An Interview with Thomas Boswell
“All the quotes, facts and anecdotes are like pearls but the string through them is the central idea – the insight – and if that stands up to something people might read in five years then you have something. Then all the pearls you’ve collected can be put on the string and maybe you get a necklace – something really beautiful.”
“I was fetching coffee during Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein were working 60 to 70 feet away. Bernstein’s father had been my father’s lawyer at one time. Washington is a small town. Later I bought a home that was one home removed from where Woodward built a weekend home. We were neighbors for eight or nine years.”
“The quality of the column over time is directly related to the quality of your legwork. Writing from a soapbox does not work – you need to talk to people. A general column is often a real curse to good writing. You ask me what I write about – I write about things I know about.”
Thomas Boswell: Interviewed on December 11, 2007
Position: Columnist, Washington Post
Born: 1947, Washington, D.C.
Education: Amherst, 1969, English
Career: Washington Post 1969 –
Personal: married (Wendy), one son, two dogs
Favorite restaurant (home): Joss Café and Sushi Bar, Annapolis “they take Kodak snapshots of customers – shoulder-to-shoulder, a fun place”
Favorite restaurant (road): none. “Red Smith said ‘the road makes bums of the best of them’. My 30-year project is to prove him wrong – I go on the road to work”
Favorite hotel: none.
Thomas Boswell, excerpted from the Washington Post, September 20, 2007:
Sometime in the next four days, I’ll go to 2400 East Capitol St. SE to say goodbye to RFK Stadium
. Don’t know when it will be. Don’t know how I’ll feel. It’s hard to believe that a big old beautiful dump of a park can be so much a part of your life. How can we both appreciate everything it’s provided in the last 46 years, yet be delighted that we’ll never step inside it again?
Nobody was happier than me to see RFK open in 1961. And nobody will be happier to see it close to baseball on Sunday. In the years between, few got more pleasure from the stadium than I did, from its early days as a praised and copied modernist vision to its dilapidated end as a serviceable eyesore. RFK gave me a million memories, not one of them bad, from the old Senators to the new Nats
, from U2
to 35 years of Redskins
games. Thanks. But enough was enough long ago. Lemme outta here!
Your whole life probably shouldn’t be interlaced with one sports venue, but mine seems to be. With so many games in various sports played there in the last five decades, countless fans have a similar sense of that abundant feeling, an interplay between an utterly familiar place, comfortable repeatable pleasures and unexpected spontaneous memories. Just the letters “RFK” seem to set off a free-association mechanism in our minds.
The huge white stadium with its flowing exterior lines arrived in town — like the world’s largest birthday present — when I was 13. There might as well have been a banner over the entrance that said “To Tommy.” D.C. Stadium, as it was called then, sat just 17 blocks from my parents’ rowhouse in Northeast. It landed, like a flying saucer full of sports, just a quick bike pedal from my doorstep. Maybe I never got over the initial joy and that explains all the rest.
On warm Sunday afternoons in the ’60s, I’d come early enough for batting and fielding practice so I’d be sure to see the best of the Senators, even if only in their drills. Perhaps they knew it. If Eddie Brinkman and Paul Casanova didn’t have the strongest shortstop and catching arms in the league, then they sure loved to show off for their fans because they made “infield” look like ballet. Then I’d watch Claude Osteen and Tom Cheney, or Dick Bosman and Joe Coleman, lose both ends of a doubleheader to the Yanks or Red Sox, albeit sometimes with a modicum of dignity. During school months, I’d be sure to take a math book, certain that at least one game would be more boring than algebra homework.
Over the years, the recollections became a mountain. One night, three teenage friends and I brought a hand-cranked siren into the empty upper deck and made an obnoxious ruckus, then ran, flattering ourselves that we were being chased by some unseen authority other than conscience. As a fan, I saw one of Frank Howard’s white-seat homers (the middle one). I leaned from the first row of the left field upper deck at the ’69 All-Star Game to see a Willie McCovey home run smash through the face of the center field clock, the ball presumably decaying inside, unclaimed for years.
The first time I ever was in the RFK press box, as a Post “copy boy,” I scrambled after a foul ball hit by Willie Horton, eventually subdued it, then turned to show it proudly to my liege, the Post’s dapper veteran baseball writer George Minot Jr. — who was covered in the coffee I’d knocked all over him.
