Ever wondered how the jockstrap was invented? Or how about the evolution from catching balls with bare hands to the gloves of today? It was said that shaking hands with a catcher without any protection was like “shaking hands with walnuts.”
Sports Illustrated writer and Bloomington, Minnesota native Steve Rushin wrote about the jock strap, how Americans were more skilled throwing grenades compared to their European allies because of baseball and more historical oddities.
The book is called 34-Ton Bat, The Story of Baseball as told through Bobbleheads, Cracker Jacks, Jock Straps, Eye Black and 375 Strange and Unusual Objects. Here are 10 questions about his life growing up in Bloomington, The Met, how he landed his Sports Illustrated writing gig and about his recent visits to Target Field with his young children.
Q: In 1979 on your 13th birthday you became an employee of the Minnesota Twins and as you say in your book “it unlocked a hidden world”. Tell me about your memories of the Met in your hometown of Bloomington, Minnesota. What was the highlight?
A: Before I worked at the Met, I went as a fan. I’m one of five kids and my Dad would stop at Cal’s Market on Old Shakopee Road after Mass on a Sunday and buy a one-pound bag of peanuts to last the day. Late in the game, we might get a Frosty Malt, but we weren’t allowed to sail the lids onto the warning track, like so many of our lucky peers were doing.
When I started working at the Met, in the commissary, making the food that the vendors sold, it was a revelation. I was backstage, in the ballpark before it opened to the public, and saw people like Reggie Jackson from ten feet away. When you’re 13, and have only ever seen someone like Reggie on TV, it’s a shock to see him up close, unfiltered by a screen, as if you never realized he existed in the flesh.
The highlight of working those games—and there were so many—was getting to pull the tarp when it rained. To be 13 and running across a big-league field, in front of about 8,000 fans with garbage bags on their heads? I knew even then that life was unlikely to get better.
Q: Did you know Twins Daily Writer and Founder John Bonnes, @TwinsGeek on twitter, growing up in Bloomington?
A: I didn’t. If I had, I’d know much more about the Twins now. And then. But growing up in Bloomington you were never more than one degree of separation from the Twins. My brother was a lefthanded pitcher at Bloomington Lincoln and claims to have owned Hrbek whenever he pitched against Kennedy. I mentioned this to Hrbek once and he just laughed. I think he’s heard that from a lot of guys he faced in high school.
Q: Was there a certain moment that inspired to you be a writer? Did you have a mentor?
A: I learned to read watching Sesame Street and cereal boxes were my earliest literary influence. Another early influence was Oscar Madison, the sportswriter on “The Odd Couple.” He was a slob, ate hot dogs at ballgames and spent a lot of time loafing around his gigantic apartment in New York. That seemed like a good life. I once spent an evening with Jack Klugman for a Sports Illustrated column and thanked him for the inspiration. He said I wasn’t the first sportswriter to tell him that.
My Mom, more than any one person, made me a writer. She got me a library card and encouraged me to read and would leave me at the B. Dalton bookstore for an hour when she shopped at Southdale. I would completely lose track of time, or even my surroundings, and get absorbed in a book. I didn’t know it then, but reading is the best preparation for writing.
Q: Is there an unusual story about landing your job at Sports Illustrated?
A: A junior college basketball coach had a three-on-three basketball tournament in his backyard in Bloomington. A buddy and I played in it. It was called the Saunders Hoop Invitational Tournament, or S.H.I.T. We were in high school. Sports Illustrated ran a long story on a huge 3-on-3 tournament in Michigan, and I wrote a letter to the editor of SI about our 3-on-3 tournament in Bloomington.
The trophy was a Cool-Whip tub covered in aluminum foil. The author of the article in SI, Alexander Wolff, wrote to me to ask me more about our tournament, because he was writing a book on pickup basketball in America. So I wrote back to him, we became pen pals, and when I started writing stories in college, I’d send them to Alex, who passed one along to an editor SI, and eventually—just before I graduated from Marquette—the magazine ran my story. That got me a three-month internship as a fact-checker there and I never left. The junior college basketball coach who hosted the S.H.I.T., incidentally, was Flip Saunders.
Q:What baseball writers do you most admire? Past and present?
