Sacramento Baseball

Sacramento Baseball

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

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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.

 

Throwback: A Big League Catcher Tells How the Game Is Really Played

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It’s one of those rare cosmic occurrences when I cross paths with someone who wrote in my high school yearbook, “Someday I can say I knew you when.” That the junior who penned those words grew up to be a veteran sports writer and political cartoonist for the Kansas City Star is matched only in awe-worthiness by the fact that he still has great hair. Some of us even remember Lee Judge as an aspiring young writer whose first book made from construction paper was a DIY epic held together with staples. Although we shouldn’t have had to wait decades for his next book, fans of baseball will proclaim that good things like Throwback: A Big League Catcher Tells How the Game Is Really Played (which he coauthored with MLB’s Jason Kendall) was well worth that wait.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Let’s time-travel back a moment to the day after graduation in 1971. With the future awaiting your first bold step into it, did you know at the time what you wanted to do for a living?

A: I thought I did. At the time I wanted to be a commercial artist.

Q: What was your very first job and what did you learn from it?

A: I worked at Roos-Atkins clothing store. I learned that I didn’t want to work at Roos-Atkins clothing store.

Q: Tell us about your passion for America’s favorite sport and your earliest recollection of going to a game.

A: I’ve always loved baseball, probably because my father loved it as well. My first ballgames were Little League games in Rocklin, CA. It seemed like the whole town turned out for those. My first big league game was seeing Willie Mays and the San Francisco Giants.

Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?

A: I hang out with all kinds of people—including Republicans.

Q: When and where did you first meet Jason Kendall?

A: At Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium, 2010.

Q: What prompted the two of you to team up and write a book about baseball together?

A: Jason is not a fan of the media in general—few pro ballplayers are—but he liked what I was trying to do: write about the game from the ballplayer’s point of view. Most of us are interested in the results, but I also wanted to know about the process that led to the results: if a batter hits a home run, there’s a reason he hit that home run. How and why did it happen?

Q: There’s no shortage of baseball books on today’s market. What do you feel best distinguishes this one from the competition?

A: Jason Kendall is one of five catchers in the history of baseball to catch 2,000 games. Catchers know the game like no one else and Jason gives fans a look at what’s really going on out there: conversations, customs, strategy, how someone can break the unwritten rules and the penalties they pay for doing so. It’s a look inside the game from the ultimate insider.

Q: Tell us about the creative process of coauthoring the book. For instance, did you work from an outline or just brainstorm topics as you went along?

A: We decided to go position by position to give us some kind of guideline. I’d ask questions and he’d answer, but it was really more of a conversation than anything else. The book is not verbatim, but I did use Jason’s words—I just organized his thoughts.

Beer was involved.

Q: The book is obviously targeted to diehard fans of the game but are there any elements that might appeal to those of us who aren’t as baseball-savvy?

A: People who have read the book are finding it works for all types of fans. The game is much more entertaining when you pay attention and know what to look for. For instance: If you see the umpire walk out in front of home plate and bend over to clean it for no apparent reason, he’s probably having an argument with the catcher. The unwritten rule requires both umpire and catcher to stare straight ahead so no one will know they’re arguing. If the argument becomes too heated, the umpire will clean home plate so he can disguise the fact that he wanted to get into the catcher’s face and tell him to shut up, he’s heard enough.

See? Isn’t that neat to know?

Q: Why do baseball players speak in clichés?

A: Tim Bogar—bench coach for the Texas Rangers—once told me that if ballplayers don’t know you or like you, all you get are clichés. No ball player ever got in trouble for being boring; they’re boring on purpose. If they like and trust you they’ll tell the truth, but never in one of those media scrums you see after games—too many people around.

Here’s a clue: if you see a post-game interview and the player never looks in the reporters’ eyes, they probably don’t like that reporter. Eye contact is reserved for reporters they like or at least respect.

Q: Umpires always seem to be the guys that everyone loves to argue with at vitriolic levels. As baseball insiders, is there a “correct” way to do this?

A: As I mentioned earlier, at the plate everyone stares straight ahead—including the hitter. If the hitter suddenly feels the need to smooth out the dirt in the batter’s box with his feet, watch his lips: he’s probably taking the opportunity to tell the umpire what he thought of that last call. But smoothing out the dirt hides what he’s doing.

In the book Jason talks about using hitter-umpire disagreements to his advantage. If the hitter is complaining, the catcher can set up outside the strike zone and give the umpire a chance to retaliate. Jason would egg the umpire on with a “are you going to let him get away with that?” question, then set up outside the strike zone.