By ’71, I was allowed to interview an actual Senator — second baseman Lenny Randle. So, no coffee in sight, I wandered onto right field at RFK during batting practice to ask him my questions. “I don’t think you’re supposed to be out here,” he said.
…Several times this season, when I’ve been one of the last people to leave RFK around midnight, I’ve left by the only exit that’s still open — the one at field level in the right field corner. You can still hear the cleaning machines and see the work crews, like specks in the upper deck. The light towers are on half-power. Every time, something pulls me from the grungy underbelly of the decaying park out onto the warning track underneath the foul pole.
From there, the stadium rises above you with a monumental architectural confidence, a 360-degree sweep that takes your breath away as though you were at the bottom of a magnificent, multihued canyon. And if the moon hangs above, it’s just a little too much. There is no other spot in the stadium that has comparable drama, where RFK’s distinctive swaying roofline asserts itself so much. I doubt that in our new park, which will have 4,000 fewer seats, there will be any one perspective so magnificent, so equal to the city’s other alabaster icons. Everything in the park in Southeast will, perhaps, be newer, more various and energizing and designed to flatter baseball’s more intimate and human dimensions.
But something will be lost. On those nights when RFK, in a half-light that mutes the flaws of age, towered over me and surprised me with its power, we had our natural farewell. Good luck, in these last four days, as you seek your own.
Q. What was it like to grow up as a fan in DC?
A. It was miserable. I just didn’t know it. The Redskins had been in a slump since World War Two. The Senators were in a slump since the Great Depression. I thought I was in heaven. I thought that rooting for Ed LeBaron, a 5 foot 7 inch quarterback who led the NFL in passing one year was just great, and when they got Don Bosseler and Jim Podoley and had a young backfield they called the Papoose Backfield – political correctness was different back than – it was great.
The Senators were horrible but my hero was Roy Sievers who won the home run title for me personally when I was 10 or 11. Jim Lemon hit three home runs off Whitey Ford at Griffith Stadium with the president in the box seats. Camilo Pascual would strike out 13 or 14 every now and then – that was enough. I saw Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle at old Griffith Stadium and then they built DC Stadium which was later JFK and then RFK. Griffith was on the other side of town – my mother and I had to go crosstown on streetcars – my father was a football fan.
When DC Stadium was built it was 17 blocks from my house – it was like the most fabulous spaceship landed on my front lawn. That’s not far to go on your bike when you’re 13 – I could make it in eight minutes. I saved money from my paper route or my summer job and padlocked my bike and watched a Sunday double header. When it was rumored that the original Senators owned by the Griffith family were thinking about moving I wrote a letter, with the help of my parents, saying my family goes to six games a year, we hope you don’t trade Roy Sievers or move the team. I got a letter back from the Senators, signed by somebody, saying ‘we would never trade Roy Sievers or move the team and would you be interested in buying a season ticket’. Within a year they traded Sievers and they moved within two years, which informed my youthful view of management.
Thirty-odd years later I was on a bus at the World Series going to the stadium and I sat down next to old Griffith. He had no idea who I was. I deftly turned the conversation to Washington and he said some of the most racist things I ever heard. I let it drop because I hadn’t identified myself as a writer. I don’t remember a specific quote, but it was racist and I didn’t write it.
Q. Do you have to like sports to be a good sports columnist?
A. I can’t speak for other people. I have no idea. But it certainly helps me. I have achieved mediocrity at more sports than anybody I’ve ever met. I was a high school baseball player and loved it, but I blew out a knee in college. Years later I found out I made all-Alexandria honorable mention as a first baseman, which meant I was second best out of four or five teams. The sports editor of the Alexandria Gazette, Eddie Crane, told me he put me on the team my senior year, but I never got a copy of it.
I played for one of the best high school football coaches Washington ever had, Sleepy Thompson, at St. Stephens & St. Agnes. He had 29 winning seasons out of 32. Two of the years I played backup quarterback for him were two of his losing seasons.
I have a six-inch bowling scar on my wrist. Dick Allen was the only person who ever spotted it. I had chipped bones in my wrist from bowling with so many kinds of balls. This was when I was a cub copy boy on the Post, working the 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift. To kill time during the day I had bowled 23 lines, and I’m turning the page of a golf magazine, while I’m on break from the lobster shift, and the big ligament of my thumb broke.
