – I tackled a guy running from me and broke both my knees. My last few years on the department I served on the police union’s board of directors and as Vice President. When I retired I went back to school to finish my college degree with the intention of becoming a teacher. Right before I finished my degree a friend, and former president of the police union, who owned a labor relations firm called and asked if I might be interested in coming to work for him. The paycheck and the work sounded good so I did. I made arrangements with a couple of my professors to finish my classes while I traveled for the job – the firm represented over 60 public employee unions in California and Nevada doing contract negotiations, and representing employees in grievances and disciplinary proceedings – and although I did finish, it took an extra semester. I still had that teaching thing in the back of my mind so I went on, continuing to work between fifty and sixty hours a week, and got a master’s degree.
Q: Did you always have in mind that your love of history would one day lead you to write a book?
A: In graduate school I had to write a publishable article for my second graduate course. Since my emphasis as an undergraduate was military and naval history I decided to write about the development of Wake Island prior to World War II. The research took me to the National Archives Annex in San Bruno, about a two hour drive from Sacramento. When I finished the era search and the article, which I got an A- on, I submitted it to a couple of military journals and received rejections. Then I submitted it to Prologue: The National Archives Quarterly and they accepted it. That gave me the writing bug. I wrote a couple of more articles for periodicals, and though I thought one day I might write a book, I never really had time.
Q: What was the inspiration that caused you to say, “The time to start writing is right now?”
A: I retired from labor relations in 2007 following a heart attack so suddenly I had a lot of time on my hands. I thought about the book idea again, but didn’t really have a focus. Over Christmas, 2014, I was visiting my son and his family in Colorado when I went into one of my favorite book stores there and stumbled across an Arcadia book about baseball in Colorado Springs. When I returned home I started looking for the Sacramento version and found out there wasn’t one. I sent an email to Arcadia, not really expecting to hear from them, and received a return email the next day with a 12 or 14 page proposal package for “my book.”
Q: Did you have any writing experience prior to this particular venture?
A: Only the articles I mentioned above and legal briefs I wrote following arbitrations. I also wrote and copywrote a training manual for labor unions while I was at the labor relations firm.
Q: Covering a century of local baseball and curating over 200 accompanying images sounds like a daunting amount of work (especially acquiring the photographs)! How did you go about collecting and organizing all of your research?
A: When I was filling out the proposal package they asked me where I would get the photos. I had no Idea so I just pulled ideas out of the air – friends, relatives, the library. When they approved the proposal, I pretty much just started panicking and scrambling. In the end I found photos from a lot of great people, the Sacramento Public Library, and the California State University, Sacramento Special Collections Archives.
Q: From the inception of the idea to its completion, how long did it take you to put the whole thing together?
A: About a year and a half – two years if you included the editing that took place after submission.
Q: Did you allow anyone to see your work-in-progress or did you make everyone wait until you were done?
A: I had a friend, who is a Sacramento Solons expert, proof the book’s introduction and the introduction to the Solon’s chapter, but other than that, my wife was the only person who saw everything that was going into it along the way.
Q: What governed your decision to make Sacramento Baseball a photo history rather than a manuscript?
A: The fact that we didn’t have one, and to document amateur and professional baseball in a way that anyone, not just baseball historians, could enjoy.
Q: Sacramento has a rich history of adventurers, politicians and diverse industries. What made you choose baseball above all else as the topic for your book?
A: I played baseball as a youngster and have been a S.F. Giants fan since they moved to the West Coast in 1958. I went to Sacramento Solons’ games when I was eight and nine years old, and went to my first Giants game at Seals Stadium in 1959 and then to Candlestick Park the first year it opened in 1960. I “knew” Sacramento was a baseball town, but some guy on a local radio show, as I was thinking about writing this book, tried to prove it really wasn’t. By documenting the history in more than a hundred years’ worth of photos I think I proved him wrong.
Q: Did you play baseball when you were growing up? If so, what position?
A: Only Little League, Colt League, and sandlot. I was a catcher and occasionally played center field.
Q: What’s the first pro baseball game you ever attended (and did your team win)?
A: The San Francisco Giants in 1959. I don’t remember if they won or not – too many years ago.
Q: Favorite team of all time?
A: San Francisco Giants
Q: Favorite player of all time?
A: Willie Mays
Q: Favorite movie about baseball?
A: It’s a toss-up between A League of Their Own and Bull Durham.
Q: If you could have lunch with any famous baseball player (living or dead), who would it be and what question would you most like to ask?
A: Willie Mays. “Could I have your autograph?” (I’ve read all of his biographies.)
Q: Just for fun, if you could be the owner/manager of a new baseball team, what name would you give them?
A: Wow, I don’t know. Maybe the Spaldings if it’s allowed. The first catcher’s mitt I owned was a Spalding.
Q: Share with us some trivia about baseball that most people wouldn’t know.
A: In 1951 the New York Giants were trailing the Brooklyn Dodgers 3-2 in the third game of a three game play-off for the National League Championship and the right to go to the World Series. With two men on base in the bottom of the ninth inning the Giants third baseman, Bobby Thompson, came to the plate and hit a three run home run to win the game. Almost every baseball enthusiast could tell you that. But, who was on deck and would have come to bat had Thompson made an out? A twenty year old rookie named Willie Mays, in his first year of Major League Baseball.
Q: Long before The Sacramento River Cats, the capitol’s baseball claim to fame was The Solons, a team that underwent multiple moves and name-changes. What can you tell us about them and do they still exist somewhere?
A: No, they no longer exist except in the hearts and minds of baseball historians and Sacramentans over the age of sixty. As the Sacramento Senators they were charter members of the Pacific Coast League (PCL) when it was formed in 1903. Until the Giants and the Dodgers moved west in 1958, the PCL was the professional baseball league on the West Coast. As the Senators they were often referred to by sports writers as the Solons in deference to the fact that Sacramento is the state capital and the legislators were referred to as Solons at the time. They finally got the Solon name officially in 1935 and stayed that way until 1960 when they moved to Hawaii to become the Islanders. For three years in the late 1970’s a team called the Solons tried to reclaim Sacramento, but it just didn’t take because they couldn’t come up with a suitable place to play.
Q: Back in the days when I was in theatre, it was often said that Sacramento couldn’t be taken seriously in the performing arts because of the city’s proximity to San Francisco. Could the same argument be made about sports and, specifically, baseball?
A: Sort of. That’s why the Solons moved out in 1960. With the Giants only ninety miles away and games beginning to be televised, attendance and revenues declined so much they just couldn’t be supported here. But now we have the River Cats and they have been setting PCL records for over half of their time here. We also have the Sacramento Kings basketball team and The Sacramento Republic, our professional soccer team that we believe will become a MLS team soon.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: I’ve started doing research for a manuscript about the SF Giants and the Oakland A’s in the context of the turmoil in the Bay Area in the 1960’s. I’m just doing secondary research now, but I think I’ll be going into primary research in the fall at least for the first chapter which will cover the Giants and the HUAC Hearings in San Francisco in May, 1960.
Q: Where can readers learn more about you and your work?
A: I don’t know. I’m not very public. I like getting the book the publicity you and others are giving it, but I really don’t think I’m that interesting. People in Sacramento can find me at Peet’s Coffee at 38th & J most afternoons working towards the next book. Other than that, it’s baseball season and every night there’s a River Cats game I’ll be sitting behind home plate.