Interview with Peter Golenbock

peter-golenbockPeter Golenbock is an author and journalist who has been tied to the Yankees since he wrote Dynasty: The New York Yankees, 1949-1964 which was published in 1975.

Since then he’s written a handful of Yankees autobiographies such as Sparky Lyle’s The Bronx Zoo, Billy Martin’s Number 1, Graig Nettles’ Balls, and Ron Guidry’s Guidry. He’s even crossed over to the Boston side and wrote Red Sox Nation: An Unexpurgated History of the Red Sox, and Johnny Damon‘s Idiot after the 2004 World Series.

Those are just a few of the books he’s written as he’s covered other teams, other sports, and even non-sports related books. This week we got a chance to talk with Peter. Here is our interview:

Bronx Baseball Daily: When your start when you pitched Dynasty before you were really in the book writing industry, tell us about that.

Peter Golenbock: I was 29 at the time and I wasn’t in the industry at all. I was just too stupid to realize that’s not how you do it. I just got lucky because the person I pitched the idea to turned out to be as big a Yankee fan as I was and loved the idea.

BBD: So take us through the process of writing your first book.

PG: Well, I spent the entire first year at Yankee Stadium in the archives researching all their articles and at the end of the year I thought I’d write the book. But when I sat down to write it I realized that I really didn’t know any more than when I started. So it occurred to me to go around the country to conduct interviews.

BBD: That seems like a very hard and expensive process.

PG: It is a very hard and expensive process. But the Yankees were a big help. They wrote letters to all of the players explaining who I was and what I was doing and asked them to cooperate.

BBD: Were the players cooperative?

PG: The only player who didn’t want to talk with me was Joe DiMaggio. He was always more closed off. When he came up he was a little under educated and kept very quite so he wouldn’t embarrass himself. As he got older it became more of a defense mechanism. A lot of the time he thought people just wanted to ask him about Marilyn Monroe so as a way to avoid that he just kept to himself.

BBD: After you wrote the book and got a little bit of fame, did you ever have a chance to talk with DiMaggio?

PG: I got a chance to hear him talk a few times, but I was never able to sit down and talk to him. A lot of times it was during Old Timer’s Games and it was in an atmosphere where he was around teammates.

BBD: So, aside from DiMaggio, how helpful were the other players you were interviewing for Dynasty?

PG: Oh they were great, everyone I went to see was great. I spent the next year traveling to visit players. As a Yankee fan, it was fabulous and terrific. I think I had the last interview with Roger Maris before he passed away. I met Clete Boyer at his bar. I met with Mickey Mantle at Yankee Stadium. I think it was the first interview where he told anyone about his nightmares. I played ping pong with Bobby Richardson. Oh, Moose Skowron tried to sell me real estate.

BBD: Moose Skowron tried to sell you real estate? Was it weird?

PG: No, it was fun and he was being light hearted. I think he was selling plots somewhere in Florida. They were about $25 for five years. I think it turned out to be worth a decent amount of money. I probably should have invested, but I didn’t even have two nickels at the time.

BBD: So after you met and interviewed all of these Yankees, what happened next?

PG: Well once I was done I had a stack of notes at least three feet high. I transcribed everything, started doing research, and went back to the library. After I wrote the book and it was published it was a surprisingly big hit. There was a lot of interest in it and I couldn’t believe it. We were thrilled.

BBD: So after you wrote this book and it was a success that turned into an entire career?

PG: Well I was working as a journalist for a while, but that book did lead to writing an autobiography with Billy Martin. See, in the book I had interviewed Billy Martin and I wrote that he was as big a part of the the dynasty as Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford and that made a really big impact on him. So when it came time to write his autobiography he wanted me to do it. The timing didn’t work out with Billy right away, but he had the same agent as Sparky Lyle and when he wanted to write his autobiography his agent suggested that I do it.

BBD: So George Steinbrenner didn’t exactly love The Bronx Zoo, what was the reaction to that book?