A: Where to begin? I grew up reading Pat Reusse and Doug Grow in Minneapolis. My Dad traveled a lot, and in the age before the internet he’d bring home three-day-old newspapers from L.A. or New York, so I’d get to read columns by Jim Murray and Red Smith. I read all of Roger Angell’s books. They were some of the books I’d lose myself in at B. Dalton. When I arrived at SI, we had Peter Gammons and Steve Wulf and later Tom Verducci and Tim Kurkjian, all of whom were so good that the main thing I learned from them was not to try to be like them. There is more good baseball writing than there has ever been, and I won’t list all the current people I read for space considerations and fear of leaving someone out.
Q: I see that you recently visited Minnesota and took in a game at Target Field with your children. What did that mean to you and was there a certain part of baseball that you felt you needed to teach them? For example, did you explain the meaning of Minnie and Paul to you daughter who thought one of them was Babe Ruth?
A: The kids, thank goodness, like baseball. We were in Minneapolis when the Twins were out of town and took a tour of Target Field. The kids have this fantasy of being locked into a stadium overnight, like in “Night at the Museum,” and getting to eat all the popcorn and nachos and batting helmet sundaes they can, while running the bases and attempting to go yard. Sadly, we were not locked in at tour’s end, but we did come back on our last night in town for the Twins’ homestand-opener against the Orioles. They saw Hicks make a catch with his back to the plate and Dozier win it with a walk-off home run, and my 6-year-old son did ask—while pointing at the Twins logo in centerfield—“Who’s Babe Ruth shaking hands with?” We live in New England, and mostly go to Red Sox games, so it was nice to give them the experience I had as a kid: watching the Twins outdoors while learning how to crack open peanut shells.
Q: What got you interested in writing your current book, the 34-Ton Bat, The Story of Baseball as told through Boobleheads, Cracker Jacks, Jock Straps, Eye Black and 375 Strange and Unusual Objects?
A: That book evolved from wanting to know my grandfather. My Mom’s Dad was a member of the 1926 New York Giants but only played in one game, at catcher. I wanted to know what it was like to be at the Polo Grounds that Sunday afternoon in June of 1926, in hot flannel uniforms, without batting helmets, during Prohibition, and so forth. My uncle happened to still have the catcher’s mitt my grandfather wore that day, he mailed it to me, and I put it on and it was like shaking hands with the grandfather I never knew. My grandfather, Jimmy Boyle, died before I was born. I did what anyone would do with a baseball mitt, and placed it over my nose and mouth like an airplane oxygen mask. I could smell this ballpark in Harlem from 85 years ago. That led to me writing about the most compelling objects of the game—hats and mitts, of course, but also bobbleheads and ballpark organs and beer cups—all those things that beguiled me while working at the Met as a teenager.
Q: Could you discus the process you went through at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in researching the book?
A: The Hall of Fame Library is a wonderful place. You have to put on white gloves to handle the files, so everyone in there looks like Mickey Mouse. I pored over files on ballpark concessions and novelties and souvenirs. I found an old foil hot dog wrapper in one file folder full of old newspaper clippings on hot dogs. Tom Shieber, the curator, was walking past me when it happened and took the wrapper to file elsewhere. I loved that this guy has a job in which he files foil hot dog wrappers from, I don’t know, Shea Stadium in 1978. I’d take those photocopied files home, and if I had any other questions, when I couldn’t be in Cooperstown, a brilliant researcher there named Bill Francis would try to help me answer them. I knew I was on to something when Bill had not been previously aware of some minor fact. He hadn’t realized that Milwaukee had a bring-your-own-beer policy in the ‘50s and ‘60s, or that the urinals at Ebbets Field were a disaster. These discoveries were a small triumph for me, because Bill knows everything.
Q: Is there a story that stands out to you in the book that you enjoyed researching and writing about? Anything that surprised you?
A: There is an interesting, otherwise-lost-to-history story in the book about an eccentric guy named Foulproof Taylor, who invented a protective cup for boxers and later a batting helmet, neither of which boxing or baseball was yet ready for in the 1920s and ‘30s. Foulproof was once famous in New York boxing circles for wearing his cup to gyms and asking fighters—world-famous fighters like Primo Carnera—to punch him in the groin as hard as they could. Most of them happily obliged. Foulproof was once the world champion of sack racing, but he began a slow fade into obscurity in the 1960s. A relative of his—a writer named Diane Taylor–proved a great source in keeping Foulproof’s story alive, and I was happy to tell that story in the book.
Q: What new project is in the works? Any new books?
A: I’m writing a memoir of my ‘70s childhood, specifically my growing up in the ‘70s in—of all places—Bloomington, Minnesota.