But it was great growing up near Capital Hill. I lived in a fairly rough city neighborhood. Football in the streets – you go deep and buttonhook at the parked car – playground basketball against some guys who went on to be really good. In the summers my grandfather had a small farm on the Delaware eastern shore, with lots more grass than I had ever seen, and no cops to chase you out of an alley. I played with farm boys – they played hardball, which you couldn’t in the city because balls were too expensive and you lost them in people’s yards.
I lived between 6th and 7th and D and E Northeast. It was an integrated neighborhood – my parents lived there for 30 years. I went to public schools until I was supposed to go to a junior high where they tried to hang a teacher from the flagpole. Then I took four or five busses each day to get to Alexandria.
It was prep school at day, inner city at night, farm in the summer. You saw different views of sports, different ways of playing sports, different classes of society. It was a wonderful childhood.
Q. Was it good training for a newspaper career?
A. Yes. Better than Amherst College which turned out to be irrelevant, despite the fact that I loved it. I learned more playing hardball with the kids in Selbyville, football in the street in the inner city, and trying to shoot a jump shot over a guy at St. Stephen’s who went on to set a 7-foot high jump record at Navy. My high school was sports crazy – it was a prep school feeder for a lot of military brats – hardnosed guys. When I was a senior my center, a freshman, was the son of General Abrams, who was No. 2 to General Westmoreland.
Q. Does being a Washington native help your writing?
A. The uniqueness of my experience – I don’t think it was so much Washington – it was that I lucked into a really broad range of society and got to know a lot of different kinds of people. I was a national sportswriter more than I was a local Washington writer. National baseball was my beat after 1975 – I covered every World Series and I went 30 years without a local team. My perspective was national. I was given the choice of writing about golf or TV – I chose golf and was told ‘you’re crazy’. But I loved golf and golf was always a national sport. There’s some justice that we have a baseball team after waiting 30 years, and that we have Tiger’s tournament after 26 years of that awful Kemper Open. When they pulled the Kemper out, two years ago, I blistered Tim Finch, and within a year they filled it with Tiger’s tournament.
Q. You wrote after Sean Taylor’s murder: “Some in the media shouldn’t have been in the same rush to connect the dots. At times journalism bleeds into sociology-on-deadline. That tricky habit of mind can become most destructive in the aftermath of a controversial celebrity death. The desire to generalize, especially with good intentions, is powerful.”
Can you elaborate on that part about the media?
A. I said as much as I want to say. I didn’t write that angle – it wasn’t about myself. The example came to mind after Michael Jordan’s father was shot and killed. There was a universal connecting of dots by sportswriters correlating the shooting to Jordan’s gambling issues and debts. People speculated about that, to their later regret. I was lucky enough not to write that day. I don’t think I would have done that, but you never know – there are lots of open manhole covers. The lesson I took was that it was absolutely a random murder – I underlined and said to myself, ‘take a lesson from this’.
My concern with the Taylor coverage was stuff I saw everywhere around the country.
Q. Do you do much TV?
A. No. I did a lot in the ‘80s – from Letterman to Koppel to Good Morning America.
One of the reasons I don’t like TV is I say too much – I’m too honest.
The thing I like about a column is you can craft it the way you want it. Half an hour later you can say ‘that’s wrong, it’s not funny’ and you can take it out. But when you’re riffing and talking you don’t get to edit out what you don’t really like because talking is rough drafting. When you write you can get rid of the parts of the rough draft you dislike. But when you talk the rough draft is the finished product. I’d prefer talking if it was more like the process of writing – you see what comes out and junk all the lousy stuff.
Q. Do you pick your topic based on potential readership or what interests you?
A. I have no idea how I pick after all these years. There’s a little gyroscope in you after decades of making these decisions. Sometimes it takes you toward news, sometimes toward personality, or toward humor, poetry and humanity. Sometimes it takes you toward statistics – unfortunately too many times it takes you off a cliff and toward a not very good column.
Q. Is it determined by the news cycle?
A. Sure, if the Redskins have a game. I’ve gradually realized that maybe you spend a period of time when you’re younger figuring out the theories about what you do. But what you’re passionate about is the execution of it, not the theory. Hemingway said that to be a writer you have to have a shockproof shit detector.