PG: Everyone loved it. It was very successful. It was just such an interesting season with a lot of great characters. A lot of the players and people who worked for Steinbrenner liked it because of the way he was portrayed in the book. I mean, no matter who you are, it doesn’t matter, he knows more than you. He will micro manage you and it doesn’t matter who it was. The bigger the star you were, the worse he treated you. So the only person who had a negative reaction to the book was George.

BBD: What was his reaction? Were there ever any run-ins with him?

PG: No, it wasn’t anything like that. He didn’t go out of his way to come after me. i think the extent of it was, when I interviewed him in 1980 for the book George, he told me I’d better do a good job and he threatened to sue me.

BBD: You mean George the book that came out last year?

PG: Yeah, I was working on the book that was supposed to come out in 1981, but two other George books were to come out at that time so my publisher canceled it. It wasn’t until last year that I was finally able to write it.

BBD: That’s almost 20 years later, why write it then?

PG: He had taken a lesser role with the team. He wasn’t running it anymore, it was his sons. It just seemed like the right time.

BBD: I read that book, I really liked it, but at times it seems as if you were referring to him in the past tense as if he had already gone.

PG: Well in some sense he is gone. He’s there any more. He is in the past tense. I think it’s funny because every once and a while they come out with statements from him, but nobody is sure that they are actually coming from him. He isn’t running that team anymore.

BBD: So what do you think about the team now that he’s not in charge anymore?

PG: As i said in George, the Yankees will be better off without George muddling up the whole thing. His sons are both smart guys, smart enough to know when to let the pros do their jobs. I think they’re doing a great job today too. People like Gene Michael has done a great job with the player development and Brian Cashman has done a wonderful job running the team.

BBD: Do you think if Steinbrenner were still around Cashman would still be running the team?

PG: Cashman seems a lot like Billy to me. Billy kept coming back after each time he was fired. He kept fooling himself that Steinbrenner would change because he just loved managing the Yankees. Cashman had opportunities to leave and didn’t. I think he loves being being GM and just gritted his teeth and took the punishment.

BBD: So you had that great run of biographies in the late 70’s and early 80’s, but today, as far as modern baseball players go, there has only been Johnny Damon. Are there any other athletes you would want to work with on an autobiography?

PG: Certainly, but it’s much more difficult today. You usually want to do a biography of somebody who has had a long career, but today all of these players have agents who are looking to get you to write a book for next to nothing. It makes the entire process more difficult. It’s also hard because players are less forthcoming. The contracts are so big these days that there is a lot at stake. But, somebody like Bernie Williams is someone I’d really like to work with. He’s had a long and marvelous career with the Yankees.

BBD: What about any of the players that have been steroids, does that interest you?

PG: Not as much. I mean I wouldn’t mind doing something like that if it came up, but I don’t think that people are really that interested in that as much. I think the sports writers are more than anybody. But if something came along where I could work with Mark McGwire I certainly would.

BBD: So besides living in St. Petersburg, what are you doing these days?

PG: My book Growing Up NASCAR about Humpy Wheeler is coming out soon. Right now I’m writing a book with a jewel thief and I’ve got my books Dynasty and George coming out in paperback soon. So there is plenty to check out.

Many thanks to Peter Golenbock for taking the time to speak with us. If you haven’t ready any of his great books yet, you definitely should. His books are like Pringles, I bet you can’t read just one.

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2 Responses to Interview with Peter Golenbock

  1. Great job with the interview, Rob. A coup. Golenbock is a treasure trove of information and stories. I loved The Bronx Zoo and Dynasty. With Dynasty, I do wish it had been less chronological. The interviews were great and transcended that year-by-year narrative, and Golenbock had his own good analysis on the rise to and persistence of Yankees power and its decline. But at times, that got lost in the narrative structure. But what a book, really amazing details, rich quotes and background, and at times hilarious stories. Some of the tales with Joe Page and Pepitone had me laughing out loud and in tears.

  2. Yeah, I set up the interview and I didn't even know what I was going to ask him. I just figured when you have the chance to interview somebody like him, you don't pass up that chance. I've read a few of his books, but not Dynasty. I ordered it last night though.