The Single Most Important Thing: Talking Sports and Writing with Sridhar Pappu
Sridhar Pappu’s path through journalism has taken him from writing features for Chicago Reader in the late 90s to ensuing staff gigs at the New York Observer, Sports Illustrated, the Atlantic, and the Washington Post. For much of the past decade, Pappu has carved out an inspiring freelance career—anchored by his periodic New York Times column, The Male Animal—but there’s been another long-term recurring assignment over that time, one that hasn’t experienced the gaze of any outside attention.
Pappu has spent the past six years reporting, researching, and writing The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McClain, and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age, a snapshot of sports and popular culture that is, in truth, about so much more than that. Pappu works his way through 1968, a milestone season in baseball history when pitchers were so dominant that league brass was forced into instituting rule changes to give hitters a fighting chance. Against the backdrop of this bubbling baseball revolution, Pappu deftly weaves in a bevy of non-sports moments that captivated the country, such as the 1968 presidential election, the Civil Rights Movement, and the ever-escalating conflict in Vietnam. The titular pitchers carry the narrative’s heavy lifting, as you might expect, but the true joy lies in Pappu’s interstitial tangents that elevate a stable of secondary characters—a pitching coach likely unbeknownst to many baseball fans plays a critical role throughout, but so does, of all people, a long-retired Jackie Robinson—and the result is a rollicking, fast-paced excursion through one of the most exciting, tumultuous, and significant eras in American history.
I spoke with Pappu shortly before his book was to publish on October 3, which happens to be the same launch day as my book, which explores how science and Silicon Valley helped engineer the Golden State Warriors’ seven-year metamorphosis into a new kind of basketball juggernaut. As a fellow first-time author, I wanted to see where Pappu’s mindset and expectations were before such a momentous day, what he hoped readers would take away from his labor of love, the backstory behind his baseball fandom, and how ready he is to pitch another book idea—whether it requires another six years or not.
The Rumpus: As we speak, we’re ten days out from publication and this book has essentially composed the better part of the six years of your life and your career. Being so close to the finish line, what does that feel like? What does it mean to you to finally see this through to publication after such a long road?
Sridhar Pappu: You come to it with mixed feelings, right? Because it is the culmination of all this work that you’ve put in and to see the physical product is pretty remarkable. At the same time, you’ve lived with this for a long time, and it’s your constant companion, whether you want it to be or not. And whether you’re working on it or not, it’s always looming in your mind and you’re thinking about it. So being so close, there are mixed emotions. When I was talking to someone about it, I said, “Well, I assume it’s like letting your toddler go off to daycare.” And he said, “You’ve been working on this so long, this is basically sending your kid off to kindergarten. This is no longer a toddler.”
Rumpus: I imagine you’ve thought about this every day for six years, but have you thought about what it would feel like to not think about it all the time?
Pappu: Once it was out of my hands—which is to say, once it went to the proofs—there was this sense where I was able to have a little bit of remove from it. It’s only now that it’s come roaring back, that it’s become part of my life again. Once everything ends—and I think I know this from having written a lot of magazine stories and newspaper stories and my column—there’s a tremendous stress with all kinds of stuff. With any magazine story or newspaper column or any big project you take on, there’s that combination of stress and then that part of you that says, “Oh, I can’t wait until it’s over.” And then it’s over and part of you feels a little sad. So I can’t imagine what it’s going to feel like when all of this is over, since it’s been six years of my life. The kind of stress that comes from doing shorter pieces of work, I think I’ve missed that a little bit.
Rumpus: I also have my own sports book publishing on the same day as yours. With mine, bits from several years of reporting here and there went into it, but the bulk of the work was done over the last eighteen months, from proposal to publication. You’ve been working on something four times as long as that. I know I had moments—chalk it up to first-time author anxiety or doubt or whatever—where the narrative was going off in unforeseen directions and that freaked me out a little. Did you have those moments along the way? Having worked at this for so long, I can imagine there were unexpected twists and turns. Did any of those pop up and how did you fight through it?
Pappu: Oh, definitely. There were people that I expected would make themselves available for the book who didn’t; that caused a fair amount of stress on my part. And it is a terribly lonely process. It’s just you. I remember on multiple occasions where I had to call people for help reporting. These were authors, but I’m looking for their two cents on reporting or just counsel. There was always invariably a pause on my part and they’ll say, “What’s wrong?” And I’ll tell them about some setback or what have you and they all said the same kind of thing: “Look, I know you feel like you’re by yourself. I know you feel like it’s you against the world. I know that it’s not fun. But this is how it is. You’ve chosen to do this.”