Q: How do baseball players say hello during a game?

A: If the hitter and catcher are friendly, in his first trip to the plate the hitter will tap the catcher’s shin guards with his bat—it’s how they say hello. Same thing on the bases: if the first baseman taps a runner with his mitt, they’re probably buddies.

On the other hand, if the hitter taps a catcher’s shin guards and he’s not buddies with the catcher, that can start something. There’s a story in the book about what happened the first time Albert Pujols came to the plate and tapped Jason’s shin guards—it didn’t go well.

Q: How do you spot a true tough guy versus a poser?

A: If a tough guy gets hit by a pitch and is mad about it, he’s gone; he’ll charge the mound. A poser will stand at home plate, point the bat and yell at the pitcher and wait for his teammates to come out and break things up—they don’t really want to fight anybody, they just want to look tough.

Tough guys aren’t afraid of the wall; they’ll go full-speed and try to climb the fence to bring back a home run. Guys who are softer slow up when they hit the warning track; they don’t want to bang into the wall.

Same thing with breaking up double plays: hard-nosed players will hustle down and try to knock down the middle infielder attempting to turn the double play at second base. Guys who aren’t so tough will peel out of the base path and give the pivot man a clear throwing lane to first base—they don’t want to have a collision with an infielder or get hit by a thrown baseball.

The tough guys get in front of bad hops and knock them down with their bodies if they miss the catch; other guys play the ball off to the side because they don’t like getting hit with the ball.

The list goes on, but you get the drift.It’s right there for us to see if we know what to look for—that’s why we wrote the book; we tell you what to look for.

Q: Is it possible during a game to predict what the next pitch will be?

A: 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1 and sometimes 3-2 are known as “fastball” counts. In those counts pitchers need to throw a strike and a fastball is their best chance of doing so. So hitters load up in those counts and try to crush the ball. So pitchers either need to throw something other than a fastball—curve, slider, change, etc.—or throw a really well-located fastball. If fans pay attention they can predict the next pitch fairly accurately. Watch the between innings warm-up throws; if the pitcher can’t throw anything other than a fastball for a strike then, he’ll probably have to throw a fastball to a hitter during the inning. We tell fans how to spot fastballs and off-speed pitches.

Q: How do you identify a dirty slide?

A: Watch the runner’s feet: if his spikes are angled down, it’s a clean slide. If he comes in spikes up; he’s looking to do damage. Sometimes infielders invite this: they’ll receive a throw and “drop a knee.” That means they put their knee on the ground in the base path and block the runner off the base. Runners retaliate by coming in “spikes up” and cutting the infielder’s leg.

Q: If no one has cheated, how can a pitcher end up with a scuffed baseball?

A: The catcher throws the ball down to second base between innings and sometimes—kinda, sorta by accident—the catcher bounces the throw. That puts a scuff on the baseball. They infielders throw it around and give the scuffed baseball to the pitcher. If the umpire didn’t notice the throw bounced, the pitcher gets to pitch with it.

There is no rule that says catchers must not bounce throws between innings. The pitcher has a scuffed baseball, but no one cheated.

The players think all this worrying about scuffs is stupid because they play with a scuffed ball every time someone hits a grounder to an infielder or bounces a ball off the warning track—they keep those balls in play. They throw out pitches in the dirt, but let other scuffed balls remain in the game.

It drives Jason crazy to see a young pitcher get a ball with a nice, useful scuff on it and then ask the umpire for a shiny new one.

Q: What’s your favorite baseball movie and why?

A: “Bull Durham” because Ron Shelton played minor league ball and got it right.

Q: If you could have attended any baseball game in history, which game would you most want to have watched?

A: Probably the World Series game where Carlton Fisk hit the extra-inning home run and waved it fair. I watched that one in a bar. But I did get to attend the seventh game of the Royals-Cardinals World series; I’ve got no complaints.

Q: Greatest baseball player of all time?

A: Hard to say, but I’ll go with Hank Aaron.

Q: Where can readers learn more about the book and about the signings that you and Jason are doing?

A: After every Royals game I post a story on “Judging the Royals” a web site that’s part of the Kansas City Star’s on-line offerings. Go to kansascity.com, click on sports and you’ll find my website. It’s inside baseball about the Royals, but the information applies to any team you watch. I’ll list new events there.

Q: What’s next on your (home)plate?

A: We’ll have to see how this book does: do fans really want this kind of information? If so, the publisher is interested in another book that takes baseball fans inside the game.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: Thanks for the opportunity—and the compliment about my hair.