What you hope is that you have an ingrained sense of what makes a good story, and what the concept is behind the story. There’s always an obvious topic – the Mitchell Report or Bonds – but on the best days you try to find some thread that runs through the subject matter that is broader and deeper than the topicality of the obvious subject. All the quotes, facts and anecdotes are like pearls but the string through them is the central idea – the insight – and if that stands up to something people might read in five years then you have something. Then all the pearls you’ve collected can be put on the string and maybe you get a necklace – something really beautiful.
You may start with a topical subject, but you’re not looking for an opinion about a hot topic, you’re looking for an insight, which is really much harder to get. Thoreau said that any subject allowed a writer to see the horizon, if he could. I suspect that the slice of horizon Thoreau saw was really wide. Maybe writing sports you narrow the angle of width to the horizon, but it’s not that small. You can see as close to the horizon as you are able – the limits aren’t the subject matter.
Q. Writing influences?
A. Montaigne. Emerson. T.S. Eliot. Rilke. John Keats. Henry Miller. Robert Musil. I read a lot of serious stuff in my late teens and 20s that I go back to time and again.
Part of me enjoys reading Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard – they’ve probably had more influence on my sportswriting than those fancy names. Chandler was the master of pacing. He said ‘whenever in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun.’
Q. Sports journalists?
A. I always loved the way Red Smith carried himself. Roger Angell is a friend. I don’t go around looking for models – nobody I could say I would like to write like him or her. If I need inspiration I will go back and read one of Montaigne’s essays. Better to aim 500 miles high and miss by 400 miles. So many people are way above our league.
Q. How did you start at the Post?
A. After college I had planned to go to Naval Officer Candidate School, but a bad knee prevented that. I was thinking about law school. But my dentist knew the guy who has my current job, Bob Addie, and my dentist talked to him and Addie said ‘don’t go through Personnel’ and he took me to the Sports Editor.
With this top-flight back door intro I got the lowest job at the Washington Post, a part-time copy boy for a couple of days a week on the lobster shift, stripping agate and answering phones. I covered the same high school football game for six years, St. John’s-DeMatha. What happens is that you write a six-graf story and they put your byline on it and they hook you.
Can you imagine how my parents felt after they scrimped to get me through Amherst? To their credit they supported me – I was their only child. They both had Masters degrees in English – I think they both knew they had gone down the wrong path. Mom was a speechwriter for the Library of Congress.
My father also worked at the Library of Congress, in the British Commonwealth Collection. He got me in to the stacks with every baseball book ever written – he said to me ‘Don’t go blind’.
I must have been 10, 11 or 12. There was every baseball periodical, every guide, from the floor to the ceiling, as far as you could see, all baseball materials. I take no credit for writing decently. Both of my parents had Masters in English. On Christmas Day we listened to Dylan Thomas’ ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ on the stereo.
My dad was a severe intellectual, a very quiet man. When I was little he always tried to find things to help me. Along our basement wall, 25 feet long, he did a chart of human history, every continent. So it’s really interesting that he would have been so proud that I grew up to be a sportswriter, although he was a big Redskins fan.
Q. How did you know the newspaper was a good fit?
A. I worked in this tiny office where everybody was jammed together. I sat really close to Dave Brady, who was 65, covering the NFL and one of the happiest funniest craziest guys I had ever met. Next to him was Maury Fitzgerald who had covered golf for 35 years – he was a curmudgeon with a heart of gold, and next to him was Bob Addie, a character and rapscallion from the old school. The next row over was Shirley Povich in a silk suit.
The average age was 60 but they were like a bunch of kids having a ball. I’m thinking, ‘where is the jaded newspapermen?’ Two were not famous, one was really good and one was a superstar, but they all loved it. So I think, ‘I can do this and be happy’. I did not think I would be as happy if I were a lawyer for 40 years. My testing aptitude was math and physics in college but I met people who were brilliant and I realized I would end up as a sixth assistant. Then I was pre-med and English. Anyway, I said ‘I can be happy doing this’, and now it’s 40 years later and I think I’m one of those guys laughing and joking who can’t stay away from press conferences.