I think that’s the thing that you always have to remember: This was your choice. No one forced you to do this, but it’s something you wanted to do and you thought was worthwhile and you want to see it to completion. And not only that, you want to make a product that people will both enjoy and take something away from.
Rumpus: Perhaps now is a good time to say that your book is sensational. One of the reasons I love it is that you cast a really large net and corral a lot of interesting people and moments into the narrative. That was intriguing to me because the cover says “the year of the pitcher,” so it’s referencing a single year just with its language. Then it specifically references two specific players, and yet it’s really about so much more than just that one year or those players. From the start did you know and perhaps appreciate that your narrative would encompass such a wide scope? Did you know all the little directions you would go in and were you prepared for that, or was this something that grew over time as you did more recording and more research?
Pappu: Yeah, I had no idea. In the original proposal it starts in 1966. And now the book starts with a guy named Johnny Sain throwing a baseball against a wooden table some time after World War II. So I had no idea the directions it was going to take. In my original proposal, there was a lot more about 1968 from a non-baseball perspective. Eugene McCarthy and George Romney were at play heavily in the book, and what I discovered very early on—through some very good counsel—was that if I was going to write that book, I would end up with a half-good baseball book and a half-good history book and not satisfy anyone.
So from the very beginning, my focus was to get the baseball right. And it does deal with a variety of different things that I never thought I would deal with, but it’s through that baseball lens. Jackie Robinson became such a prominent figure in the book because of his post-baseball life, and it was kind of by accident. I just started exploring his role not only in American politics after his life in baseball, but what his life was really like in 1968. I never, ever, imagined that he would become such an important part of the book.
Rumpus: Tell me about your baseball fandom growing up. How did it influence you during your formative years?
Pappu: I was born in 1975, which was the first championship of the Big Red Machine—although they should have won it in 1972 and were robbed of the pennant in 1973. I was given a hand-knit Cincinnati Reds sweater at birth by a family friend and then—
Rumpus: A hand-knit Reds sweater?
Pappu: Yeah. It was blue, though, and there’s only one photo of me in it, but I wore that every day from around the time I was three to five. There are a lot of things from your childhood you find and are like, “Oh, why do I still have this?” That’s the one thing I would really like from my childhood and I don’t have it.
I grew up in Oxford, where Miami University of Ohio is. My father was a philosophy professor. It’s not that he hates sports, but he has a severe disinterest in it. It’s funny, actually. He and I were having coffee with the late David Carr in Washington. Carr asked my dad, “Do you like sports?” My dad shook his head, and then Carr pointed right at me and goes, “Then how do you explain this?” My dad shrugged his shoulders. I want to say my sports fandom really began maybe around sixth grade, right around the time the nucleus of a really good Reds team was coming up around Eric Davis, their center fielder who just captivated me and who I fell absolutely in love with.
In 1990, they won the World Series and I was fifteen years old. If they win another title, it’ll be great and I’ll enjoy it, but when you’re that age and you’ve watched a team come up like that, I don’t think there’s a better experience in the world.
Rumpus: It’s transformative, isn’t it?
Pappu: It is, and you remember every moment. It hits you at a time when you still really love that stuff. Not that I don’t love it still, but it feels like the single most important thing in your life. And then you start to pay attention to girls and then it doesn’t become the single most important thing in your life.
Rumpus: Are you starting to get the itch to do another book, or are you not quite there yet?
Pappu: I am, and I’ve played around with a few topics. There is part of me that wants to really get going again and then there’s a part of me that says, “Maybe you should take some time,” especially after this and really think about what you want to do next. I definitely started exploring topics that I can do and do well. I say it, like, hopefully it’ll take less time to do, but if I can produce a work that I’m proud of and it takes this amount of time, so be it. I will say that I learned so much in terms of process during the course of this, just with the sheer logistics of things but also in terms of all the missteps I made along the way, I think I can sidestep all that now because I know better.
Rumpus: So it might take another six years, but it would be an easier or more productive six years.
Pappu: Well, I don’t want to say that, because I don’t think any of this is easy. Anything you think is going to be easy, any chapter you think is going to be easy, any interview you set up with somebody that you think, “Okay, well, I can get in and out of this,” it usually ends up being really different or ten times more difficult.
Author photograph © Nina Subin.