More stories from the annals of the great mistakes I have made in the course of 40 years in professional journalism:
Picture this scene from the late 1970s. I am a freelance writer, eking out a living by writing hundreds of articles a year (at anywhere from $50 to about $300 apiece) for People magazine and an assortment of other publications great and (mostly) small. The great hope is to write a book, which — if it is at all successful — will generate royalties even as I moving on to other projects. As one of my writer friends notes, “it’s like owning a factory that makes money while you’re sleeping.”
And suddenly I have a book idea. Around major league baseball a certain umpire has called attention to himself with his flamboyant style on the field and his witty observations. While most umpires figure they have succeeded when no one notices them, Ron Luciano, a 300-pound former football player, invites attention. What’s more, he was born and raised in Endicott, New York, just next door to Endwell, my hometown.
What happened? Luciano was umpiring in Kansas City. I got the name of the hotel where the umpires stayed and called him out of the blue. I explained the book concept, and dropped a few names from the sports department at the hometown newspaper. His response: Sounds like fun. Let’s do it.
First I sold a profile of Luciano to People magazine, making him even more of a celebrity than he had been. Then I began following him even more intently. There was a weekend in Baltimore, and another in New York. By then I was practically part of the crew.
Finally I met with Luciano in Boston. Luciano was umpiring first base, and I was sitting in the first base stands — Luciano spent most of the game kibitzing with me (by mouthing the words and making hand signals) between innings and even between pitches. The guy just loved to talk — what a wonderful subject for a book. This day the repartee got even more serious. In the first inning the Red Sox slugger Jim Rice was called out on strikes by the home plate umpire (whose name I will withhold since I can’t tell all the details of this drama here). After the strikeout Rice glared in anger at the umpire, and issued some words of discontent.
From the first base line Luciano got my attention and put his thumbs down toward Rice, who had broken the home plate umpire’s personal rule against arguing strikes in public. Sure enough the next time Rice was at bat Luciano mimed out three swings and you’re out to me in the stands. And Rice was called out on strikes. In fact, for the rest of the game the home plate umpire called everything thrown at Rice a strike, whether it was or not.
In the ninth inning Boston was trailing with two outs and Rice came up for one last chance. The other team (I’m thinking it was Milwaukee) brought in a reliever. From the field, Luciano predicted the strikeout and the end of the game. A pitch and a strike. Another pitch and strike two. Then, inexplicably, the relief pitcher threw one fast ball over the middle of the plate. Rice hit it over the Green Monster and rounded the bases for the game winning home run. Luciano was in stitches, the home plate umpire was laughing, and Rice was grinning ear to ear as he passes by the umpire. Later, in the decrepit dressing room reserved for the umpires at Fenway Park, Luciano and his umpiring team kept replaying the at-bat, with the relief pitcher as the goat — the one player on the field who didn’t know what was happening.
At that point, I should have rushed back to Princeton, typed up my notes, and shopped a proposal for a comedic expose about the life and times of baseball as seen through the perceptive eye of Ron Luciano. It could have been my book, as much as Luciano’s, and the common pitfalls of literary collaborations could have been avoided.
Instead I made the biggest single mistake of my freelance career. I told Luciano we needed one more set of interviews, which I proposed that we do in Endicott, New York, while Luciano was home during the four-day break for the major league all-star game.
Meanwhile, I later learned, Luciano’s agent got some other ideas, and hooked up with David Fisher, a freelancer with experience writing “as told to” sports books. Luciano never returned my calls during the all-star break. Fisher reportedly spent no more than an hour with Luciano, knocked out a book proposal, and got a contract. The resulting book, “The Umpire Strikes Back,” became a bestseller in 1982. It was the first of four Luciano-Fisher books — five factories, in all, making money while they slept.
I continued to eke out a living, making a few dollars here and a few more there — never quite forgetting the potential big book contract that got away.
So in the summer of 1984, when I got the idea for starting a newspaper, my first thought was that I would never be able to do it on my own. I reached out to potential partners. One meeting led to another, and if the process had continued I would have suggested that we all get together in Endicott in the middle of July. But then I remembered my last attempt at a collaboration and I suddenly changed course. By August I had a plan of my own; by November 1 I had a first edition. The Luciano project had been a mistake, but at least I had learned from it.