I was fetching coffee during Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein were working 60 to 70 feet away. Bernstein’s father had been my father’s lawyer at one time. Washington is a small town. Later I bought a home that was one home removed from where Woodward built a weekend home. We were neighbors for eight or nine years.
You get journalism in your blood – it’s a wonderful way of life. It’s important to have good journalists now – even more so that newspapers have fewer resources. I’m pleased to say I stayed at the Post, when everybody in the business had all those really good job offers at SI or TV, or the Times – and I had those offers – but I stayed. I’m proud of the people I work around today.
I’m acutely aware of the difference between people working in Iraq and people covering traffic issues at the new ballpark, but I don’t diminish sports journalism. It has a place. There are very few subjects of common discourse in society where enormous numbers of people have the same information from which to form opinions. If you lived in the US in the late 1700s I suspect everybody would be conversant about the politics that led to the American Revolution. One of the things we’re conversant on now is sports – people have a fact base and an experience base to talk about it really well. It’s kind of bizarre – when you fly over any American city the stadiums dwarf the cathedrals and churches and State Houses. So if we’re going to talk about it and feel about it we might as well do it as well as we can.
Q. Who and what do you read to keep up with baseball?
A. The Internet is a killer. I hate to admit everything that’s on my favorites list – so I’ll pass on that. Every kind of nonsense – stats, Sabremetrics, minor leagues. I try to know as much about baseball and golf as I can, and in recent years, the NFL.
I believe in expertise – there’s something good about working the same apple stand. Where you can reach a point that you can write the best piece about somebody. I wrote a piece about Jim Palmer for Playboy after I covered him for nine years. When writing something like that you feel you’ve done the legwork and deserve to write a really good piece about this guy and get it right. And have a piece his friends and enemies can look at and say ‘that’s him’. One of his teammates, John Lowenstein, came to me and said ‘Jim will never tell you this but you really got him on that piece’.
Q. Reporting and writing approach?
A. Imagine the interior life of the person you’re talking to. I’ve always been proud that 20 years before I had the column I loved interviewing people. I still try to do one long profile a year.
The quality of the column over time is directly related to the quality of your legwork. Writing from a soapbox does not work – you need to talk to people. A general column is often a real curse to good writing. You ask me what I write about – I write about things I know about. When the Nationals acquired Paul LaDuca yesterday I called Tom Glavine on his cellphone – we have a history going back to ’94 arguing about the strike. I asked him about Lastings Milledge. He was fairly generous. One quote I loved – he said Milledge needs to respect the game more – his reputation is overblown – he’s not a bad guy. I told him Milledge had the highest ratio of being hit by pitches – Glavine laughed and said ‘I guess a message is being sent.’
When I write a column like that it’s the reward for doing it all these years. One of the rewards for covering the Kemper Open and the Masters for 30 years is you actually know the people. After Tiger’s tournament he sent somebody to ask if I was willing to meet him in the 19th hole for a while. I said ‘are you kidding?’ – that’s like being asked to see the Pope. We talked about a few different things – some of which I used in the column.
But if I tried to write about NASCAR or poker or college football it would be so thin.
Q. So you stay away from what you don’t know?
A. Unless it’s broad enough and specific knowledge isn’t the question. If (Michael) Wilbon and Sally Jenkins hadn’t been available and weren’t so good about Michael Vick I could have written something but in more of a general way.
I really believe in getting to know a certain number of things you love. That means there are things you lose and don’t follow as much as you once did – there’s just too much information. I will write an occasional hockey column because it’s needed, but generally I will write about what interests me the most and what I love the most. I’ve never categorized myself as a general columnist – I’m trying to be the best possible sportswriter and do whatever that takes. That involves talking to the paper and asking what’s needed and having them work with you. That’s how you build a good department. We’ve done that – people are complementary in the things they like to write about, which is neat, because when I came to the Post it was dysfunctional and hateful – they brought in Donald Graham to clear things up. I’ve seen it when it was bad.
This morning I wrote about Paul Lo Duca, who hit .272 with nine home runs for the Mets, coming to the Nationals. The press conference is in town today and if I go I’ll be in a traffic jam. I’m having to chain myself to the house on my day off to not go in. I’d like to ask him about the Mets collapse, about Glavine, about a million things.
(SMG thanks Thomas Boswell for his cooperation)